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Life is tough. Nuns are tougher.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Tis the Season to be Jolly....

Well, I think I may have reopened this can of worms myself, but I am always willing to have an open discussion on the topic.  I don't care for rewrites of history and whitewashing.

I had mentioned Sister Marillia the other day, terror that she was. And then in the comments section of yesterday's post, a dear reader mentioned her own perhaps not so beloved Sister Dolores, who hit students on the back of their heads with erasers. (I admire her creativity.) The reader, I believe, mentioned her own terror of said Sister D.

And then another reader responded....

Dear Anonymous - so sorry you were terrified of nuns. Wonder what you were doing that DESERVED being whacked on the head with erasers. ??? SOOOOO tired of people saying that nuns were terrifying. Get over yourself, already! Maybe you were sent to Catholic school by your parents to get straightened out. Maybe your classmates have not-so-fond memories of you (spoiling their recess, distracting them from their studies with your eraser-earning antics). And gee - would an eraser really hurt? REALLY???? Shame on YOU, not on the nuns. I never had the priviledge of attending Catholic schools because my parents were too poor to afford it, and probably too ashamed to beg. But I have been teaching at schools with anywhere from one to five sisters, and they were all as nice as could be. They were from different teaching orders, too, so you can't say I just happened to run into an exceptional community. I'm not saying all sisters are perfect - I've seen a couple of slip ups - but it rarely involves the discipline of a student. So please, knock it off, people! The joke isn't funny any more.

Catholic School Teacher
(Incidentally, we have a couple of students who were sent to us to be straightened out. Newsflash to you parents who do that: Try discipline in your own house. Don't make a mess for others to clean up. It's not fair to the parents who send their students to get a Catholic education.)

I fully appreciate you defense of the perils of the classroom teacher. I really do.  But please don't confuse the nuns and students of yesteryear with the nuns and students of today. Things have changed on both ends.

We were children of the late 40's and 50's, the children of men returned from winning The Big One.  We said "please" and "thank you" and "yes, Sister".  We all rose and said the Pledge of Alligiance in the morning and rose again before we were allowed out the classroom door to say an Act of Contrition.  

If we did something wrong in class, like whisper to our neighbor or pass a note (I truly can not recall any worse transgression that than ever occurring from my kindergarten years through high school, my hand to God), we were not just misbehaving ever so slightly, we were sinning, because were were being disobedient to Sister, a sin against the Fourth Commandment, "Honor thy Father and thy Mother".

There were sweet nuns.  I can't recall any, but there were.  We certainly had nuns that weren't terrors, who were even tempered. But once you have a person more than twice your size (we were little children, after all) come swooping down on you, blackening the sun with her habit, to crack you across the knuckles with a three foot ruler or a rubber tipped pointer (which is basically a dowel rod), you will straighten right up in the presence of the rest of the nuns.

Maybe they had a 'good cop/bad cop' plan back at the convent.  Of course, they didn't. There was no planning back at the convent.

But as to the children deserving it? No.  I'll give you that the erasers probably didn't hurt. I knew a nun that would actually hurl them at the children. She had a great arm. She could pick off a kid in the middle of a room of thirty kids. I don't think she hurt anyone either.

The reason you keep hearing about terrifying nuns, is that sometimes they were actually terrifying. In Sister Marillia's classroom during math hour, we lined up six at a time across the blackboard in the back of the room. We each had a problem to do up there, long division at that time. When you finished your problem you returned to your seat. One gangly girl named Bonnie couldn't seem to solve her problem. Row after row of children got up and sat down again and poor Bonnie was still there.

I'm sure by that point, her brain had frozen, and by the time Sister Marillia arrived at the back of the room to belittle Bonnie, the rest of her had frozen, too. I'm not sure what set Sister off, but all of the sudden she had poor gangly Bonnie by the scruff of her neck and began to bang her head against the blackboard to the beat of whatever it was Sister was saying to Bonnie.

We were also frozen, our jaws dropped, our eyes wide. Finally, out of nowhere, one of the boys said, "Sister, you're going to kill her...."  Bonnie stumbled back to her seat.

Or how about the time another nun I knew found a boy talking in line and took the pile of books she was holding, those flat wide music books, and dropped them on his head. He was out cold on the floor and the rest of the children had to file out of the room on their way to lunch, stepping over his unconscious body, sure he was dead on the floor.

He wasn't.

And what was the upshot of all of this? A well behaved classroom.  Happy parents who also believed that if Sister had smacked you, you must have deserved it.

I know they all meant well. But please never try to convince any of us that we deserved bloody knuckles because we were left handed or our penmanship was sloppy. These things happened and are well remembered by all of us who still quake in our Mary Jane shoes when they are recalled. It's not a joke, although we've certainly had a few laughs about it.

Nuns today are indeed a different breed, thanks be to God.  For one thing, they receive a much better education.  Those old nuns were thrown at a roomful of children with no training of any kind in how to work with, teach or discipline children. They were making it up as they went along. They didn't even have the opportunity to discuss it with each other at days end. They were on their own in there. More's the pity.

And back in my day, kids weren't sent to the Catholic school to straighten them out. Children who misbehaved too much were kicked out of Catholic school. For that, you would have had to do something actually bad, like property damage.  Very rare, because we were indeed a bunch of goody two shoes tikes with a fear of Hell and Sister.  Not necessarily in that order.

I'm glad students are now being sent to Catholic school to be straightened out. If Jesus could kiss lepers, I think we can tackle an unruly child.

Things have changed for the better.  But the past informs the present.


Anonymous said...

Thank you dear Sister!
I am sorry ~ I didn't intend to start anything. I can;t tell you how many times I was the Bonnie in your post. I froze the moment I was at the blackboard. I look back at this now and can laugh, but at the time it wasn't so funny.
My Dad grew up in the 1920's ~ boy does he have some stories!!
From the lady not scared anymore of Sister Delores

abishag said...

Sister, your tales of Scary Nun Teachers remind me very much of my mother's tales of Scary Public School Teachers. Mom was nearsighted, but didn't know it at the time. Any time Mrs. P caught her with her face too near her desk (so as to better read her worksheets) she would grab mom by the hair and smash her face into the desk. To this day, mom can't drink milk because of what one awful teacher did in the cafeteria.

Mom went to school in the 50's and 60's and I wonder if it's just that Teaching as a profession has come a long way, not just the old cliche about nuns being mean teachers.

JP said...

My husband recalls treatment at the hand of sisters which would now be recognized as nearly torture...squatting down with arms extended outward, while holding a book in each hand...and not being allowed to move?

Certainly not all sisters were like that, but they did exist.

By the time I got to Catholic schools, the very few sisters who were left were ditching their habits and trying to make stuff relevant...resulting in many students who didn't bother to continue their religious ed once they graduated...Oh, but there was that one sister who taught drama...she was just nuts...

Claudia said...

It is funny, when I was in Catholic School during the 50's we were a well behaved lot.

Everyone learned and there was a minimum of nonsense. BECAUSE we knew better and not to invoke the wrath of someone nun.

It amazes me to this day that our classrooms had 60 students per class and we did learn and did well on our tests.

Maybe the Sisters had the St. Jude Novena on mental speed dial????

Bethany said...

Thank you for writing back about this. I know a few people who actually left the church in part because of the old nuns. It makes me grateful for the ones I've known who encouraged me, laughed with the students (not at them), demanded to meet our boyfriends at dances, and encouraged us to question and think about faith and religion rather than just memorize.

Anonymous said...

I don't see how your killer remarks are any less uncharitable today than the alleged nuns you speak of, along with the alleged undeserved tortures you describe.

You've done your part to make it even more difficult for today's sisters in the classroom who put up with the hundreds of unkind remarks about the sisters of the past, and do their best to show that the stereotype only applied to a very few. And we wonder why there are fewer young women willing to dedicate themselves to God in service to others. It's our fault, Sister! We do not appreciate the gifts we have. Instead, we look for the flaws. Do you not realize that your characterization of Sister Mary Terrorist of yesteryear borders on the same unhelpful generalizations toward our clergy today that have some people wondering if nearly every priest is a pedophile?
Is that what you intended?
Take your own advice, please, and behave yourself.
The teaching sisters at my school often quote some of your humorous posts in the faculty room. They enlighten us all, and brighten our day. We wish we could be half as dedicated. Today, we had no laughter in the faculty room.

Dylan said...

Wow, what a coincidence. We were discussing nuns at school today. (The Others theorized that all nuns were mean because they were unmarried.) I told of the terror-nun that my grandma nearly escaped.
She had a kind nun for kindergarten through fourth grade, by the time fifth grade rolled around, the terrible nun was thankfully replaced with a sweet nun. I'll have to ask her some time. She said all of her nuns at High school were nice.
The two nuns who used to reside at my parish were wonderful. I guess it takes one bad apple to spoil the bunch.

Sister Mary Martha said...

Dear Anonymous,

I am sorry to hear there was no laughter today in the faculty room. It is my personal belief that it is much more frustrating for people to be told that bad things didn't happen or that what happened to them somehow didn't matter. That is precisely the problem with the clergy scandal of which you speak.

I have not used any actual names to describe these people, but I am not going to turn my back on the sins of the past.

We all know better now and that is in no small part because little by little people spoke up. We owe our present state of affairs with the wonderful nuns of whom you speak to them.

I only ask that we be realistic in our assessment as I must be in assessing my own list of sins.

Anonymous said...


I am not saying that bad things didn't happen. Of course they did. They also happened in the military, police force, teachers (ahem * the teacher who eventually married her own student, after he fathered at least two children with her, whilst she was married and had other children by her actual husband). What I am trying to say, though, is that it is not fair to characterize every teaching nun as some kind of maniacal terrorist. Teaching sisters today are still confronted with that stereotype, and although they try not to show it, I believe I see the hurt behind the smile when some senseless boob makes a thoughtless remark such as, "So, where you packin' your ruler, eh Sister? 'Spose you can't wait to get back to the classroom to work out your issues with chastity on some poor, unsuspecting kid." So - accuse me of being a little overprotective of the dear, SWEET teaching sisters with whom I feel so very blessed to have worked with all these years.

Catholic School Teacher

Anonymous said...

Someone mentioned above that these "teaching" techniques were not limited to Catholic sisters. So true! I remember being terrified of the grade 3 teacher before I got to grade 3. In fact, I remember firmly believing that if I hid at the back of the playground on the first day of school that year, I could continue to hide out all year and avoid her altogether!

During the year, she fell down the stairs in her home and came back to school in an ankle-to-hip cast and crutches. Her first day back she said to us from the front of the room, "Don't think that because I'm on crutches you can get away with anything. I can't chase you, but I can throw a crutch at you."

She, daily, checked the girls' fingernails and the boys' necks for dirt and belittled those children who did not meet her standards.

I was never so relieved to get to June.

Poops said...

Catholic School Teacher: Sister didn't say every nun beat her students. But some did, and they were allowed to do so. It's a fact. She's not making it up.

Yes, abuse does happen in all areas of society. But Sister doesn't write about all areas of society. She writes about nuns. The good, the funny, and on rare occasion, the ugly. Yes, nuns are people, too.

Her original post about Nunzilla was funny and based on her own life experiences. If you didn't think it was funny, perhaps the problem is not with Sister's subject matter but rather that you just don't have a sense of humor.

Anonymous said...

My 3rd grade teacher (public school) would have us do art on Fridays. After we painted our pictures, she would call us 5 at a time to stand in front of the class and show our work. The best picture from each group was chosen by popular vote, then displayed the rest of the week. I am not gifted in art, nor was I particularly popular, so my artwork was never chosen. On the last week of school, the teacher asked, "Is there anyone who has not been picked? I will hang up your art this week." I was the only one, and my poor 'painting' hung alone. All week long, the other students pointed, laughed, and gave me those looks - "You LOSER!" So you see, it's not just the nuns, it's not just Catholic school. It's life. Some people are picked on and ridiculed, while the thin, rich, and pretty sail along in their happy world.
I am glad I made it to adulthood, and now I can make sense of the suffering and move forward!

Anonymous said...

Sister, Thank you for your statement "it is much more frustrating for people to be told that bad things didn't happen or that what happened to them somehow didn't matter. That is precisely the problem with the clergy scandal of which you speak." It is true of nuns and lay teachers, and it sounds like the one complaining may think if only she coud use those "methonds" she could really keep those kids in their place. 60 kids in a classromm was not easy, and as you or someone said they did not have the training they now have, and we still have bad teachers, or maybe I should say people in the wrong profession. Teaching is not easy, but can be very rewarding. The big problem then and now is lack of parental envolvement with the school. I have no solution to any of this except unceasing prayers. God bless us and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those that trespass against us.
anon 3

Ana Paula said...

Dear Sister Mary Martha,
A Big Salutation from BRASIL!!

I have appreciated a lot this particular Post. I agree with every single thing you wrote.

I live in the biggest catholic country in the world and there are many catholic schools in here.

I have studied in a school conducted by Nuns and I have so many good memories!

I bet you Sister has not a clue about what I loved more in Nuns...
... Their smell!! I have this smell in my memory!

I simply love nuns!
I wish I could have a son priest and a daughter nun!

Stay in the Peace of God!
You Sister and also All Your Readers!!

P.S You always make me laugh. I simply laughed a lot with this quote: "There were sweet nuns. I can't recall any, but there were." Hahaha

P.S.2 A beautiful quote this one, Sister:

"If Jesus could kiss lepers, I think we can tackle an unruly child". JUST BEAUTIFUL and this taught me a lot.


Anonymous said...

Poops - I have a great sense of humor, according to my co-workers, students, and their parents. I just think it is not fair to stereotype 99% of a population based on the actions of 1% - or less. And making jokes about it is about as funny as making jokes about pedophiles. Or maybe you think that's funny, and we should be able to poke fun at all of our clergy based on the tragically sinful actions of a few. To me, that's as insensitive as jokes about blind people or people missing limbs. "Did you hear the one about the one-armed student? The mean nun used to make him stand in the corner and told him he could come out when he clapped." That sort of thing. Yeah - I've been beat down pretty badly in this blog. That proves you are all so much smarter than I am, so much more glib, better debaters, etc. Good for you. I would rather be less intelligent and have people all over the "internets" thinking I'm a fool than have to listen to one more insensitive Christian slandering our sisters. They are at the top of my Christmas list. I can't thank them enough for all they do, and for the good influence they have had on our students and staff. To any real sisters who may be reading this, I apologize for all the unkind remarks that you have had to read here on this blog.

Anonymous said...

When I was in grade school, my dad slipped a disc and was in the hospital for traction. One of his friends sent him a silly card with all kinds of mean and tasteless nurse jokes (for example, the nurse keeps the bed pan in the refridgerator, and takes it out just before giving it to you). My dad thought it would be funny to tell a few of these jokes to the young nurse that came in. She looked to me like she was in her early 20's. Anyway, she was very professional with my dad - didn't show any offense, just smiled and kept taking his vitals or whatever she was doing. God bless her. I'm sure he hurt her feelings. If I had known then what I know now, I would have followed her out of the room and given her a hug. Next time I'm at church and see a nun, I think I will get over my shyness and go up to her and give her a hug, too!
Sally R.

Unknown said...

Oh, my, this is such a hot topic. I went to a Catholic School and I believe I was considered a terror. Today, I would be disagnosed with ADHD and probably given medication; back then I was disciplined and, I will say, rather harshly. A nun even stabbed me with a pen! It's actually a very funny story and I even thought it was funny back in
5th Grade. Yes, I did deserve some form of punishment for my various "adventures," (which included wandering out of school one morning and not returning until just before the end of the school day. I was never sure whether the teachers were relieved I was gone for the day or that I hadn't been kidnapped). The weird thing is that I think my years at St. Stephen's (in NJ) actually prepared me wonderfully for the world of writing, where you have to endure a great deal of emotional pain every day simply to survive. Jim Murphy

John Salmon said...

Of course, capital, I mean corporal punishment used to be routine in all schools. It's just that the Catholic schools took somewhat longer to get rid of it.

No teacher has any business hitting a kid. 'Nuff said.

Anonymous said...

There were 40 kids in that picture!! A big task for any teacher.

Shay said...

My Dad wanted to send us to Catholic school but we ended up in public -- too many stories of being given the strap for my mother's comfort. He went to French Catholic school is VERY rural Quebec in the 60s. Stories of dropping sour milk down the stairs on purpose only to be beaten until you can't walk. Fun times! I'm glad Nuns are getting a new image.

Anonymous said...

The smallest class I was in had 61 or 62 students in it, packed like sardines. Jim Murphy

Anonymous said...

i just found your blog--i love it i signed up for more! i was not raised a Catholic--nor was i around any nuns--no past history to distort my present outlook. but in 1994 God told me to get Baptized as an adult. i went to a lot of differnt Christian churches and God said--"thats not the one"--i said all thats left is the Catholic church??? i dont get it??? he said--THAT ONE!--i didnt belive it was God--i thought it was the devil. so i waited and waited and waited--and the answer was still the same. so i went and told the woman who taught Adults in a special program, that would get me baptized at the end of it. i told her that my family was very anti-catholic and i didnt want to do this, but, God wanted me to--so here i am. i went though the adult training with flying colors--i was a star student. everyone at the service (that i got baptized in)--KNEW i would have a tough time telling my family what i had done. so when i got up and out of the hot tub (which was NOT hot water) baptized--they all stood up and clapped loudly! then i called my dad and said--"I just got baptized"--he said--oh? what church? i said--Jehovahs witness--there was dead silence on the other end.--then i laughed and said--"no, dad-Catholic" iam happy well-rounded Christian Believer. even tho i attend several differnt christian churches--iam a member in every way of our local Cathloic Church--(St. Pats.) and as a birthday present to myself last year--i took the vows of a NUN and i could not be happier! iam one happy NUN! "Sister Karen-Elise"