Sister Rita Maureen thought I was retarded.
That’s what she told my parents in her blunt, matter-of-fact way.
“Mr. and Mrs. Brown,” she said, peering at them through slanted, pink-framed eyeglasses. “It’s the end of the first quarter of school, and Cathy can’t read. I believe she could be mildly retarded.”
There was stunned silence in the first grade classroom. And then my mother was suddenly overwhelmed with tears. Dad snapped to attention. Nobody, not even a nun, was permitted to make my mother cry. And no one, not even a nun, should dare to suggest that one of his children was even remotely less than perfect.
“Sister Rita Maureen,” he said. “I think it might be the teacher who’s mildly retarded.”
It still shocks me to the end of my toes that Dad would talk to a Sister like that. Dad was as good a Catholic as they come.
But he was very angry.
I didn’t hear about this story until years later. But looking back, it explains a lot. Sister Rita Maureen never did warm up to me. How could she? Vatican II hadn’t even warmed up yet, and Dad had done the unthinkable. He had been disrespectful to a nun. According to pre-Vatican II tradition, he and all his offspring would burn in Hell.
I don’t know why I couldn’t read. That first day of first grade, I walked the half block to school with lofty ambitions and fully expected to come home reading vast volumes. But I had attended a different kindergarten across town. All the other first graders at my new Catholic school seemed to have a jump on me.
After the first week, Sister sent me with a copy of Dick and Jane to sit by the radiator with Group 3. The Loser Group. We all knew it. We were the handful of stupid kids who were relegated to the back of the room so that Sister Rita Maureen could get on with the real business of teaching. I’d leaf through Dick and Jane and stare at the big vibrant pictures. Jane and her little sister Sally fascinated me. They wore different color coordinated outfits every day. Dresses, hair ribbons, socks – they all matched. I longed to know them. They looked like such happy girls.
After that fateful parent teacher conference, Sister Rita Maureen ignored me completely. But it didn’t matter. Mom had decided to take matters into her own hands. One afternoon, I came home after school to see flash cards lined up across the back of the couch in the t.v. room.
“Today,” Mom announced, “you’re learning to read.”
We started with consonants. Then she taught me the sounds of all the vowels. I remember the first word I ever read. Cat. So much like my own name! I stared in wonder at Mom. She smiled her beautiful smile and said, “See? That’s all there is to it.”
After that, I sounded out every single word I could find – on street signs, cereal boxes and toothpaste tubes. Then one magical day, Mom walked me over to the library at Montview and Clermont, and I walked out with five books and a library card of my own. Nothing before or since has ever given me such satisfaction. Learning to read simply changed my whole world.
In Sister Rita Maureen’s classroom, I was still sitting by the radiator. But by now, I had become intimately acquainted with Dick, Jane, Sally, Spot, Puff, and the whole cast of characters. On my own, I read the stories of their lives. I was too absorbed to be unhappy.
One day, however, Sister called Group 3 to the front. This was a surprise. Our little group roused itself and trooped to the front of the room.
“Open your books,” Sister Rita Maureen ordered us. “Read, Cathy.” She fixed me with her steely pale blue eyes.
So I read. Sister forgot to tell me to stop. I read three pages before I finally took a breath and looked up. Every kid in the room was staring at me in astonishment. It hit me in that instant – I was the best reader in the class.
I smiled up at Sister Rita Maureen. She was astounded. Suddenly, she snapped her mouth shut.
“Well,” she cleared her throat. “Aren’t you something,” she said primly.
That was all.
I have been a teacher myself for more than 30 years now. But it was a long time before I really understood why I even wanted to teach.
It was because of first grade.
In the first grade, I learned the greatest lesson of my life, and throughout my 30 years of teaching, it has continued to shape my belief system about education. I believe the most important thing a teacher can do for her students is to make them feel safe. When they feel safe, they experience success. And when they feel successful, they begin to learn. This I believe.
I’m grateful for my first grade teacher, Sister Rita Maureen. She taught me that a teacher’s smallest touch, word or look can change the entire way a child thinks of herself.
My mother taught me the very same thing.
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