Back to School: A Tribute to Sister Catherine on #September1st

Back to school today for teachers. September resits, staff meetings, new schedules, new students. Too much paperwork for all of us, but let’s not forget this essential piece of advice.

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I write because I’ve been an avid reader all my life. My wonderful teacher, Sister Catherine, at St Thomas’s RC High School, pointed the way. She showed me where to look. She taught me to love reading.

The last time I saw Sister Catherine, I was thirteen years old. That was 43 years ago. I don’t have a picture and I haven’t seen her since, but I have never forgotten her face, her voice, her smell, or what she taught me.

Her voice was soft, sibilant, and smooth, like the water seeping along a stream. I vividly remember her reading Blake’s poem ‘Slowly silently now the moon,  walks the night in her silver shoon’, and thinking that she might have written it herself.

Her shape was hidden under a heavy white habit, but she was short and I guessed plump. Her eyebrows were grey, so I imagined her hair had turned grey too, although it was well covered by her long black and white cap. A stiff coif held her chin and face firmly in place, making the movement of her head appear awkward at times. Her cheeks were round, rosy and kissable, like a grandmother’s. She was also very huggable, although of course, we never, ever hugged her.

She used to leave a waft of soap and talc in the air as she walked past, always slowly, not because she wasn’t young, but because she kept herself firmly in check. I don’t know how I know that, but I’m sure of it.

Now I know that Catherine wasn’t her name. She was probably given the name Catherine, after her order’s patron saint, Saint Catherine of Siena, when she was ordained. I often wondered if she was living the life she wanted to live, because her eyes, swollen behind thick round spectacles, were sad.

I suppose she was Irish, like the other nuns, but she didn’t have a hint of Irish accent like the rest did. I’m sure teaching and especially literature filled her life and compensated for her lack of children of her own.

She rarely smiled, and her eyes were always expressionless, but her voice would light up when she read, and she read to us every day, usually the last period, and all afternoon on Fridays.

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I dedicated my first book partly to her:

For Sister Catherine, whose sweet and patient voice introduced me to the mysterious, delectable, and delightfully mischievous, Victorians.

She was a great fan of Wilkie Collins, she read The Moonstone and The Lady in White. We also read Treasure Island, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, and many wonderful poems by Blake, Keats, Wordsworth, and Hilaire Belloc, among others. I also remember enjoying Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, too!

I had never read an adult novel before then, and I didn’t really read them. She would usually do so, although sometimes we read in turns. I was caught in her enthusiasm in reading about adventures in faraway lands and eras, and the yearning grew over the following years. I moved to another school, the following year, but my love for the Victorians grew.

I wish I could tell her she sowed the seed of the reader I am and therefore the writer I have become.

The first day of the school year is a fitting time to pay a tribute to the very special teacher who I will never forget, sweet Sister Catherine.

Do you remember a special teacher who showed you where to look?