My ninth-grade English teacher was named Sister Mary Barbara, but for purposes of anonymity, I’ll call her Sister Mary Barbarian. She was the toughest, strictest, unyieldingest teacher I ever had—a member of the order the Sisters of Mercy. Who says nuns don’t have a sense of humor?
Sr. Barbara taught me my freshman year at a Catholic high school—Mt. deSales—in Room 3 of a building named Mercy Hall. Who says nuns don’t have an incredible sense of humor?
I was a straight-A student and was used to being the teacher’s pet. Sr. Barbara didn’t have pets. The first time I raised my hand to volunteer an answer in her class, she narrowed her eyes at me and ordered, “Put your hand down.” Then she said, “If I want you to answer a question, I’ll call on you.” Another time she yelled at me when I glanced at the clock at the back of the room. “Don’t you turn your head. I’ll let you know when the class is over,” she said. Various classmates provoked her ire and incurred her caustic tongue for such egregious misconduct as yawning, coughing, sneezing, hiccupping, and audibly exhaling. Yes, exhaling. Sr. B warned the student who exhaled, “Nobody gets that relaxed in MH 3.” I have to confess she was right about that. Nobody did get that relaxed in MH 3. And I’ll say this for Sr. Barbara’s tactics: when you get jumped on for breathing, you don’t dare contemplate any actual misbehavior.
I wonder if HBO would be interested in a script for a World War II-type movie entitled Escape from MH 3?
Sr. Barbara gave us hours of homework every night in literature, grammar, and vocabulary. Every Friday we had a vocabulary test, and Sr. B publicly announced each student’s test score at the next class. In her high, falsetto-like voice she pronounced good scores to be “super” (or as she pronounced it “SOO-pah”), and she characterized low scores as “punk.” So Sr. B’s announcing would go something like this: “Brian Cherer—92—supah. Anita Lott—78. Bill Spencer—96—supah. Paul Lupa—66—punk. You’re in the pit, Boy. Keep it up and you’ll flunk the year.”
If you never attended Catholic school, you probably think I’m making this all up or at least exaggerating. But I assure you this is really the way Sr. Barbara rolled. If you doubt me, ask Donna Cavanagh, Con Chapman, Kathy Minicozzi, or any other Catholic school survivor. They know.
The “pit” was Sr. Barbara’s subtle metaphor for a punitive/remedial status that required those in it to submit scads of written proof they were studying for the next vocabulary test (in addition to all their other homework). Pit dwellers were thus highly incentivized to climb (claw?) their way out of the academic hole they had dug themselves into. I can imagine the joy they felt upon hearing, “You’re out of the pit, Boy.” Out of the pit, perhaps, but not yet out of the woods.
When we complained to upperclassmen about Sr. Barbara’s harshness they always scoffed at us. “She has really mellowed,” they asserted. “You should’ve had her 3 years ago when she was still tough,” they said with pride. Pride to have survived. To have survived the fiery pit, the trial by fire that was Sister Barbara’s classroom. We embraced this same proud tone when as seniors we chose for our class motto “Been through hell and still alive, we’re the class of ’75.”
Yes, education was different then than now. It was the last days of a pre-FERPA world, a world in which a short, wiry, bespectacled nun who repeatedly insisted we not call her “Old Poker Face” could publicly praise or shame the performance of her charges. It was a world in which a poker-faced teacher tasked by God to enlighten her students could throw them into a figurative pit and with unquestioned confidence assure them it was for their own good. A world in which nuns believed their students were the ones with the bad habits.
Who ever said nuns don’t have a sense of humor?