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In the Name of the Daughter

Sister Grace cocked back her right arm and pelted the grape straight back at the class. She was like Mariano Rivera putting away the side in the bottom of the ninth. There was a frenzy in her eyes and she wasn't quite finished. She picked up another grape that was lying beside her right foot and launched it so fast at Sylvester that it splattered on the front of his school uniform.

"Owwch," was his reaction. 

He returned her vigor with an equally calculated throw back at her. BAM, it hit her square in the forehead, causing the whole class to gasp.

It did not splatter. It did not stick to her head. It bounced off like a tennis ball would from a racket. The height and bounce really was impressive.  Sister Grace charged Sylvester like a bull charging a matador's red cape, with her head down and nostrils flaring. Her habit flapped behind her as she reached and grabbed his elbow in one swoop and marched him out of the room in the next. Instinctively the whole class got up to follow them into the hallway.

With a booming, "Sit down!" Sister Grace had Sylvester seated against the tiled wall in the hallway and the rest of the class back in their seats. Sylvester stayed in the hallway for the remainder of class, but still managed to pop his head by the doorway and make gestures while Sister wasn't looking. At the time I remember thinking of all the stories my parents would tell me of nuns-gone-bad when they were growing up.

Kids used to get hit, thrown in garbage cans and degraded until they cried their eyes out. In none of those stories did I ever hear a nun throwing food at anyone. So this was my Catholic school nun story, which is not half as bad compared to the stories my parents shared with me.

Unlike the corrupt nuns of the 1960s who would hit a kid for missing a line of the "Our Father", Sister Grace was reacting to an antagonist.  I mean how many times can you listen to a twelve-year-old jerk answer his times tables with, "to the power of your mother"?  Or watch him and some of the other boys draw stick figures instead of math problems on the chalkboard? The poor woman had lost it. She was a nun, yes, but she was a human first. It really put the ol' Catholic notion of sinning in perspective for me.

I remember making my first reconciliation in second grade. For those Non-Catholics out there, this  entails confessing your sins to a priest. Some examples of this would be, "I fought with my sister", which was my go to, or "I talked back to my mother." These are both pretty standard professions for an eight-year-old. We would all line up and wait as one by one each of us entered the confessional.  It was like walking the plank of a pirate ship to your doom. Nothing like standing in line to tell someone what a little ass you had been.  It was the direct opposite of lining up to see Santa who was waiting to be convinced that you were the next best thing since sliced bread. Stark and obvious contrast. Well played, Catholic Church, well played.

Once inside you had the choice of sitting behind the lattice and out of view of the priest or getting right up in there and sitting face to face. I was always tempted to hide behind the lattice like a criminal who had committed a heinous mortal sin, but I never had the nerve. Me and my venial sins  that would not get me excommunicated from the Catholic Church, or you know, from society, would look the priest in the eye and beg for a few Hail Marys as my penance.

In any case, I would leave that confessional with my head held high, ready to take on the world a sinless young woman. I would try my hardest to not sin all day. No talking when I wasn't supposed to during class, no arguing over who gets to hold the jump rope at recess with my friends and no whining to my parents to stay up later at night. I was going to live my life free of sin. Then of course someone would whisper to me during class.  It would be mean to just ignore them, wouldn't it?   As my Mom would say, the "Chatty Kathy" always got the best of me.  Just a little whisper back and BAM....

"Nicole, " Mrs. Romeo caught me, "is there a reason why you are speaking while I am?" Ah, my record was once again ruined! I would have to wait until the next time we went as a class to confession to get rid of these sins. Welcome to the way a second grade Catholic schoolgirl thinks. Pretty sick stuff, right? I mean all in all it provided structure and accountability, but it also encouraged an exorbitant amount of guilt. To this day when I can't get to something at work or can't make a rendezvous with one of my girlfriends I feel so bad that sometimes I end up rearranging my whole schedule.

The upside of being a guilt-ridden Catholic is that it promotes undying loyalty. I'm talking the kind of loyalty where you consider your close friends, family and your family, close friends. Somewhere around my late teens I realized my parents and sisters were without a doubt my friends and best confidants. Likewise, the girls I grew up with were truly sisters to me.  Having grown up with the same education and moral self-reproach, my girlfriends and I jointly understood the repercussions that came along with catholic school punishments. You know... Hand your homework in on time or receive an immediate warning. Dress appropriately during dress down days or receive a detention. Smoke pot in a bathroom stall and expect to be kicked out of school, not just suspended. As young woman at an all-girls high school, we were taught that our voices were important and that our convictions mattered.

Enter my Freshman year religion teacher, Sister Nancy....

"Who can give me a slang term for the word, penis?" she had asked, filling the classroom with a sea of giggles.

Sister scanned the room while we all avoided her glance. She pulled up her tuckus and parked it right up against the empty desk in front of me. "Nooooo," I thought to myself.

"Any thoughts, Nicole?"  I remember making eyes with my best friend, Corinne, across the room while the rest of the class laughed in relief that they were not called upon. You have to remember when you are fifteen anything having to do with sex is extremely mortifying and only uttered between you and your friends. Any adult that wants "in" on that curious chatter just makes for a blush-fest.

"We are waiting," Sister Nancy sang while she sauntered over to the dry erase board and picked up a marker. She was actually going to write this on the board? This wasn't sex Ed.

"Yes, we are waiting!" my best friend joined in. TRAITOR.  I served Corinne my best stink eye, which only made her smile wider.

"It rhymes with the word, sick,"  Sister hinted. She wasn't going to back down. She was really going to see that I made it there. I couldn't believe it.

"Um," I laughed nervously along with the rest of the girls. This just felt wrong on so many levels.

"It's a nickname for the name, Richard," Sister continued. Ok, enough was enough, it was now or never. It had become apparent that I needed to rip off this band-aid.

I took a deep breath and said IT in my loudest whisper. 

"What was that?" Sister Nancy prodded, "I don't think the other side of the room heard you. Did you, girls?" Laughter bounced off the walls.

"Nope," Corinne interjected. Evil. Pure. Evil.
Sister Nancy put down the marker and frowned, "Aren't we all being silly by laughing?" The classroom went silent.

"Girls, if we can't be comfortable in our own skin saying a silly word, how can we grow as strong women?" Sister insisted, "And if we are to say a word, we must say it with conviction. If not with conviction, you must be comfortable in your decision to not say it at all."

"Nicole," she turned to me,  "Do you want to say this word louder?" Was this a trick question?

I went with my gut on this one and firmly stated, "No, I'm good."

Sister Nancy's smile widened like the Cheshire cat from Alice in Wonderland. Great, I was really in for it now. Maybe she'd ask that I draw a diagram of the male anatomy on the whiteboard next.

She turned her smile to me. Here it was. I braced myself for it, "And, that, my girls, is an answer with conviction," sending a wink my way Sister Nancy continued her lesson. I breathed a sigh of relief.

She spoke on, empowering us to be proactive young women, urging us to keep our morals in check while reminding us that sometimes it is OK to say no. This especially when we are in a situation that makes us uncomfortable, like with boys our age. This was no dumb nun.

She described the male gender our age through high school to be, "rather handsy,"and encouraged us to stand up for ourselves and respect our bodies. She didn't outright preach abstinence— although of course this would be her preference— instead she taught self respect.

She made us understand that the only true sin is to allow someone to take advantage of what we are comfortable with.  Did she want us throwing off our bras and ripping off our panties? No, but she didn't want us damning ourselves for being teenage girls with raging hormones either. She reminded me, just as Sister Grace had with her grapes, that she was human just like the rest of us. She made mistakes. And dare I say—even sinned at times. Insert Sign of the Cross.

Your baptism, December 2013
Madison Ann, by the time you are allowed to read this, you may have already learned important life lessons from a pair of intriguing nuns and may even have confessed a sin or two— hopefully none involving disobeying your parents— to a priest. I don't expect you to be a devout Catholic. I'd be lying if I told you that I went to church every Sunday and followed the church's teachings thoroughly. Regardless, I strive to believe every day.  To believe in my friends and family. To believe that people are generally good. To believe in something bigger than me— bigger than us.  To believe that there is a purpose for all of us and that although life has thrown some pretty intense curve balls my way, I am meant to hit them out of the park every time. As will you, my love.

I will continue to live my life affirming that anything is possible and will forever look back on my days in catholic school and smile knowing that despite your religion it is important to always defer to your heart.

It's just as your MeMa once put it, "I guess the whole point is for our leaps of faith to turn into jumps that eventually soften into footsteps... "


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