When I think of influential women in my lifetime, I immediately am struck with vivid memories of my wonderful teachers. I have many detailed ones of my elementary school years, in which my first grade teacher Sister Agnes Connors stands out. Perhaps it was because she was first full school-day teacher I had, but more likely, it was her kindness, humor, and compassion. She had a talent for relating to small children, and I never remember her scolding or admonishing her students. She handled conflicts calmly and rationally. If a child was struggling, she protected their dignity while gently nudging them in the right direction.
In the 1950’s Pope Pius XII encouraged the nuns to modernize their look and dress like those in their community. It also would solve the problem of the time it took to clean the long robes, thus making more time for prayer. After Vatican II, nuns quickly jettisoned their habits and made a big step in contemporizing and opening the Catholic Church. For me the lack of the habit made the nuns more accessible and human. When I was a little girl in the late 1960’s, a show called “The Flying Nun“ was my first introduction to the behind-the-scenes lives of nuns. In fact, Sally Field’s portrayal made me want to become a nun, until I found out you can’t actually fly because you wore a habit.
Sister Agnes was like the grandmother I never had. She wasn’t much older than my parents, but to me she seemed like she should've be my grandma. I loved going to school and I took great pride in my uniform, which consisted of a pressed cotton, polyester-blend white shirt, my hand-me-down pressed plaid skirt, clean white socks, and my hand-me-down shoes polished to the best of my ability. The sisters' dresses were simple, and I really only remember her wearing a few different ones; her blue polyester stretch dress was the most memorable perhaps because that was the dress she wore for school pictures. Her shoes were your basic black leather, laced up variety that all the nuns wore. She never was without a smile, even when serious matters were at hand.
One particular problem was the flying of shoes on the playground. Children were taking to flinging their shoes and seeing how far they could go. Our school was of simple means, and it’s name, Our Lady of Humility, was apropos. We didn’t have playground equipment and only a few sporting balls to go around. Those children that didn’t participate in the pick up games of kickball, foursquare, or basketball, were left to their own entertaining devices.
On the day sister made her indelible mark of action, I believe someone was hurt on the playground with a rougue flying shoe. I recall it was after recess and we had all quieted down and sat in our neatly arranged rows of desks. Sister clapped her hands together to gain our attention. “We have a problem on the playground”, she announced. “Some of you are kicking your shoes off and flinging them around. I’d like to demonstrate.” She hoisted her little frame of maybe five feet between the two desks. Temporarily she suspended her body, kicked her leg backward, and proceeded to move her leg with such a force I didn’t expect. Her black-laced shoe slipped off and gained speed as it hurled toward the chalkboard. The shoe had hit the board with a loud noise of “crack”. There was a nano second of silence followed by a long time of children laughing and giggling. Everyone was engaged, even the nose pickers. She really didn’t even need to do any more explanation because in that short act she explained the why we shouldn’t kick our shoes. I can tell you that no shoes were kicked after that.
What I learned from that action and problem solving technique is how effective humor can be if used correctly. Humor can be the most wonderful communication tool, because who doesn’t like a good laugh? Learning to laugh became essential to who I am today. It has provided a very good coping skill to overcome my shortcomings and move beyond anger and fear.
In the last years I have been struggling with my health. In 2012, I could no longer walk without pain. Diagnosed with developmental hip dysplasia and spinal degeneration, the next 8 years wouId be filled with doctor appointments, pain management, physical therapy, and numerous surgeries, let’s just say I have enough metal to build a robot (two hip replacements, one spinal decompression, and finally and I hope my last spinal fusion.) I had pain issues in my spine and legs as a child far as I can remember. Standing still was difficult especially for the first Friday masses. I had no problem running or jumping around it was afterward that the pain set in and to a level of distraction. Sitting still in a desk was also difficult. It was tossed off as due to my hyperactivity or growing pains. As I started to put the puzzle pieces together in 2017, so much of my childhood was explained. Actually that’s when I started really thinking, “I wonder whatever happened to Sister Agnes?”
Sister Agnes, as I explained, was very compassionate. Everyday shortly after lunch and recess I’d fall asleep on my desk. It was unavoidable. Not once did she wake me up. This tiredness carried through all my school years until college when I was allowed to arrange my schedule appropriately. Sister would ask one of the students to fetch my sister Marilynn who was in the eighth grade down the hall. Marilynn would wake me up gently and say “time to wake up Linda.” I never felt ashamed or embarrassed because it was so quietly done. I also discovered in the last 8 years this was due to dysautonmia, a malfunction of the autonomic nervous system. It can cause extreme fatigue and brain fog. I’m pretty sure I would be labeled with attention deficit disorder and placed on medicine if I were a child today.
About a year ago I saw a post on Facebook . A fellow schoolmate had found Sister Agnes at the Sisters of Holy Child Convent Senior Living center in the Philadelphia area and posted a picture of their reunion. She was now 92 years old. Everyday I kept thinking, “I really need to contact her.“ A few weeks ago I finally got around to calling her. We had played some phone tag, but finally we had a wonderful conversation condensing both our lives of the last 48 years into a 40-minute conversation. I recounted my wonderful memories of her and how much of an impact she had on me. She said she was flattered. I told her I really appreciated her sense of humor and her compassionate ways. Sister went onto explain what was most important to her, and her philosophy about life. Her focus was the fair and just treatment of others. She said, ”When I was little my mother died and I was the youngest of 5 children. When I went to school all the teachers called me little Connors. I hated being called little and I hated school. So when I became a teacher I wanted to make school the most enjoyable event for a child.“ I told her the story of the flying shoe, which she did not remember. She laughed and said that when she saw injustice she was sure to do everything in her power to stop it. She also recounted that when some days of teaching were quite trying perhaps when she was tired or not feeling well her line was “cabin in the pines, cabin in the pines, that’s where I want to be.” I also shared with her about my daily sleeping habit on my desk. Her reply was quick: “Well I knew that little children would not be sleeping on their desk unless it was for a good reason, it had to be for a good reason." She said many children were coming from homes where the parents were divorced and the children were shuttled to the father’s house for the weekend. The child may not get home until late Sunday evenings. There wouldn’t be enough rest for the child on the weekend when doing all the activites with their parent. In my case, I am pretty sure she thought 7th of nine children and mom just had her ninth child. Who wouldn’t be tired?
Sister Agnes only spent one year at our school. She realized that in the future the priests would not have the means to provide her money for her retirement. In 1972 she enrolled in Loyola’s masters program for social work and psychology in Chicago. On completing her degree a friend told her of a paying job in New York City to work with the terminally ill in a hospital setting. In her own words, “That job was very gratifying and I enjoyed it immensely”. After her work at the hospital, she went onto work with disadvantage children from broken homes. She retired to the Sisters of Holy Child home in Bryn Mawr, PA, just outside Philadelphia. While she said that she had no children, she always thinks of all her students as her own babies and says a daily prayer for all of them.
The nuns from my childhood worked quietly teaching, caring for the sick, working with the disadvantaged, the lonely, and praying daily for all those in their lives. There was no internet celebrating their good deeds. On the day we celebrated International Women’s Day I saw it fitting to briefly reflect on the wonderful teachers of my childhood, and especially to the nun who never made me feel embarrassed for my shortcomings. While I may not have learned how to fly from Sister Agnes Connors, I certainly learned the ability to soar through life’s adversities by using the skill of humor. And yes, the power of the flying black shoe.
Edited by Sarah Mai