By Tim Hayes
Over the course of my elementary education, I sure met a lot of sisters. The kind with habits. And veils. And rosary beads. And an approach to discipline that certainly felt unshakable, unalterable, and unbelievable to me and my fellow “disciplinees” along the way.
Sister Dorothy, Sister James Ann, Sister Esther, Sister Joachim, Sister Frederick – we crossed paths with them all in our eight glorious years at dear old Saint Joseph School. The school’s no longer standing, and even the parish has been subsumed into a merged conglomerate of Catholics. Kind of sad, really. All those students over all those years, creating all those memories. And that’s all they are now, just memories.
Most of those recollections remain positive and happy, whether a matter of selective amnesia or not. As with anybody, some rough days happened, of course. But they fell into the minority of experiences.
One teacher stood out from all the rest, though. A teacher who really “got” her students. Who ran a tight ship, but also a fun ship. She loved her job, loved her faith, and loved her students. And we loved her back.
My fifth grade teacher, Sister Ruth Ann. The grooviest nun I ever met, or ever would meet. She was a lot younger than most of the other nuns at St. Joe’s. She wore a black veil and dress, but the dress came to her knees, not the floor-length habit the others wore. And if Sister Ruth Ann had a rosary on her, we never saw it.
Remember, now, when kids hit fifth grade, they’re starting to not be kids anymore. It’s a weird time. The first whiff of hormones get carried on the breeze. Girls begin to cluster and get mysterious and moody. Guys assume more of a young-buck attitude. It’s not full-blown adolescence, with its accompanying pain-in-the-arse drama and trauma, just yet. But it’s peeking over the back fence in fifth grade.
Sister Ruth Ann understood this, and created a classroom environment where learning – for the first time in our academic careers – took on less of a lecturing flavor and more of a participatory slant. She had us up and out of our cast-iron and wooden desks every day. She instituted class officers and activities, with yours truly winning election as vice president, the safest job (or so I thought). She even took us outside for classes, which may have been an excommunicable offense in 1971. I’d have to check Canon Law on that one.
I can remember Sister Ruth Ann helping us to plan a class party to celebrate some collective achievement, whatever it was. Knowing that a party stood at the end of whatever instructional path she had us on absolutely did the trick in getting our class – even the deadwood kids who never seemed to catch on – motivated, working together, and enjoying our school time together.
When the classmate in charge of bringing a stack of 45s to provide the music for the party really dropped the ball, showing up with “Sugar, Sugar” by the Archies – and nothing else – it didn’t matter. Sister Ruth Ann danced along with us as those three minutes of pure bubble-gum played over and over. We had a blast. She was so cool.
Late in our fifth grade year, Sister Ruth Ann’s brother passed away unexpectedly. The class voted that their vice president should represent the group at the funeral, which I was sort of terrified to do. But when it came to helping Sister Ruth Ann during a sad time, one rose to the occasion as class vice president, no questions asked.
I have no idea where Sister Ruth Ann is today. Truth be told, I couldn’t even tell you her last name. But wherever she is, I hope she’s loving life the same way she did way back when, veil swaying, eyes smiling, dancing to “Sugar, Sugar,” having a ball, and proving that nuns could be groovy, too.
Copyright 2014 Tim Hayes Consulting and Transverse Park Productions LLC