We sit in classrooms thinking we are learning math, science or a language. But teachers also leave us with life lessons that shape and prepare us to enter the world. The very gifted ones do it without our realizing it until later in life. We all have a teacher that holds a special place in our hearts. I just never thought it would be Sister Lillian.
Everyone feared Sister Lillian in high school. She was like the rigid school master in a movie whose mission is to tame the spirited young girl. When I found out she would be my Grade 10 English teacher, I began to dread the class.
My teacher the previous year was a slim, young woman who was a little bit goofy, had a big, toothy smile and a wardrobe of tartan skirts and ribbed turtleneck sweaters. In contrast, Sister Lillian was short and stout. Her glasses and a stern, dour expression were permanent fixtures. She wore her gray hair, that held faint, washed-out traces of red, brushed back from her forehead so that it peeked out from her wimple. Her black tunic fell below her knees, leaving thick calves and ankles exposed. On her wide feet, she wore clumpy, black, lace-up shoes.
A few weeks into the semester, our assignment was to write a composition describing a scene. I was in the throes of a breakup and the hormones raging through my 16 year-old body made me intensely sad and moody. Luke was all I could think about so he was all I could write about. I knew Sister Lillian wouldn’t approve but sorrow overrode my fear.
I wrote about how I’d met Luke at a school coffee house. How he was wearing a faded denim jacket and black cowboy boots. How his eyes were a deep brown, several shades darker than the shaggy hair that brushed his collar. I wrote about how he sat on a bar stool on the stage with one foot resting on the floor and the other hooked into the bottom rung of the stool. Another student with a guitar sat next to him. When he strummed the opening notes of Sweet Baby James and Luke began to sing, it sounded like James Taylor was in the house. I ended with how, after just a few months together, he moved to another city to live with his older brother. My sadness was poured onto sheets of lined, three-hole loose leaf paper in careful handwriting that sheathed my teenager’s shattered heart.
I expected to be rewarded with a low grade and I didn’t care. But Sister Lillian surprised me. My paper came back with a good grade. Sprinkled throughout in red ink were suggestions for improvement along with a few complementary remarks. In the ignorance and arrogance of youth, I’d assumed a nun knew nothing of heartbreak. She surprised me again later in the year. She made “Wuthering Heights” assigned reading and led profound discussions about it with a whole classroom of teenage girls.
Sister Lillian taught me a lot of things, like how to be a better writer and to love the classics. But the most important thing she taught me might be not to judge someone by their appearance. Behind her stern expression and nun’s habit was the heart of a woman who understood that love could burn brightly one day and wound deeply the next. I only wished I’d thanked her when I had the chance.