The Nun from the Marines

April 01, 1995|By PATRICK ERCOLANO

Maybe it was a blessing in disguise. My eighth-grade grammar teacher at St. Mary's parochial school in Govans, Sister Mary Annina, died of a heart ailment three weeks ago at the age of 84 -- a few days before a wave of media reports about a local Catholic high school that had been screening a porn-laced video for the tutelage of its students.

Better that Sister Annina never heard the stories. If her heart hadn't already done her in, the news of a blue movie at a school run by nuns probably would have killed her.

Sister Annina (pronounced uh-NEE-nuh) was a classroom nun, after all, who chastised girls for allowing the slightest bit of knee to peek from under their pleated plaid skirts. Who sent packs of boys to the principal's office when their hair got within shouting distance of their collars. My main memories of her are from the early 1970s, a tough time to be waging a battle on behalf of standards from a dead era. However, she was more than up to the fight.

The stone of her burial plot in Glen Arm ought to read, ''Here lies one tough nun.'' The Marines would have been proud to have her, even at five-foot-nothing. One student nicknamed her ''Boots,'' as in Army boots. She was always on the move, always scowling beneath her habit, always quick with a harsh word to correct some lazy dogface of a student.

Her reputation at St. Mary's was such that kids in the lower grades wore out their rosaries praying for her to retire before she could have at them. I remember coolly assuring my buddies in the second grade that she couldn't possibly be around by the time we reached the eighth grade. She was around, all right -- just as she had been for my two older brothers and was later for my younger brother and then for the students in the decade after him. (Her 51-year teaching career ended in 1984.)

In the classroom, intimidation was her co-pilot. We paid attention, and we learned. We parsed sentences quicker and better than Mr. Goodwrench could take apart an engine. Then we labored at building our sentences into paragraphs as mean and lean as our teacher. We memorized our vocabulary cards until we ran through the entire set of 1,000, from ''permeate'' to ''roseate.'' We mastered the trickiest cases of noun-verb agreement.

At that age, I fancied myself a budding writer. It was Sister Annina's drilling, though, that worked my flabby notions of the craft into a more muscular concept on which I thought I could base an avocation -- possibly a vocation as well.

St. Mary's grads, not coincidentally, often got placed at the top of their high school English classes. An English teacher at my high school used to say, ''I can always tell the kids who went to St. Mary's.'' The credit was Sister Annina's.

Not that we were willing to give her credit. Frankly, for many of us at that time, the flip side of our fear of her was a strong dislike. I doubt a situation like that would be tolerated now. These days, a teacher's complaint about a student tends to be met with a vehement defense by his parents. The Annina Method would be impossible in an era when student self-esteem is paramount.

That's probably a good thing. Maybe Sister Annina didn't do wonders for our self-esteem. Then again, my self-esteem in subsequent years -- as I composed school papers and later began writing for a living -- would have been at least a little worse if not for her teaching.

After St. Mary's, I didn't see her again until 18 years later, when I was writing a story about her for The Evening Sun. I'd heard she was planning to sell her beloved collection of 700 dolls (yes, ''Boots'' collected dolls), so I arranged an interview with her at the St. Mary's convent.

She was cordial enough but hardly the spitfire I recalled. She seemed sad to be so old and to be selling the dolls she had collected over 60 years. They included one donated by Princess Grace of Monaco and others shipped to her by former students during their military tours of duty in Europe, Korea and Vietnam.

Near the interview's end, I asked the sister about her old reputation as a martinet-in-a-wimple. ''People thought I was brusque as a teacher, even cruel at times,'' she said matter-of-factly. ''But I loved teaching, and I always thought I had to try to bring everything out in those kids.''

Sister Annina's obituary in The Sun featured the photo that accompanied my Evening Sun article from June 1990. It showed her sitting pensively, wanly, on a wooden chair, surrounded by all her dolls. She looked nothing like a Marine.

Patrick Ercolano writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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