August 22, 2008


This picture brings back many memories, whether fond or not I have to puzzle out. From first grade through high school graduation, I was taught by the Dominican Sisters of Amityville, Long Island.

My new post-World War II community did not yet have a Catholic school. My mother carpooled, so I could go to Holy Redeemer in Freeport for first and second grade morning classes. With so many Catholics eager to send their kids to Catholic schools, they offered split sessions. Then I took a bus to the closer Queen of the Most Holy Rosary in Roosevelt for third through eighth grade. I was in the Queen's first graduating class.

My first grade teacher taught two classes of 60 children, one in the morning, one in the afternoon. All of us learned how to read and write, both printing and cursive. She recognized better students and gave them additional challenges. I craved gold stars on both my papers and my forehead. Regularly, I was sent to the second grade teacher, Sister Paula Anne, to report my latest accomplishment. I was her teacher's pet before I started second grade.

The tall nun on the right is Sister Miriam Francis; she was the principal at both Holy Redeember and the Queen. She died3 years ago at age 93, having worked well into her 80's. I wasn't surprised; in retrospect she was an amazing educator. A tall, elegant, brilliant woman, she effortlessly ruled her 800 students with a clicker; she never had to raise her voice. One click, and we were instantly silent and attentive. She knew the name and the history of every student in the school. We all respected and admired her, were willing to work hard for her praise.

I was a very good girl. In seventh grade Sister Miriam Francis told me I could not have had a more perfect record. So I was never the victim of a nun's wrath, never had an eraser hurled at me, never was hit by a pointer, never had to stay after school to clean the blackboards, never was ordered to put my gum on my nose, never was compelled to bring my embarrassing private note up to the front, so Sister could read it to the entire class. Destructively, my innate shyness was reinforced, however. Good students only answered questions; they never asked them. Class discussion only occurred in high school history and English courses.

Most of the nuns were very young. Many had not yet been to college but were expected to teach classes of over sixty students. My young, beautiful physics teacher, who used to flirt with the boys, was one chapter ahead of us in the regents review book. None of my classes were chaotic; I simply can't remember how they did it. The nun's habit must have disguised a superman costume. I loved grade school, but was critical of high school. I resolved never to send my daughters to strict Catholic school that prized obedience over creativity.

As the negative memories fade, I can appreciate the excellence and rigor of my education. Writing this post has been a revelation. I have never publicly appreciated the penguins. For 8 years I edited books on the basis of my grade school English grammar classes. I always enjoyed diagramming thousands of sentences, especially at the blackboard. We had fantastic geography lessons. Every classroom had many world maps, rolled up in front of the blackboard. I loved drawing maps. A test would be a continent map with the outline of each country. We had to fill in the names. We were given a US map outline and had to fill in the state and its capital. We would never have been allowed to graduate from eighth grade if we could not fully explain Social Security.

The nuns were the only professional women I knew. As a group they were amazingly hard working and dedicated; most of them were warm, kind women. I remember only one mean nun in high school, Sister Jean Paul, who taught eighth grade, the nun on the left of the picture. She loathed FDR and made no pretense of being objective. The class wore black armbands the anniversary of his death and sniffed audibly whenever Sister mentioned his name. Too pull off such a massive group effort, we had to have learned lots of American history.

The high school curriculum was rigorous--4 years of English, Social Studies, Math, Science (Earth Science, Physics, Biology, Chemistry), Religion, Art, Music, Gym, and Two Languages, including Latin. As freshman, we had a half year library science course, mastering the card catalogue and the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature.

In English class, we loved reading aloud all of Shakespeare's major plays. We were expected to memorize the major soliloquies and sonnets as well as many English and American poems. We read Dickens, Austen, Elliot, Conrad, Dostoevsky, Hardy, Shaw, Ibsen, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Steinbeck.

Sister Grace Florian was the best teacher I ever had in my 20 years of education. She taught first year Latin and senior year English literature. She was brilliant, funny, and demanding. I still have the Jane Austen paper I wrote for her. It is rather good, but Sister Grace Florian incisively criticized the content, the typing, the organization, the grammar, the footnotes, the bibliography. Sister Mary Cyrilla, who taught senior religion, was a fervent believer in Vatican II. Questioning traditional Catholic beliefs were encouraged. She later spent 15 years teaching at the seminary, where men study to be priests. Sister Mary Luke was an excellent French teacher; Sister Gloria Marie taught me to love Math so much that I considered it as my college major.

My friends and I ran the high school newspaper, the Agnesian Rock, and were members of the Speech and Debate Clulb. Debate was enormously challenging, requiring countless hours of library research. We had to argue both sides of each years's resolution, always a major political policy controversy.

But all was not ideal. Science was very weak. There were no female sports, because the champion boys basketball team needed the gym all year round. We had no choice but to apply to Catholic colleges. Those who wanted to attend non-Catholic colleges were refused recommendations. We were regularly taken to Church service; we had to go to confession once a month. In grade school, we had to report our attendance at Mass every Sunday; missing Mass compromised your religion grade.

My mother was an active member of the Women's Ordination Conference. I occasionally attended meetings with her, even though I had not been a committed Catholic after age 18. Many of its members were older nuns; everyone seemed to have a Ph.D. There are very few young women entering the convent. Catholic school kids aren't taught by penguins anymore.

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