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Wednesday, 11 December 2013

The Teacher

Everyone has that one special teacher.  For me it was Sister Matthew Byrne.  She was a Presentation Sister who was my home room teacher in Grade Ten at Holy Heart of Mary Regional High School in St. John's, Newfoundland.  

Holy Heart was an all girls' school at that time and there were far too many students for the building that year so we attended school in shifts.  I was on the first shift.  We went to school early and were out by 2:30 p.m.  There were twenty-five hundred students and numerous teachers that year so I was very lucky to get Sister Matthew as my English and History teacher as well.

Sister was a dynamic teacher in the days when that was not the norm.  She had a way of making everything come to life.  Thinking about her now, I think she had a dramatic side and would have made a good actor.  One of my fondest memories was her teaching of the short story, THE SNIPER by Liam O'Flaherty.  Sister Matthew portrayed the sniper by crouching behind the desk, using a yardstick as the weapon and pulling her veil back over her head.  Only her eyes were visible above the desk as she looked down the scope of the 'gun.'  Who could ever forget that?

One of the unusual things about Sister Matthew was that she talked about her life.  She must have been nearing fifty at that time and she told us about her decision to join the convent.  The part that sticks with me is that shortly after she joined, one of her parents died and she couldn't go to the funeral.  I think that was a real sacrifice for her that she didn't really get over.  However she stayed in the convent and became a teacher.  I had never heard a nun speak candidly about her life like Sister Matthew did.  It was refreshing and inspiring.

I had a friend in that class.  Her name was Isabel Carroll.  She and I had been in the same class the year before as well.  That was unusual because there were about twenty five hundred students and the classes were changed up from year to year. It was good to have someone you knew among the forty girls in your class.

One Friday afternoon,  in English class, we did the poem "Auto Wreck" by Karl Shapiro  After school sometimes Isabel and I walked to the buses together.  This Friday, she went on ahead and I glanced out the window at her below on the parking lot.  It was the last time I ever saw her.  The next day she was going to Church with her family when they were in a head-on collision with a young man coming from an afternoon of drinking with his buddies.  In those days, seat belts weren't the norm.  Isabel went through the windshield and was killed instantly.  

Unlike today, the news of this accident wasn't known until Monday by her classmates.  Sister Matthew told us.  It was devastating news.  She gave us the opportunity to go to the funeral home if we wanted.  Isabel's parents were in hospital so those of us who went, kept vigil during the day for her.  It was strange, sad, and unbelievable that here we were, her classmates and she was in this white, closed casket.  Sister Matthew was with us at the funeral home and the funeral service in Outer Cove, where Isabel had lived. Sister was incredible with us.  I don't think any other teacher could have gotten us through that experience.

Isabel was very intelligent and a genuinely nice person. I often wonder what would have become of her, what she would have done with her life.  She could have done anything!  Such a loss!  I think of her often.  She is one of the reasons that I have no tolerance for drinking and driving.

Just before Isabel died we had another emotional experience with Sister Matthew.  She had assigned homework, I don't remember what it was.  Sister always checked that you had done homework. When she checked this time no one except Isabel had it done.  I had it done too but wouldn't admit it.  Sister Matthew was really upset.  I told Isabel later that I'd had the homework done.  She told me that I should have admitted it.  Incredible what I did to fit in or be liked!  I didn't want to be perceived as the "goody goody."

I also owe my teaching career to Sister Matthew.  She taught World History and gave a number of her students the opportunity to teach a section of the course.  I taught a section about Renaissance art.  I prepared for weeks, spending every available minute finding pictures and information about the artists.  I was very thorough and Sister Matthew said I did a great job.  She told me that I should consider teaching as a career.  Of course I did eventually.  I especially loved my years teaching Science, but counselling seemed like a natural progression as well.  I think Sister Matthew's example after Isabel's death was instrumental in that decision as well.

This woman was incredible.  She was teacher extraordinaire, natural counsellor, and in the day of stoicism among many nuns, she was very real.  I have always wanted to tell her how much she meant to me.  This is my way of doing just that.   Also, I hope wherever she is, she knows that I had my homework done that day too!  Isabel would be glad that I finally owned up to it.


      High school graduation, 1970, Marie Pretty, fourth from the right, second row.

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