By the time I arrived at Saint Ignatius Catholic School at the start of my fifth grade year, I’d already been to three other Elementary Schools. I’d become accustomed to being the new kid and had already developed habits that would stay with me well into my adult years.
I’d learned to blend in, to sit quietly, do my work, never raise my hand and rarely speak. I was the child you could forget was in the room and that suited me just fine. My shyness was of the crippling variety and attention of any kind had a way of turning me into a teary, stammering mess. It was awful.
My fifth grade teacher changed my life. Her name was Sister Mary Daniel Joseph. She was tall, pale and soft spoken. And I was afraid of her. To be honest, I was afraid of all adult personnel in every school I’d attended. I’m in my fifties and when I was in elementary school, teachers were allowed to hit children and I’d witnessed some awful whippings being administered in the name of “discipline”. I knew if I ever got a spanking, I would fall dead on the spot and I wasn’t trying to drop dead in school. I had little sisters and a brother to look after. So I was always mindful of never breaking a rule…Ever.
Sister Mary Daniel Joseph’s weapon of choice was the pointer stick. She’d say, “Hold out your hand,” in that soft voice of hers, then whack the offending pupil across the palm. Depending on the offense, she’d give 1-3 whacks. She’d hit just hard enough to sting. She was kind. Some teachers wouldn’t stop until they saw blood, or at least severely bruised skin.
A lot of things happened for me and to me in her classroom. She was the one who realized I couldn’t see and I have her to thank for my first pair of glasses.
She decided somewhere along the way that she liked the sound of my voice and developed the annoying habit of calling my name. She called me so often, my hand started waving along with everyone else when she asked questions because I figured out I had less chance of having to stand up and give an answer if I did. For her, it was all about classroom participation.
I learned about heaven and hell, and sin and salvation. Jesus became more than a concept and I decided for the first time what I wanted to be when I grew up.
She invented reasons for me to spend my lunch and recess in the classroom alone with her, talking about…everything. Her birth name was Bernadette and she grew up in Ireland. The wedding band on her finger was symbolic of her marriage to Jesus Christ. She was happy most of the time when she wasn’t feeling homesick.
The boss lady head nun at our school was called “Mother Superior”. I’m sure she had another name but we didn’t know it. Whenever she came to our classroom, everyone.. including the teacher froze. Her presence was enough to terrify us all. On one of her visits, she did a surprise desk inspection. A messy desk would get you a few whacks across the palm. My desk was messy.
My desk was the only one that was messy and my teacher almost fainted. As I took that long walk to the head of the class, Sister Mary Daniel Joseph made the sign of the cross and picked up the pointer.
“Hold out your hand.”
Through the tears in my eyes, I saw tears in her eyes. For some reason I still can’t explain, I wasn’t afraid anymore. She hit me once… and
I didn’t die…
It didn’t even hurt.
This post was inspired by one of the weekly writing prompts from the Writer’s Workshop over @ Mama Kats. The prompt was to write about your third grade teacher, but I don’t remember mine.