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.
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.
March 16, 2012