I read lately about Nuns on the Bus, a group of Catholic nuns who undertook a publicized bus tour to D.C. congressional offices, stopping at homeless shelters, soup kitchens and poverty centers to highlight the plight of the poor in America. It brought to mind the charitable instruction I received years ago from a local body of nuns at Sacred Heart School. Ours was the old Sacred Heart on 39th and H, now rebuilt across the street. The old school had, to my mind, ancient character, and was run by a Principal whose round spectacles magnified her alert and piercing eyes. When she blew her whistle everything in the schoolyard came to a stop. I can’t remember her name, only that she was called Sister Superior.
One day in the little kids’ yard populated by first and second graders, some restaurant or store donated bags of oranges and we were all presented an orange at recess. A tall girl, rumored to be a fifth grader, wandered in, darted over to a small boy and grabbed his orange. The boy began to cry. I knew him. We were in the same Arithmetic circle. I would like to have helped him but was paralyzed by the big girl who punctured the orange with her thumb and began to peel it. She put a juicy wedge in her mouth, chewed, and said, grinning maliciously at the boy, “Yummy, yummy, yummy.” This was several sins at once: first, taking something that wasn’t yours; second, taking it from someone weaker, third, gloating; fourth, talking with your mouth full. I watched, numb with fright and fascination.
Then the whistle, shrill, long,–and here she was, Sister Superior herself. She pulled her hand from her swishing volume of black robes and thrust it at the girl, palm up. The girl put the orange in the nun’s hand. “Is this how we share, Missy?” the Principal said.
“No sister,” the girl mumbled.
“Stealing from the little ones? Is this how we share at Sacred Heart?”
“Go to my office, Missy, and wait for me.”
By this time other nuns had appeared and one of them escorted the big and now slumping girl to The Office. Someone else handed the Principal a fresh, whole orange which she gave to the boy whose tears had frozen in her presence. He could hardly look at her.
Later in our first grade classroom our teacher, Sister Daniel, said this was a lesson for us. She said the big girl would never do such a thing again because Sister Superior would call her parents and talk to them about Rectitude. She said Rectitude was a big word that we would study in fourth grade vocabulary, but for now, for us, it meant simply, being good and doing good. She went on. Sister Superior would also talk to the girl’s parents about the Seventh Commandment: Thou shalt not steal. It was the way the normally soft-spoken and smiling Sister Daniel said Thou. Shalt. Not. Steal. That made me hear, for the first time, the gates of Hell clanking shut.
In the second grade we had the adored Sister Monica. She was tall, young, had a round, silver pitch-pipe to keep us on key during the happy, chirping songs we sang daily. She beamed love on us. In the back of the room along the counter our class created a paper model of our neighborhood, including the school, the convent next door to it on H St., Mercy Hospital on J, Sacred Heart Church on 39th and J, houses, lawns, Frankie’s Drugs, the rectory where the priests lived, and a multitude of small poster board, colored trees. We also had a Pleasant Street and a winding, tree-dotted Sacramento Street.
We drew our own houses. Mine had a face looking out every window and one girl said it was scary, but Sister Monica said, “Oh no, its wonderful. It’s brothers and sisters,” and thereafter everyone drew the faces of their siblings in the windows. We worked eagerly on our neighborhood, coloring in the lawns and the giant, shining sun. One afternoon a boy I admired because he had had his tonsils removed handed in his house. It was more than twice the size of our other houses and appeared to have a tower of sorts. I recall staring at it in wonder. The boy put in on the little square next to the last house. It took up three squares and left no room for my friend Judy’s house, which had yet to be completed. It dwarfed the other houses and stood higher than the trees. “Its like a castle,” the boy said proudly. My house, all our careful little houses, looked shrunken next to it. His looming assemblage of paper and paste was grand but wounding; our small dwellings with siblings looking out the windows no longer seemed consequential.
Sister Monica, smiling at the boy, removed his house. She said it didn’t fit on Pleasant Street because it was so big it would block the sun and light from the other houses. She said she would teach us a new song to help explain. She blew her pitch-pipe, sang sweetly, and before long we joined in the chorus: “The sun belongs to everyone, the best things in life are free,/The moon belongs to everyone, the best things in life are free.” After that she said the big house would fit on a hill with taller trees, just as the tallest children stood in the back row for our class picture. She set the boy to work making a hill behind Frankie’s Drugs and thus Castle High Street rose in East Sacramento. Unaware of absorbing any city planning lessons from this experience, I did learn one thing: the sun belongs to everyone, the moon belongs to everyone.
The third grade was Sister Ignatius, a very old and tense person whose thick Irish brogue was hard to understand. I guessed her to be ninety or ninety-five but since she moved fast and missed nothing I saw that she was still zippy, and decided she was maybe only eighty-six. In the third week of school Sister Ignatius caught me passing yet another note, yanked one of my pigtails, and said, “I never saw the beat of you in all me life.” I didn’t know what “the beat of you” meant but it sounded bad. Then she made me sit in the desk in the far back of the room, in excruciating isolation, in the Seat of Shame. The Seat of Shame had been previously occupied only by boys and most often by one named Dennis who made gurgling turkey noises during our prayers. I was released at the end of the day and wrote no more notes that year.
Weeks later at recess we saw something strange. A man in worn clothing shuffled down 39th street. A girl said, “There goes a hobo,” and some of us ran to the fence to get a better look. He paused, turned slowly to us. He had wet eyes, a whiskery face, and a deep, bronchial cough. One of the boys said, “Hey, hobo,” but the man didn’t answer. His blear eyes fixed on something—Sister Ignatius coming from behind us, walking fast, beads clattering. We scattered but she ignored us, reached the fence and spoke to the man. Judy was close enough to hear her tell him there would be a plate for him if he went around the block to the Convent door.
That afternoon in class Sister Ignatius gave us a talk. She said we wouldn’t see too many men like that in our neighborhood. They were “wayfarers,” she said, and if we saw them we were not to talk to them. But if we saw a wayfarer when we were grown up, we were to say to ourselves, that man is my brother, and we were not to condemn, we were to help him. She said, “And if a woman is a wayfarer, and fallen away, the same thing. She is your sister.” I didn’t know what “fallen away” meant but assumed it referred to a lady hobo, an unthinkable thing, until lately, until the third grade, until I glanced back at the now gender-neutral Seat of Shame. That weekend my mother told me that one of her friends in the Mother’s Club said that Sister Ignatius and another sister with a driver’s license drove the hobo to Mercy Hospital where he was given medicine for his cough. She also said, laughing again, that Sister Ignatius was in her fifties, not so old at all, and would be around for a long time. Dismal news, this. But on Open House night Sister Ignatius met my parents, told them I was capable in Arithmetic when I paid attention, and was good in English and Spelling. She didn’t tell them I talked in line and passed notes and was the first girl ever to occupy the Seat of Shame.
This was a long time ago. I have long since parted with the Church. Sometimes there’s a sign on the lawn at Sacred Heart: Catholics Come Home. But they don’t mean me: an unbeliever, and a pro-choice feminist. Nevertheless, I remember clearly, and warmly, those early years in school. I see the Wall Street corporatists who capsized our economy getting away with it, held to no accounting at all, and I think we need Sister Superior to swoop down on them and remind them about the Seventh Commandment. A developer put up a three-story building that robbed me of back yard privacy and view; he needs to hear from Sister Monica that the view belongs to everyone. Then there are the wayfarers, more of them these days than usual for our area. One is a woman who sleeps on the side steps of the Methodist Church on J. She doesn’t panhandle for drugs or booze, and I don’t know the history of her hard life, or from what she has “fallen away.” She doesn’t want interference, or conversation. But I will help her if I can because I understand that she is my sister.
These aren’t the best of times, even for the relatively privileged. The economy limps, horrific shooting massacres occur and both presidential candidates tremble before the gun lobby, our city halts vital services yet spends half a million dollars to “study” an arena the public has voted down—leadership seems to fail at every turn. Sometimes I feel myself slipping into that defeated, intellectually easy cynicism. But then a bunch of nuns get on a bus.
It’s risky, high-profile moral lobbying. Not everyone approves. The Vatican and several bishops rebuked them for straying from doctrinal subservience. But the nuns pressed on, advocating for the people who have few advocates, the people who sleep on the steps. This is rectitude, alive and thriving. Right on, sisters.