Back in 1969 I was employed by the Sisters of Mercy to join the teaching staff of St Aloysius’ Girls’ High School. I was young and energetic in the practice of my profession, determined to make some difference to the students in my classroom, but almost totally ignorant concerning the nuns alongside whom I was to teach. Having been raised in a Presbyterian family, it took a little time to come to a fuller realisation that the Mercy Congregation encompassed a diverse range of ladies, many of whom were warm, wise and dedicated, though enmeshed in the manifold upheavals of those changing times. I was to come to marvel at the qualities of faith, hope and love which marked their humble days of service though, I freely admit, these qualities were not immediately apparent to me.
Regarding the Parry Street site, my concerns came more immediately and clearly into focus. How was one to cope with the claustrophobic effects of a school for 400 students that (including class-rooms, offices and a tarred playground) covered a mere .68 of an acre? How was the first full-time, male lay teacher at the institution to conjure up a more rapidly accessible toilet facility than that offered by the Hamilton Hotel? And a month or two after commencing work and having been using, with great enthusiasm, the personal spirit duplicator purchased to run off lesson aids at home, how was one to convince some of the Sisters of advanced olfactory sensitivities (the duplicator ran on methylated spirits) that one was not a drunkard?
Such were some of my ‘beginner’s’ apprehensions. My first days at a school where I was to teach for 16 years continued to throw up many more such questions demanding a multitude of adaptations on my part. There was one situation that, above others, remains indelibly in mind and illustrates the nature of my naivety at the time:
School assembly. I’m standing at the rear of the Hall. Sr Margaret is late and enters via the back doorway. Two students are seated on a smallish bench. They observe Sister’s approach and shuffle sideways closer together, leaving a space for her to occupy. Their display of consummate good manners (unfortunately) does not stop at this juncture. As Sr Margaret descends towards the recently vacated end of the bench, the two simultaneously arise out of respect. Gravity, however, is no respecter of persons, making no distinction between saints, sisters or sinners. Down to the floor goes Sr Margaret (fortunately avoiding injury), landing upon her back and remaining there in the undignified attitude of some very pious black and white tortoise rocking ever-so-slightly on its carapace.
What does one do? Does one lay hands on the person of a sister? All the voices of my upbringing are screaming at me to assist, to be the gentleman, to offer help, to lift...
All student heads are momentarily turned towards the source of the kerfuffle and, embarrassingly, towards my hovering, ineffectual presence. Now Sr Aquinas, who as deputy principal is conducting the assembly, uses her eyes which miraculously, re-assert their hold over the students, drawing them inexorably around till their attention is again riveted upon the stage. Such control!
Time stretches impossibly into a sweltering eternity of my red-faced inertia; an inertia born of my ignorance that in turn, breeds paralysis. Yet, beneath my fixed gaze, Sr Margaret rocks on...ever-so-slightly. Beads of perspiration pop from my forehead. And that nauseating rocking motion continues...
Then...the nightmarish impasse is broken! Diurnal reality returns! A smile flickers across Sr Aquinas’ face...and that is the signal. Student heads swivel around towards the circus at the rear and the hall reverberates with titterings, giggles, gut-laughs and guffaws.
At this explosion of pent-up sound, all my indecision falls away, like chains suddenly loosed from a prisoner. I obey what remains of my sense of self-preservation by fleeing from the scene to live another day and, with some urgency, to seek much-needed advice on the subject of how one (if ever again required) should handle ‘holy personages’.
How poor Sr Margaret was returned to the world of ambulating beings, remains, to my everlasting shame, an unknown. I could never bring myself to ask anyone. I had much to learn...in my second kindergarten.