Over Easy: Nun the wiser in pandemic times

  • Dan Mackie (Courtesy photograph)

For the Valley News
Published: 8/13/2021 9:34:23 PM
Modified: 8/13/2021 9:34:34 PM

For some reason, the troubled state of America has me thinking of the nuns who lorded over us more than half a century ago in my otherwise pleasant neighborhood in Edgewood, R.I.

I can’t know how the nuns of my youth would have felt about COVID-19 restrictions, but I imagine they would have tolerated them since they were OK with the Spanish Inquisition; Papal Bulls; and, I suspect, any reign of terror directed at anti-Catholics or feckless schoolboys. Among the latter: me.

Before we make a pilgrimage down memory lane, I want to make it clear that I am not slandering all nuns. My mother had a childhood friend, Sister Betty, who was as sweet as sweet could be. My own sisters went to a high school run by the Sisters of Mercy, who were and are great advocates for women’s education.

But my nuns were cut from a different cloth. As I recall it, the emphasis was not on “Jesus loves you,’’ but on 10,001 ways children could blunder into sin and eternal damnation, i.e., Hell. It was troubling, because although I was a pretty good kid, I was by no means perfect. I could not sit silently at my desk for hours without jabbing my friend with a ruler. The girls seemingly could do that. Unlike them, I was on the road to perdition.

The years of parochial purgatory began innocently enough. My first-grade class of about 50 was crammed into a room with blackboards and huge windows that would later seem a liability when we huddled under desks for A-bomb drills.

That first teacher was a kindly soul. She probably talked to us about angels, “The Little Flower” St. Therese and doing good deeds.

After that, it was tough love all the way. Unlike children of today, I was never called awesome. (I’m not, generally. At any given moment you could take a look at me and not be filled with awe.) The big push in math was in filling out worksheets. The schoolyard was tarred over and there was no physical education to speak of. Our textbooks were kind of old; history petered out after World War I.

Still, I had minor triumphs. One morning my teacher said horses were the smartest animals. I rarely asked questions or volunteered answers, but I raised my hand and said chimpanzees were more intelligent. She later grudgingly admitted I was right. She still eyed me with suspicion, as authorities had done centuries earlier with that smart aleck Galileo, put on trial for claiming the Earth revolved around the sun. I was merely put on her watch list.

The hours were not entirely miserable, though I recall almost no authorized joy. With a student-teacher ratio of more than 40 to 1, hijinks happened. Then you took your punishment. I recall holding a hand out several times to be cracked with a ruler or pointer.

A couple of times I faced false accusations, like when a nun with poor vision accused me and Wayne Wallace of elbowing each other up in the auditorium balcony. We were sent to the principal, who said that even if we were blameless, we had gotten away with other misdeeds other times. (True!) We served our detention. Parents and lawyers were not called.

There was much lacking in my grade-school education, but some good lessons seeped into our hearts. We learned that saints had done inspiring things, even if grisly deaths awaited. I didn’t grow up thinking that I was the center of the universe. There was much talk of feeding the poor and tending the sick. Charity was ceaselessly promoted. We would serve our country, not vice-versa.

It seems terribly dated. Today, 87% of Americans are full of themselves: quick to judge, quick to defy, quick to troll.

The evidence is online everywhere.

We’re becoming a “you can’t make me” society, a phrase once used by 7-year-olds to taunt other kids across the street or otherwise not within rock-throwing distance. You (the government, big tech, big business) can’t make me (wear a mask, get vaccinated, leave my AR-15 at home).

I just read in Thursday’s Valley News Forum that protesters gathered at DHMC recently to yell at hospital workers to oppose masks and vaccines. They yelled at the people who have put themselves in harm’s way to care for the seriously ill? As was said in my youth, sometimes in piety and sometimes in unholy exasperation, Jesus, Mary and Joseph!

I’d like to imagine the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, armed with the stinging pointers of righteousness, ordering the protesters to stand down — and the demonstrators feeling rightful shame.

I didn’t deserve the nun’s wrath, but I could see a use for it now.

Dan Mackie lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached at dan.mackie@yahoo.com.

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