I learned today that Sister Charles Marie, my 8th grade teacher at St. Patrick’s elementary school, passed away. We used to call her Sister Chuck, not out of disrespect, but because nicknames are a Butte America tradition, like Curly or PeeWee. We never said it to her face, but she seemed to know and didn’t mind.
I’m working on a book I call The Butte Girls Club, where Sister Charles Marie figures prominently. In the process of writing, I wanted to find her, to ask her permission to write about her and if she’d be interested in reading it when finished.
I found her in 2015 and was ecstatic to find she was still living. I emailed her and she said yes, she was honored I would write about her and she couldn’t wait to read my book! She asked what else have I been up to? As you can imagine, that opened up the vault…
I copied my email response to her verbatim. (I added the clip art for the blog)
Dear Sister Charles Marie,
I can’t believe I was able to contact you! Thank you so much for emailing me.
Rarely do we get the chance to tell people what a difference they’ve made in our lives. I’ve always wanted to thank you, but didn’t know where you were. Now that I’ve found you, I’ll say this as best I can.
How do you sum up a life to someone you haven’t talked to since the 8th grade?
Long story short, I left Butte after high school and managed somehow to graduate from the University of Montana after a lengthy stint as a professional student. I married, won a free trip to Alaska and have been here ever since. I retired from my day job and resolved to be a writer (a real one).
Last year I returned to Butte to scatter my Mom’s ashes. I visited St. Pat’s rectory to see my records of baptism, first communion, and confirmation. My name was listed as Mary Lois Irene…I had no idea my first name was Mary. Well that solves the mystery of why all the nuns and priests called me Mary all those years. Chris Carney Hardesty (I know you remember her!) told me it’s because the year we were born in 1954 was proclaimed “The Marian Year” by the pope in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary, so we all magically became Marys.
I sat in a rectory office chair, looking out the window. Framed in the window was the big orange apartment house I’d lived in across from St. Pat’s school and convent on Galena Street. My life from kindergarten to 8th grade flashed and your face flashed with it—I saw your face as I’d remembered you: young, beautiful, your toothy smile and your enthusiasm for teaching.
I knew at that moment that I was definitely on the right track to be a writer, just as you told me I would be one day. I resolved to find you and thank you for this.
And so I’ve been led back to you.
I was a slow learner and became disinterested in school after my Dad died, sometime in second grade. I had anxiety and panic attacks, and was told I lacked the ability to pay attention and learn. It wasn’t until you arrived four years later that my life changed.
You encouraged and supported me. You must have seen something in me that I was unable to see. You encouraged me to go to the library and read. And read. And read. You taught me to write essays and put my thoughts and feelings on paper. You were patient with me. My anxiety lessened. My panic attacks subsided.
You put me in the advanced reading group in 8th grade with Marcia Holland, Maureen Kane, and Becky Harrington, the smart kids. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I inched my way up from the slow reading group. You had us study Readers Digest stories and write about them. I barely made it into that group, but you gave me a chance. You gave me the incentive to push myself to be a better reader and writer.
I remember how excited you were, teaching us the meaning of Simon and Garfunkel’s Sounds of Silence. You taught us how to analyze and summarize what we read and extract the meaning from it. You did it through pop culture to get through to us. Each time I hear the Sounds of Silence I think of you.
You were also the prettiest nun any of us had ever seen. I think Gary Paul had a secret crush on you (but don’t tell him I said that).
As I recall, a few of us made some bad choices (as they say today). Sneaking into the convent for candy and ice cream…bonking cars with snowballs at recess…and you really got ticked at me and John Foley for cleaning the fish aquarium with Ajax (detention anyone?) Candice Burns, Debbie Appelman, and I did a lot of after-school time together cleaning chalkboards. I’m sorry to have to tell you Candice is no longer with us. I miss her so much. Debbie is doing great and we’ve stayed friends all these years.
Do you remember the Sunday afternoon when you called us girls to the convent to explain the birds and bees? You were concerned we were getting our sex-ed info from undesirable sources (like perusing our parents’ nudie magazines). Having a nun give us the Sex Talk traumatized us as thirteen-year-olds, yet you were cool and calm about the whole thing. You answered Tanya Weightman’s question, “Can a girl have intercourse during her period?” causing the rest of us to “have a bird and die on the spot” as we referred to utter embarrassment back in ’68. Afterwards, we yelled at Tanya: “How could you ask a NUN that question, are you INSANE?”
What I realize now is the faith you had in us to do good things. You saw the good in each of us, when not a lot of people did. When we screwed up, you punished us, but didn’t humiliate us. You taught us that making bad choices would have negative consequences, but making good choices would open up the world.
Sister, if it weren’t for you, I most definitely would have had a harder time with education and life in general. You lit a spark in me when I was young that stayed lit, even though I didn’t seriously pursue writing until I retired. Sure, I had other teachers…high school, college, graduate school—but once you’ve had the best, the rest never measure up.
With you, I was able to break free of my old barriers and develop some abilities. You were dynamic in your teaching, and you had passion for it; not just with reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic, but about life!
Sister, I mean this with all sincerity and appreciation: Thank you for what you did for me all those many years ago. Thank you for helping me believe in myself. Because of you, I wanted to make something of myself and be a good person. I think for the most part I’ve done that (I may have to do some light purgatory time for a few indiscretions).
Lois Paige Simenson
© Lois Paige Simenson and The Alaska Philosophaster, 2016, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to The Alaska Philosophaster with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. LIPS