Thursday, August 18, 2011

Everything I Know I Learned from Sister St. Stephen

I am old enough to be able to answer the question "Where were you when President Kennedy was killed?" and young enough so that the memories of that day are hazy. I was six, a first grade student at St. Thomas School in Providence, RI. As a class we were preparing for our first confession that day, and just returning from a trip to the church to get our first tour of the inside of the confessional. That is all a matter of record, not memory. The memories, on the other hand, are spotty, grainy, the kind of scenes you see when waking from a deep sleep and first prying your eyes open.

I remember the priest's black car pulling up in front of Sister St. Stephen as she led us in two lines (boys in one, girls in the other)across the parking lot. I remember the blank look on his face as he beckoned her over to whisper something.

Back in the classroom I remember Sister hurriedly choosing Phyllis L. to "be in charge" and then rushing out. I remember the strip of wall covering tacked to the wall above the blackboard, gold with little white flowers. I must have had a long time to study that wall, because as the minutes ticked by, we began to realize that Sister wasn't coming back. She had left us ALONE. Even Phyllis seemed a little nonplussed by this.

I remember all of us discovering that with no Sister in the room, we could taste the forbidden fruit of talking in class. It felt deliciously naughty. (Thankfully, Phyllis was not the kind of girl to take her "in charge" position too seriously, and partook as eagerly as the rest of us.) The sound level in the room grew. I remember noticing that we were hearing the same sound level from other classrooms, too. I remember someone--or maybe all of us together--realizing what this meant: that all the nuns had disappeared from all the classrooms in the school. OK, this was HUGE.

I remember hearing a voice say, "Something really bad must have happened." But we couldn't imagine what. What could the nuns be doing that was so important they had left us all alone? I remember Phyllis bursting into tears.

At some point, Sister must have come back and dismissed us from school for the day, because the next thing I remember was going home to find my mother and aunt in front of the television set in tears, and I was told what the really bad thing was.

I can't imagine that happening today, that any teacher would leave her charges alone the way Sister St. Stephen did that day. And in fact when a really bad thing happened on September 11, 2001, when my own children were in school, the teachers continued with classes as if the world was just fine outside the classroom.

But I can't help thinking that Sister--all the sisters--had it right. That day they were gathered in front of a radio in the principal's office, trying to come to terms with the worst news they could imagine. Nothing worse than a little childish rowdiness happened in our clasroom, after all. The sisters chose a front seat to history over us, and I'm OK with that.