I was just reading some fiction which featured an archetype that’s been in heavy rotation for at least half a century, and at most, a thousand years: The Evil Nun.
You all know The Evil Nun. She hits poor, defenseless, innocent children with rulers and singles them out for shame and humiliation. Her anger and frustration cause her to brand little girls as tramps and little boys as shifty truants. She’s violent. She’s mean. She’s ruined your formative years, and she’s been in more movies than Kevin Bacon. She’s appeared in The Blues Brothers and, in a slightly more nuanced incarnation, in Doubt. All of you – even if you never went to Catholic school, even if you aren’t Catholics, even if you’re a very peaceful Quaker who has no argument with anybody – you all shudder in her presence.
Except I’ve never met the Evil Nun in person. And I went to Catholic school. While I was there in the ’80s I met strict nuns. I met emotionally distant nuns. But never once did I meet The Evil Nun. Not once. And I feel like I’ve missed out on a great shared experience of 20th century Catholic school students. I really liked the nuns who taught me. What’s exciting about that?
I’m not saying that The Evil Nun doesn’t – or hasn’t- existed. Her marks are everywhere – mostly in the memories of the baby boomers. I’ve heard my mother’s generation talk about The Evil Nun, and how she stalked the halls of Waterbury Catholic High in the early ’60s, ripping the hairpieces out of beehives and scraping make-up off the faces of the unruly.
By the ’80s, however, there wasn’t much trace of her. At least not in my school. Maybe it was a die-off of nuns who felt forced into the convent, or the fact that a lot of my nuns must have taken their vows around the time that the Vatican II was happening. Or maybe it was a decline in vocations; not a lot of people are taking vows these days. Perhaps the nuns who were around in the ’80s really wanted to be there. I don’t know. But I do know I loved the sisters who taught me. They stopped wearing the habit when I was in first grade, but I was always more in awe of them than I was of the lay teachers. And by “awe” I don’t mean “terror.”
Now, before I get all gushy, and in the interest of full disclosure, I was once hit by a nun. My second grade teacher cuffed me in the back of the head because I wasn’t paying attention. She didn’t hit me hard, and I cried because I was embarrassed in front of my classmates and that was that. I know all of this sounds like Stockholm syndrome, but while hitting me was definitely inappropriate, it was totally not abusive, and I wasn’t scarred for life. When I went to college, however, I totally flaunted the experience to my non-Catholic friends as a kind of merit badge. My Jewish friends had Bat Mitzvahs and Bar Mitzvahs. My Protestant friends had a variety of fun, faith-based youth activities. I had been hit by a nun. Yeah, I had gone through all the sacraments allowed me up to that point. But in my mind, my nun-cuff made me legit.
To be honest, I was a little scared of the school principal, who was also a nun. I didn’t really know her well, and I just assumed that she had to be scary since she was a principal. A few years ago, I was covering an assignment at the School Sisters of Notre Dame’s motherhouse in Wilton for my newspaper, and I was approached by two women: My former principal and the former eighth grade teacher at my old school. They were so excited to see me. They introduced me to a lot of other nuns, and we all had a cup of decaf and talked. One of the sisters kept trying to feed me cookies. It was like being in nun heaven. I mean, there I was, in a retirement home for sisters, surrounded by dozens of elderly nuns, almost all of them retired teachers, and I didn’t spot The Evil Nun anywhere.
As proof that I’m not the only one who hasn’t been taught by The Evil Nun, I offer this: The Sister Rita Anne Facebook fan page. I am one of 110 former students who will attest to the fact that Sister Rita Anne, my fifth grade teacher, is a rock star in the classroom. She was funny, she was fiery, she was able to get a classroom full of 10 year-olds to pay attention to her and she was a damn good teacher. Is a damn good teacher. She’s still at the school, and she’s been teaching fifth grade there for 25 years.
Her popularity has also gotten a road named after her in Watertown. Well, the school driveway was named after her. For a year. Thanks to the parish’s silent auction. But as far as I’m concerned, it should be a permanent thing. Because teachers like Sister Rita Anne are to the Evil Nun stereotype what water is to the Wicked Witch of the West: they just make her melt away.