Sister Modesta – With a Black Belt in Theology
GOD BLESS SISTER MODESTA. She loved teaching so much that she did it for 51 years. I had her for her 50th year at the front of the classroom in the basement at St. Mary’s Catholic Grade School. It was 6th grade for me. It was Hell for her.
By that time in her teaching career Sister Modesta was burned to a crisp. She was no longer the kind, caring, and professional educator that she had been, oh – maybe half a century earlier. By the time I entered her classroom she had become bitter, disinterested and potentially violent. She ran her classroom by her own set of rules – absolute, arbitrary and without appeal.
Disobedience was not tolerated. She had lost her patience for childhood misbehavior during the Coolidge Administration. Her justice was swift and original.
Instead of reprimanding a miscreant student, rapping knuckles with a ruler, or even sending the offending child to the Principal’s Office, Sister Modesta’s solution was to lock the misbehaving child in the supply closet at the back of the room. And leave him/her in there all day – ALL DAY. If the closet was already occupied she would put the kid out in the hallway and lock the door.
I don’t want to say that she didn’t have a soft side. She did – just not for human beings.
In wintertime, when there was snow on the ground, Sister Modesta would open the windows in our basement classroom and allow stray dogs to come into the classroom. We had to leave our coats on, but the dogs were comfortable.
Sister knew that she had to do something that might classify as actual teaching. So, since she hated teaching science, all we did for the entire year was write out the glossary of terms from the back of the textbook – over and over and over again. We would pass our papers to the front of the room. She would collect them and put them directly into the waste basket. No muss, no fuss.
She did like to assign homework. When we arrived in the morning we would again pass our papers to the front of the room. Sister Modesta would sit at her desk and leaf through the papers looking at the names on the top of the page. She would then mark down who had failed to turn in anything. She didn’t look at the actual work, which allowed me, on occasion, to turn in some of my older brother’s high school homework. I just changed the first name from Jim to John and handed it in. When she had finished checking the names she would then tear the papers in half and toss them into the trash.
The one subject she did enjoy teaching was Music. Therefore, we spent a lot of each day singing. We didn’t care. It was fun and easy and the dogs didn’t seem to mind.
The beginning of the end for Sister Modesta’s reign of non-education came the day we were just too mischievous for her. The closet was already occupied and so was the hallway. She stood at the front of the room looking at us like we were Satan incarnate. She made slow evil eye contact with each of us and then, in a quiet voice filled with 50 years of frustration, she hissed, “You little sons of bitches.”
She finished that school year and started the next, but then she suddenly “retired.” It should have happened decades earlier.
Given the perspective of another 50 years I feel sorry for her. She was a terrible teacher, but at least the dogs loved her.