She stood about five feet tall wearing black nun shoes with a one inch heel, but Sister Mary Bernadette was a giant to the first graders at St. Paul’s Cathedral elementary school on High Street in Worcester in the 1960’s.
Although there was no separation between special needs kids and all others, at St. Paul's, all children were treated specially. Perhaps one could argue that, in those days, at least at that school, every child had an I.E.P. written in the intuition of the natural teachers that the Sisters of Mercy were.
Their brand of discipline was always rooted in love, which is perhaps the single difference between secular and religious discipline; the underlying perennial awareness of a divine loving authority.
Though unfortunately many adults now have horrifying memories of their times with nuns, not a single sister at St. Paul's had any anger issues or psychosis's that came off as abusive to their students. Rather, they were dignified, intelligent and compassionate women, but certainly firm when it came to creating order and structure in the classroom.
Cleanliness mattered to the nuns. It was part of an overall attitude of respect and prudence. Nothing was wasted. Long before recycling was in vogue, the sisters understood frugality. Every corner of every inch of paper was used before it was considered dispensable.
Sister Mary Bernadette was the quintessential nun. Daily she prayed the rosary while on school yard duty, pacing back and forth, up and down the slight hill behind the school on Chatham Street where the Cathedral parking lot is today. The penguin jokes just may have originated with her, as she was so small, completely covered in black save the white in her veil, and she waddled a bit.
But the children in the school yard loved her even though she paid little attention to them as she prayed and walked in a zen-like rhythm. She would occasionally stop to call a child over to pick up a piece of paper from the ground. And that could be the size of a finger-tip, but to Sister Mary Bernadette, small things mattered.
From the early 1950’s through around 1968 this little nun was the first impression that children would get of the experience of school and learning. And for so many, that first impression was delivered via the calligraphic letters that graced the top border of the chalkboard in the back of Sr. Mary Bernadette's classroom.
In colored chalk with letter illumination that would make the monks of the Middle Ages envious, these words were never erased:
“Little Children Love One Another”
This was the foundational rule of her classroom, and hence one that carried throughout the school till the eight grade.
Schools would do well to take this simple message into their classrooms today.
Ideas or comments? Contact Patricia at firstname.lastname@example.org