Last week, I visited the grave of the nun who changed my life.
Sister Viola Hespelein was a Franciscan nun, assigned to my home parish school, St. Ann’s, the epicenter of a predominantly Irish Catholic lower middle-class neighborhood named Forty Acres in West Wilmington, Delaware.
Back in the 1960s Catholic education was far from what it is today and was characterized as stern, very disciplined and associated with bodily harm. Corporal punishment was the order of the day and yardsticks, dust brooms and wooden paddles were liberally dispensed upon an unsuspecting misbehaving student.
Silence is golden
In 1962, I was introduced to my first-grade teacher, Sister Bride Maria. This diminutive native Irish dynamo ruled with an iron fist and was able to assume complete control over 61 students. Unruly behavior was met with a prompt reflexive slap or “choke hold.” Needless to say, silence ruled the classroom.
One day, Sister Bride Maria discovered me playing football in the church during lunchbreak (I knew better). I was promptly marched in front of the classroom with the other offenders, where upon we were commanded to bend over. In succession, we all ultimately received 24 explosive blows to our derrieres with a wooden dust brush as the weapon of choice. Tears uncontrollably emanated from my eyes and my ability to sit was seriously compromised for several days after my penance.
Needless to say, I have never (nor will I ever) touch a football in a church. Talkative by nature, I endured many other disciplinary actions carried out by the good nun; keeping quiet in class was a real challenge for me.
I survived the year only to be greeted by Sister James Carmel as my second-grade teacher. My innate extroversion did not bode well with young Sister James, as that year I believe I set a record for most detentions in a single semester. I nearly failed second grade.
Focus was an issue and maintaining silence during class proved nearly impossible for me. By years’ end, I was left despondent after proving virtually unable to escape trouble.
One teacher who made a world of difference
Thankfully, Sister James reluctantly promoted me to third grade where I was greeted by one of the most powerful influences in my life – Sister Viola Hespelein.
Sister Viola was advanced in age and had a chronic cough, which would cause her to halt class, often several times a day. Yet, despite her infirmities, she was a loving presence – kind, patient and quick to give an encouraging word. For some mysterious reason, she was especially fond of me and would ask me to remain after class where she would treat me to a jelly roll and soda. She doted on me and showered me with attention. I wallowed in her affections and trusted everything she said.
She simply loved me.
One day, she summoned my father to school to discuss little Johnny. Sister Viola flatly explained to my father that I was not a “bad boy,” but simply talkative and bored with my lessons. She professed that I needed to be challenged. She suggested a new Catholic private school for boys located in the suburbs. The problem was that this new school demanded a hefty tuition price tag.
A private school education presented a challenge
I hailed from a family of modest means. My father, a bartender, and mother, a secretary, worked hard to maintain our humble row home located on a busy city street. A private-school tuition challenge was hard to reconcile for the Kelly family.
My father decided to labor as an iron worker, in addition to his bar duties, in order to meet tuition payments for St. Edmond’s Academy for Boys. There, I flourished and ultimately gained a scholarship to an exclusive private preparatory high school, Tower Hill School, where a great percentage of students gained acceptance into Ivy League (or equivalent) universities.
I was blessed to matriculate into a prestigious university and ultimately gain admission to medical school. Now I am following my dream vocation and have a sense of fulfillment beyond measure.
Sister Viola was the catalyst for my growth. She saw something in me I surely did not see in myself. Her encouragement and steadfast loving advocacy were the real forces that convinced my father to embrace the sacrifice of a second job so that I could develop my God-given talents.
College attendance was rare in my neighborhood
My education clearly gave me more choices and opportunities than contemporaries from my neighborhood, where crime and substance abuse began to seize the culture. College attendance was rare for most Forty Acre young men and women.
Sister Viola Hespelien did not have to intervene in my life … but she did. As a result, her memory will always occupy a chamber in my heart.
One loving presence can transform a life. Most of us do not recognize the cataclysmic effect small gestures of encouragement can yield. Many of us are in teaching positions and have the capacity to be a force multiplier in the development of others. We can all learn from Sister Viola Hespelein’s example.
Are we a light or a critic? Do we focus on our pupil’s flaws or see them as they can be? Do we passively let our students act out when they are struggling or do we intervene when action steps are needed?
Are we quick to mete out punishment to our students or do we lovingly hold them to a higher standard? Do we risk and execute actions counter to current culture to help someone?