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