Sister Frederick knew how to run a Catholic school.
She never raised her voice in the eight years we both inhabited St. Joseph School, her as the principal, me as an elementary school student. Way back when, Catholic schools sported a nun-to-lay teacher ratio of about 50:50, and my experience bore that out, with four Sisters and four Missuses.
But no matter whether your teacher had joined a religious order or not, Sister Frederick was always at the helm, steering our little but proud inner-city school through the shoals of late 1960s and early 1970s social chaos, upheaval, and mayhem.
You would be quietly listening to instructions on an arithmetic problem, or intently completing exercises in your “Think-and-Do” book, or wondering whether the little store on the next block had in stock any more Pee-Chee folders (because you had colored in all of the drawings of people playing sports) or those plastic pencils with 10 lead refill inserts (right inside the pencil!), when the door to the classroom would open and in strode Sister Frederick. And you knew what to do, if you knew what was good for you.
The class, en masse, including the teacher, would immediately stand up and announce with vigor, “Good morning, Sister Frederick!” To which she would reply, “Good morning, class. How are you today?” Which led us to the unchanging and unchangeable rejoinder, “Fine, thank you, how are YOU today?” “I am fine. Please be seated.” “Thank you, Sister Frederick!” And we’d all sit down in unison. No stragglers allowed, no freelancing or ad libbing on the dialogue, either, Buster.
Anyone who tried any funny stuff – and got caught – knew what was coming next. We called it the Peppermint Stick. Sister Frederick never used it much, but again, she didn’t need to. Once you heard some wiseacre getting his just desserts out in the hallway, the chilling effect was considerable. Thinking back on it, Sister Frederick really knew what she was doing. We never actually saw the punishment being applied (Whack!), we just heard it, which created a much stronger impression and made it even more effective in preventing future hi-jinks.
After eight years at St. Joe’s we moved on to high school, and for me and most of my friends that meant switching to a public high school. Quite a culture change, but a good one in a lot of ways.
I can remember one Saturday night when me and a couple of my buddies walked up to church to attend Mass, before hanging out the rest of the evening. For whatever reason (probably because we got there at the last possible second), the church was really crowded, and the only open pew was directly behind Sister Frederick and couple more nuns.
Assuming diplomatic immunity – we had not been under her jurisdiction for the past two years, after all – we weren’t worried about her yelling at us in church, as my friends and I kept up our teenaged dialogue going through most of the service.
We finally came to the Sign of Peace, where everyone extends a hand to others generally within reach to wish them blessings. So I shook hands with my buddies and the people on either side of us. Then Sister Frederick turned around. She had a smile on her face, but her eyes were not exactly wishing us peace. In an instant, I was 11 again, hoping to not get the Peppermint Stick.
“Peace be with you,” she said, through gritted teeth, shaking each of our hands and still smiling, “and if I hear one more word from you three, you will join me after Mass for a little talk.”
“Yes, Sister Frederick,” we all responded in unison. And that was the last thing any of us said until we walked out of that church that evening.
You know, despite her insistence on running a tight ship, we also knew that Sister Frederick had a heart. She cared about us kids, even long after we had left her direct charge. She cared enough to make sure we knew our manners, that respecting the people in charge made sense and gave order, and that when you got out of line something had to be done to correct that behavior.
I think our American society would be in much better shape today if there were more Sister Fredericks around.
Copyright 2012 Tim Hayes Consulting