My middle school bully was a senile nun

Thanks for NOTHING, Sister Catherine!

My middle school bully was a senile nun

Over the summer between fifth and sixth grade, my family moved from Orlando to Fort Myers. This was just one of many relocations ping-ponging around Florida, but it was the first to come with an accompanying change in education: at the urging of several of my dad’s new coworkers, who claimed that private schools in the area were much better than the public schools, my brothers and I were enrolled in a Catholic school.

You might assume that the transition from public to Catholic school would be difficult. It probably is for many kids. But for me, the experience was oddly freeing. I no longer had to pick out outfits every day and could instead wear uniforms like British kids in movies. I knew enough to roll my eyes at my new classmates when they said that we could get away with anything if we were in public school. Catholic school felt more lenient to me in many ways, its own weird world where our curriculum didn’t revolve around standardized testing. Here, everyone celebrated the same holidays as me and we all prayed together before every class. My family had never been particularly churchy, though we were baptized and all that. We’d moved too often before that point to ever really connect with a church community, and my mom’s Catholicism was more about the rules than the practice. So now, for me, Catholic school was an exciting opportunity to explore a part of my identity that had never really been at the forefront up until that point.

When friends hear that I went to Catholic school, they will sometimes ask jokingly if I got rapped on the knuckles by mean nuns. The simple answer is no. Most Catholic school teachers nowadays are regular laypeople, not nuns or priests, and corporal punishment was no longer a practice by my generation. The complicated answer is that I was psychologically tormented by a nun who roamed the school without a real job and a confused vendetta against me, specifically.

Her name was Sister Catherine, and she’d somehow decided that I was a troublemaker that she needed to keep an eye on. I cannot express to you the extent to which I was not a troublemaker. The most untoward thing I did in my middle school years was request permission to do a group book report project on my own because no one else wanted to read the 1,000-page book that I wanted to.

It’s very possible that Sister Catherine had me confused with some other brunette she’d encountered in her decades at the school — she never learned my name, so it’s not likely that she was confusing me with an Allison from the 70s or 80s — because from the first time we interacted, her attitude was that of someone who’d been putting up with my shenanigans for years. But I think that my true crime was befriending a cherubic classmate named Maureen, whose mom worked at the school and who had herself been there since pre-K. Our friendship was cartoonishly wholesome. We spent our time together outside of school working on craft projects and listening to the Dixie Chicks and Shania Twain. But Sister Catherine couldn’t know that, so perhaps she saw me as an interloper swooping into town to corrupt Maureen. Regardless of the reason, she always made it obvious that she disliked me, like the time we encountered her in the hallway in our fanciest dresses before the winter dance. She exclaimed, “Oh, you girls are all dressed up for the dance! Maureen, you look lovely,” the swiveled her head to glare at me in pointed silence.

Sister Catherine had been an official teacher at some point in the school’s history, but in this millennium she was kept around out of general charity despite (or because of) the fact that she was fairly senile. Mostly, this meant that she was the go-to substitute if a teacher had to call out. But it also meant that she would occasionally burst into our classrooms to take over the lesson entirely, leaving our teachers flummoxed and attempting to look grateful. I vividly remember the times she barged into our English class to assign us poems to memorize. No adult had ever hated me before — some of my peers certainly seemed unimpressed by me at times, but I usually had teachers in my pocket — so I assumed that by working harder than everyone else, I could win her over. When we were assigned our first poem, “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus, I went home and began practicing it immediately, even though the due date was weeks away. The next time Sister Catherine appeared in class, it was to remind us of the upcoming date of our recitations. In a threat that I’d been anticipating, she asked what would happen if she called on one of us right now and made us recite the poem. Because I was a nightmarish Hermione Granger of a child, my hand shot up. I could do it, I said, and I did.

I rattled off the beginning lines of the poem and was immediately cut off with a criticism: I was pausing at the ends of lines that didn’t have any punctuation. No one had ever taught me how to read poetry aloud, as this was merely an assignment foisted upon us by a crazy person with no context, and I was 11 or 12, so I really don’t think I should have been reprimanded for my approach here. I soldiered on and recited every word of the poem precisely and correctly, but apparently not perfectly. “Listen to how she says ‘poor!’” she taunted when I got to the word in the poem. “It’s not ‘pore.’” Her mocking delivery implied that I was a dumb hick. She said that the word should be pronounced like poo-er. I can still hear her dumb old lady voice dictating it to me like this was a 1920s finishing school. I have never pronounced the word that way in my life.

In an effort to show me how it was done, Sister Catherine asked Maureen to take a stab at reciting the poem. This was not the day the poem was due, so Maureen didn’t quite have it memorized. She got a few inaccurate lines in and Sister Catherine beamed and said, “Perfect! Just perfect.”

This was not the most egregious example of the double standard that existed between Maureen and myself. The worst was when we brought in our Pen Pals. “Pen Pals” were a craft idea from our beloved American Girl Magazine. We’d spent a joyful Saturday gluing embroidery floss and toothpicks onto our pens to make little people in all kinds of styles. I can show you exactly what they looked like, because my mom found one when cleaning out the garage a while ago:

Unfortunately, I brought my Pen Pals to science class on a day when Sister Catherine was our substitute. We had a test that day, so theoretically all she had to do was shut up and hand them out, but she never passed up an opportunity to catch me in wrongdoing. While she would accuse me of cheating later in the period — I was flipping my paper back and forth to understand a question on one side that referred to a chart on the other and she yelped “Are you showing your answers to the boy behind you?!” — the most embarrassing interaction occurred right out of the gate. While passing out the tests, she paused to grab my pen to hold up and sneer in front of everyone, “Do we bring our dollies to class?” My face burning, I told her it was a pen. “It’s a distraction,” she countered. “Put it away and use something else so those around you can focus on their tests.” When said that I didn’t have a regular pen, she snapped, “Well, now you have to borrow one and everyone else has to wait to take their test! You’re holding us all up.” She continued passing out the tests until she got to Maureen’s desk on the other side of the room, where my friend was using a Pen Pal of her own. “Maureen, did you make that pen?” she asked in wonderment. “You’re so creative!”

The most that she ever humiliated me was when acting as substitute in my homeroom class one morning. Each class had two Student Council representatives, a boy and a girl, and I was of course the girl representative because of my aforementioned Hermioneness. This was a thrilling position for me, because not only did I get to take notes at meetings and present them to the class (two of my favorite activities), I also got to do it with the boy representative, on whom I had an enormous crush. During our brief speech about upcoming school fundraisers, Sister Catherine began making tally marks on the chalkboard behind me. Confused and nervous, I attempted to continue my speech, occasionally looking over at Sister Catherine glowering at me and marking tallies. When I’d finished, she tapped the board. “These tally marks represent how many times this girl said ‘like’ when she was talking,” she announced. I was mortified and furious. “When you say ‘like’ that much, it makes you sound unintelligent.” I stood there in between her and my crush, feeling the urge to scream while she mimicked me and told the class to learn from my example.

It eventually became so much of a problem that my mom had to schedule a meeting with the principal to discuss the ways Sister Catherine would show up in the cafeteria or the halls to bark at me for an imagined infraction. (It was not “healthy,” per se, to eat Cap’n Crunch for lunch, but there was no rule against it!)  The principal was apologetic but basically said that they couldn’t get rid of Sister Catherine, so I just had to avoid her.

There’s something very strange about any school environment. I’ve had wonderful teachers who understood me and encouraged me, of course, but every once in a while you get a wild card who shouldn’t be around children. Sister Catherine was not even the only adult who bullied me in middle school! Our PE teacher once pointed and laughed at me for being terrible at baseball, tipping me over the edge so much that I ran into the locker room and sobbed hysterically. That day is still a painful memory in my mind. I’d been picked last for the team, as per usual, and our team captain Kevin had asked me to “try not to suck as much as you usually do” and also I had my period and also it was my 13th birthday.

In high school, a science teacher told me that I should never sing again after seeing me in the school musical. “Musicals aren’t for you!” she said chipperly, absolutely unprompted. “I have an ear for music, so I know these things.” I did not sing again for ten years, choosing not to audition for singing parts my senior year and giving up theatre entirely in college. I don’t want to say anything against teachers in general here, but some of them are maniacs.

I can’t say that any of this built character, and I still fully resent these adults who shook my confidence as an impressionable young person. But Maureen remains one of my closest friends in the world, and I talk to her every single day, and Sister Catherine is dead now, so in the end I suppose I emerged triumphant in this rivalry.

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