Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Sister D

My high school math teacher, Sister D, died last week.  She entered the Benedictine order in her late teens, and must have been in her thirties when I knew her.  Like all but the very ancient nuns, she seemed ageless.  How can you tell someone's age when all you see is the triangle described by the span of the forehead and the chin, especially if you yourself are fifteen and even the 12th graders look fully adult in your eyes?

Those were my years of terror, when I was the only foreign student in a Catholic high school in the deep, deep South.  When I didn't know English and there was nobody but myself to teach it to me.  I am not inclined to find fault with those who were in charge of me in my past, but sometimes I think about those teachers--the young lay men and women, the smiling nuns, the Irish priests with their incomprehensible accents--and wonder, did they have an inkling of how lost I was?

Maybe they did.  Maybe they conferred on how best to handle me.  But nobody ever said anything to me about my language difficulties.  Maybe it is because I did my best to mask them--fear of ridicule is a potent learning aid in one's teens.  I remember clearly missing a question on a biology test about organisms in shallow streams because I didn't know what "shallow" meant.  Did I ask the teacher? The way I saw it, if I had asked every question I had, the entire school would have ground to a halt.

The principal did once during my freshman year stop me in the hallway and ask if I was doing o.k.  I had to make him repeat the question a couple of times, but once I understood it I said yes, yes, and fled down the hall.  And after that casual check, that was it.  As far as I could tell, the approach of my teachers during those high school years was to treat me exactly as they treated everybody else.  They probably had no idea what to do.  Bilingual ed was decades in the future.

There was one exception. Sister R, the junior-year English teacher, thought that I should give my speech on Communism (this being the early 60s) at the state-wide Civitan oratorical contest.  But she thought that first I needed to work on my accent.  So she kept me after school a couple of days and tape recorded my readings of the speech and tried her best to show me where the pronunciation was wrong...but I couldn't even hear what she was talking about.  I did nevertheless go to Selma, Alabama (just a couple of years before the march), and give the speech and somehow came in third.  That was the extent of my English language instruction.

But back to Sister D.  She taught college-prep algebra and trigonometry and physics.  Her classes were full of boys with bright futures involving slide rules hanging from their belts.  They were her favorites.  She treated them with a rough good humor, and stole their hearts with talk about football and baseball.  The girls did their homework and hoped that their math grades would not hinder them in their pursuit of majors in nursing and elementary education.

I worked harder for her class than I did for all the other subjects put together.  Of my three years with her I remember that I did learn about quadratic equations and logarithms and such--nothing I could ever begin to put to the slightest practical use except the habit of working hard at difficult things.  What I remember most clearly about Sister D was that she taught me an expression I had never heard before.

One day in class she came to my desk and said with a smile, "I have a bone to pick with you."  I instantly assumed my deer-in-the-headlights, language-impaired expression.  My classmates, who had seen it a million times before, tittered.  Why would my math teacher want to do something to a bone in my company?  Was this picking a good thing or a bad?  It turned out that she was joking about something having nothing to do with math, and I finally understood dimly that bone picking had something to do with fighting, but not, thank God, in this case.

And ever since, every time I hear that phrase, I think of Sister D and of the deeply scary days of my youth.


  1. I think about how tough it must have been for you and how hard you must have worked to try and fit in. I was a foreigner in the States myself once and I know of the prejudices. If you don't speak the language well, it must mean you are dumb.

  2. Irene, I think it has (or had, in those years) to do with lack of exposure to non-native speakers--something that is seldom the case in Europe.

    (So you've lived here--no wonder your English is so good!)

  3. I've often read your blog and wondered how you became so amazingly fluent in English, and how it was for you when you first arrived. I've been in a similar situation in school in Bangkok, but the difference was that I didn't have any pressure to pick up the language quickly enough so I could pick up everything else we're supposed to learn at school. I hope you know I'm incredibly impressed at what you achieved.

    I also have a question - do you have any traces of an accent now, or did you lose it completely?

    1. As her husband, I can best answer that: She has absolutely no trace of a foreign accent. What's even more remarkable, having learned English in "the deep, deep South" and didn't move to the North until she was 30, she doesn't even have a southern accent.

    2. Mali, I'll let Ed answer about the accent. But the thought of having to learn Thai makes my head spin! I had a Thai roommate in grad school and I remember how hopelessly difficult English was for her.

      As for my becoming fluent, there is nothing like the adolescent desperation to blend in to make one want to learn just about anything. (But you should know I still have occasional trouble with prepositions.)