Essays and rock & roll. Looking and listening. Nostalgia versus skepticism.
Wednesday, January 11, 2017
Sister Nena Reading
A blend of nuns and lay faculty taught at Saint Andrew the Apostle Grade School, which I attended from first through eighth grades. Many of the Sisters had been there since before my oldest brother was a student—they lived in a small, dark brown convent annexed to the school—but by the time I left for high school, teaching nuns were well on their way out. My favorite nun there‚ one of my favorite teachers to this day, was Sister Nena, an Italian woman who, to my ten-year old perspective, could've been anywhere from fifty to seventy years old. She was dark haired and small, funny with a quick and loud laugh, with bright eyes and a direct gaze, and a smile that seemed to indicate more than it let on. She's directly responsible for my lifelong love affair with language and words. At around one or two, following the afternoon recess, the room full of nine or ten-year olds buzzing with post-lunch, pre-3 p.m. mania, Sister Nena would instruct us to lay our heads down on our desks, and she'd read aloud to us from a book. I can't remember any of the titles she read, but the fact is I'd probably forgotten them by the next day, so immersed was I in the sound and textures of Sister Nena's voice, the timbre, sing-song, up-and-down music of sound. Her voice would caress the back of my neck and head, fill my sinuses, tickle behind my nose. As she read, I'd half doze off—as most of us kids did—moving dreamlike in and out of the story, the characters, the setting, her voice massaging me into bliss. I couldn't articulate this to myself then, only lift my head in a daze when she finished, stealing glances at the kids around me, their faces suddenly softened and made more intimate, but not threateningly or weirdly so—it was as if we'd all become siblings, our odd differences smoothed. The world, the classroom, had changed a bit, but rubbing the sleepiness from my eyes was a kind of movement back from the land of story and sound to the lousy politics of the classroom and playground. The pleasures—the physical pleasures—were paradoxically temporary but lasting, each time the sounds of Sister's soft voice pressing a little deeper in me. I was wildly grateful to her, but couldn't really understand that, let alone tell her. In every book that I've ever opened, I hope to hear her voice.