Sister Mary Barbarian

Sister Mary Barbara in 1973
Sister Mary Barbara in 1973

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?

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23 thoughts on “Sister Mary Barbarian”

  1. We should form a Humor Outcasts support group for former Catholic school students who now write funny stuff that would have gotten them expelled! 😀

    1. Amen! I’m in. Or—wait—has Donna already done that? Humor Outcasts IS our support group.

    1. Yes, these days parents want their children to be wonderfully educated withOUT being traumatized for life.

  2. I ended up being Sister Barbara’s dentist for the last years of her life. Even in her 90’s she was just as tough. I must tell you, though, she loved us all and just wanted us to be successful in life. One day while performing a dental procedure she looked up at me and said, “I guess I’m in the pit now, James.” When it was all over, she looked at me and said, “Thank you for taking care of me, James. God bless you.”

    1. So great to hear from you, Jimmy! Thanks for your comments. I LOVE it that Sister Barbara said, “I guess I’m in the pit now, James.” See? Nuns DO have a sense of humor.

      Please don’t think I doubted Sr. Barbara’s good intentions or her results. If I’d had to wear a habit and live with nuns, I’m sure I’d have been cranky, too.

      (Seriously, I wrote this as a short humor piece. Some day I might write a more complete appreciation.)

  3. Thank you for writing a humorous article on Sister Mary Barbarian! I was at her mercy because of my hearing loss. She promised me that she would repeat a word for the spelling test every week. Everything went smoothly until a few weeks later. Sister Barbarian huffed at me and exclaimed, “You HEARD me the first time!” Well, that word never showed up on my spelling test! I really should have told our mother about this ornery nun! Thank you for being the best brother I could ask for in both elementary and high school!

    1. You had it even tougher than the rest of us, John.

      Thank you for your completely unsolicited testimonial, brother.

  4. You’ve got some serious anonymity going on there Bill. She sounds like she could play rugby with the Barbarians.

    1. I do know that even our state-champion football players never messed with her. In fact, nobody did.

  5. By the time I got out of Catholic school, I could:

    1. Diagram a sentence
    2. Write a coherent paragraph
    3. Recite Baltimore Catechism answers by rote and discuss in detail the teachings of the Catholic Church with anyone who actually asked me, which almost nobody ever did
    4. Do arithmetic with nothing but a pen and a piece of paper
    5. Spell almost any word correctly
    6. Score pretty high on a national Latin test
    7. Speak basic high school French

    A few of the nuns who taught me were wonderful women and good teachers. A few of them were nasty. I don’t know if they all had a sense of humor, but I did!

    1. I just pinned this post on Pinterest. For one weak moment, I toyed with the idea of pinning it to my board “Animals,” but thought better of it. 😉

      1. “By the time I got out of Catholic school”—Your phrasing sounds more like you ESCAPED than that you graduated.

        I myself was released on my own recognizance. I believe I’m still on probation.

  6. Oh this sure did bring back memories. Sister Rose Deloras sat on a stool by the window – sleeping a good deal of the time, but when she was awake made comments like “and they shot Lincoln” to anyone who gave an answer she didn’t like.

  7. I had Sr. Augusta whose hands and fingers were so knotted from arthritis that she couldn’t straighten them….AND SHE WAS THE TYPING TEACHER!!!!!! No wonder she was a cranky witch. But damn we could type and fast by the time we got out of there..thinking, no doubt, that fast typing meant a fast exit from hell! Great post, oh Catholic-schooled one!

    1. Have missed you, Cathy. Hope you’ve been OK.

      You didn’t know Sr. Barbara, but through Sr. Augusta, you certainly knew her TYPE.

      (Does it seem to anyone else like there’s a higher percentage of Catholic-schooled Humor Outcasts than statistically would be expected?)

  8. Ah, this brought back my own memories of Sister Antoinette in high school. She wore wire rim glasses, but for some reason, her ever-arched eyebrow made it look like she wore a monocle. She taught business class, read that: typing, and her favorite motto was, “Time is money!!!”

    1. Suzette, I love your “ever-arched eyebrow/monocle” description. Sr. Antoinette sounds like a real character.

      May we never run out of time.

  9. I had Sister Sylvia who truly looked like the wicked witch of the west from Wizard of Oz. She scared the bejesus out of me which is probably why I’m going to hell. But I knew how to diagram a sentence dammit!

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