A Visit to the Principal

You haven’t seen much from me lately because I’ve been off on the annual pilgrimage to visit family at the family mecca, Lake Alexander in central Minnesota. And along the way this year I was called in to see the Principal.

Now, whether students or parents, most of us dread such a summons—in my case, as the former way back when—and the consequences of our bad behavior that made it necessary. Fortunately, I was enough of a goody-two-shoes back then that my contacts with the authority figure in question were usually good. And they have remained that way.

Still, when you must finally give an account of yourself fifty years later, you have to worry if you turned out as well as your teachers hoped you would. So I was anxious. But I had an ace in the hole: my grade-school principal enjoys my books, which meant I had at least earned a “satisfactory.”

Her name was then Sister Mary Martin, a nun from the teaching order of St. Joseph, and I adored her. She was not only my principal but also one of my teachers in fifth through eighth grade. She is one of only four teachers I can recall of the years before high school, and the one I remembered—and liked—best.

Catholic grade schools did not have specialized teachers then, and Sister Mary Martin taught classes in addition to running the school. She taught me some of everything—arithmetic, reading and writing, spelling and grammar, geography and social studies, history and, of course, religion. They taught us phonetics, then, and vocabulary—both very valuable skills to someone who would eventually take up writing. But my historical fiction now uses every one of those academic skills, and if you enjoy my books, you really have Sister Mary Martin to thank.

It was my good friend and longest acquaintance, Mike Dekarski, who saw to it that Sister and I were reunited. Mike remembers what I did not: that we first met in kindergarten. We were classmates in grade school and high school, and Boy Scouts together too. And while I went off first to college and then the Navy, roaming the world, Mike stayed close to home—and stayed in touch with Sister Mary Martin. A few years ago he put us in touch by email, in which she abbreviates herself, “SMM”.

And it was Mike who arranged the reunion. That of the hundreds or thousands of kids she taught, she would remember me is more a tribute to her memory than any accomplishment of mine. But remember me well she did.

And so it was that on the drive home, Gabriela and I stopped at the retirement complex near St. Catherine’s College in St. Paul, Minnesota to have lunch and a visit with Sister Mary Martin. Despite my wishes to the contrary, she insisted it was her treat. So I broke a rule, and for once, let a nun buy.

There were the five of us: Mike, SMM, Gabriela, me, and SMM’s baby sister—also a nun and an octogenarian—Sister Jean. Gabriela, who loves all social occasions, beamed and conversed as best she could, and the sisters responded in kind. We all had fun, and stayed ‘til closing.

SMM is smaller now than I remembered. Of course, the nun’s habit added about four inches of height and a lot of extra padding, and I was shorter then. A cane keeps her steady and helps her up and down. But her eyes still twinkle, and her smile is still gracious. And she is just as sharp and every bit as sweet as she ever was.

SMM revealed her age—which I never knew—with some pride, and I was surprised to learn that she is a decade older than she looks or I ever suspected. We chatted about other fellow students we recalled. She told us of life before the convent—how she taught school to American kids in Germany right after WWII, how she loved it, and how her vocation has made that special. And I confessed to blowing up the sacristy one Sunday trying to light the censor for High Mass (did you know those little briquettes are self-lighting because they contain a mixture of charcoal and gunpowder? I didn’t).

SMM says she loves my books—the most gratifying thing an author can hear. Reading is harder these days, she says, as her vision dims. So I send her signed first editions as keepsakes and my e-books to read with magnification on her computer. After all she did for me, I can do no less.

20150712_SMM n me  And just before we quit, to SMM’s great delight, Mike took a picture of me with a cheesy grin pretending to sit on her lap to send to John Lamb, the classmate who is my biggest rival for Sister’s affections. She enjoys our email banter as we fight over her, and was tickled that I thought to do it. I want you to know that’s amusement, not pain, on her face—I’d never squish a nun!

Our visit was far too short—two hours can’t catch up on fifty years. I didn’t get detention, and I did get praise for the good care taken of my bride—acclaim I highly prize, given its source. We do continue to correspond by email, and I hope this was just the first of many annual visits with SMM.

And next time, dammit—I’m buying!