. . . were Sisters of Mercy. And I have a special reason for thinking about them today.
My various Catholic Facebook pages inform me that today is the feast of St. Camillus deLellis. Now, I don’t know squat about old St. Camillus, but his surname is very familiar to me. All four of my years at Knoxville Catholic High School, I had the privilege of studying French under the tutelage of his namesake, Sister Mary deLellis. We knew that her birth name was Mary Nan Allison, because she had told us that she was a member of the first graduating class of KCHS and we were able to recognize her in the graduation picture on the wall, but in those days nuns did not have last names (unlike these unsettling modern times when you read even in Catholic papers about Sister Smith and Sister Johnson, sounding for all the world like British nurses or even Protestants).
For our fifteen year reunion, we reunion planners asked our classmates to name a favorite teacher. I was quite surprised that one of the boys from my French class, who was always kind of a cut up and gave Sister a hard time (although, like the rest of us, he turned out all right), named her as his favorite. Why? Because, he wrote, “She was strict, but fair.” I think that was a good description and one Sister would appreciate. By the time we had her she had been teaching for many years–in fact, she was my mother’s French teacher at KCHS also (Sister frequently misspoke and called students by their older siblings’ names. Once–only once–she actually called me by my mother’s name!). She was set in her ways and expected (and received, for the most part) respect.
And she was a good teacher. She had studied French at the Sorbonne and unlike many language teachers who think being native speakers is the only qualification necessary to teach, she knew how to share what she herself had learned. She started speaking to us in French on the first day of class, gesturing to indicate what we were supposed to do while we stared at her uncomprehendingly. “Fermez la porte,” she ordered, pointing at the door. “Eteignez les lumieres. Fermez les rideaux. Tournez les chaises et regardez l’ecran.” (Full disclosure–I can recite all that from memory, but I never knew how to spell it all until just now!). Obediently, someone closed the door, turned off the lights, and closed the draperies, and all of us turned our chairs around to face the movie screen.
Et voila! Monsieur Thibaut appeared on the screen! Il habite Place d’Italie a Paris, au numero dix. (Sorry, I don’t know how to do accent marks on the computer. Imagine them, if you speak French.) This wonderful method of French instruction (and I am not being the least bit facetious) was probably already twenty years old or more when we were students, judging from the dilapidated state of our textbooks and the graininess of the filmstrips, which were accompanied by a record for sound. What we did was watch the filmstrip, repeating each frame. Eventually, every student was expected to recite the strip alone, from memory. Each lesson taught vocabulary and certain elements of grammar, which Sister reinforced orally. Once we knew where Monsieur Thibaut lived, we were expected to be able to explain in French where we lived, and to be able to ask others where they lived. And this worked.
Sister was also masterful at teaching verb conjugation. Just ask me to conjugate a French verb. I dare you. I still know all the endings, thanks to the ingenious little form Sister had us fill out over and over and over again. In my three years of college French, I read literature and wrote papers and learned to express myself (with difficulty and embarrassment) orally, but I never learned or needed to learn any more grammar after leaving Sister deLellis’s domain. I only would have been required to take one semester of college French, so well did she prepare us.
She was very proper–she had been a teacher of English literature as well, and spent her retirement proofreading the Diocesan paper–and had a way with words. “It would behoove you,” she advised us, “To study your verbs tonight. A word to the wise is sufficient.” Once she was absent and for two days we had as a substitute a retired nun whom I am afraid we did not care for at all. Some of us were a little rowdy. And the old nun tattled, and Sister made us feel lower than dirt when she said how disappointed she was in us. Thinking about it, I believe that was one of Sister’s gifts–she gave her best at all times, and expected her students would–and could–do the same.
Next up: Part II, my other favorite Sister!