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Tender Plants

Surviving the second grade was the first major challenge of my young life. Specifically, I had to survive Sister Leona, the nun who turned my dislike for school into a consuming anxiety. She was cruel, and seemed to enjoy punishing and humiliating her class. We were often blamed for the death of the first grade nun who died during the previous summer break. She’d say, “You killed one nun, do you want to kill another?” I have to admit, that proposition was a little tempting at times.

Her dark religious habit and hostile demeanor may have laid the groundwork for the future Star Wars character Darth Vader. A wooden chalkboard pointer was her lightsaber and she wielded it with uncanny skill and accuracy. The Sister’s “Force Ear Grip” rendered dozens of her unsuspecting victims begging for mercy.

Our’s was an isolated classroom located in an outlying building across the courtyard. It seemed like more of an internment camp than a classroom. Sister Leona’s favorite teaching methods always seemed to include some sort of punishment. Answer incorrectly and you were likely to find yourself scrubbing the walls or floors. On one occasion she stripped a classmate naked, made him sit in an old metal wash tub, and gave him a sponge bath right there in front of the class. His crime—he came to school with a dirty uniform.

I was very cautious around her—keeping my distance and avoiding eye contact whenever possible. The other nuns were strict but usually fair; not sadistic like her. I failed to recognize anything Christ-like in Sister Leona. I also failed to tell my mom and dad about what was taking place in the classroom. Nuns were considered to be godly women—honest, good and pure. I was just a kid—who would take a kid’s word over a nun’s?

In an attempt to avoid going to school, I frequently pretended to be sick.  But even on those rare occasions I was able to pull that off, my temporary reprieve only postponed the inevitable—the ill-tempered nun awaited my return.

Understandably, I dreaded school-day mornings. Mom’s sweet voice would call out, “Eugene, time to get up.” She had no idea how much I shuddered at hearing those words. Winter mornings were the worst. My bedroom was cold and the only source of heat in the house was a fuel oil stove located in the “front room.” It was hard to muster up the nerve to come out from under the covers, especially for something as unpalatable as school.

“Eugene! Get up!” Mom’s voice didn’t sound quite so sweet the second time. I’d burst out from under the covers and scamper over to the fuel oil stove so I could warm my clothes before getting dressed. I’d hear Mom calling Dad, “Ed, wake up.” Dad always had the same frail plea, “Five more minutes Mom.” Unfortunately the aroma of Eight O’Clock coffee brewing in Mom’s stove top percolator would eventually draw Dad out of his room. Once we were dressed there was no turning back, I was going to school.

Dad dropped me off on his way to work. As his car pulled away I wanted to scream STOP! I wished I had had told him I was scared. I wished I had told him about Sister Leona. I hated second grade.

Fast-forward thirty-five years—I hadn’t seen a nun since eighth grade. We had enrolled our youngest daughter in a Catholic high school and arrived on campus for freshman orientation. While standing in the midst of a crowd of people a nun entered the room and shouted out, “Students line up against the wall on the left, and parents against the wall on the right.” Like a trained dog subliminally heeding his master’s command, I followed the nun’s instruction and immediately found my place against the wall.

Apparently the omen of Sister Leona’s wrath still lingered somewhere deep within my psyche. It’s amazing how one person can have such a lasting impact on a young child.

Today, school systems seem to have gone from one extreme to the other, and that’s just as harmful. The absence of discipline fuels anarchy. To properly mature, tender young hearts need an equal measure of discipline and dignity.  I’m grateful to those teachers who understand the importance of both.

“Let my teaching fall like rain
    and my words descend like dew,
like showers on new grass,
    like abundant rain on tender plants.”

Deuteronomy 32:2

Photo credit: Zuhair Ahmad via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

21 thoughts on “Tender Plants

  1. Oh, Gene. I’m so sorry you had to endure under an abuser like Sister Leona. The tragedy she no doubt wreaked in the hearts of her tender students. Some of those scars never go away. I had a nun in third grade, Sister Sean. She was mean, but she wasn’t cruel. I learned how to live within the narrow strictures she enforced in her classroom. My sisters? Not so much.

    I loved what you said here: “To properly mature, tender young hearts need an equal measure of discipline and dignity. I’m grateful to those teachers who understand the importance of both.” Tender young hearts do need discipline AND dignity. I’m learning how that looks for my boys as they grow older. Teachers who gift this woven gift to their students instill great security within them.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Did we go to the same grade school ? I do know about the wooden pointer ,more times then I can remember .But the bad news was the wooden paddle with air holes in it so not to slow the swift punishment down any .To be picked up off the floor by your arm and held like that until she started hurting from holding you up. I do think this Nun who’s name is not etched in my mind as it was in my butt. Could of been Illinois arm wrestling champ. I must say I would not trade my time at this school with any other school. We may have went through some bad times but that is what a person learns from. Respect honor and to love God .When it is all said and done ,I was the one who had the most control over all that happen to me .

    Liked by 1 person

    • You were seven years ahead of me and out of grade school at that time. I don’t know if you would have known this nun. I moved to a different school after 3rd grade. Most of my experience was good, this 2nd grade nun was the exception.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh Gene, how awful growing up in such fear. So true: “It’s amazing how one person can have such a lasting impact on a young child.” And it’s a lasting impact of injury or nourishment.

    I was blessed to be educated by a tender-hearted nun in Germany for two years, who still fills my heart with warmth when I think of her. Despite criticism she probably endured for this, she allowed both my American friend and I to stick to learning Bible stories, rather than all the catechisms etc the other kids had to and she also came to my parents’ farewell at an Evangelical church (unheard of!). I visited her many years later to thank her for the love she showed me, when I returned to Germany as an au pair. Oh how I wish you had been blessed by a similar experience, although I know God will have and probably is still using this experience, which was meant to harm you, to bless others around you through the compassion and empathy you have most certainly been gifted for those who have been abused.

    Liked by 2 people

    • The majority of my experience at Catholic school was good. Most of the nuns were strict but fair, and some were tender-hearted like the one you knew. This particular nun may have had her own inner struggles and fears to deal with. She just wasn’t very good at being a teacher or role model.

      Liked by 1 person

      • True, we cannot see into what lies beneath the actions of a person. Only God can. So glad to hear some were tender-hearted too.


  4. I have heard so many horror stories about Catholic schools from friends. The amazing thing is, despite the abuse, they are some of the most responsible, conscientious and caring people I know. I wonder sometimes if it isn’t better to err on the side of being too strict.

    As for this nun, she sounds like a pedophile and a sadist. Why is it the Catholic church is plagued by so much perversion?

    Liked by 1 person

    • The lack of discipline in schools today is hurting society. I am actually grateful for much of what I experienced the remainder of my time in Catholic school.
      This was one bad nun, but she left a lasting impression on impressionable young children.


  5. This is so sad Gene. I’m sorry you’ve got this horrible memory of school. Your experience reminds me a little of that of Wes Stafford ‘s as detailed in his book ‘Too Small To Ignore”. But thankfully he had the chance to use his experiences to help millions of children around the world. He’s now the chairman of Compassion International / I am sure God is also using you too. Thanks so much for sharing this.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Hi Gene,
    I have not been to a Catholic school but have heard stories of how parents wanted their children to be educated there, just for the discipline. In colleges too, parents want their children( still) enrolled in Catholic colleges and hostels for their sheer discipline. What is it that makes parents desire their children to be kept in check ? Most children need to have wings to fly ( I agree that lack of discipline is bad too) but encouraging free speak and thoughts should be one of the basic tenets of education. I wonder though, was there no principal nun monitoring her actions or was that another age and time ?


    • This was just one bad nun, not a knock on Catholic schools. The post is really more about the influence a teacher has on a child, mine just happened to be a nun. Most of the discipline in Catholic school was fair, and I did receive a good education there. Teachers, regardless of what kind of school they teach in, are in a position of making a lasting impression on young children. It is a vital, yet difficult profession, especially these days.

      Liked by 1 person

      • So agree Gene and not just in schools, even in colleges- like Liberal Arts, Medical, Engineering and so on. As long as we teach, we continue to provide guidance to our students, to some of whom at least, we are role models.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Gene, you have the gift of story-telling—I found myself right there in front of the nasty nun with you. I agree that balance is best for training or raising children. It’s difficult for a child to respect an over-the-top teacher.
    Blessings ~ Wendy

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Wow! Great post, Gene. My mother went to a ‘boarding school’ where she lived for nearly 7 years. It was part of a nearby convent and the nuns who taught my mother were harsh. She still bears the scars. I hate it when people who are to represent God actually hurt precious little children. So sad. I am glad that most of your experience was good for you, though. God bless you. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I’m late getting to this. Gene! I can’t believe what you endured. You reminded me of Bill O’Reilly’s stories of school. I can’t believe that. How horrid! Oh, yes … that healthy balance needs to be struck. My mom substitute teaches … and the stories she tells … oh my goodness. A place with no rules …


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