Two score and one year ago, I was in the 4th grade. Sister Maura Ann, CSJ* was my teacher. I liked her; she was a young progressive nun who no longer wore the habit of the order to which she professed, rather she wore street clothes. She laughed, sang, and had a cute “pixie haircut” as my mother called it.
As I remember, Sister decided it was time for 10 year olds to write a biography, even though no definition of a biography was given. A list of about 30 plus famous people of the 20th Century was presented to the class, although there were fewer students in my home room.
Each of my classmates were summoned in alphabetical order to meet her at her desk to choose the person we would research and then write a knowledgeable, cited biography…. “cited” another undefined word. While waiting for our turn to be called to her desk, I recall some of us were instinctive enough to look up the word biography in the classroom dictionary even though we didn’t know how to spell it and of course, didn’t dare ask.
The word biography was quite intimidating, but once we determined the meaning, a life story written by another, we were good to go. The other word …cited, was more problematic as we spelled it sighted…as in, the ability to see. Needless to say her version of cited was a mystery not to be solved until about grade seven.
Finally, Sister called my name; through fortune of birthright my last name began with a letter past the halfway mark in the alphabet. Many of the easiest 20th century figures were already chosen by others…I had hoped for John F. Kennedy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Walt Disney or Neil Armstrong…some of the names left on the page included Pope John XXIII, Sir Winston Churchill, and Charles de Gaulle. (As you can determine by the names on the list, although progressive; Sister or whoever created the list was not a pioneer toward multicultural or diverse education.) There were other names, but apparently I was asking too many questions and taking too long to analyze the list so I was assigned Sir Winston Churchill. Embarrassingly now, the name had no meaning to my ten-year old self.
As I continue to reminisce, here is what happened next: I, along with two other girls walked to our local Boston Public Library after school. We were wearing our plaid school uniforms so I felt we would be admired and welcomed as serious bookworms when entering the hallowed halls of the branch.
I had a library card and had even borrowed a fiction book or two in the past, but never had I researched nor did I know where to start. The other girls quickly found at least one book on their own to use as a resource; whether or not it was for research I determined they were way ahead of me.
I found nothing except a dirty look from the librarian as I wandered aimlessly through the aisles. My brain could conjure no image of the man, Sir Winston Churchill. The word Sir however indicated royalty. I had hoped the library aisles would be labeled alphabetically then I could just find the aisle marked R for royalty, but no the Dewey decimal system had me baffled. The old oak drawer file system was taller than me and smelled of low tide. (If you lived in Boston in the late 60’s and 70’s, the low tide during the months of summer produced an odor of gastrointestinal quality that was difficult to go unnoticed.)
The trek home found me disillusioned and empty-handed. While there was not an actual library in my childhood home, we did have shelves filled with encyclopedias and thesauruses, fiction and non-fiction, hard & soft cover, and loads of old textbooks belonging to my older brothers and sisters from previous school years, but no book labeled: Sir Winston Churchill. Being an independent learner and believing that since I had never heard of this person, he mustn’t have been of any importance. I went on with my life and didn’t bother to ask any one of my family members if they had ever heard of this Sir Winston Churchill…the regret of not asking one simple question still haunts.
So the next day I marched right into school, in a single file line and after morning prayers, straight up to Sister Maura Ann’s desk with my fingers crossed behind my back (Finger crossing excused you from a lie and the need to confess the sin…at least that is what Ginny McMeehan** told us in second grade. She was a grade ahead so I believed it. Ginny had many words of wisdom to share, most of her shared insights were disappointingly false.) I looked Sister Maura Ann square in the eye and said, “Sister, the librarian told me she has never heard of Sir Winston Churchill so I have not one book to use for research.”
I may have paraphrased my actual speech to make myself sound smarter, but that was the general gist.
This pronouncement on my part was greeted with a stern, eyes bulging out of head glare which could not be disguised behind her pixie haircut, followed by_______________________________________.
If you have ever heard tales of the consequences doled out by nuns, in or out of habit, at a Catholic school for lying at point-blank range then you can fill in the blank and add these penalties to the list…. I was strongly encouraged to attend confession, at her earliest convenience and more than likely I was given twenty-five Hail Mary’s and a handful of Act of Contrition for Penance, I penned a confession witnessed by Sister Maura Anne which was taken home and signed by a parent (oh the disappointment in my Milkman father’s face), and this is what really hurt; I had to write a biography for all the famous 20th century figures left on the list…if you have any questions about Sir Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, Jonas Salk, Charles Lindbergh or Pope John XXIII, I am your girl.
With those school girl days of telling tales and biting nails gone, and since this event never effected my permanent record; much later in life, specifically May, 2009, I marched once again into an academic environ only this time it was my commencement. With cap, gown and Master of Arts in Teaching hood, the Hubster and Son-sters cheered me on.
I must confess (no fingers crossed), I did not remember the name of the commencement speaker until I just “Googled” it while writing. His name was Bill Bolde, and if I am to be truthful (which based on past dealings is the best policy) I was not looking forward to the speech portion of the ceremony. I began to glaze over and glance through the commencement booklet in order to find my name emblazoned in black and white. But suddenly I started to pay attention…..
Mr. Bolde, in his own speech referenced a commencement address given by Sir Winston Churchill in 1946 at the University of Notre Dame…
Hold on… why is he mentioning Sir Winston Churchill…some rather anxious feelings were creeping back in my thoughts… when I wrote my biography report back in 1973 with uncited sources, I never included anything about a commencement address in 1946…my report included the date and city of birth, education and so on.
Mr. Bolde noted in his address …The Chancellor of the University of Notre Dame had given an extraordinary introduction for this most inspiring man and leader. Churchill guided the people of Great Britain through the most troubling of times during World War II so naturally as he reached the lectern the audience was silent waiting for a dissertation of profound magnitude. Churchill spoke three words, “Never give up.”
That was the entire speech. He returned to his seat. The Chancellor was stunned… perhaps even miffed and wanting a refund. He coaxed Churchill to return to the podium. Churchill obliged; leaned into the microphone and said, “Never, EVER, give up.”
I don’t recall Mr. Bolde saying this, but I imagine it was the shortest commencement address in the history of commencements.
It turns out, Mr. Bolde wrote a book in 2010 called Lead the Way…. He referenced his commencement address about this Churchill speech. ***
In hindsight, I wish I had closed the commencement book and listened longer; for this I apologize. I do intend to either load his book on my Kindle or visit the library to borrow a free copy. I have used the Dewey decimal system for years now; if available, I will find it on my own. I suppose Mr. Bolde would appreciate a purchase on my part…Penance for not listening to all of his address.
About five weeks after my graduation, my mother passed away after a short illness, but a long life of 89 91 years. (The age discrepancy is an even longer story than this and for another time.) She was a survivor of tuberculosis and cancer, the Great Depression, a child of divorce, a wife, gave birth eight times, experienced the loss of a child, and much more.
As I was growing up she often reminisced that her fondest memories were during World War II. This seemed strange to me for the world was in turmoil, but then again she was young, single, and eventually married a Sergeant in the US Army Air Corp (my milkman father). You would think that in her many recollections of the era to me she would have at least mentioned the name Sir Winston Churchill, once. Instead, all she talked about was, “Attending hair dressing school, USO dances, ration books, USO dances, meeting my father, USO dances, dreams of a large family, USO dances….” I think you get the idea.
For some reason as I wrote her eulogy, I began to think of Sir Winston Churchill and his words, “Never, EVER give up.” This was the second eulogy I had written and spoken for five years earlier, my father died. Three or four words would not cut it….my mother needed a eulogy for the ages. In her life she sought respect and attention…I suppose all of us seek the same in our own way.
Within a week of her funeral I received a phone call to set up my first interview for a teaching position, in quick succession I received two more calls. With interviews complete, I nervously waited.
I was quite frankly scared out of my mind and in need of direction. There was curriculum to be learned, classroom supplies needed and clothes to be bought. While out and about trying to find that perfect first day of school outfit (much easier when I used to wear a school uniform).
I found some unbelievable sales and was able to purchase a few things from which to choose. My mother was an excellent shopper when it came to sales so I was thinking about her as I tried on clothes in the fitting room. As I left the fitting room I spotted a little sign on a “gifty” display table. There was only one like it. I had to buy it to hang in my classroom, for me… and for my future students as it seemed a message from above and the past.
Monday, I went back to school for a week of professional experiences and preparation for the upcoming school year in order to meet the needs of my students. Boxes I packed two short months ago are opened. I have placed the wire hanger of my little sign over the hook where it has hung for the last five years and will hang for another. The challenges I will meet as the school year begins await.
I have not chosen my outfit for the first day when classes begin and it is the least of my worries. There is much work to be completed before the students arrive and I am humbled by those colleagues who make the preparation and teaching look easy…trust me when I say…it isn’t easy, but I’ll try to,
It seems Sister Maura Anne had a looking-glass into the future when she wrote my name in her perfect penmanship next to Sir Winston Churchill.
*name changed to protect the innocent
**name changed, but not so innocent
*** My recollection of the commencement address given by Mr. Bolde is quite similar to the written words in his book. (Bolde, Bill. Lead the Way. No ed. Xulon, 2010. Print.) The intention of the bold-type paragraphs with embellished sarcasm in italics by me is my memory of his address given May 21, 2009.