“The Nuns” (and Report Cards in General)

Ages 9 and7 in the years we had the nuns
Ages 9 and7 in the years we had the nuns

After making up all those snow days, we finally came to the school year’s end around here  last week and the final quarter ended fully and for good.

Back when I was a child, the end of any marking period was a tough time, both for my big sister Nan and for me, and why? Because we had “The Nuns” and The Nuns could be very exacting. 

Ours were anyway, and they sure didn’t sugarcoat things on the report cards. 

For example, in the ‘character development’ categories at the bottom of the card, there was a box labeled “Accepts Correction,” in which I received a steady stream of NI’s, for “Needs Improvement.” 

There was another labeled “Use of God-Given Abilities” where Nan racked up her own share of NI’s. Nan was always as smart as a whip and it must have galled her teacher-nuns to see her doodling dreamily in the margins of her worksheets, up in that top right-hand corner where we were supposed to write ‘JMJ,” for Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

I am so happy to see that nowadays young schoolchildren’s report cards seem so humane. Take this one, sent home with my little grandson David in the very first year of his own formal schooling. It has these wonderful categories, like “can describe the effect of wind on people and the environment” – love it! – and “can define balance and demonstrate how it is achieved.” 

And the behavioral evaluations seem so encouraging. For example his teacher writes “David takes pride in his work and follows our routines with ease.” Excellent! Also , “We see a thoughtful and compassionate side of David when he helps his classmates and teachers. He shows genuine concern for the well-being of others.” Great!

And then there’s this part that COULD be interpreted as the bad news, but somehow doesn’t SEEM all that bad, the kindly way this teacher puts it:  

“We also see a side of David that is physical. He can be full of energy and antics. He loves to play tricks and he can be pretty sly. When reminded about our rules, he works hard to maintain self-control,” she goes on.

“This is not easy for him.”

“Growth is noted.”

I find that wording just so wonderfully… careful. Does “can be pretty sly” mean he is snacking on stolen fingerfuls of paste during Art Class? Does “works hard to maintain self-control” suggest that sometimes he loses it?

I love best that she writes that “growth is noted,” for don’t we all struggle to grow thus, ascending from our many lower selves to a higher self, whether we’re six or 96?

At close of this first day of sure-enough summer, on this brink of the fair season’s biggest long weekend I say God bless all teachers for believing that this growth is possible. And God bless too the young woman I knew as Sister Catherine Alice, who once told us wide-eyed Second Graders about how, of a snowy winter evening on the hilly convent campus, she and her fellow nuns would sometimes bind up their skirts and veils and go sledding.

Notre Dame Academy Roxbury MA
Notre Dame Academy Roxbury MA


mpm's 1st day of schoolIn two hours the school bus will pull up 100 feet from my door and the youngest kids in the neighborhood will climb on board with their new shoes and their little backpacks. I remember so clearly the day our youngest here did that.

Below is a poem evoking a school-related custom from when we ourselves were children. 

I too had nuns for teachers. I too found myself punished for what seemed to me unpreventable bursts of whispering, day after day.

Once, when I was eight, the nun made me go stand in the back of the First Grade classroom since I was ‘such a baby,’ she said. And once, nay, twice, nay, more than twice, I was sent outside there on the grounds of that convent school in Roxbury MA, to clap the erasers.

Mary Jo Salter takes us back here to those memories or freedom and freedom’s opposite in this lovely poem,  “Erasers.”

As punishment, my father said, the nuns
       would send him and the others
out to the schoolyard with the day’s erasers.

Punishment? The pounding symphony
       of padded cymbals clapped
together at arm’s length overhead

(a snow of vanished alphabets and numbers
       powdering their noses
until they sneezed and laughed out loud at last)

was more than remedy, it was reward
       for all the hours they’d sat
without a word (except for passing notes)

and straight (or near enough) in front of starched
       black-and-white Sister Martha,
like a conductor raising high her chalk

baton, the only one who got to talk.
       Whatever did she teach them?
And what became of all those other boys,

poor sinners, who had made a joyful noise?
       My father likes to think,
at seventy-five, not of the white-on-black

chalkboard from whose crumbled negative
       those days were never printed,
but of word-clouds where unrecorded voices

gladly forgot themselves. And that he still
       can say so, though all the lessons,
most of the names, and (he doesn’t spell

this out) it must be half the boys themselves,
       who grew up and dispersed
as soldiers, husbands, fathers, now are dust.