02 March 2006

Sister Grace Agnes

One of the strongest influences in my life, apart from family members, was a woman who routinely bullied and occasionally whapped kids; whose eyes burned with thwarted ambition; whose demeanor was 85 percent sour; whose intentions were simple, if difficult to divine: to elevate her charges whenever and however possible.

You couldn't say that Sister Grace Agnes went about her intentions the right way. In this society, harassing and haranguing students in your classroom is completely unacceptable. Not to mention the open-palmed smacks in the face that she delivered when a student misbehaved.

Moreover, if Sister Grace had taught math, I would not be writing this piece about her. I would have had no reason to seek anything admirable in a tyrant who ruled mathematics, because I despised that subject. But Sister Grace clutched golden keys to the land of my ambition: English grammar. And so, in sixth grade, when I was assigned to her homeroom, I was kind of glad--in a flinching way, because she was definitely the most feared nun at Most Precious Blood School [pause to insert laughter over ironic school name here].

Sister was in her late fifties when she taught us, not much taller than we were, with a dollop of steel-grey hair peeking out of her white-rimmed veil and a piercing gaze. She had a slight limp when she walked, and while she wasn't large in girth, her shoulders were squared off enough to be intimidating. Legend told us, and experience bore out, that she would not hesitate to take a swing at anyone, even the roughest students in the class. And she kept even those kids off-balance, so that order reigned in her classroom. There were times when she smiled or chuckled, and her face would be transformed into someone's daughter, someone's friend. But when that light moment faded, she was all business. As the old-fashioned saying goes, she brooked no foolishness. 

Sister Grace's teaching method never varied from year to year. From Day One, she possessed a set of index cards upon which she had written (in her flawless penmanship) the names of each student. In your hard-bound, black-marble-cover notebook, from Day One, you would transcribe the definitions of every grammatical rule. Sister dictated; you scribbled furiously. And then, you memorized. If you knew what was good for you, that is. Because within a few days of those scribbles, you would be asked to recite the rules she had dictated. "Asked" is not the right verb, actually...demanded. Sister would stand at the front of the classroom with the afore-mentioned index cards held firmly, at viewing distance from her bifocals. And she would bark the surname of a student, randomly, followed by a part of speech. As in: "Martinez. Predicative nominative." And Martinez would be expected to immediately say the definition of that rule, word for word as it was in the notebook. (Only, without the notebook.) "The predicate nominative follows a verb of being and refers back to the subject." (See what a little fear will do for you?)

If Martinez faltered, Sister would flip the card and bark the next name...noting the faltering, so that grades could be rendered later. It was Grammar Boot Camp. And for me, it packed all the thrill of a game show, because I adored the subject matter and strived to know it.

Sister Grace's other major task in sixth grade was teaching us to diagram sentences. Universally, everyone groans about this seemingly pointless exercise, and guess what? I loved it. I was, in fact, exhilirated by it. To me, diagramming was a puzzle that I relished solving, each new sentence a challenge to my burgeoning writer's mind. I never, ever got less than 100 percent on a diagramming test (and we had them at least once a week).

Despite such successes, did I fear this intimidating nun? Indeed, frequently. I dreaded the thought that some minor motion of my hand, some facial expression, some lighthearted glance at another student might cause Sister to barrel down my row and wallop me silly. I saw it happen to many others. My abject terror was such that Sister Grace assigned me a classroom name: Nervous Nellie. Boy, was that fitting for the geeky, jittery kid I was.

So you're wondering where my admiration for this bizarre creature comes in. Well, at the rear of Sister Grace's classroom was a little library. I don't remember any other teachers at Most Precious Blood maintaining a library such as this. It held Scholastic books of the day (nothing too topical, mind you), as well as numerous older books of the Cherry Ames, Student Nurse variety. In a previous blog, I mentioned that my mom resisted my incessant pleas to buy books. "You already have plenty," she'd say. I know now that we were pretty strapped for cash, but it never made sense to me then. Anyway, Sister Grace, for that year, supported my insatiable reading habit by allowing me to take her books home. This was a privilege, and I was extremely careful, never allowing those books to dog-ear or get grease spots at the kitchen table. 

After school, there was a tradition that kids would throng around teachers they liked and walk them down the block towards the avenue, where everyone went separate ways. Someone would volunteer to hold the teacher's bookbag. It wasn't a brown-nose thing, it was more like an informal way to end the school day. Needless to say, Sister Grace had only a smattering of students who ever wanted to walk with her to the convent.

One afternoon, Nervous Nellie found that Sister Grace Agnes had fallen into step alongside her. "You've been reading the books about student nurses," she said to me. A flat statement it was, delivered in her strident voice.

"Y-yes, Sister," I said. "I really like those series." (I did.)

"Are you thinking you might like to be a nurse someday?"

"I don't know...I guess I've thought about it," I said, not accustomed to having adults ask me things like that.

In the slow walk to the convent, Sister proceeded to tell me about how she had wanted to be a nurse as a young woman. (Pre-nun, this was!! The sisters never talked about pre-nun days.) Unfortunately, she contracted polio and became sufficiently weakened that it was deemed she would not be able to handle the rigorous life of a nurse. Thus...teaching.

Thus...the burning ambition that I thenceforth saw in her eyes, thwarted and dulled. 

Thus...my appreciation that she tried, albeit not in the best manner, to at least give her students something: proper English. Which, Lord knows, the streets of Queens were not offering to us on a regular basis.

I found it impossible to defend Sister Grace Agnes to my peers. But many times after that, I walked with her to the convent door. And as the year went along, I came to understand that she had ambitions for me. That was a secret that I held like a jewel. It buoyed me to an excellent high school, and an even better college. Brought me out of Queens, which was a transition I needed to make. More to the point, her support helped me believe in myself. Family members can reassure you all they want; you're never sure if they're just saying that because they love you. But when the woman who rules class 6-305 makes it clear that she knows your worth and expects you to fulfill it, you are persuaded.

Before I launched into this, I googled "Sister Grace Agnes" and actually found a fellow alum of Most Precious Blood who cited her influence:

My fellow alum, Donna, is a writer and an editor. What do you know...Sister Grace nurtured at least two of us. I've e-mailed her, of course, because what are the odds? In the meantime, her blog provides the ultimate capping line for this piece:

"You have to know the rules before you can break them. Amen." 


Anonymous said...

Sister Grace was a bully in the truest sense. She was the original terrorist. Nothing about her was compassionate or empathetic. I suspect my life would have turned out much different if I had teachers that were more humanistic. (Tough to find that in the late 50's and early 60's within the confines of MPB. Though the ones that were can be defined as true saints.). I have no good feelings at any level for Sister Grace or here like, and never will.

Nessa Borealis said...

I appreciate that you took the time to post your response. There are so many different experiences from those days and that school environment, all of them personally valid. Thank you for sharing yours.