Each year about this time, around Catholic Schools Week, I thank God for two teachers who remain indelible in my educational memory. Both were nuns who made me decidedly uncomfortable—for distinctly different reasons—but whose lessons stuck.
The first was a towering Holy Cross sister. She was a monolith of black and white topped off by an aggressively starched fluted headpiece, a unique bit of garb that we all imagined was meant to simulate a halo but which looked to us more like a corona of flame when her eyes narrowed. I fell into a deep funk of despair when I learned that she was to be my sixth grade teacher. Rather than drawing the jolly Sister Sebastian or the young, sweet-natured Sister Donald Mary, I got Sister Michael Joseph, the Vince Lombardi of St. Barnabas School.
We learned one bedrock fact very quickly in Sister Michael Joseph’s classroom: if you found yourself in her good graces, life was sweet. Birds sang, the air smelled of honeysuckle and even your sack lunch tasted better. If you managed to get on her bad side, however, everything shriveled to a cinder. I managed to spend the majority of my time nominally in her good books, and when I was sent to public junior high school the next year (over my objections), I found myself an entire year ahead of the curriculum—thanks to Sister Michael Joseph.
The next time I had a nun for a teacher was in college, when Sister Claire presided over my freshman English lit class. She was young, breezy, energetic and knew her subject down to the ground. We would plow through a book nearly every week, but we studied one particular work throughout the entire semester as an ongoing project: James Joyce’s “Ulysses.”
“Ulysses” is not necessarily a book one reads for fun, and it would never in a million years have made it into Sister Michael Joseph’s class. It contains some very Joycean sex scenes. They kept me from falling asleep when reading them late at night at my dorm room desk, but when the time came the next day to discuss them in a class taught by a nun…
Naturally, the most comfortable person in the room was Sister Claire. Audacious as some of the scenes may have been in their time, she told us, Joyce was not writing about sex simply to titillate, but rather to illustrate character, flesh out the story (forgive me) and advance the plot. “Ulysses” was, she asserted, a landmark of modernist literature and worthy of our attention, even if it did create quite a kerfuffle when it was first published in its entirety in 1922. Slowly, with Sister’s easygoing encouragement, we came around, and discussions became brisk and enlightening. We began to see literature through mature analytical eyes.
I have had many teachers who were easy to forget, and a few who remain unforgettable. The pair of nuns who graced my education in the most unexpected ways are always before me.
Patrick Mott, Editor, Orange County Catholic