One Tough Nun by Donal Mahoney
Timmy McGinty had many important teachers over the years but the one who changed his life was Sister Coleman, who taught him in 8th grade back in 1952. She prepared Timmy to thrive in high school and, if a scholarship became available, perhaps in college as well. It's lucky for him she worked so hard because another nun might have given up on him. After all, he was "incorrigible" (according to one of his previous teachers) and the only thing he did well was spell, punctuate, write sentences and compose complete paragraphs. Otherwise, he was fairly useless academically. His main delight was mischief. In that field, he had no peer among his classmates.
Like many of the 16 nuns housed in the convent near the school, Sister Coleman was an immigrant from Ireland. She had been brought to Chicago, Timmy learned later in life, because she could manage roughhouse children, many of them the offspring of blue-collar immigrants. Couth, you might say, was not rampant among the otherwise decent people in that neighborhood. Fathers worked as laborers, although a few managed to become policemen or firemen. Mothers were homemakers although some took in laundry to make a few dollars.
In the first week of eighth grade, Sister Coleman plucked Timmy out of the last seat in the second row and plopped him in the first seat in the third row. He would spend the entire year in that seat, right under her wolverine gaze. She had sat Timmy there because she suspected he had been rolling marbles down the aisle from his back row seat. As always she was right but Timmy did his best to maintain his innocence.
"Timothy McGinty," Sister bellowed, "that was you, wasn't it, who rolled the marble down the aisle. It had to be you. That marble made a long trip and you were in the last seat in the second row, covered with freckles and full of buncombe. Do you know what buncombe means, Timothy? Well, you will by the time this year is over, let me tell you, and you will be able to spell the word as well."
Timmy denied everything, pointing his finger at Eddie Sheridan, a slight lad who wished he could do some of the things Timmy did but he simply didn't have the nerve. Besides, Eddie was good in math and he spent most of his time working on algebra problems, something no one else in that eighth grade would have touched.
"I think Eddie Sheridan did it, Sister. I saw his arm move like he was bowling."
Sister took it from there and told Timmy he was not only full of buncombe but balderdash as well and if he didn't start behaving himself and studying hard he would grow up to be a blatherskite always in search of a job.
"I have a brother like you, Timmy, back in Ireland, 40 years old now and still helping out on the farm. My father sometimes says he's not fit to sleep with the pigs but my mother says he certainly is. He's always misbehaving, Timmy. Maybe we can send you over there to help him."
As a penance for his marble escapade, Timmy not only had to sit in front of Sister Coleman but he also had to diagram 30 sentences a night in addition to his regular homework. In fact, Timmy had to diagram 30 sentences a night for the entire year. And these were not "simple sentences." They were "compound sentences" and "compound complex sentences," both of which many of his classmates were not yet ready to diagram. But Timmy McGinty had a way with words and Sister Coleman knew that. As a result, she decided that working with words, perhaps as a writer or editor, might be one of the few ways Timmy could some day earn a living.
Sister Coleman stood right in front of Timmy when she lectured--and she did lecture--and spittle would spray from the gap in her teeth onto his spectacles. Timmy was one of very few boys who wore spectacles in the school, either because myopia was not rampant among the students or because their parents simply never thought about taking their children to an eye doctor.
Timmy got his first pair of glasses in third grade.
"Mom," he said. "I don't want to wear them. Nobody else wears them at school. I'll get in fights."
And sure enough the first three days back in school, Timmy had three fights in the playground as some other boys wanted to see if the glasses had changed him. Maybe he couldn't fight anymore, they thought. But Timmy won all three fights and had to stay after school three nights for "defending himself," as he told his father. Decades later, he could still name the three boys who had accosted him and he would have loved the opportunity to punch them once again, just to clarify that his new glasses had not made him a wimp.
In fact, Timmy told his wife when he finally turned 80 that he would beat the hell out of those "three curs with his cane" if he could find them. After all, he would never have had to stay after school for three nights if they had left him alone.
Timmy liked Sister Coleman, despite her discipline, and he liked her even more ten years later when he had earned a master's degree in English, which in 1962 was a respected major that could lead to a good job. English majors were considered trainable in many occupations that did not involve math or science. Often they were put into management trainee slots and primed to run departments and eventually sometimes an entire company. No one knew exactly what English majors knew but most of them could talk and write and seemed to have a good understanding of people.
With his master's degree diploma in a briefcase, Timmy went back to his old grammar school to find Sister Coleman and show her that one of her incorrigibles had accomplished something. But, alas, he was told in polite terms that his favorite sister was in a home in Florida, and she was there not so much because of her age, but for other reasons. They wouldn't tell Timmy the reasons but he summarized the situation for his parents when he visited them.
"I'm afraid Sister Coleman went bonkers and they shipped her out. They should never have let her teach all those years at that school."
Later on, Timmy found on the Internet that Sister Coleman had died but only after she had returned to Ireland and recruited a niece, also a nun, to teach at his old school. Timmy would have bet that the niece was as tough as her aunt. She would have had to be to govern the miscreants in his old school.
Sister Coleman succeeded with Timmy because she had chosen to teach through and around his behavioral problems. Indeed, Timmy today would probably have been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder or some other such disease and put in a school offering special education classes. They had no schools like that back when Timmy was in eighth grade. If a kid acted out more than Timmy did, he was sent to military school. Timmy remembers fondly three of his classmates who were taken away and never seen in the neighborhood again. His mother had seen one of them for the last time on her way to Mass on a hot Sunday in July. Bobby was sitting on his front porch eating the night crawlers he and his father were supposed to go fishing with later that day.
"I would never eat night crawlers, Mom. You don't have to worry" is what Timmy told his mother at Sunday dinner.
Timmy was lucky to have Sister Coleman and the other nuns as his teachers. They knew they were there to turn out children ready to go to high school and perhaps then to college and maybe law school or medical school if scholarships could be found. Those nuns had big plans for their charges because a good education was the only way they as adults would ever find good jobs to raise families of their own.
As did all the nuns back then, Sister Coleman wore a habit that signaled to all that she was in charge. That didn't mean boys like Timmy always behaved--far from it. But when they got caught, they had no problem accepting the discipline and extra homework that misbehavior incurred.
"I deserved all the punishment I got," Timmy told his wife many times in their 50 year marriage. "I asked for it and the sisters doled it out. They had to survive, didn't they, even if poor Sister Coleman didn't make it. I wish now I had never rolled that marble down the aisle."
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