When I wrote my memoir in 2004, one third of the book was devoted to my student days at Lumen Cordium High School. It was a beautiful place and it transformed me from a disconnected and indifferent student to an active and engaged young women with a passion for learning. There was only one blot on the otherwise perfect four years that I spent there.
Her name was Sister Patty Ann.
She taught Biology and was the subject of many tearful entries in my Sophomore year journal. Like all nuns, she looked ancient but was probably not much older than I am now. She was irritable and impatient and did things that, to a sixteen-year-old girl, seemed petty and vindictive, like making us outline entire chapters from our biology textbook, and then taking points off for a missing period behind an enumerator. She was the only person who ever called me Terry — a nickname I despised — and I was too afraid of being yelled at to correct her.
Like most teenagers, I was the center of my world and thus believed that I was the center of everyone else’s, too. I was convinced that Sister Patty Ann hated me. I dreaded Biology class and spent every moment in that room filled with anxiety that Sister Patty Ann would call on me and then yell at me for being wrong.
It all came to a head in the Spring of 1981, when I had to meet with her during a free period to make up a lab I’d missed when I was out sick. I had to prepare a slide to look at something under the microscope. Sister Patty Ann spent the whole time hovering over my shoulder, micromanaging my every move, and loudly sucking her breath through her teeth any time I touched the slide.
It was too much for a sixteen-year-old girl to bear.
I turned around and shrieked, “Would you just back off already??? You’re making me so nervous, I can’t concentrate!”
Sister Patty Ann was startled. “I’m not doing anything,” she said in a surprisingly reasonable voice.
“Yes, you are! And I’m sick of it!”
Now Sister Patty Ann looked bewildered. “What are you talking about, Terry?”
“I try SO HARD but NOTHING I do is ever good enough for you!” I started bawling my head off. “AND STOP CALLING ME TERRY!”
Sister Patty Ann waited quietly for a moment. “I’m sorry, Terry,” she said. “I didn’t realize you were such a sensitive girl.” Then she told me to go splash water on my face so we could finish the lab.
After that she was nice to me. One day she was waiting outside the classroom. As I entered, she threw out her arms and gave me a bear hug. My teenage brain nearly exploded as I realized that The Dragon Lady actually had a heart.
As the school year was ending, Sister Patty Ann told us a story about the early days when my high school was founded. All the nuns at the convent got to choose which subjects they would teach. Sister Patty Ann loved history and wanted to teach it, but a nun with more seniority got it instead. No one wanted to teach biology, so that job fell to the nun with the least seniority, one Sister Patricia Ann.
I left class that day feeling incredibly sad for her. She’d wasted twenty years of her life doing something she hated. I felt sad that I hadn’t known about it sooner, because maybe I’d have tried to be more understanding.
If nothing else, maybe I would have hugged her back.