And Words Are All I Have

An Act of Hope

Ode to Teachers
I remember
the first day,
how I looked down,
hoping you wouldn't see me,
and when I glanced up,
I saw your smile
shining like a soft light
from deep inside you.
“I'm listening,” you encourage us.
“Come on!
Join our conversation,
let us hear your neon certainties,
thorny doubts, tangled angers,”
but for weeks I hid inside.
I read and reread your notes
praising my writing,
and you whispered,
“We need you
and your stories and questions
that like a fresh path
will take us to new vistas.”
Slowly, your faith grew
into my courage
and for you—
instead of handing you
a note or apple or flowers—
I raised my hand.

I carry your smile
and faith inside like I carry
my dog's face,
my sister's laugh,
creamy melodies,
the softness of sunrise,
steady blessings of stars,
autumn smell of gingerbread,
the security of a sweater
on a chilly day.

~~ Pat Mora

schoolhouse sepia
It is back to school time. The saddest time of the entire year, no contest for me. If late August had an emoji it would be a person sobbing inconsolably, clutching a gargantuan bottle of anti-depressants.

The end of August has always signalled for me an ending to so much … late nights, sleep-in mornings, pancake breakfasts, bounding outside barefoot, lazing about, impromptu roadies, double bills at drive in theatres and general goofing off.... Yep. Fun in general. Come September, which announces solemnly there'll be no more of that, thank you very much.

I, for one, hated school. I mean actual school. The soul deadening history classes and dry as toast textbooks and starchy identical uniforms and deafening alarm bells and the dreaded snap quiz. The lockstep of it all. School's only saving grace for me were its its accessories. Its peripherals.

I speak of new school supplies. I exulted in wide-ruled coil-bound Hilroy notebooks with their jewel toned covers, crisp blank pages within offering possibilities. The plastic packages of pristine Laurentian colored pencils, lined up to perfection in gradient tones. The peony pink eraser, pristine, unscathed. The fat, full, shiny pencil case. The chubby rubber pencil grips you pushed onto pencils in ultra cool shapes and colors.

My stationery obsession lives on. I've been known to borrow friends' children simply so I can escort them to Staples to organize them in advance of their big first day.

"Of course you need a daytimer. I know you're only seven."

"Don't even look at the ballpoints. Forget they exist. You now live in a world of Ultra Fine 0.7 millimetre Sharpies."

"Index cards. For studying. Embrace them. Welcome to your new life."

"Yellow legal pads. Only yellow. Trust me."

As it turned out school handed to me an unforeseen and astonishing bounty: I had some generous and gifted teachers along the way.

Sister Clara was one. She taught me English Literature throughout high school. It was she who ignited my passion for words and literature. And she was my first girl crush, even though I could have nearly died that day in ninth grade when she announced to the class I had turned in a perfect exam on Shakespeare's Henry IV.

I remember it in full color. Sister Clara stood behind her desk as I went up to retrieve my paper, my classmate's groans and jeers resounding at my back.

Sister took in the scene and as she handed my my paper she leaned in and whispered this to me. "Never be ashamed of excellence, Tricia."

Her words helped me navigate that pivotal moment. I trusted her. Her instincts were uncanny, it seemed. But I was wary of the other nuns. What did they know of real life, sealed up in their house on the hill, window shades drawn day and night? I used to walk by the convent looking for signs of life, hoping to catch a glimpse of them, imagining them in thick flannel nightgowns skirting the floor. I never did. It seemed nothing moved inside, as if once behind those doors the nuns evaporated, only to magically reappear in a flock each morning on their way down the hill to morning Mass, their voluminous habits flapping wildly in the wind like great shrouds. Because the nuns were largely unconnected to life as we knew it they remained unapproachable, even ominous.

for story about nuns Polly Chandler
Sister Clara again proved the exception. She seemed younger than the others, with a face of Raphaelesque beauty. The other nuns smelled of chalk and starch but Sister Clara gave off the scent of jasmine, which I assumed was bar soap. She had soulful hands with long delicate fingers that she used freely to punctuate her speech.

Her classes often felt like a reprieve. She followed the curriculum but diverted on occasion. From her we learned about the personal lives of authors, how F. Scott Fitzgerald died a broken man and of the poet Emily Dickinson's years as a hermit.

"You must understand, class," she'd announce dramatically, "great artistry exacts a certain price." Once she spent an entire class talking about the Bronte sisters as if she'd known them personally. "Charlotte, of course, was Emily's greatest fan ..."

Every Monday morning we'd come in to find a new quote written on the corner of the blackboard in her delicate script. I can still remember many of them. One was: "Writing is an act of hope." Another read: "If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry." Underneath both was written the author's name, Emily Dickinson.

I lost touch with Sister Clara after high school but occasionally heard news of her. After returning from her work with refugees in Haiti she set out to create Toronto's first-ever food bank. She did just that, commandeering whatever resources were needed. When the singer Bruce Springsteen heard of her challenge he donated a brand new van for deliveries.

Food banks proliferate now in Toronto. But it was Sister Clara who jump-started them.

A few years ago I joined a classmate of mine, Mary Jane, in a quest to have Sister Clara awarded the Order of Canada. In preparing the application we gathered personal references, tributes from former students, and a chronology of her prodigious efforts to contribute to the schools and communities she had been placed. Alas, it was not to be. We will always feel that no one could have been more deserving.

I visited her in person a few years ago in downtown Toronto at the convent where she was living, among her fellow nuns retired from service. She had set out a lovely tea for us in a private room. I brought homemade shortbread and copies of my poetry books. She was no longer in her habit but in civvies. It seemed odd to catch sight of Sister's clavicle ... and her calves, I remember. I had only ever seen her fully covered, save her lovely face and hands.

She was as gracious as I remember her, and lovely, still. We chatted eagerly. She asked about my writing and said she'd read some of my poems and newspaper essays over the years. I had brought along signed copies of my poetry books for her and she asked that I read a piece or two to her. I was honored that she asked.

Before leaving I told Sister Clara she played a large part in my becoming a poet. She waved the comment away, shaking her head. But I knew it was true.

I shall always know it.

Old St. mary

Beautiful Dreamer

I could see her through the skinny glass panel
that ran down the side of the classroom door.
Following my after-school detention I had been drawn there
by the sounds of music,
a rare sound in a school like ours,
devoted so rigorously to the Three R’s.

Oblivious of her onlooker, Sister Clara stood,
eyes closed,
weaving blissfully to the strains of the song Beautiful Dreamer
wafting from an old phonograph on her desk.

Beautiful Dreamer... Wake unto me …the singer crooned,
and as he sang she reached down,
lifted up the folds of her habit in both arms
and sashayed lightly up and down
between the rows of wooden desks,
her face a beacon of joy.

The song ended, she headed for the phonograph,
and even though I feared she may spot me,
the interloper at the door,
I did not move.
I held fast,
unable to look away.

~~ Tricia McCallum

pencil drawing red heart

I am here, listening. Share your own stories with me, gentle reader.
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