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SO Magazine Editor John Moody had Sister Katherine O’Connor, then Sister Gilmary, as a teacher in 1972 when he was in seventh grade at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School in Decatur. Can you pick him out of the group?
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Reconnecting with a teacher who made a difference
By John Moody

If you knew the loving and secure and chaotic house I grew up in, you would marvel at the pristine condition of this artifact from my school days. With all that my parents were faced with trying to feed and clothe all of us, saving our school photos was probably not high on their list of priorities. Groceries and the power bill, the proverbial wolf at the door, that's the stuff that would have kept Frank and Shirley Moody up at night in the fall of 1972.

But, this photo survived in a box that my mother gave me at Christmas. Each of us got one filled with old news clippings from ballgames we played in, old postcards and letters. A thousand different things that got saved for some reason that must have been important at the time.

The genre of memoir is a rich field to mine for a journalist, but carefully so, and only when the time is right. The time for this felt pretty spot on. So, I packed up the old class picture and my report card from that year and decided it was time go to see my old teacher. I knew right where to find her.

She thought I was a stranger when she first saw me in the commons area at Sacred Heart-Griffin High School; I hadn't called ahead. Sister Katherine O'Connor, president of SHG, asked in her upbeat and polite manner from way across the room how she could be of help. She took a step or two, stopped and raised her hands to her face and took a quick breath that I could hear from where I stood.

"John Moody!" she said, her voice a little higher and the volume raised just a notch or two. "Oh, my gosh. You look just like your dad."

Keep in mind, except for running into her briefly in about the summer of 1981 or '82 when she was visiting our old school (I had a college job helping get the place ready for the upcoming school year), I hadn't been her student for 36 years.

Later I asked her how she recognized me so quickly. No one knew I was coming, so she couldn't have been given a heads up. She said another nun had mentioned meeting me some months before at a benefit, but that was about it.

"I just made the connection somehow," she said.

And so, two old friends, the teacher and the student, connected again, too.

On Oct. 12, 1972, the day this photo was snapped, all the kids in Grade 7/Room 7 at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School on the north side of Decatur had our apple-cheeked best on display. We are a lily-white bunch, not a person of color to be found. I would wager that now that classroom looks somewhat different in terms of race; I expect it's more representative of today's world than it was of America at the time. In 1972, there were probably no Spanish speakers in the entire building, and it's doubtful there were any black children enrolled in any of the eight grades. I know for a fact that that has changed.

On the day we posed for this photo, our clothes picked carefully the night before (surely with Mom's help), our hair combed just right, I have been 12 years old for 29 days. Strange to think it, but my late father was a young and strapping 43 that day. He was off working trying to pay the bills with five more kiddos following behind me, the oldest. In a few years, another baby boy arrives to make for seven kids at our house - all of them girls but six, as the old joke goes. My mother had turned 35 just three days before this photo was shot.

Sister Katherine, then Sister Gilmary, is 26 in this photo. It is the only class she would teach at our school. What a disservice to all the kids there who didn't get to have her as a teacher. The next year, she was off to begin her journey in earnest, making a handful of stops around the Chicago area, a stint in Collinsville and even a few years as a principal at a school in Southern California's Imperial Valley. The years have rolled up, one on the other; she's been in her current position at SHG since 2005. She entered religious life in 1964.

When I popped in for my surprise visit, I showed the old class photo much to her delight. She asked me to go over all the names, and I did, getting them all surprisingly correct.

I also have a report card from that year. My dad's signature appears there among my less than stellar grades. When I showed it to her, warning her that I hadn't been her best student, she was sweet in her defensiveness.

"I didn't teach all of these," she said looking over the card. The subjects I dreaded, even later in college, science and math, were in fact taught by others. The higher marks came in her classes. She handwrote an encouraging note to me on the back of the report card that she read with some pride in her office the day of our visit. "That's very nice," she said with some emotion.

By my count, there are 33 children in the photo, 12 of whom are boys; no wonder we were such doormats in basketball with our ranks so thin. I recall that we lost a lot of games. I recall, too, that Sister Katherine shot baskets with us. The photo was taken in front of the stage in the gym, which looks no different today. The same place we had Mass for more than 20 years before the parish finally got a church.

My shirt in the photo has a diamond pattern of sorts, very colorful, probably purchased at Applebaum's on Eldorado. That's where a lot of kids went to get school clothes; it wasn't cool to get them anywhere else. My hair is thick and dark, wish I could still say that. Now pushing 50, the thickness has turned to coarseness as the gray continues its inexorable march in every direction. Sister's hair these days is no longer red and her freckles have faded, but that young woman in the photo is still there, especially in the brightness of her eyes.

Notice there's no long hair for the boys and no bell-bottom pants - the head man in those days didn't go for that look. Father James O'Hara thought if your hair was too long or your clothes too hippy that you looked like a Communist. The Red Scare was in full throttle for a conservative fellow like him. The end of the Cold War probably broke his heart.

I still see some of my old classmates, and I have a pretty good idea where life took a good number of them. More than one chose teaching for their career; there's a doctor in the bunch; and one girl had something like nine children. As far as I know, they're all alive. My own children noticed one of the boys in the photo and thought he looked like a boy they know. He should because their school chum is the son of that boy in the photo.

Sister will tell you that she is an independent thinker, always was. As a young nun she used to like to walk the mile or so from the convent to the school while the other sisters drove over in their blue station wagon.

The pastor at the time thought that was pretty radical behavior. Looking back across time at that memory, she chuckles, but she sticks to her guns: "I didn't think it was any of his business."

I learned a lot from those good nuns - how to read and how to write clearly; English 101 was not a problem for me in college. They weren't strictly business either: I remember one sister allowing us a transistor radio to keep track of the World Series way back when it was played during the daytime. And, those Dominican Sisters taught us to care about poor people and the underdog, probably liberal-sounding causes to some ears.

So, I asked Sister if she's a liberal: "I think I am an open person. As Dominicans, we seek the truth. You can't just be narrow; then you're not going to get the whole truth."

What a great answer, especially when aimed at a journalist. And, especially coming from a person who has spent her life teaching young people to engage in that same kind of open thought and to consider that someone with a differing view from theirs just might have value.

I was too young way back in 1972 and 1973 to have analyzed exactly why I liked Sister Gilmary/Katherine O'Connor or to realize what it was about her that resonated within me. But, here's the thing: I know now.

 

 

Story published Friday, July 3, 2009 ( Volume 4, Number 4 )

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