Sister Jean Marie

James Lileks has a post up at buzz.mn, “Who was your favorite elementary school teacher?” It got me thinking about the Catholic school I went to for fifth, sixth and seventh grades.

I remember Sister Jean Marie most of all. I had her for sixth and seventh grade math. Other teachers called her “an institution.” We called her old. We figured she’d probably taught Galileo math. We also figured she was probably the person who turned him in to the church.

She was mean. I don’t just mean strict, although she was certainly that. She enforced a rigid discipline in her class that no kid dared to defy. And we had some serious trouble-makers. We had one kid, Chester (no, that’s not his real name. I’ve changed the names of all the kids.), who was… troubled. Chester had a real-life pinball machine in his bedroom and lived in the French Quarter with his mother and our cross-dressing school music teacher, Mr. B (Opal to his good friends). Chester’s Mom and Mr. B didn’t live together so much as share rent. And I don’t mean to imply that Chester’s mom didn’t enjoy the company of men, because she did… extensively, maybe even professionally. (I do mean to imply that Mr. B also enjoyed the company of men, very much.) It was an odd house.

Chester was the kind of kid who, when the class was tasked with coloring in pretty little bunnies on Easter cards for the Children’s Hospital, would fill the bunnies on his cards entirely with black crayon and black magic marker . “Jungle Bunnies,” he called them. (Nice, I know. He had a lot of jokes that ran along similar lines; I’m unlucky enough to remember a few of them.) I remember that Mrs. L disapproved strongly. I’m pretty sure Chester got whacked with a ruler for that one. Of course, I think the cards still went out. There was a quota, after all.

Chester tortured poor Mrs. L. She was an old woman (aren’t they all when you’re in sixth grade?) with a giant, slate gray beehive hairdo. She wore giant faded muumuus with brown and yellow floral prints and taught history and social studies. And she had a glass eye. The eye would wander. Sometimes you couldn’t tell who Mrs. L was yelling at. It could just as easily be you or the kid across the room… there was no telling who she was looking at because she was staring both of you in the eye. Sometimes the glass eye would roll up toward the beehive… and then just keep on rolling on back until it was looking out the back of Mrs. Ls head. Then she’d stare at us with the one pale white eye, looking completely alien and vaguely reptilian. Until Chester would gently point it out, “Hey Miz L, yer eye has gone all freaky. Y’a looks kinda like a gater.”

But Chester was quiet as a mouse in Sister Jean Marie’s class.

Sister Jean Marie wasmean. Not just hard and tough and stern–although she was all of those things too. A dog that’s been beaten all its life can get mean: all spite and venom and filled up with a nasty desire to hurt. Sister Jean Marie was like that. Especially at the blackboard. Doing problems in front of the rest of class is never fun, but in her class it was torture and humiliation. “What’s wrong Lucy?” “It’s an easy problem, Lucy.” “God you are so stupid, Lucy.” “You have a brain like a sieve, Lucy.” “It’s a wonder you can remember how to stand up, Lucy.” “Go sit down Lucy. Let someone else do it right.”

I remember a friend and I going back to visit her when we were in High School. Well, OK. We didn’t go back to visit herso much as visit generally, but she was there and we spoke to her. It had been four years since we’d been in her class. She asked about Lucy. Lucy had gone to a different high school, neither of us knew her anymore. Sister Jean Marie told us again that Lucy was the stupidest girl she’d ever seen.

I know. It’s not funny anymore, I’m sorry.

I remember when Bobby didn’t do his homework. “Where’s your homework, Bobby?” “Lost it or forgot it, Bobby?” “Don’t lie to me, Bobby.” “Forgot it or didn’t do it, Bobby?” “I thought so.” “Do you think I’m stupid, Bobby?” “Of course you do.” “Now you’re crying?” “Why are you crying, Bobby?” “Are you a little baby, Bobby? “Crybaby Bobby.” “Don’t be a little crybaby.” “Crybaby Bobby. Why don’t you go sit in the corner and cry, crybaby?” “Of course you are. Go sit in the corner if you’re going to cry. Crybaby.”

There was a chair that faced a corner in the back of the room. It was where crybabies went to sit until they stopped crying. When they were done they had to ask permission to return to their desk. I sat in that chair. Not as much as Lucy or Bobby did, but I sat there. We all did. It wasn’t really math class unless some poor kid, desperate, humiliated, and mocked by the teacher, broke down sobbing; Lucy was usually the first to break. But at some point, we all did.

Sister Jean Marie had supernatural reflexes. She could stop a hulking 12 year-old boy charging at a dead run with one hand and flip him around like a paper doll. I saw her do it. The kid’s name was was Blake, and he was charging at me with evil intent. I can’t remember why, maybe it was a Tuesday. Sister plucked him neatly out the air with one hand and dropped him, meek and quivering, down in front of her. She spoke quietly, but firmly. It was at least a week before Blake bloodied my nose again–and never again anywhere near Sister Jean Marie. Not that I was a teacher’s pet, mind you. Sister Jean Marie was discipline incarnate, and running in the halls was simply not allowed. She didn’t care if I got caught, so long as it was a neat and orderly beating… with no running.

I had her for homeroom in sixth grade too. Some mornings she’d come in with little pieces of toilet paper stuck to her chin and cheeks. I kid you not, the woman shaved. She was tall, maybe six feet and rail thin. Her hands were like vice grips and her stare was hot and furious. She was lighting quick and razor sharp. And she was old school; she wore the habit and the blue dress. Always. Some of the other nuns, like Sister Lee, wore the habit at school, but took it off when they went… wherever it was that nuns go. Back to the nunnery, I suppose. Sister Lee was fun. She taught religion and drove a black Firebird Trans-am (complete with giant decal). She called me “Red” for an entire year. Sister Jean Marie didn’t drive a car. We all figured that she lived in the cloakroom and ate spiders.

But she taught me math. I remember once I failed a quiz. As punishment, Sister Jean Marie told me to write out the names of all fifty States and their capitals. I didn’t do it. So she doubled it. “Write them all out twice.” I didn’t do it. “Double it.” This went on daily for some time. It was like a ritual, we’d all file into class and sit down. She’d read attendance, (Yes, that’s right. She’d read attendance. There was no calling out at any time in Sister Jean Marie’s class.) she’d double my punishment. The days wore on. It was a kind of math lesson. By the end of the year, my punishment was to write out the States and their capitals over 16 million times. I remember figuring it out with a friend. If I wrote one word a second, nonstop, 24-hours a day, everyday for fifty years, I still wouldn’t finish.

I learned more math in her class than in any math class I’ve ever taken. She scared it into us. She made us fear her like I imagine she feared God. She instilled in us a biblical, old-testament kind of fear. We quaked in her presence and we obeyed, and we did what she said and we learned the Law and we lived the Law. If she said to sit the corner, we sat in the corner. If she had told us to wander the desert for forty years, we’d have done that too.

My favorite High School math teacher was Miss P. Miss P was the nicest, kindest, sweetest teacher I ever had. She was about four feet, six inches tall tall and must have weighed eighty pounds soaking wet. She ran the math club and carried a pearl-handled single-shot .22 in her purse. She was the math teacher that made me like math. She made math fun, and she made it exciting and competitive and entertaining. Heck, I went on out-of-state math club trips with her; I looked forward to the annual math convention every year. I played inter-scholastic math games every Tuesday and I liked it. (We played On-Sets and Equations… I’d love to hear from anyone else who’s played these games!)

Miss P had taken high school math from Sister Jean Marie. She said the same thing everyone said, that she’d learned more in those classes than anywhere else. She also said she owed her life’s work to Sister Jean Marie. She said that after that class she’d never wanted to do anything but teach high school math.

I’m glad I had Miss P for math. And I’m happy that she’s still teaching; she runs the math department in my old high school. I’m sure that that Sister Jean Marie must have retired from teaching by now.

I think of my children and I think of their teachers. They’re all Miss Ps (packing less firepower) and Sister Mary Lees (without the hot ride). I haven’t seen any of their music teachers, male or female, stumble drunkenly down the street wearing a pink wig, stilettos and a wedding dress. There have been no reports of glass eyes or beehives. And there’s been nothing to compare to Sister Jean Marie. I’m very grateful for that. As much as there is that bothers me in modern pedagogy (the incessant, pointless testing; the political correctness; the lack of academic rigor), I am happy to consign the systematic humiliation and ridicule of eleven-year olds to history.

I haven’t seen Lucy or Bobby in over 20 years; I hope they’re both well and happy and healthy.

And I don’t care how much math they learned.

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2 thoughts on “Sister Jean Marie

  1. Funny..after hearing yet another story of a pederast Priest on NPR this morning,I was just commenting to H, that I guess there was a benefit to having been taught only by nuns in the 80s–the abuse we suffered was purely emotional.

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