From .......... TIME

SEPTEMBER 23, 1996

page 33

Hail, Mary and Regina

The Roman Catholic nuns were really on to something

IF I EVER WIN AN AWARD AND GET TO GIVE AN ACCEPTANCE SPEECH, I'LL start by thanking first my parents and second Mother Marita Joseph. She and the Immaculate Heart of Mary nuns made it possible for me to go to college, win frequently at Trivial Pursuit and strive, although mostly fail, to do good rather than simply do well.

Everyone knows the stereotypes: altar boys scared to death of girls, repressed virgins in plaid jumpers, the kids who win spelling bees and know their multiplication tables but not their inner child. But the fact is that the nuns I had for 12 years made the life I came to live possible. And that's not just because Sister Alma Doloros gave me my first copy of the New Yorker in sixth grade, which, speaking of overcrowding, was housed in the vestibule of the church. The nuns were single-mindedly devoted to the task of enlarging our minds and saving our souls in the belief that we were all God's children, the doctor's daughter and the plumber's son, the 150 IQ and the dyslexic.

Having no families, they spent most of their time with us, pinning up their long sleeves and tucking away their crucifixes to coach a team or set up the booths for school fairs. I heard that boys occasionally got their ears boxed, but "the look" was usually enough. The nuns administered the original version of tough love with the utter certainty that they knew what was best for us. And they did. A parent rarely sided with a child against a teacher, as so often happens now. You prayed your mother wouldn't find out that Sister Mary William had kept you after school because you would be punished again at home. Truth be told, my parents were probably a little afraid of Sister Mary William too.

I assumed that the order in the Catholic schools came from the nuns in their flowing black robes. They embodied moral authority and seemed to live on spirit alone, since we never saw them eat or drink. But nuns, even in nerdy street clothes, no longer prevailed in Catholic schools by the time my daughter came of age. Since my first experience with a lay teacher involved spitballs and passing notes, I didn't see the point of Catholic school without the nuns.

But I was wrong. In checking out schools, I saw a secular version of my own education. At Nativity Academy, test scores are high, dropout rates near zero. Yet only three nuns teach there. The principal credits "continuity of teachers, consistency of rules, and parents signing an agreement to back us up." At Holy Trinity, so redolent of Murphy's Oil Soap it could be my old school, uniformed students raise hands respectfully, say 'yes, sir' and 'yes, ma'am, and face detention for slight infractions. And like the nuns, teachers teach because they love it.

Time is running short for an Oscar or Pulitzer, so let me say to Mother Marita Joseph, and Sisters Mary William, Justin and Regina, thanks a lot, for my never putting i before e, except after c, and so much more.

[picture caption] - Though most staff members are lay people, Holy Trinity in Washington still feels like my old school