Thursday, March 25, 2010

Nuns and Cringe

Yes, young pious Tracy. 1979.

I cringe when I see a nun. It's not really unique. There are legions of Catholic school children, now adults, who likely cringe when they encounter these costumed women. My husband, who attended Catholic school for twelve years, shudders and exclaims when we pass the religious channel on television that features a heavyset nun named Mother Angelica. Marty's oldest childhood friend and classmate, Rob, claims he was worked over by a burly, bearded nun in a supply closet when he was in the fifth or sixth grade. I'm certain he cringes at the site of a black and white frock and habit.

I was spared a Catholic school education, mainly because of my mother's own post-traumatic stress. Mom has annals of personal nun abuse stories from Brooklyn. There was the cruel nun that made her sit outside on her birthday while the class ate the birthday treats. That meanie threw out her birthday corsage, too. This was punishment for toppling over a window plant. There was the high school nun, Sister Mary Magdalene, who used to mutter, "I'm going to rip your leg off and beat you with the bloody end." My mother can tend to embellish when she tells a story, but I still think it would be hard to make that up. There was the the Catholic summer camp nun in the Catskills who forced my tiny mother to dive into the murky lake repeatedly, stunting her swimming ability. And the ultimate stunt involves my mother's mature height. Mom heard of a study that correlates childhood anxiety in girls to stunted growth. My mother stands four foot eleven. She blames the nuns. So, even though I didn't climb elementary school stairs in a plaid jumper, I heard these stories enough to be fearful of the penguin ladies.

But I did have my own frightening penguin. Her name was Sister Kevin. Sister Kevin is the reason I cringe when I spot a nun, however infrequently that is these days. Interestingly, Sister Kevin has something to do with my fear of writing this blog, and even the fear of actually obtaining success if my memoir gets published. You see, Sister Kevin called me a show-off. She called me out.

She and her sidekick, Sister Raphael, ran the CCD program in town. My mother's post-traumatic stress did not free her of Catholic guilt. We had to make the sacraments; it's just the way it goes. A public school kid spends one afternoon hour each week for eight years in empty Catholic school buildings for religious training. It equates to about a two or three week prison sentence stretched out. I recall the moment of agony that would overcome me when I realized, riding on the bus home from school, that it was CCD day. I don't remember any of the curriculum, but my take-away from the religious training is that BOREDOM SUCKS. It's painful, stagnating, dreary. Boredom can crush a soul.

Back to Sister Kevin. She probably would have made a terrific actress. She may have been so bored herself at 4:00p.m. on Tuesdays at St. Mary's that she concentrated on perfecting the role of stern, vicious, jailer-nun. She waited to pounce like a sinister cat. She loved the disorder of overtired children because it gave her infinite method acting practice. She waited hungrily for late arrivees. She reveled in catching a student with a wad of chewing gum in his mouth.

It was an arduous Tuesday afternoon in sixth grade CCD. The teacher left to take a phone call in the office. Sister Kevin had called up through the intercom and told Mrs. Heinz about the call. We had been taking turns, row by row, reading paragraphs aloud from study bibles. The room was still for a moment. To be left alone was highly unusual. Whispers turned to giggles turned to laughter. I jumped up and took position at the front of the class. Now it was my turn to practice some acting. I started to mimic Sister Kevin. I liked to do impressions and voices. She was easy to do.

I saw Patrick Meehan's face before I saw her. I watched as his look of amusement morphed into terror. She was right outside the door. When I turned to look, her face registered...delight. She swooped in and grabbed me by the shoulder. She pressed her arm against my scared shoulders and ordered me down the stairwell into the school gymnasium.

It echoes in a gymnasium. She practically spat the words at me.

"You're nothing but a little show-off."

Ahhh...I'm cringing now.

I wonder if blogs like this are just a big show-off.


  1. Nuns can be scary!

  2. Oh, Tracy! She was an actress. Unbeknown and only occasionally to us, she was a very funny lady who felt she had a role to play.
    But the mean...that was mean. So sorry on behalf of all CCD moms/teachers who couldn't make the sisters behave.