“You may not put down your chalk, you may not return to your desk until you have correctly solved the math problem!” bellowed Sister. Once again I would be the cause of my row of students losing the math relay.
This scenario played out again and again throughout my parochial school years in the 1950s. Math to me was a foreign language from another planet. No amount of study or tutoring could make me see its logic.
Being math challenged caused much verbal humiliation and shame. One Sister in particular was merciless in her attacks, which were her attempts to make me learn. After that exceptionally traumatic school year my parents transferred me to public school.
Unfortunately, feelings of low self-esteem and inadequacy followed me through college and into adulthood. Trying new things, taking risks, even for fun was still out of my grasp because of the fear of failure.
Marriage and motherhood were wonderful and gratifying additions to my life in the years to come, but lacking still was the self confidence to fully enjoy life. Seeking therapy was the biggest step forward in my healing. Growing in confidence, I wanted to find my former parochial school principal. Finding her and beginning a correspondence with her was the beginning of a miracle. She not only remembered me, she apologized for the torment I had endured at the hands of the other Sister. She then asked if I could find it in my heart to pray for the other Sister, as she was terribly ill. I did.
Time passed, the notes from Principal Sister became fewer, and then stopped. Worried, I phoned the retirement center to learn she was very ill and had been moved to a nursing facility for retired nuns. Continuing to write to her even though I knew she couldn’t respond became my gift to her.
Once again time passed and one day I received an email from a nun visiting the same nursing home as my Principal Sister. She introduced herself a as friend of Sister’s and had noticed the cards and letters from me. She was interested in me because her own sister, also a retired nun, lived in the same facility. Her reason for writing was to ask if I knew her sister.
The letters of her name jumped from the computer screen into every cell of my body. There in black and white was the name of the abusive nun from my childhood. Paralyzed, unable to speak, my brain could not take in what my eyes were seeing. This could not be.
It was three days before I was able to respond to the email. Simply telling the her, “Yes, I knew her sister, she was my fifth grade teacher,” were the only words in the email. Several days later mustering the courage to write more, I asked about her sister and her life as a teacher. It was interesting to learn she only taught grade school several years, was sent back to school, earned two PhD degrees, spoke five languages fluently, and taught college level in the U.S., Mexico, and Peru. She was a brilliant woman who just could not teach children, her sister said. These words were like balm on an open wound.
Beginning a correspondence with my former teacher was difficult at first, but got easier. She couldn’t write back because of severe Parkinson’s disease, but her sister was the go-between for us. Now there were two nuns I was writing to in the same facility, my principal and the abusive nun.
Here were two elderly, sick women, their careers over, nearing the end of their lives, and here was I, wanting so much to become a happier, healthier person, creating new ways of thinking and feeling, in addition to letting go of the past.
Crocheting two afghans, collecting class photos and mementos, booking a flight to the east coast, I began the healing journey of a lifetime. To say I was not terrified would be a lie, but I was excited for the chance to try and heal my past. Heading east with mixed feelings, there was no turning back. I would see this through to the end no matter what.
My principal was no longer the lively, intellectual, whirling dervish she had once been, but she had the same kind face and smile. Over lunch, we shared old times and enjoyed the books and mementos I brought along. Especially enjoyable were the memories of the operettas and plays she conducted. She was a wonderful musician. The afghan I made for her was the perfect color for her room and she gratefully wrapped it around herself. Talking about both our lives became as easy as talking to a dear friend. Embracing her as I said goodbye, I marveled at the delicate, lovely woman I beheld even though her mind was beginning to fail.
Standing in the hallway outside my former teacher’s room, saying a silent prayer that I would hold up under this anxious moment, I stepped into the room wanting to see with my own eyes, that she was just an older, sick woman who could no longer hurt me.
Her eyes were the first jolt of recognition, that steely gaze nearly stopped my heart:but, she had a grin from ear to ear; her outstretched arms bidding me to come to her bedside. Approaching with her afghan (which turned out to be the perfect color for her room, too), I sat down and began showing her photos and mementos from school. She had a fabulous memory for details in the photos. She also told me about her years of teaching college and how much she loved her students.
Suddenly she stopped talking, rested her hands in her lap, her head down. Looking away momentarily then looking back, I saw there were tears streaming down her cheeks as her eyes pleaded for my forgiveness. She opened her arms to me as I leaned forward to be enfolded in love by the woman I had feared so long.
Sister then told me my class was her first since becoming a nun. There were 45 students in the class and her instructions from the Mother Superior at the convent were to maintain complete control over every student, all day, every day, no matter what. She revealed she had no idea how to help with my math block other than to scare it into me
She also told me that she was more afraid of me and the other students than we could ever have been of her. With this new revelation, I sank deeper into her arms and we laughed and cried together as both our hearts began to mend.
Both sisters are gone now, but my miracle healing journey continues to this day. To be set free from the bonds of fear and to receive love from someone who I thought was incapable of love has been one of the greatest blessings of my life. I can now smile when I think of the two Sisters, and I know they are smiling at me, too.