As a high school senior at Scecina Memorial High School, I came to learn that God sends many people to us during the course of our lives. If we are vigilant and faithful, we come to recognize them. More often than not, we fail to listen most of the time or procrastinate until we are broken and desperate. Then and only then do we realize our fortunes much later in life. One such person, for me, was Sister Rita Clare, a Franciscan, my senior English teacher.
I had a most difficult early period in English. I was younger than my peers by two years in most instance; anxious about not being able to learn thinking everyone else was more intelligent and better prepared to leave high school to make their way in the world. When I turned in written work, I feared their return. My fears were generally justified—D’s and F’s (mostly “F’s”).
Fearful of Sister, I prayed for mercy or to be lifted up to heaven. My prayers were answered but not as expected. Roughly three weeks into the fall semester, Sister quickly handed my written composition to me: “Mr. Peterson, see me immediately after class.” Fear of the unknown cause a chill up and down my entire body. The looks on classmate’s faces elevated my fear. I believe they knew I was failing though I never gave any verbal indication of my problems. When they bell rang, I sat frozen wishing to die. Those who passed me said not a word but I felt as though they were passing my casket.
As the last student exited, Sister closed the door then stated: “Mr. Peterson, I do not enjoy watching you fail English. I talked with the teachers whose classes you are in. Each reported you are a brilliant student and well above average in some of the most difficult classes this school has to offer. However, you are failing miserably in English. Will you explain why young man?”
“Sister,” I responded with my head down. “Sister, I really don’t know why. This class just scares me. You scare me. I don’t understand writing. I’d rather be in Chemistry. I enjoy learning about chemical bonds, valences, and being able to make things from simple elements. Everyone knows you are a tough teacher, Sister. Everyone knows that many of the students in English won’t make it. All they want to do it pass and get out of here.”
“I see,” she responded. “Let’s focus on you. What do you want to do? Do you want to pass and get out?”
“I would like to do well. I just do not know if I will be able to do so.”
“Interesting, Mr. Peterson. Very interesting indeed! It is not my intention to scare you, make you fear me or to fail you. I teach the way I do to prepare each senior the skills and abilities to write clearly and to conduct research to prepare them for college work and eventually life. I am fair but firm. I do not accept any notion that education should be easy or fun. It may be in some cases. However, you will be challenged in my class. So let me ask you this, Mr. Peterson. What do you plan to do once you graduate?”
“My plan, Sister, is to go to college,” I responded in a low tone of voice.
“Well, young man, what you are demonstrating in this class, I will tell you that you will flunk out within a matter. Your work is absolutely miserable!” she boldly stated.
Sister’s honesty and truthfulness shocked me but I knew her assessment was correct. What she proposed was equally shocking.
“Mr. Peterson, I am willing to provide tutoring sessions after school on Tuesdays and Thursdays. You must be willing to accept what I will teach you. You must also be willing work hard as well as accept my critique of your work. I do not wish to waste your time or mine. It is your decision. If you wish to think about it, I will give you until tomorrow for your response.”
Still in shock, I responded: “I am ready to work hard to be a better writer right now, Sister.”
“Good! Good! Young man! You have taken the first step towards success! As I explained to you, I will not make this experience easy. However, I believe you are up to the task. Let us work together to make the most of the remainder of your high school experience. You are not to stop doing well in your other classes. You will receive assignments every day and you will receive a grade. Because time is precious and your needed critical, I am giving you an assignment tonight.”
“What have I gotten myself into,” I thought to myself. “I will probably wish I had never agree to this.”
“Your first assignment is to write describing a tree.”
“Yes, a tree. You must write at least 400 words. I want to describe as much information about the tree you are observing. Some aspects you might consider are: its height, color of its leaves, and type/kind of tree. Do you understand? Do you have any questions, Mr. Peterson?”
“Very well! I have one final question, Mr. Peterson. Do you enjoy reading?”
“Not much. I would rather experiment with chemicals; solve algebraic problems; read comic book or a MAD magazine. That is about what I like doing!” After I said what I did, I thought; “Why did I say that?”
“Comic books! MAD magazines! Oh, my! Mr. Peterson successful writers read what other successful writers write. I am going to lend my copy of “John Steinbeck’s ‘Grapes of Wrath”. Why don’t read about five pages. Tell me what you think. This should be enough for now. Get one to your next class! I will give you a permission slip and speak with your teacher later.”
I wrote a description of a tree but not before consuming thirty minutes trying to begin the essay. Hours were spent writing and correcting my essay before typing the finished product to be handed in. Once I turned the essay, bad feeling welled in me that I did not do well. My suspicions were confirmed. An “F” grade appeared with many corrections in red and a printed statement to “see me after class”.
While standing over my shoulders, Sister verbally went over my essay with suggested corrections. She determined I required basic parts of speech, grammar and sentence construction. She gave me a secretary’s notebook. When she considered information important she stated “take this note”. An act I repeated often. At the completion of a tutoring session, would state: “Let us pray, Mr. Peterson with the following prayer:
Grant him the ability, O Merciful God, to desire ardently that which is pleasing to
You. To accomplish it perfectly. To know it completely for the praise and glory of your
Most Holy Name. Amen.
When I first heard this prayer on my behalf, I realized this teacher whom all considered mean, stern and unbending did not realize that she was granted the gift of teaching. She was merely granting those who would listen and consider what she had learned through her own experiences both as a teacher and a nun. I worked long and hard so as not to disappoint God and Sister Rita Clare. She promised me this journey would not be easy. It was not.
Sister repeated over and over again lessons that would have frustrated a weaker teacher and tutor. She never gave up on me while patiently correcting any observed mistakes. In three months of intense tutoring, my grades and confidence improved in English to a “C” overall. In early November, I was assigned to research then write the history of the “Twelve Days of Christmas”. Before Sister was satisfied, I had proceeded through 17 corrections of this one piece. Once Sister was satisfied with the assignment, she sat me down to state that with God’s help and my effort this work was satisfactory enough to submit to an anthology of student work at then, Marian College, a small Catholic college in the Indianapolis area. The college offered me a scholarship to attend as did Indiana University and Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.
I chose to attend Indiana University (IU). During my years at IU, I wrote pieces for the student newspaper, chapters for textbooks for professors; summaries and reports for the Kinsey Institute for Sex Research under Paul Gebhart. Later I wrote for professors at the University of Central Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University.
Following my university and college days, I have written more than 60 books and more than 1,000 articles and short stories. I have won a number of writing awards. The initial piece, the Twelve Days of Christmas, written in 1965 under the tutelage of Sister Rita Clare has been quoted by many over the years and maybe observed at www.faithwriters.com.
Sister Rita Clare died in 1989. However, for 9 months she devoted many hours of her time challenging, guiding and developing a timid teen to do his very best. She is, to her former student, one sent by God.