There's Always That 5%

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Yesterday was the Feast Day of St. Louise de Marillac.  Frankly, I don’t know the first thing about St. Louise, but I was well-acquainted with one of her namesakes.
Sister Louise de Marillac Lovejoy (just Sister Louise to us) was my American History teacher when I was a junior at Knoxville Catholic High School.  She was a Sister of Charity who’d been allowed to live in Knoxville so she could take care of her aging aunt.  At that time this meant she was the only Sister we’d ever seen who didn’t wear a habit (although she did wear a veil).  And she was a character.
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Feisty, scrappy, opinionated, dictatorial, passionate–these are all good words to describe Sister Louise, who dominated her classroom and argued every point vociferously, accuracy be damned.  She often regaled us with tales of the terrible atheist, “Maureen O’Hara.”   Correcting her was pointless.  She did not even care if she got the names of her students wrong–she just re-christened them.  James, whom she called Charles all the time because that was his older brother’s name, eventually became “Charles James.”  Mariette was “Marietta.”  She couldn’t pronounce “Kneier,” so she called that girl “Miss Kim.”  Mr. Dodd became “Mr. Todd.”  And you better believe they all answered to whatever Sister decided their names were!
Sister’s greatest joy was catching out-of-uniform students as they walked past her classroom.  As she lectured, she always had one eye out for them.  She would break off mid-word and run out of the room, then she’d come back in, carrying the out-of-uniform jacket, cackling with glee.  The offending garment was held hostage in her closet until its owner paid a ransom, which Sister gave to the Missions.
Honestly, we did not get very far in our American History Book.  The last thing I remember was trustbusting and Teddy Roosevelt.  Part of that was because of Sister’s enjoyment of going off on tangents, like the atheist thing.  People loved to argue with her and could really get her going.  I remember one whole class devoted to a diatribe on why wearing an ankle bracelet signaled you were a prostitute.  “This is true, class,” Sister would assure us.  Along with “There’s always that 5%,” that was Sister’s favorite saying.
The other reason we never reached 1910 was that Sister spent a long time on the areas of history she thought were important– mostly the colonial period.  Sister had an interesting way of teaching.  She would reiterate the point she wanted to make over several classes until we had it memorized, then have us chant it back to her, like parrots.  It worked, by God.  I bet if I could get my old classmates in a room and ask them what the Magna Carta was, they would immediately burst out with, “The first step along the road to self-government.”  The Mayflower Compact was, “The first step along the road to self-government in the New World.”  And what three important things came to Jamestown in 1619? “Slaves, women, and the Virginia House of Burgesses.”
In addition to American History, Sister taught a Current Events class that Seniors could take as an elective.  It was interesting because kids who tended to be cut-ups and classroom trouble-makers often took the class, because they enjoyed sparring with Sister.
Sometimes we would be sitting in the classroom and some former student, visiting the school for the day, would arrive and come in to give Sister a hug.  How delighted she always looked to see them.  She looked grouchy a lot of the time but her smile really transformed her.  I know we wondered at the time why old students flocked back to visit.  Today the school itself remembers her with a Social Studies Award given out in her name each year.
The last time I saw Sister I was at St. Mary’s Outpatient Clinic for a three-hour glucose tolerance test when I was pregnant with–I think–Emily.  I was happy to see her but sorry that she wasn’t herself.  I had heard that she was terminally ill at that time, and her spunk seemed gone as she told me that she wasn’t feeling very well.
We have so many teachers in a lifetime–too many to count or remember.  But “there’s always that 5%” who make a lasting impression, and Sister Louise was one of a kind.
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51 thoughts on “There's Always That 5%

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  2. She was a timeless character! She coached the football team for a while, told me never to trust women with blue eyes, and if I was caught talking in class, it was always a woman’s fault!

  3. Michele

    My favorite quote from her was …. “Behind every evil man, there is an evil woman!” I remember the ankle bracelet lecture as if it were yesterday. How old was she when she was teaching us? I remember thinking that she was ancient. Now, however, it may not seem so old to me!

  4. Joel D

    To this day, I still prefer last name first, comma, first name last. “Always read instructions.” Even if she never game them to you. Well…I would NEVER hire any applicant that wrote their name incorrectly on the application.

  5. Bill Thompson

    I will never forget she told us she watched football games on TV but turned off the volume off… Because she didn’t want someone spoon feeding her something she could see for herself.

  6. I was one that she stopped mid-word to grab in the hall. She made a little circle on the board and I had to keep my nose in the circle.. Me, a freshman in front of her senior class. Never ever forget Sr. Louise!! She said my crime was chasing a boy in the hall.

    1. That must have been traumatizing!! I remember we were always extra quiet if we had to walk by her class while it was in session. We were terrified of her noticing us and asking us why we were not in class!

  7. Cathy

    That is SO classic and an incredible tribute. I remember that she seemed to favor and try to draw out the kids who were always quiet and never said anything. Hope they didn’t feel picked on because I think she wanted to hear the voice of that 5%. This is true.

  8. Susan Davis

    Ah Leslie!! A classic piece on a classic lady!! All of these memories ring true, and I want to throw in her strong, firm handshake. She would squeeze so hard; she wanted us to almost go to the ground as she grinned the entire time. Great lady! How I do wish we would have had the technology of today to capture some of these legends from back in the day.

  9. Lori maze

    Few things in life have made me as proud as my son winning the Sister Louise Award. I wish she had been there to see it!

  10. Kevin Wright

    So many lessons… Mur-kan-teal-izum!
    another she gave was about a date she went when she was young. The guy ‘got fresh’ in his car with her. She instructed the class, ‘you know what to do when he gets fresh?… you take the gear shift and run through the gears….yeah that took care of him!’
    and another…. in cooler weather with windows open and with her classroom on the West side of the building, from downtown churches we heard bells ringing…I needed to “wiki” some details…it was 11 am, November 11th. Perking her ear up Sister paused to listen and asked the class to listen. That day we learned for who the bells rang. I will always remember Sister Louise’s words, “you know kids, I hope those bells never ring for you.” That day we learned about Armistice Day.
    Thanks for the memories Leslie.

  11. Tom Fernandez

    Definitely one of the most unforgettable people in my life. We used to refer to her as “Sister Louise de Maniac” or “Attila the Nun”, but it was all in good fun. She would always give a homework assignment but would say “homework is just copy work”. I don’t think she ever graded it or even looked at it but she would collect it upon entering her class and if you didn’t have your “copy work” you didn’t get into her class. And don’t dare disrupt her class unless you want to be made a public spectacle of. This article describes her perfectly, thanks for sharing.
    Tom F.
    Class of ’81

  12. Susi

    An unforgettable woman, for sure. Another favorite saying she had was “Ignorance of the law is no excuse!!” Her class was also the first time I heard the expression “bird walking.” She is one of the most memorable teachers I’ve ever had.
    Susi Schaeffer
    Class of ’81

  13. Curtis LeMay

    “Always be at the right place, at the right time, doing the right thing.” Words to live by. I knew Sister Louise well, in and out of school until her death. The article above is dead on, but I will add that she was brilliant and she was a sweetheart. I remember being in the room when Stuart Schaad (sp, sorry Stuart) came to her for girl advice. Louise did not shy away from such things. I was lucky to have her current events class during the Watergate Hearings. We us d to watch them and debate the d tails. It was great.

  14. Dan Woodard

    Leslie — Thanks so much for the wonderfully written article and sharing your memories of one of my favorite and beloved colleagues.
    I met Sr. Louise the summer before I started teaching at KCHS in 1980. I was in the chemistry lab preparing for the coming school year (my first teaching assignment, fresh out of college) and was busy hanging a large Periodic Table over the chalkboard when she stuck her head in the lab. In order to clear the wall space for the Periodic Table, I had just taken down a beautiful statue of the Virgin Mary. Sr. Louise quickly informed me the statue had been positioned in its honored place above the chalkboard since the Magnolia Avenue school had been constructed. After this intervention on her part and a few bumbling words of explanation from me that I fully intended to relocate the statue (I believe it found its rightful home in her own classroom), Sr. Louise was not entirely convinced I was actually a teacher. I was too young and not that well spoken; she wanted to know from what university I had graduated and when. And I got the distinct sense that she disapproved of my beard. We spent the next hour getting to know one another, which is to say I was grilled by a very smart and perceptive woman. At some point in that initial meeting a mutual respect developed and a cherished friendship began.
    I left Knoxville for Washington, D.C. in 1986, when Sr. Louise was first diagnosed with cancer. At our final lunch at her small house, we cried and thanked God for allowing our paths to cross, knowing we would never see one another again in this life. She was remarkable and touched so many, especially me. I am proud to count myself as one of her students.
    Dan Woodard

    1. Michele Bunker Cagle

      On a similar note, you, Mr. Woodard the the teacher who impacted my life the greatest! I am ABD ( all but dissertation) in Physiology. I did not complete my degree after my first son was born. Currently I am homschooling my eleven children and teaching high school science classes! Thank you for blessing my life with your enthusiasm for science!

      1. Dan Woodard

        Michele – great to see your name here and hate I didn’t know you lived in Huntsville. We were there for about 15 years, and both my kids graduated from Huntsville High School. What a fantastic accomplishment your ABD is, and the gift of yourself you’ve given your children! All the best, Dan

    2. Kathleen Baer Stovall

      Mr. Woodard, that made me cry. I loved Sr. Louise, and I saw through the rough she’ll she cast. I had a wonderful relationship with her, but she told me if I told anyone how nice she was, she’d deny it. She was my Confirmation sponsor. There are only a handful of teachers that made a lasting impression on me. You were also one of those teachers.

      1. Kathleen Baer Stovall

        She was also the reason my husband proposed when he did. I got the “why buy the cow…” lecture and came home and dropped her words of wisdom on him. I believe she passed the day before my son was born because I remember being in the hospital when my dad told me. She’s been my angel ever since.

      2. Dan Woodard

        Hi Kathleen. Sorry I just now saw this message. Great to hear from you and thanks for your kind words. I have such fond memories of you and all my students from KCHS. All the best to you and family!

  15. Josh Hankins

    Sister Louise died November 17, 1994 at the age of 82.
    I had her class my freshman and sophomore year and remember many similar fond stories. Another of her favorite pasttimes was roaming the halls during class change looking for PDA (public displays of affection).
    I remember one instance when a couple were walking hand in hand and Sister Louise snuck up behind them and slipped her hand into the guy’s hand when he was talking to a buddy and wasn’t looking. It took him a minute or two to realize something was wrong and everyone was staring.

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  17. This was a great read and a touching tribute! I would have liked to have known her! I really enjoyed reading all the stories about her in the comments. I felt like I was in her class too!!!

  18. This almost made me cry happy tears, but also sad tears. I hope she was surrounded by love in the final days of her life. It is amazing how much one person – one soul – can touch so many lives! And, the way the Spirit moves them to connect with others! Beautiful post!

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