School Days. Early 70’s - While attending Catholic School in Yonkers New York, I had the privilege of meeting the “hippest” nun, Sister John Agnes.
The first time she pranced around the schoolyard “out of her habit”- my wide eyes and gaping mouth told the story. I was shocked. My classmates imitative my expressions.
Seeing our inquisitive looks, she explained the meaning of “lay sister/teacher” – A nun/sister’s permission to teach with or without wearing the habit. In addition to being an educator, she was a marathon runner, a dog lover, a dancer and singer. (Sidebar: At this point, I imagine you reading this with the movie Sister Act flashing across your mind. *smiling*)
She was a tough act to follow. She set the pattern - molding and shaping us for the real world. This also exposed us to the finer things in life, which built my appreciation for music and the arts.
Our classroom filled with onlookers - content third and fourth graders (yes combined) aware of the usual morning routine: Prayer, reviewing homework and a song or two after the first lesson.
One morning, with her head raised toward the paint chipped ceiling, she stood by her desk motionless. Silence filled the room. Her eyes remained closed. We waited in eager expectation of the day’s events.
Suddenly, like overgrown grass blowing in an unattended field, both arms began to sway back and forth - to a beat that only she could hear. Her head dropped. She turned her head slightly. Her eyes opened slowly as she sashayed across the classroom floor. Her habit fishtailed behind her. She stopped in front of my classmate’s desk. Stood motionless looking down. Circled the floor with her foot. Holding the wooden ruler – her microphone to her mouth, she belted out the tune “Sentimental Journey,” as if she were auditioning for a Broadway Play.
Slowly the ruler slid down by her side. She scanned the room and smiled. I felt like an appreciative patron sitting in the orchestra section. I wanted to spring on my feet, applaud, and give a standing ovation. However, I refused. Couldn’t risk embarrassing myself. I folded my hands together - hoping to contain my exuberance, smiled, and watched the response of my peers.
The opened gaits, squinted eyes, and hunched shoulders of my peers told the story. We never heard it before. “That's Ella boys and girls," she said shaking her head. She went on to give us a history lesson about Ella Fitzgerald’s music, describing her craft and beauty as if she knew her personally. (Ella Fitzgerald was not the original composer of that song.)
I loved Sister John Agnes. She was special and different. She cared. Strict and structured as nuns were back in those days, but unafraid to show us her “wild side.” A girl after my own heart!
During a time when the Yonkers schools were segregated, “we” were the majority - the Black (African American) students in the class. We had less than five (5) White (Caucasian), Hispanic and Latino) students combined. This was the ratio throughout middle school. She taught us, “be proud of who you are.” This was not the place for prejudice. We learned the true meaning of “culture” - Her class, our little “Holy Rosary family.”
Tuesday, 9 a.m. - Chorus - my first year in Catholic High School - Brother Joe – Chorus teacher, prepared our voices for singing. The group of twenty-five adolescence yawned, sneered, and wiped our eyes to focus on this required course. As if we had better things to do. We sneered behind Brother Joe’s back, while warming our voices to the tune of “A-a-a-a-a-aahhh” repetitively. As an Alto, my voice was deep and sexy (Let the record show, it still is). I stood between the Altos and Tenors.
Finally, he finished his morning coffee. Smacking his lips, Brother Joe, placed the coffee mug on the desk. Pinching the makeshift baton, he waved it back and forth. His silent corduroys fell comfortably over the worn Hush Puppies. He tapped his foot up and down to his own rhythm.
Letting out an emphatic sigh, I stood in my spot waiting for this slender man to begin the morning chorus. He motioned to his assistant to play the first few bars on the piano. It gave me goosebumps. My mouth dropped open. I looked from left to right. My classmates could care less. “I know this song,” I said to myself reminiscing. “That’s Ms. Ella ~ Sentimental Journey.”
I cracked my neck, tilting my head from left to right. My heart beat faster. As my arms dangling at my side, my fingers began dance on their own. I wanted to close my eyes and go there - to that place Sister John Agnes went right before her performance.
I perked up, standing proud, and ready to sing. I took a deep breath. “This is going to be good,” I said smiling to myself. Ready to do that song justice, I returned from my high. An overwhelming feeling embraced me. Fond thoughts of that “hip nun” came to mind. I wondered what ever happened to that wonderful teacher who inspired me.
Here's my Sentimental Journey. What's yours? Please share!