Thursday, May 13, 2010

Not another Novitiate memoir

Since the Episcopalian religious order that I entered in the summer of 1973 was of a traditional kind, with a traditional rule internally, suitably modified for our work in St. Hilda's and St. Hugh's School (Kindergarten through Grade 12), it was no different from others with a Rule of Augustinian type (viz, not Benedictine) and need not be described by me. It was traditional also in regarding its own life, like respectable family life, as private, and 30 years later I shall respect that privacy now as I did then. No one should imagine that anything curious or disreputable lurks behind privacy. Of course, the religious life as such seems exceptional. But nothing of its meaning is revealed by trying to lay it bare. I have said enough to show that I did not enter anything like a 1970s commune or like a New Age cult. The sisters were fully habited, and under the aegis of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine—at that time under Canon West. Since my years there, I know that the order has evolved, as religious orders often do, especially as regards their work, but I am no more privy to changes than other outsiders. Interested persons can find them by Googling. The school no longer includes an upper school, grades 9-12.
I can say that I learned how to read square-note musical notation (neums) and to sing the morning and evening offices (we read the midday offices alone during the school day) and wished that I had a good singing voice. I learned the church calendar and the offices particular to each season. I learned how to care for the appurtenances of the altar. For the requirement of spiritual reading I found classics that I loved, like Fran├žois de Sales, and early 20th century Anglicans like Bishop Gore of Oxford, just to name two. Luckily, I was not so young that I did not know how to do housework and mending. It must have been hard for girls who had been raised in post-War houses and had never seen shoe polish.
Though I was assigned to the upper school and to teaching Latin and the Ancient-Medieval part of World History, we all, on a rotating schedule, were assigned to Kindergarten naps and to after-school play groups. Some of the Kindergartners didn't like naps any more than I had at their age. We had an enclosed roof deck for the play groups after school, and we sometimes took groups across Riverside Drive to the park when they could be closely enough watched. The after-school programs were needed, for parents who worked until 4:30 or 5:00 and had to get uptown on public transportation afterward. We had some children in the middle and upper school who had known one another since Junior Kindergarten at age 4 and some alumni who knew their classmates better probably than most of their cousins. Though in my time the school had as many as 800 pupils, most of the sisters knew most of them and loved them, difficulties and all. The religious rule forbidding partiality and private attachment was actually an advantage. Upper-school children who would not or could not study in a study hall period sometimes were sent to the kindergarten or the nursery (in which we had a few toddlers, but they had to be at least somewhat toilet trained) where they very happily joined in constructive play. Literally constructive: the school had splendid sets of large building blocks. From parents at Columbia University, we had abundant supplies of folding paper from computer printout; I quickly learned that little children loved considering colors in rainbow order or in the form of a color wheel. Magic. It was the quisenaire rods that correlated color with unit-length that inspired me to set kindergartners to using their crayolas to make repeating rainbow sequences produce predictable patterns. After school, of course, when it rained the play school had to be indoors, where, I can report, children really loved to be read to and to play singing games, some of which I had played in 1939-1940 and have seen very recently when I chanced to see a bit of "Barney". I think that Daniel Pennac is quite right that, to produce lifetime readers, it is important to read aloud to children stories that actually interest them and to do so throughout grade school. Simply because a child can cipher the words off the page does not ensure that he or she can grasp the phrases, can get the meaning of syntax, or do so effortlessly. It is pretty harsh to ask him to read for himself at that stage; it is not a pleasure; it is not yet really meaningful. Besides, if his family and teachers really loved him they would not quit reading to him, would they? Reading aloud to children is love. I remember Mrs. Cheda in Grade 2 and Mrs. Lyman and Miss Hamilton in Grades 4 and 5 reading aloud to us in the last period of the school day, almost every day. So far from discouraging our reading for ourselves, this reading was a reward at the end of a good day, and, speaking for myself, it sent me to the public library almost every Saturday. I remembered them when I was at St. Hilda's.
I do not know whether the Reverend Mother, the headmistress (and founder of the order), had any idea of the difference between teaching hippies in Oregon (or university undergraduates in any decade) and teaching middle- and upper-school adolescents within a stone's throw of Columbia University. Their popular culture wasn't so different: they all loved The Doors and the other groups, and I'm afraid that some of them knew more about street drugs than I did. Eventually we had a school bus for the younger children, but the adolescents used the public bus and subway, and they could mix with university students and with those who were attracted to the university students and even socialize in the jazz club and other cafes, especially if they could pass as undergraduates. Keeping street clothes in their lockers of course was practiced. It could not really be prevented. But a spaced-out private-school kid could not, in most cases, be discussed with his or her parents (and certainly not by a Sister), since, famously, the parents were certain that they and their children were completely open with one another. And the school, though not among the most expensive, did ineluctably depend on fees, only a few being on scholarships. So the 1970s culture was largely shared, though the setting was different, but as a secular I could sympathetically confront an undergraduate about drug use and as a religious sister and with adolescents still children I could only try to offer some silent security and assurance, unspoken, of care for them and to teach them as well as I could.
Most of my pupils, of course, were NOT into drink or drugs or even much sex (judging by antennas that though not infallible are not worthless in staying attuned to one's students). And, so far as parent conferences can be pleasant, their parents were mostly delightful persons. My first realization was their mental immaturity; I mean, the human brain does develop in tandem with the body, but in Grade 8 or 9 both are still just beginning to be capable of algebra or formal grammar, and the first sentence of de bello Gallico is formidable: Caesar shot his wad right there. My books were provided, and I learned positively to like Jenney's. It wasn't silly, like the New Chardenal, from which I'd learned French. But how to use it for Grade 8, ages 12-13? First, I asked the school to issue those mottled black-and-white cardboard covered composition books, one per student, and required them to copy into them everything we did on the chalk board (while forbidding writing or drawing anything else in them). This included the English-to-Latin sentences which, dividing the class alphabetically, had to be put on the chalk board, then corrected, politely and without a waste of time, and the corrections were added in color in the composition books. Ecce, they liked using color. I had the school give me a box of colored chalk, and the class got their own colored ballpoints or pencils (only, the main text had to be in black or blue-black). Every Friday I collected the composition books, checked them for neatness and accuracy, and graded them * or + or OK or - (the latter only rarely, but so was *). Fact was, I was given no time for grading homework (besides, they phoned each other or copied others' in homeroom), this not only took the place of my marking it but lay bare who was just copying someone else's bad handwriting—and, if they did, at least they wrote it correctly in the long run. Add to that, they could use the composition books to study for tests and quizzes, and the better their work, the more useful it was. Further, as they learned this routine and did it more and more efficiently, we had more time for other instruction, some of it participatory. Though Winnie-ille-Pu is not all that easy, Cur ursus clamat / cur adeo mel amat / Burr, burr, burr / quid est causae cur? was not insulting, after all, and even provided an idiom. Writing stories of their own had to wait a while but provided an incentive to confront the 3rd declension. That early efforts had to be ludicrous explained why poor Mr. Jenney made them say such inanities as the first chapters abound in. Since the diagramming of sentences (1) was no longer taught in Language Arts and (2) does not work for an inflected language, I began writing out the more difficult sentences and underlining the subject of the finite verb, double-underlining that verb, using arrows to show what adjectives agreed with (their gender, case, and number being wholly dependent), circling adverbs (not declined) with an arrow to the "verb, adjective, or other adverb" that they modified. At this early stage, the most useful was simply [bracketing] all the prepositional phrases, usually leaving a very obviously simple main clause.
This device began very simply, and the class and I decided how novelties, such as dependent clauses, should be treated. The part of the alphabet that had been spared putting their homework on the board in time had the privilege of using the colored chalk themselves to mark the hard sentences. By the time we got to Caesar himself, in Jenney II, they usually could "mark" sentences mentally, once that formidable first sentence had been conquered.
Of course, that wasn't all there was to teaching kids. I'd have quit doing it if it hadn't worked so well and helped to produce more than our fair share of Advanced Placement scores. Only, I really did want them to understand an inflected language, and I really did want to teach them, and I learned to be especially well disposed to 13-year-olds, as possessing some of the best qualities of both children and adults. One necessity is to do everything one can, in class, to level out the girls and the boys at an age when the girls are often taller. But, if you don't make them use the language lab, boys do just as well in language as in algebra. I mean, conjugations and declensions and their uses evolved, too; we didn't make them up, and they have their own interesting quirks, just as Darwinian genetic isolates have.