of a Child
She scared us to death with the very first sighting.
We were all of thirteen years old.
It was the first day of school and we gathered in excited knots on the playground of St. Nicholas
School to trade summer stories and marvel over new hair-dos and someone’s new braces.
All of a sudden, the buzz of adolescent conversation was interrupted by the harsh clanging of a bell.
We all stopped and looked toward the sound … the upper window of the three-story building.
There, glaring down at her new charges, was Sister Mary Rosita, the new principal of our small school.
We had been warned over the summer there would be a new principal, but so accustomed were
we to the mild-mannered, rather gentle woman who presided in that office until then we were
anything but ready for her successor.
Sister Rosita was stern.
She was tall, slender and spoke in a clipped manner that made her words seem bitten in shreds
before they were released.
We were terrified of her wrath, which often descended on us at the most unexpected of times.
In retrospect, she was a good teacher. We learned our subject matter thoroughly, although in such a strict
atmosphere that there was little joy, little laughter in her classroom.
We eighth graders had the privilege of being taught by the principal.
I can distinctly remember the occasions when a touch of lipstick on one of the girls at Sunday
Mass would cause a tirade the next day before we began our daily routine.
Axle grease, she called it, making sure we who dared experiment with makeup understood that we were
playing right into the hands of Satan himself.
Some of her other pronouncements were as inaccurate but even more damaging, leaving many
of us with fears of eternal punishment that were not only unfounded but based on inaccurate information
passed on by this towering personage who dominated our lives from eight to three.
Two weeks ago, my girlhood friend Mary Lou and I went to Trenton to visit our beloved
Sister Rose, our sixth grade teacher with whom we’ve become fast and dear friends.
We arrived at her convent just in time to be caught up in the confusion of the arrival of carloads
of nuns alighting at the curb to attend a picture-taking session for the Order’s annual directory.
Sister Rose, Mary Lou and I were about to take our leave for the little Italian restaurant we frequent when
someone said, “Oh, here comes Sister Rosita!”
Mary Lou and I wished fervently for a hole to open in the floor and swallow us.
We really didn’t, even after thirty years, want to encounter that dreaded figure again. After all, we were
Sister Rose put out reassuring hands and encouraged us to stand quietly and wait to see if we were
Reluctantly, we turned toward the door and watched a trio of nuns approach.
Where was Sister Rosita?
There were only three tiny old women advancing toward the door.
As the third and tiniest of all came into the foyer, she greeted one of the sisters standing inside.
Her speech was clipped, her words softer but definitely still being bitten in shreds before being released.
At that moment, she looked up at me, smiled and said, “My goodness, if it isn’t little Jeannie!”
I could only reach out, take her hand and hug her.
And had to bend down to do it.
She recognized Mary Lou seconds later, commented on how beautiful we both were and then moved slowly
on into the house.
We were quiet for a few minutes as we went outdoors.
In the privacy of my car, we let loose with a torrent of words about our shock at having seen this intimidating
figure reduced to a frail, very human, very unfrightening woman.
To the children in us, Sister Rosita will always be tall, stern and scary.
To the women we’ve become, she is one of us … older, less agile perhaps, but still just a woman.
Age adds perspective, it’s true, but I still think of Sister Rosita’s axle grease as I gaze into a makeup mirror or
freshen the lipstick after lunch.
The things of childhood rise unbidden even into maturity.
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