I was a good little girl (although admittedly no Saint precedes my name). I treated others with dignity and respect, and though I wasn’t likely to be the first one to approach prospective friends, I was amicable when others approached me.
I got along well with everybody in my limited social circle, and I couldn’t tell you the name of even one person I would have considered to be my enemy.
But I can think of one person who might have thought of me as her enemy – a nun I met when I was in second grade. I think she had it out for me from the moment she first saw me, the year my just-built grammar school first opened.
Mother St. Caroline did not fit the picture Mom painted of a nun, which was – in my estimation – a portrait of a saint.
Call them Sister, my mother warned me. But when I got to school I was told to call them Mother.
I froze. Who do I disobey, my mother or the nuns? It was an either/or situation. I had no other option. Somebody was bound to punish me on this one.
At seven years old, I was already in a state of panic, just waiting for the next conflicting rule that would send me to limbo as I awaited the punishment I knew I was doomed to receive. The following incident added to my anxiety and caused me to believe that I was probably not going to make it to the third grade.
As I walked down the hall on my way to my classroom one morning, Mother St. Caroline, who was not my teacher (my teacher was Mother St. Laura), held her crossed arms under her beak, lifted up her head and her eyebrows, and glared down at little second-grader me as she spoke. “Good morning, Theresa.”
But it wasn’t that chipper, “Good morning! Oh, what a lovely day we’re having” kind of good morning you would expect from a nun; it was more haunting, like, “Good moooooooooooooorning, Thereeeeeeeeeeesa.” Like, “I know who you are, Theresa.” Like, “I’m watching you, Theresa.”
My eyelids sprung open and I spent the rest of the walk down the hall thinking God must have told her my name, because how else would she know? She wasn’t my teacher – did I do something that she thought was horrible? Did whatever it was that I had unknowingly done cause her to notice me?
Is she still behind me? Is she going to follow me home? Am I about to learn at a very early age what the term stalker means?
Or worse, does she have access to the inside of the confessional? My mind was swirling.
Well really, what was I supposed to do? Preparation for my first confession was a traumatic experience. I had learned what sins were, but I hadn’t committed any of them.
No way was I going to get in trouble at home and talk back to my mother. The threat of her pulling, pinching, and twisting the skin on my upper hand straight up to Heaven, as she snarled through gritted teeth, “You’re going to behave now, aren’t you?” was enough for me to never want to talk back to HER again.
So what sins could I confess to a priest? I was perplexed, because I didn’t want to walk into the confessional empty-handed.
So I decided to make up something. That way I would have something to say at my second confession. I thought I came up with a great idea. By lying in my first confession, I had set myself up so that I would have something to say in my second confession.
But then I realized at the third confession I would have to repeat the process, so, though I never stole anything, I said I did, though I never hit anybody, I said I did, and though I never said bad words, I said I did, so that every other confession I could say I lied.
Mother St. Caroline had to have been listening somehow. I was sure the confessionals were equipped with invisible speakers that connected to Mother St. Caroline’s ears.
She was a nun, after all. Didn’t nuns have direct lines to God?
Part of her disdain for me might have been because I was the only one in that school wearing red shoes. My mother thought that because I had black hair, I looked good in red, so most of my clothes were red (a color I rarely wear today for that reason). In second grade I had to wear a green cotton uniform, though, so the only things Mom could control were my shoes.
Unbeknown to my mother, and probably every other mother at that school (because the school had just opened), was that red shoes were prohibited, something they might have told parents BEFORE school opened. Because my parents were on a strict budget, another new pair of shoes – after paying the outrageous tuition – was not an option.
Had I known about the problem, I would have clicked my red heels together and chanted, “There’s no place like home; there’s no place like home,” but I wasn’t aware that my mother’s request for me to keep the red shoes was a problem, so I had no clue why the wicked witch of Chicago’s south, Mother St. Caroline, singled me out. I wasn’t even her student.
As a matter of precaution, I kept a watchful eye on Mother St. Caroline over the years, and I thanked God she was only a second grade teacher.
Sixth grade was a transition period for me. Suddenly a lot of saints got demoted and Catholics became confused.
Then our Catholic President John F. Kennedy got assassinated. He was driving in a vehicle. Maybe knocking St. Christopher out of saint status wasn’t such a good idea after all. He was the patron saint of travelers.
When I entered seventh grade, Mother St. Caroline decided to teach seventh grade, MY seventh grade class. I was infuriated. It was like she had been waiting all those years to GET me. Every day she looked for reasons to pick on me, and she usually found something.
Like every other girl in the seventh grade, I rolled up my skirt. Though she ignored their blatant attempts at rebellion, she called me out every time. “Theresa, I’m surprised at you! Roll down that skirt!”
Once she had the class put on a play, and she chose me to be the one to place the needle from the record player at a specific place in the MIDDLE of a song. And when I missed the exact drop spot, which I did EVERY SINGLE TIME, she belittled me and told me, in front of the entire class, how inept I was.
In those days, we listened to albums. Albums had segments of space between songs that were easy to find, but to find a place in the middle of a song was nearly impossible, at least for this seventh grader. I squinted my eyes and shot her daggers of hatred, which she completely ignored.
She also had an absolute abhorrence for anybody who didn’t know how to pronounce the word, angels, properly. She would bring up songs during which the singers mispronounced the word and use their ignorance as lessons for us.
Angels was NOT pronounced an-gels (as in the gel you put in your hair); it was pronounced an-juls. If anybody mispronounced the word, her jaw would clamp shut, her eyes would slit like snakes, and she would snarl her lip.
She also lectured us on how she couldn’t understand why anybody would want to listen to the nasally voice of Barbra Streisand. I wasn’t really sure how her opinions related to what she was teaching, but I, along with the rest of the class, listened to her diatribes, because we had no choice.
When seventh grade ended, I did cartwheels around the block. I was so happy that I no longer had to listen to her daily rants and opinions, I wanted to celebrate. So I threw myself my own personal party, and I danced around in my head with fantasies of a magical eighth grade.
My joy was short-lived though, because in a cruel twist of fate (or perhaps she really did have it out for me), Mother St. Caroline decided to teach eighth grade, and I got her again.
I was enraged. I thought I was being punished for some crime I didn’t remember committing while unknowingly living inside the body of somebody who must have killed her entire family.
Her punishments were relentless, and I wasn’t her only victim. I remember Dann whispered something when we were all supposed to be standing at attention. “OK, Dann, YOU can say the prayer today, and it had better be worthy.”
I saw Dann tremble for the first time in his life. But, good Catholic boy that he was, he managed to utter something that she found acceptable.
By the end of eighth grade I was seething with rage over the way she had treated me throughout the years, and I had soooooo much on her.
All I had to do was get a hold of the Pope and tell him how she had been flirting outrageously with Father what’s-his-name? That would show her!
Father what’s-his-name used to visit our classroom often and we watched the witch turn into a coy little school girl, shrugging her shoulders, batting her eyelashes, swaying – or perhaps swooning – and smiling, her face red with blush. I was appalled at her behavior, and I just had to let the Pope know that one of his flock was not behaving like the nun she was supposed to be.
But I didn’t know the Pope’s phone number, so I came up with another solution to handle my outrage at her treatment of me. In my own belligerent way, I mustered the courage to bring to school a book I had purchased just for her class.
I defiantly sat in her classroom, shaking every time she walked close to me during reading period, but I read every word of the book that I couldn’t wait for her to find me reading, though she never even looked at the title.
Name of the book? Murder in a Nunnery by Eric Shepherd. Yeah, skinny little wheezing (asthmatic) me – I was such a threatening presence.
AFTERWORD: I discovered years later that Mother St. Caroline, Mother St. Laura, and every other nun who taught at that school during my grammar school experience, left the convent. Nobody knows what happened to Mother St. Caroline. She probably married Father what’s-his-name.
Source: Personal Experience