In February 1978, my family moved to Buffalo Grove, Illinois from Foster City, California. Recently battered by a grumpy blizzard of legendary proportions, Chicago looked in February how I felt: tired, beat up, and gray. I’d turned 10 in November a few months earlier and hated my life. My dad took us from my beloved and benevolent Northern California to tempestuous Chicago, and my friends and school were left behind. We’d only lived in Foster City for a year, but I was now old enough to feel the sting of moving all the time and the lure of roots I wish we could put down for good.
My mom enrolled me at St. Mary’s, which was the second time I’d attended the school, given that we lived in Buffalo Grove when I was in first grade and moved a scant year later to Northern California. So I knew a few people, but not really, and I entered that fourth grade classroom mid-year anxious and shy and on the cusp of trouble. I was sullen and done with leaving people and things behind.
So I didn’t care about anything kids my age cared about: friends, schoolwork, living. I kept to the back of the classroom, avoiding Sister Francis Ann’s questions and attempts to draw me out of myself. I wore apathy like my uniform, haphazardly and crinkly. I blithely watched as the boys fawned over KISS’s Double Platinum album in the front row, as golden girl and overachiever Theresa Reiland “dated” football-quarterback-in-the-making, Greg Anderson, in a dramatic display of fourth grade gossip and adoration, and as kids proudly turned in their prodigious amounts of homework to a strict and demanding Sister Francis Ann.
Sister Francis Ann. If I knew better, I’d be scared. Imagine thick calves beset with flesh-colored, taut stockings anchored by sturdy black rubber-soled shoes, full nun dress with tunic, scapular and wimple, and jet back hair that occasionally poked down her forehead. Most foreboding of all, an imposing metal cross hung from an iron-weight chain around her dimply neck and down to a chest covered with black. She demanded a lot from her students and carried a wooden ruler to let us know she was serious.
She left me alone. I don’t know why, exactly. Pity, perhaps? Whatever it was, things went on this way until Science Fair season. All students were required to participate, choose a topic, and submit an exhibit by the end of the year. I observed the fair frenzy from a curious place of disinterest and outside looking in. I didn’t even tell my parents a Science Fair project was due. I ignored my scholarly duties with a zest reserved for the down and out, the I-don’t-cares, the truly done-with-its. I didn’t submit a thing, because I could give a crap. I spent the rest of the year behind a glass, like a mannequin dressed up but lifeless and plastic-hearted.
Then it was time to turn in our Science Fair exhibits, and I just didn’t. I ignored the project completely. An assignment that determined most of our science grade and I sat there in my back seat the day of the fair, rebellious and scooped out. Dimly, I knew that as fourth graders moved into fifth grade, they were organized by “group” from high to low academic performance and aptitude, and I would most certainly be put into the low group, where I could continue my passiveness and unresponsiveness from a safe distance with no expectations placed on me.
But Sister Francis Ann had other plans for my life, and I say this because she changed it as surely as if she’d plucked me from a dead-end road and set me in a car bound for cities, countries, the world.
Sister Francis Ann gave me a “A” in science. Moral obligations aside, maybe this was an unconditional love decision for her. Maybe she prayed about me and this was her answer. Perhaps she tried to save me from me, because her heart and God told her to. I really and honestly and sincerely don’t know her motivation, and we never talked about it, nor did I see her much as I traveled to eighth grade.
I made it to that grade with flying colors and Theresa Reiland became my best friend. School administrators placed me in the high academic group based on my grades in Sister Francis Ann’s class, and I stayed in that group through graduation. I began to care how well I did in school, held myself to a higher standard, always turned in my Science Fair projects. From there, I attended a well respected Catholic high school and college, and graduated as a student who gave a crap and believed in her abilities and wanted to soar. That’s an important thing: wanting to soar.
I’ve always believed from that day to this, that Sister Francis Ann changed everything. At my crossroads, someone waited for me to take my hand, and I wish that for my children and for yours, and for you.
Who was your crossroads person?
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