(Village Teacher, Vietnam, 1967, Ed Palm Photo)
As I look back on it now, Vietnam wasn’t so bad. It was Sister Mary Casimir and Holy Penance School that left me post-traumatically stressed.
But, before I go on, a disclaimer of sorts: The story you are about to read is true—or, at least, mostly true. The events I’m about to relate actually happened in a Catholic School in northern Delaware in the early sixties. The names have been changed to protect the guilty, and that was all of us, to one degree or another. It was Catholic school after all. Guilt was our most important product.
Also, you have to understand that the early sixties were heady times for the Church. A Catholic was elected to the presidency during my time at Holy Penance, and he promised we would “go anywhere, pay any price” to halt the tide of “Godless Communism” that the Church in particular seemed to fear Communism back then. Where we would soon go, of course, myself included, was to Vietnam; and in a weird sort of way, Catholic school did more to get me ready for that trip than Marine Corps boot camp would do about five years later. Or, maybe it would be more accurate to say that Parris Island was just more of the same, taken to a different level.
My real problem, I suppose, is that I've never done anything quite the way most people do. The norm where I grew up, for instance, was to make good Catholic kids go to parochial school from the first through the eighth grade. Then their parents would relent and let them go on to public high schools. As for me, I was never a good Catholic kid. I was only a nominal Catholic and pretty much getting badder by the day when, after six years in the local public grade school, I got sent to Holy Penance for the seventh and eighth grades. The hope was that the “good sisters” could straighten me out. (Come to think of it, there’s my first affinity. In the America I grew up in, Catholic school and Marine Corps boot camp were both considered to be the best reform schools going.) That’s how, and why, Sister Mary Casimir, the nun I would have for the seventh and eighth grades, and I got thrown together.
“Thrown together” is apt, because, from what Sister divulged and from what our parents heard through the grapevine, Sister Mary Casimir too was not a volunteer. She had been transferred to us from a Polish parish in northern New Jersey; and, as she would take every opportunity to tell us, she herself was Polish. Usually, those reminders took the form of invidious, implied comparisons between the ethnically pure children she had once taught and the wild working-class mongrels she found herself charged with taming. “Polish children are respectful and courteous. Polish children are religious. Polish children do their lessons.” Such was her litany, week in, week out. And, sadly, the lament we would eventually hear: “Polish children wouldn’t treat me this way.”
Too late, I thought of the perfect comeback, had one of us been brave enough and/or suicidal enough to use it: “Does this look like Krakow to you, Sister?”
I still remember that first day. It was pure theater, not unlike the effect I would observe at Parris Island about six years later. The costume and the attitude were everything. A Smoky the Bear hat and sharply pressed tropical wool or a starched while wimple and a floor-length brown habit, complete with an oversized rosary cinched at the waist—to people who grew up in my time and place, both connoted absolute, uncompromising power and authority. Of course, if Sister too had a colorful command of profanity, she never shared it with us. But her measured, overly precise diction, coupled with her pregnant pauses and icy stares, could likewise inspire fear and trembling.
As I sit here today, in front of my laptop computer, I realize that I should give you, the reader, some idea of what Sister Mary Casimir, the person, looked like. The problem is, I don’t know.
The overall impression is still here with me, and it remains vivid. As I’ve already mentioned, I remember the nun-speak and the flat affect that somehow spoke volumes and could be even more intimidating than those occasions when she would lose control. But, when I try to remember the person, all I can think of is the military supply idiom I would later learn. She was a “nun”; category “religious”; unit of issue, “one each.”
I don’t know what color her eyes were; I never looked. (One thing you never wanted to do was to make eye contact. That would have been considered provocative and insolent.) We never saw her hair, not even a wisp of it. Her face was always tightly framed by her wimple. She seemed taller than most of us, but that may have been an illusion, a product of her demeanor. She didn’t seem heavy or thin, but the loosely flowing brown habit made possible to hide a multitude of deadly sins, gluttony in particular.
She could have been 35; she could have been 50. Her face was full but not lined. Her complexion was good—ivory white and smooth—but I remember her lips as thin and pale. (I probably noticed because, in forbidding the girls to wear makeup, she would imply that her lips had remained soft and supple precisely because she had never worn lipstick.) She wore the standard-issue glasses—small round lenses with thin steel frames.
She walked with her nose held high and her arms folded in front of her and her hands tucked into the folds of the large, open sleeves of her habit. There was a calculated sternness to her expression and an air of high seriousness to almost everything she said or did. Like the D.I.s I would later meet, Sister seemed angry and disdainful from the very outset, and she remained that way throughout the program. I can’t remember her ever cracking a smile or lightening up in any way. She ran on righteous indignation and erupted at the slightest provocation.
On that first day, after gliding in, she simply told us her name and started down the line, ordering us each to stand and introduce ourselves one‑by‑one.
We had not gotten halfway through the first row when an otherwise innocuous-looking little girl stood up and said, "My name is Dawn Rossiter, Sister."
Sister was silent for a moment, as if she thought she may have misheard the little girl. “What is your name?” Sister repeated, as if she couldn’t have possibly heard correctly.
“Dawn Rossiter, Sister,” the girl said, a little louder this time.
“Your name cannot be 'Dawn,'” Sister affirmed. “There is no 'Saint Dawn'! Don’t your parents know that Catholic children are to be named after saints?”
For a moment or two, the little girl looked incredulous, as if she were wondering whether Sister might indeed know more about her identity than she did. "No, Sister . . . I mean, I don't know, Sister," she finally responded.
As for me, I was not much given to prayer in those days, but I was paying silently and earnestly on that day: “Please let there be a Saint Edward! Please let there be a Saint Edward!”
Sister just glared at the confused little girl for at least thirty seconds before she summarily strode to the next student who, mercifully, was not held liable for the sins of his parents‑‑at least not on that occasion.
Fortunately, there is a Saint Edward (a “confessor” at that), so I got through unscathed on when my turn came. But, as we all realized on that very first day, there were landmines and booby-traps hidden all around Sister’s little Area of Operations, and you just never knew when you might trip one.
This much I knew on that very first day: It was going to be a long year. --EFP