Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Sister Francis Xavier

I just started reading the fifth (and last) book in Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson and the Olympians series.  It's called The Last Olympian and Riordan dedicated it as follows:

To Mrs. Pabst, my eighth grade English teacher, who started me on my journey as a writer

A couple of things struck me about that dedication.  First, that no matter how old you are the taboo against using a teacher's first name is hard to ignore.  I was at a meeting the other night and my 11th grade English teacher was part of the committee.  I usually end up calling her nothing because I can't bring myself to use her first name.  But, second, I thought this was a wonderful dedication and I hoped that Mrs. Pabst was still alive to appreciate it.

It made me think about my eighth grade English teacher, Sr. Francis Xavier, who is no longer alive.  She was a nun, a School Sister of Notre Dame, and she took no prisoners.  She wore a full habit even when the other nuns were moving to the short habits with the half veil.  During mass (which we went to every day) she would stalk up and down the aisles monitoring everyone (not just her class) and if she didn't feel we were singing the hymns loud enough she would hiss "ssssssing!" at us. 

She was also one of the best teachers I've had in my life. 

I had Sister for English from sixth through eighth grade.  Twice a week she would write the beginning of a sentence on the board and our homework assignment was to go home and write "a paragraph" using that as the opening.  For instance, she might write "Today, while I was brushing my teeth ..." and we would have to write something beginning with that phrase.

It wasn't really a paragraph, it was both sides of a sheet of paper (the special "control" paper that was assigned to sixth through eighth graders).  But she always referred to it as "a paragraph".  I think she was trying to make it seem as if it was not that big of a deal to write something.  You didn't have to write a whole story, just a paragraph.

The next day, before we turned in our work, she would look at her class roll and call out a name.  The lucky student would trudge to the front of the classroom, stand behind the podium and read his or her paragraph to the class.  Sister would say thank you and check his or her name off the list.  We would spend the entire class period listening to the work of our peers.  If you weren't called on during that class period you would be called on the next time.  Or the next.  We had forty-two kids in our classroom so you could never tell when you might be up again.   (Yes, forty-two).  And sometimes she'd cheat and call someone early, just to keep us on our toes.

We never earned anything other than a checkmark for our work, but the mere fact that we knew we could be called on to read our work out loud made everyone work hard to be somewhat entertaining.  You could tell if your classmates were impressed.  They nodded or laughed or occasionally gasped.   Usually Sister would just say thank you, but occasionally she would ask a question if the student had written about something factual or, if the student had written about something personal, she might express some appropriate emotion.  But mostly she just listened along with the rest of us.  If, however, the student used improper grammar (which of course happened often) she would stop him or her in mid-sentence and what followed was the equal of the Inquisition.  She didn't rest until everyone understood what was wrong with the sentence and how it was to be corrected.  But she did it all through questions and answers - law professors using the Socratic method could have learned a thing or two from Sister's technique. 

Reading paragraphs was two days out of our week.  Two other days were spent diagramming sentences.  She would write a sentence on the board, we would diagram it ourselves on our papers and then she would look at her class roll and call someone to the board to diagram it on the board.  if the student got lost she would look at the class and we would raise our hands to help out. 

Today, over at So Many Books, Stephanie comments upon an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that a professor at Trinity College is teaching a class on diagramming sentences because the students asked for it. 

They start off with easy sentences and build up to complex ones, their final assignment for the class asks them to diagram 120 lines of their favorite poem. The class also thrives on a little competition. At the end the 30 students are broken up into two teams. Each team has a week or two to write a sentence for the other team. Then on competition day the sentences are exchanged, the stop watch starts ticking and they have something like 40 minutes to diagram the sentence. The teams work at the same time each on their own blackboard. Each team starts off with 100 points and get deductions for errors. The team with the most points after deductions wins.

That sounds like something Sr. Francis Xavier would have liked.  She was a hard taskmaster and the class lived in fear of her but we learned from her.  Oh, did we learn.  The character that Meryl Streep played in the movie Doubt reminded me of her.  But, unlike that character, she was never the principal and I don't think she actually wanted to be the principal.  And it truly would have been a shame to remove her from the classroom.

I don't remember what we did on our fifth day in class.  I don't think there was a set regime, I think she mixed things up a little on those days.  I remember sometimes she would have us read things written by professionals and pull them apart.  Not for meaning but for grammar and structure.  (We had a different teacher, Mrs. Kearns, who taught "Reading" which was really the English literature class.)

Sr. Francis Xavier is long dead.  She taught me at the end of the baby boom when class sizes were enormous and when nuns were expected to "serve" without pay, just a convent to live in and food to eat.  Unlike the priests in the rectory, they cleaned their own homes and did their own grocery shopping and laundry.  And they did that after a long day teaching in classrooms crammed full of elementary school children .  Some of them were not very good teachers.  Some of them were not happy people.  Some of them were, frankly, downright mean.  But others, like Sr. Francis Xavier, were great teachers who were not appreciated nearly enough.  

I don't know if any of her students ever became a professional writer and dedicated anything to her.  But she certainly deserves such a dedication.