Since graduation from Scecina Memorial High School in Indianapolis, Indiana, I have come to accept the notion that God sends people into our lives to assist us when we are faced with challenging times and required to make difficult choices. Such persons, if listened to and taken to heart, become our guardian angels even when they are called to glory. For me, one such person was Sister Rita Clare Broecker, a Franciscan nun, my Junior and Senior years English teacher.
I had a very difficult time throughout most of my high education with writing. For whatever reasons, I could not understand the difference between an adjective, noun, verb or any other part of speech. I perceived that I was not very intelligent or smart. My classmates were very intelligent, sophisticated and smart. All of them were two or three years older. I was younger as I was promoted twice in elementary school only because my mathematics and science test scores were four grades or higher than my peers. Teachers felt to keep me with my peers would bore me and suppress my talents. I did get into trouble twice in elementary school for chewing gum in class and for using a girl’s pigtail for an ink pen (I saw a cartoon character do this and thought this could be done for real).
Sister Rita Clare was a tough, no nonsense English teacher who demanded excellence. For the first month of school during the first year, I never obtained a grade higher than a “D minus” in English composition. After the first six weeks, I had a solid “F” with no prospects of passing. I was angry at Sister Rita Clare for giving me such terrible grades. As now, English was a course necessary to graduate from high school. I, therefore, entertained the thought of dropping out of school even though all the other grades were “A’s” with a single “B plus” in Latin.
Too afraid to protest or to approach Sister for help, I sat silently in her English class suffering more “F”. Then on a crisp October day, Sister Rita Clare announced before the entire that I remain in class after everyone was dismissed. When heads turned in my direction with looks of sorrow and fear on the faces of my peers, I knew the end was near. My heart sank as I prayed for forgiveness and protection. Then the bell rang.
“Mr. Peterson,” Sister said, “I do not like seeing you fail English. I learned you are performing well in all of your other classes. I will tell you this you are doing miserably in English. You cannot write a cognizable sentence. What are your plans young men?”
“I want very much to go to college, Sister.”
“You will NOT perform well in college unless you learn to write. You must be able to express yourself utilizing the written aspects of, in this case, the English language. I believe you have what is required to be a very good college student if you learn to write. You can also be a good student in this class as well. Let us work to make the most of your time in this English class. If you wish, I am willing to work with you to improve your grades in English. I can avail myself to you at the end of the school day on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. I do not compel you to learn to write compositions. It will be your choice. You must decide if you will take this opportunity. You have the skills to be a very good writer.”
Sister Rita Clare’s words startled me. Prior to this day, I perceived as a cold, mean, rigid, monster. I never thought she had no concern for anyone’s well-being. I understood, from students I listened to, that more than half of any given English class failed. I and they were wrong.
Breathing a sigh of relief, I replied, “Yes, Sister, I will come to see you after school is over if it will help me to improve my English grades. Sister, I told my mother that I was dropping out of school.”
“That is utterly ridiculous young man! You should return to your mother to tell her your mistake and poor judgment before I will begin any tutoring with you. You should also tell your parents where you will be as well. I will spend an hour with you. I warn you this will not be easy. You will not receive any breaks from me. Do you understand, Mr. Peterson?”
“Yes, I do, Sister! Thank you.”
“Now return home and be prepared for some hard work! Have a blessed day!”
For nearly two years, Sister did exactly what she promised. She criticized and critiqued every composition I wrote, went over parts of speech and required me to write papers that were grammatically incorrect, sloppy or had typographical errors. She required researched papers free of errors as well. I was able to realize improvement. However, anytime I thought was doing well, Sister Rita Clare would let me know there could be improvements. I learned very quickly that Sister Rita Clare was difficult to deceive. If I tried, we had a meeting whereby she pointed out the errors of my way and writing.
For my senior composition, Sister Rita Clare required I research and explain the meaning of the “Twelve Days of Christmas”. Before she declared the work acceptable required twenty-two re-writings and corrections. She informed me that she would have my work published. It would be my first of many. These years of seeming failures and successes proved valuable as I learned that most of our initial writing efforts are subject to failure before they would be accepted for publication.
Sister Rita Clare promised me I would be able to obtain college scholarship. She directed to scholarships requiring me to explain why I should receive a scholarship in writing. When I returned to school after the Christmas holiday, I received full scholarship offerings from more than a dozen colleges and universities to include: Indiana University—Bloomington, Northwestern University, Notre Dame University, University of Michigan—Ann Arbor.
Sister Rita Clare kept her promise. Besides teaching me the art of writing, she taught more than enough discipline as well as the value to hard work to accomplish a great deal leading me to a long military career, employment in the civilian world, academic success and, yes, to a successful career as a prolific author.