You May Not Put Down Your Chalk!

You May Not Put Down Your Chalk!

“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 was losing the math relay for my row of students.

This scenario played out again and again throughout my parochial school years. Math, for me, was a language from another planet. No amount of study or tutoring could make me understand. One Sister, in particular, was merciless in her attempts to make me learn, and those feelings of inadequacy followed me through college and into adulthood.

Marriage and motherhood were wonderful and gratifying additions to my life in the years to come, but I still lacked the self-confidence to fully enjoy life. Seeking therapy was a huge step forward, and I eventually decided to find my former parochial school principal. She not only remembered me, but she also apologized for the torment I had endured at the hands of the Sister.

Time passed, and the notes from my old principal stopped. Worried, I phoned the retirement center to learn she was very ill and had been moved to a nursing facility for retired nuns. I continued to write to her, even though I knew she couldn’t respond. It was my gift to her.

Then one day, I received an email from a nun who had visited the same nursing home — she was interested in communicating with me because her own sister lived in that facility. Her sister’s name, mentioned at the end of the email, jumped from the computer screen into every cell of my body! It was the abusive nun from my childhood. It was three days before I was able to respond “Yes, I knew her. She was my fifth-grade teacher” was all I wrote.

Several days later, mustering the courage to ask about her sister, I learned that she had been sent back to school, earned two Ph.D. degrees, spoke five languages fluently, and taught at the college level in the U.S., Mexico, and Peru. She was a brilliant woman who simply could not teach children. These words were like balm on an open wound, and I realized something: Here were two elderly, sick women, nearing the end of their lives, and here was I, wanting so much to become a happier, healthier person. So I crocheted two afghans, collected class photos and mementos, and booked a flight to the East Coast.

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. The afghan I made for her was the perfect color for her room, and she gratefully wrapped it around herself. Embracing her as I said good-bye, I marveled at the delicate, lovely woman in my arms.

Then, standing in the hallway outside my former teacher’s room, I said a silent prayer that I would hold up. Stepping into the room, her eyes gave me the first jolt of recognition — that steely gaze nearly stopped my heart. But she had a grin from ear to ear, and her outstretched arms bade me to come to her bedside. Holding her afghan (which turned out to be the perfect color for her room as well), I approached her, sat down, and began showing her photos and mementos from school. She told me about her years of teaching college and how much she loved her students.

Suddenly, she stopped talking, and I saw there were tears streaming down her cheeks as her eyes pleaded for my forgiveness. She opened her arms to me, and I leaned forward to be enfolded in love by the woman I had feared for so long.

She told me that my class had been her first. She had 45 students, and her instructions from the Mother Superior had been to maintain complete control over every student, all day, every day, no matter what. She revealed that she had no idea how to help me with my math block, other than to scare me. She also told me that she was more afraid of me and the other students than we ever could have been of her. With this new revelation, I sank deeper into her arms, and we laughed and cried together as both of our hearts began to mend.

Both Sisters are gone now, but my miracle healing journey continues to this day. I can now smile when I think of the two Sisters, and I know they are smiling at me, too.

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