Nuns get a really bad rap. We make fun of them for dressing like penguins and being symbolically “married” to God. We make movies that lampoon the Catholic school experience, complete with twisted sisters carrying rulers to rap the knuckles of transgressors. We dress up as them for Halloween. In fact, I’d argue that there’s no more enduring symbol of misery than that of the nun wielding mighty power over her classroom of cowering youngsters.
I went to Catholic school, and I’m here to tell you that it’s not really like that. I can’t say that nuns didn’t box ears or slap palms back in the ’50s or ’60s, but parochial education today is a much calmer, happier, and touchy-feelier experience.
When I was attending my all-girls parochial school, we had only two elderly clergy teachers left: Sister Mary Chemistry and Sister Mary Biology, so named for obvious reasons. (Their real names were Sister Mary Jane and Sister Mary Jean.) Sister Chem taught all the honors chemistry classes, and although she was not known for being terribly warm toward her students, she somehow took a liking to me. I liked chemistry but sometimes needed help with the math, and Sister Chem was always willing to come early to school or stay late to help me balance equations. She let me turn in homework late without penalizing me. She even let me take my tests home to complete.
To this day, I have no idea why she was so kind to me. I think she knew I was busy with activities and sports … maybe she just wanted to make sure I didn’t fall behind? I wasn’t failing or struggling that much. Who knows? All I know is that when your teacher asks you if you’d rather take your test home and finish it there, you always say yes.