I saw this story on Gawker yesterday, about a kindergarten teacher who had her students encircle one kid and oink at him as punishment for being messy. “This sounds familiar,” I thought. I am fairly certain my first-grade teacher did the exact same thing to a girl in our class. I am completely certain that this teacher did other, even more mean-spirited things to that same student. And my first-grade teacher was a nun.
I went to Catholic school from kindergarten through high school, and overall, it was a fine experience. I never had anything too bad happen to me, and my worst teachers weren’t nuns or priests. I learned what I was supposed to learn, went to college, and got a job. Hooray for education.
That said, I never got on the wrong side of any of the crazier nuns. Nuns became fewer and farther between as the years went on – I think there were only two or three at my high school, and none of them taught – but I had nuns as teachers in first, third, and fourth grades. And as the old childhood rhyme goes, first was worst.
Sister Marie might have been five feet tall and, for all we knew, 100 years old. She wore big glasses and orthopedic shoes with her navy blue habit. I remember very little else about her except for her apparent hatred for Nikita, who happened to be the only black child in our class.
I don’t remember whether or not Nikita acted out in any way. Even if she had, the punishments Sister Marie inflicted were just cruel. One day, Sister Marie threw Nikita’s doll out the classroom window. When Nikita left retrieve it, Sister Marie locked her out of the classroom. On another occasion, Sister Marie had each of us name one thing we didn’t like (hated? not sure of the phrasing, but it could have been “hated”) about Nikita. I don’t recall what I said, but I remember one of my friends saying, “How she sits like this!” while sitting with her legs folded beneath her on the chair. (I suppose sitting that way was one of the things Sister Marie had criticized, hence my friend’s answer.)
I didn’t think much of it at the time. An adult said Nikita was behaving badly, so she must have been. An adult told us to berate another student, so we did. Now, I realize how twisted this was, and how none of this would fly nowadays, especially in public schools. And now, I see the potentially racist undertones.
Nikita transferred to public school the following year. No wonder – what parent would pay to send their child to a school where they were bullied by their own teacher? I ran into her sometime during middle school, and I was shocked to discover how nice she was. I remembered her as “the bad kid,” the one Sister Marie had singled out as the prime example of how not to behave. “She must have changed,” I thought at the time, still too young to understand how wrong Sister Marie had been.
I understand now, and I feel horrible. I hope Nikita was able to get over that, and I hope my old school system wouldn’t allow these kinds of things to happen today.