I do not have many memories of life before Catholic elementary school. But I do remember crying my eyes out the first time my mother left me there. If it wasn’t for a sweet and very clever little nun, I might not have survived.
I had seen pictures of the old school nuns in their stark black and white habits. And I had heard horror stories.
I wanted none of it. So if there was any hope of convincing me to continue to venture out into the uncharted land of school and society, I needed a nice nun. By God, I got one.
Sr. Mary Remi was so tiny she seemed like one of us kids, except she was a lot older and knew more stuff. With short grayish hair and big, adoring, warm brown eyes that smiled even when she wasn't, she was a gentle soul who always made you feel at peace. She topped it all off with a voice so soft and pleasant, you felt something very precious was in the air, and if you didn’t lower your voice the vibrations might break something or someone.
As tiny as she was, her heart was big. From the moment she called the class to order by folding her sinewy, alabaster hands and prodding us to thank our Father for “the joy of each other,” she intoxicated us young ruffians with love. She exuded kindness and made you feel embraced simply because you were within her presence, even when she was scolding you.
‘You hurt my heart’
I was so committed to respecting and obeying her I felt mortally wounded when her furrowed brow fell upon me after I found myself laughing uncontrollably during one of her lessons. Maybe I was coming off a sugar high from the Coke I drank for lunch, but for whatever the reason I was out of control.
Sister soberly and softly asked me to stop, but nothing she could say or do worked. She finally had to send me off to the principal’s office, which was like being arrested for murder or something like that.
When I finally calmed down I was let back into class but ordered to stay after school to help Sister clean the classroom. Not that any 6-year-old wants to be stuck in a classroom cleaning up while the rest of the free world seems to be playing, but it wasn’t so bad spending time helping Sister, especially since I felt so bad for hurting her feelings.
But what was horrible and wonderful all at the same time was what she said to me that afternoon. With tears in her eyes she looked at me and said softly: “You hurt my heart today.”
I collapsed in regret and sorrow.
“Not because you did something wrong but because you lost control, and I was scared for you,” she continue. Sister explained once she sent us off into the world to other teachers and eventually to be on our own, she would still care for and worry about us. And she couldn’t bear the thought something bad would happen because we didn’t know how to control our actions. That's why God had given us commandments, to keep us from hurting ourselves, and that's why teachers and parents have rules too, she explained.
The day I hurt Sr. Remi's heart and that desire to make it up to her by living a good life has defined my view of right and wrong, God, parents, the police, and just about every other civil authority ever since.
And from that day on, she defined what being Catholic was all about for me too – and that was love! The love God had for us when He made us, the love He wants us to have for each other and the love he wants us to have for ourselves.
As for all the tough nuns out there, I'm sure they all meant well and had their reasons. But as for me, I'm glad I had a nice nun. And I hope, too, that every single one of you out there had someone nice as well to be the face of your Catholicism.