Timmy McGinty had many important teachers over the years but the
one who changed his life was Sister Coleman, who taught him in 8th grade back
in 1952. She prepared Timmy to thrive in high school and, if a scholarship
became available, perhaps in college as well. It's lucky for him she worked so
hard because another nun might have given up on him. After all, he was
"incorrigible" (according to one of his previous teachers) and the only thing
he did well was spell, punctuate, write sentences and compose complete
paragraphs. Otherwise, he was fairly useless academically. His main delight was
mischief. In that field, he had no peer among his classmates.
Like many of the 16 nuns housed in the convent near the school,
Sister Coleman was an immigrant from Ireland. She had been brought to Chicago,
Timmy learned later in life, because she could manage roughhouse children, many
of them the offspring of blue-collar immigrants. Couth, you might say, was not
rampant among the otherwise decent people in that neighborhood. Fathers worked
as laborers, although a few managed to become policemen or firemen. Mothers
were homemakers although some took in laundry to make a few dollars.
In the first week of eighth grade, Sister Coleman plucked Timmy
out of the last seat in the second row and plopped him in the first seat in the
third row. He would spend the entire year in that seat, right under her
wolverine gaze. She had sat Timmy there because she suspected he had been
rolling marbles down the aisle from his back row seat. As always she was right
but Timmy did his best to maintain his innocence.
"Timothy McGinty," Sister bellowed, "that was you, wasn't it,
who rolled the marble down the aisle. It had to be you. That marble made a long
trip and you were in the last seat in the second row, covered with freckles and
full of buncombe. Do you know what buncombe means, Timothy? Well, you will by
the time this year is over, let me tell you, and you will be able to spell the
word as well."
Timmy denied everything, pointing his finger at Eddie Sheridan,
a slight lad who wished he could do some of the things Timmy did but he simply
didn't have the nerve. Besides, Eddie was good in math and he spent most of his
time working on algebra problems, something no one else in that eighth grade
would have touched.
"I think Eddie Sheridan did it, Sister. I saw his arm move like
he was bowling."
Sister took it from there and told Timmy he was not only full of
buncombe but balderdash as well and if he didn't start behaving himself and
studying hard he would grow up to be a blatherskite always in search of a job.
"I have a brother like you, Timmy, back in Ireland, 40 years old
now and still helping out on the farm. My father sometimes says he's not fit to
sleep with the pigs but my mother says he certainly is. He's always
misbehaving, Timmy. Maybe we can send you over there to help him."
As a penance for his marble escapade, Timmy not only had to sit
in front of Sister Coleman but he also had to diagram 30 sentences a night in
addition to his regular homework. In fact, Timmy had to diagram 30 sentences a
night for the entire year. And these were not "simple sentences." They were
"compound sentences" and "compound complex sentences," both of which many of
his classmates were not yet ready to diagram. But Timmy McGinty had a way with
words and Sister Coleman knew that. As a result, she decided that working with
words, perhaps as a writer or editor, might be one of the few ways Timmy could
some day earn a living.
Sister Coleman stood right in front of Timmy when she
lectured--and she did lecture--and spittle would spray from the gap in her
teeth onto his spectacles. Timmy was one of very few boys who wore spectacles
in the school, either because myopia was not rampant among the students or
because their parents simply never thought about taking their children to an
Timmy got his first pair of glasses in third grade.
"Mom," he said. "I don't want to wear them. Nobody else wears
them at school. I'll get in fights."
And sure enough the first three days back in school, Timmy had
three fights in the playground as some other boys wanted to see if the glasses
had changed him. Maybe he couldn't fight anymore, they thought. But Timmy won
all three fights and had to stay after school three nights for "defending
himself," as he told his father. Decades later, he could still name the three
boys who had accosted him and he would have loved the opportunity to punch them
once again, just to clarify that his new glasses had not made him a wimp.
In fact, Timmy told his wife when he finally turned 80 that he
would beat the hell out of those "three curs with his cane" if he could find
them. After all, he would never have had to stay after school for three nights
if they had left him alone.
Timmy liked Sister Coleman, despite her discipline, and he liked
her even more ten years later when he had earned a master's degree in English,
which in 1962 was a respected major that could lead to a good job. English
majors were considered trainable in many occupations that did not involve math
or science. Often they were put into management trainee slots and primed to run
departments and eventually sometimes an entire company. No one knew exactly
what English majors knew but most of them could talk and write and seemed to
have a good understanding of people.
With his master's degree diploma in a briefcase, Timmy went back
to his old grammar school to find Sister Coleman and show her that one of her
incorrigibles had accomplished something. But, alas, he was told in polite
terms that his favorite sister was in a home in Florida, and she was there not
so much because of her age, but for other reasons. They wouldn't tell Timmy the
reasons but he summarized the situation for his parents when he visited them.
"I'm afraid Sister Coleman went bonkers and they shipped her
out. They should never have let her teach all those years at that school."
Later on, Timmy found on the Internet that Sister Coleman had
died but only after she had returned to Ireland and recruited a niece, also a
nun, to teach at his old school. Timmy would have bet that the niece was as
tough as her aunt. She would have had to be to govern the miscreants in his old
Sister Coleman succeeded with Timmy because she had chosen to
teach through and around his behavioral problems. Indeed, Timmy today would
probably have been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder or some other such
disease and put in a school offering special education classes. They had no
schools like that back when Timmy was in eighth grade. If a kid acted out more
than Timmy did, he was sent to military school. Timmy remembers fondly three of
his classmates who were taken away and never seen in the neighborhood again.
His mother had seen one of them for the last time on her way to Mass on a hot
Sunday in July. Bobby was sitting on his front porch eating the night crawlers
he and his father were supposed to go fishing with later that day.
"I would never eat night crawlers, Mom. You don't have to worry"
is what Timmy told his mother at Sunday dinner.
Timmy was lucky to have Sister Coleman and the other nuns as his
teachers. They knew they were there to turn out children ready to go to high
school and perhaps then to college and maybe law school or medical school if
scholarships could be found. Those nuns had big plans for their charges because
a good education was the only way they as adults would ever find good jobs to
raise families of their own.
As did all the nuns back then, Sister Coleman wore a habit that
signaled to all that she was in charge. That didn't mean boys like Timmy always
behaved--far from it. But when they got caught, they had no problem accepting
the discipline and extra homework that misbehavior incurred.
"I deserved all the punishment I got," Timmy told his wife many
times in their 50 year marriage. "I asked for it and the sisters doled it out.
They had to survive, didn't they, even if poor Sister Coleman didn't make it. I
wish now I had never rolled that marble down the aisle."