What she taught was the right path

Real Life

True Tales From Everyday Living

December 02, 2007|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,Special to the sun

I have a dictionary I keep by my desk, its red cover worn and frayed. I don't use it much any more. It's a Thorndike-Barnhardt Junior Dictionary I got when I was 6, just after Kennedy was elected to the White House.

My parents bought it for me, mostly at the urging of my teacher, Sister Mary Janet O'Donnell, R.S.M. On the inside cover, my father printed my name and beneath that, "First Grade, Shrine of the Sacred Heart School."

The importance of language in my childhood home was never in question -- my father was a newspaperman -- and I no doubt would have wound up with a dictionary at some point. But Sister Janet recognized something early on in my schoolwork that prompted her to suggest that a dictionary even at that young age was a good idea.

These days I make my living by the word and have for some time, a curse of genetics, I fear, and a seeming inability to do much of anything else. So, I feel as if I owe Sister Janet a small debt of thanks for starting me on the right path, even if I didn't always stay on the straight and narrow.

Sister Janet died at 83 last month in Baltimore. The sting of it surprises me still.

At different times, I weighed the notion of trying to contact her, though I wasn't exactly sure why. Perhaps it presented some sort of touchstone at midlife, some necessary long look back over my shoulder.

I have this image of her from almost five decades ago. I can hear the rustle of her long black skirts, the rattle of her rosary beads.

I remember a smell that is fresh, starched and pressed, like cotton just back from the laundry in the way-olden days. Crisp. Safe, like a white shirt of my father's. I remember her eyebrows, expressive, playful, stern, but never menacing.

I remember vowels, consonants and diphthongs, her teaching us to sing those goofy kid songs. I can see her leading the Pledge of Allegiance and drilling us on all the prayers, as we damn near snapped our little necks from bowing to the name of Jesus in the middle of the Hail Mary.

When I did finally make the call to find her in the summer of 2002, it was with some fear of what I might learn -- or that I would have to explain the why, after all these years. But I was not ready for the callback when it came a week later.

"Bill, this is Sister Janet."

I was completely tongue-tied.

We set a lunch date, and the next week I walked into Mercy Medical Center downtown, where she had retired in 2000. I asked one of the receptionists if she had seen Sister Janet O'Donnell, and she nodded in the direction of a woman, her back to me, in one of those motorized three-wheel carts.

"Sister?"

We exchanged pleasantries. She looked at me hard, not in a confused or unknowing way, but as if she were trying to retrieve a distantly familiar image from the past. I probably did the same.

"Let's have lunch," she said, and maneuvered the three-wheeler to an elevator that took us to an upper floor and finally to the clergy's dining room.

She sketched out her life and quizzed me closely on mine. She was then 78, which meant she was in her mid-30s when she stood before my class, more than half her life ago. She had taught for 25 years -- eight at Sacred Heart in Mount Washington -- and spent about the last 30 years in her second career, as a chaplain.

But teaching was her first love. Hundreds and hundreds of kids over the years. "You can't remember all of them, but some of them you never forget." And always first grade.

"When they come to you, they don't know anything ... and then all of the sudden, one day, they can come in, pick up a book and read, and write their names," she said. "You help create little persons and you see them blossom."

Guiding those little blossoms through the first year of school -- such a critical time in their development -- seems so enormous a responsibility, yet Sister Janet sounded undaunted by it still.

"If you're balanced and you're honest and wholesome, all that's going to come out in your teaching. They're the values you're going to give the children."

After all, she said, "It's not what you teach; it's what you are."

Hours later, as we made our way down on the elevator and again through the lobby -- in the direction of the hospital pharmacy -- I noticed that she had taken an unfilled prescription out of her pocket, one of those hidden pockets nuns always seemed to have. Glancing at it upside down -- an old reporter's old, bad habit -- it looked like a prescription for a painkiller.

"Oh, yes, the doctors are prescribing more medicine. It's the medicine that keeps me going," she said.

"Are you OK, Sister?"

"Bill, thank you for coming," she said. "It was really lovely to see you." She put her hands up and grasped mine, I leaned down and kissed her goodbye.

"Thank you, Sister."

Thank you indeed.

Bill Zorzi is a former Sun reporter and editor. For the past three years, he has written for "The Wire" television program on HBO.

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