There are times when the opportunity presents itself to share a story and it’s just too good to resist. Recently I was at a barbecue with some new friends. Turns out several of us had attended Catholic schools and we were regaling the group around the table with tales from our youth. Here’s mine.
Back in the day at the elementary school most of the teachers were nuns, who wore the full habit that only showed the face and hands. Think of Whoopi Goldberg in “Sister Act” and you get the idea. There was a day when one of the few lay teachers in the sixth grade went home ill. I was in the class, chattering away with the other kids, when Sister Columbia entered. A diminutive person barely five feet tall, she was able to instill fear into the heart of any student. When her demand for quiet went unheeded, Columbia thundered “I …said… quiet!” while slamming her fist against the blackboard. She cracked it from top to bottom. Silence ensued.
A year later, as the school year ended, I learned that my parents had invited all of the nuns up to our family cottage for a picnic. When the day arrived, it was overcast with a drizzling rain. Not ideal for a picnic with a bunch of penguins, as many of us referred to the nuns. But they arrived in good spirits and wandered about. I was trying to stay out of sight when Sister Columbia caught my arm.
“Let’s go for a ride in that little speedboat,” she said.
“It’s raining, Sister.”
“Water won’t hurt you.”
I saw the determined look in her face and knew it was hopeless to argue. So I grabbed a couple of life jackets. The speedboat she referred to was a miniature hydroplane, ten feet of fiberglass shaped like a tennis shoe, with a tiny bench seat in the rear and a forty horsepower outboard engine. After getting her settled in, I took the nylon line, still attached to the cleat on the bow, and handed it to her.
“What’s this for?”
“Hold onto that so you don’t fall out.”
She flashed me a look that suggested she didn’t believe me. I shrugged and started the engine and putted down the canal. As we hit the main channel, a forty-five foot cabin cruiser headed upriver. I nudged the throttle higher and gave pursuit.
Most powerboats give off a wake that consists of three sets of waves, rolling off the stern on each side. The bigger the boat and the faster they are going, the bigger the wake. Experienced sailors will gauge the distance between the waves and guide their own boats through it where it will create the least amount of havoc. Cocky teenagers ignore such caution. I snuck at glance at the nun. Despite the steady rain, she was smiling thinly. I spun the wheel toward the cruiser’s wake and jammed the throttle wide open.
We crested the first roller. Rather than cut the speed to ease over the second one, I kept the throttle where it was.
“You are so going to hell,” an inner voice muttered.
We shot through the middle of the second roller. Gallons of cold water rushed over the bow, dumping into our laps in the little cockpit. We burst through the wave, raced up the third roller and went airborne for a moment or two before splashing back down. I expected any number of reactions from Sister Columbia. Her hands wrapped around my neck, the wet nylon line lashing across my arms and face or even a solid hook to the ribcage all came to mind. But none of those greeted me as I looked at her.
Her face was split with the biggest smile I’d ever seen on her. “Do it again!” She pointed at the next set of rollers. “Do it again!”
I was taught to obey the nuns at school. Even though school was out, I did what she asked. We spent the next half hour, chasing that cabin cruiser, jumping over some waves, running through others. You could have filled a kiddie pool with the water swirling around inside the cockpit. Eventually we headed back toward the cottage, where everyone else was warm and dry, getting ready for lunch. After tying up the boat, I helped the nun back onto dry land. She was still grinning and laughing. My mom was at the back door, slowly shaking her head is dismay. She hustled Sister Columbia into a bathroom.
Ten minutes later her nunnery outfit was tumbling through the dryer. Sister Columbia appeared, wrapped in a long thick bathrobe with a towel wound around her hair like a turban. She took a seat at the bar and proceeded to throw back a shot of whiskey and chase it with a sip of beer. Sister Columbia shot me a wink and a nod. She kept that smile all day.
So that’s my story on Catholic schools. What’s yours?