Monday, November 11, 2013

Tribute to a Teacher

One of my biggest influences as a reader, a writer, and as a person recently died after a long illness.  Sister Mona Hecker was my English teacher in parochial school from grades five through eight, which is a very critical period in one’s life in many regards.  It’s during those years that we decide a lot of things, including if reading and writing are things we do for pleasure, or become merely functions that must be undertaken to get by in day-to-day life.  Sister Mona seemed to make it her mission that her students would choose the former over the latter.  She was passionate about life, her students, and literacy, and it was easy for us as kids to see that.

Sister Mona Hecker, with that same smile I knew 30+ years ago.
Photo from the Lewiston Sun-Journal

The first thing that pops into my head when I think of Sister Mona is that she was the first teacher who read great books aloud to my classmates and I on a daily basis.  And by “great books”, I mean books of high quality yet also appealing to kids the age my classmates and I were.  She introduced us to a boy who adopted a baby raccoon in Sterling North’s Rascal, and to a girl facing many of the same adolescent trials and tribulations as us in Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh.  Every year around Halloween, she read something from Edgar Allen Poe to us, and with great feeling.  “The Tell-Tale Heart” blew our young minds the year she shared it with us.  I still hear it in Sister Mona’s voice when I read the lines where the murderer confesses his horrible deed.

She of course insisted that we be readers ourselves, and showed us that being a real reader and being a student in reading class were two different things.  Up until I was in Sister Mona’s class, “reading” in school was made up entirely of going over short, mind-numbingly dull passages in dusty old textbooks, followed by doing endless and mindless worksheets.  I was a bookworm from a very young age, and read a lot in my spare time, but saw very little connection between my own reading and so-called “reading class”.  Sister Mona changed all that by asking that we read whatever we wanted.  Her classroom library was large and varied, and she made full use of the school library as well.  An occasional book report was required, primarily for grading purposes, but most of the time, she held us accountable by randomly calling us up to her desk while everyone else was reading at their seats and simply asking us one on one to tell her a little about our current book for a few minutes.  It was very low-key, but very effective.

Sister Mona never neglected the skills side of English either.  Diagramming sentences was one of her favorite things, and though such activity could have been deadly in the hands of a lesser instructor, she actually made diagramming somewhat entertaining.  I have no doubt that I learned a lot about parts of speech and sentence structure from it.  She also let us play the game “Password” as a class every Friday, which we absolutely loved.  Little did we know at the time that she was also teaching us to broaden our vocabulary at the same time.

Every quarter for four years, Sister Mona required that everyone in the class present a Minute Talk, as she called them.  As the name implies, it was an original one-minute talk each of us had to give on a general topic that she chose, such as an important person in our lives or a holiday memory.  They were a horrifying prospect for us as young fifth graders, but as the years passed, many of my classmates and I became fairly calm about public speaking.  She was a great speech coach, and really made a difference in the presentation skills a number of us developed.  Always one for a good chuckle, Sister Mona often gave an example of a Minute Talk she never wanted to hear from us, which she said a former student of hers had once given.  It was on the topic of snow.    It went something like: “Snow is white and it is wet.  It is frozen water.  Snow comes in the winter.  You can make snowmen from it.” And so on with brief, random snow observations up until the one minute mark.  She delivered it in exactly the opposite way she would have wanted us to deliver ours: in a deadpan voice with poor posture.  It always cracked us right up.  It was a running gag in our class all four years for at least one of us to tell her our upcoming Minute Talk topic was “Snow” when she asked.  She always laughed when someone said it, even after four years of hearing it, just like we did every time after hearing her snow-themed “what not to do” Minute Talk.

Sister Mona loved to laugh, and as the Christmas season approached in my seventh grade year, she asked me and a small group of others to take on a pretty hefty assignment in lieu of other work in English class.  We were to rewrite Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol into a humorous play that we as a whole class would then put on at the school Christmas program.  She insisted that it be true to the original, but that it also be funny and appropriate to an audience of students and parents.  The final product, in which I portrayed Bob Crachit, turned out pretty well, if I do say so myself.  I think I learned more about writing for a specific audience and writing in collaboration with others from that assignment than any other I ever did in my life.  As for whether the final version was really that funny, I’m not so sure, but it sure made Sister Mona laugh a lot as we prepared to perform it.

We were required to write compositions and other assignments, of course, but much like her approach to reading and speaking, Sister Mona usually gave us some latitude in what we wrote.  She set forth page-length requirements, a time limit and other such necessities, but made sure the topic of the composition was broad enough that almost anyone could make it their own.  Instead of “What I Did Over My Summer Vacation”, she might assign the more generic “Summer” instead, allowing us to take it in any number of directions.

Sister Mona’s influence extended beyond English class for me.  My mother had had a baby just a couple weeks into my fifth grade year.  I had seen my mother and my new baby brother very briefly for a few minutes before school the day he was born, but was apparently visibly pre-occupied by the whole business all day long.  My father had to work until 5:00 that day, so Sister Mona and our principal, Sister Margaret Anne, called my father and offered to take me up to visit my mother and the baby at the hospital after school, not only so they could visit, but also to set me at ease.

In fifth grade, Sister Mona instituted a nursing home visitation program with her "homeroomers", as she called us.  Every Monday afternoon, she and a large percentage of my classmates would walk to a nearby nursing home and visit with the residents, talking and doing activities.  It was a lot of fun, as it gave my classmates and I time to spend with each other while doing some good deeds.  One of the upsides of Sister Mona’s loud laugh was that it often helped us know where she was in the nursing home at any given time.  As kids, one of our favorite things to do was to hang out with some of the nursing home residents in the TV room watching game shows.  Sister Mona would rather we be visiting people in their rooms and interacting with them more directly.  As long as we knew where she was, we could get our Match Game or Family Feud fix along with some of the residents.

After eighth grade, my classmates and I were leaving parochial school for the local high school, and Sister Mona decided that she was going to the Bahamas.  Not for a vacation, by any stretch.  She was going to do a year of mission work with the poor of that nation.  In the final weeks of our eighth grade year, she shared a great deal of material with us about the nature of her work down there.  It had very little to do with the golden beaches we imagined.  It had everything to do with shacks that were barely able to stand on their own, cramped one-room schools with too few teachers and books, and hospitals with too few doctors and supplies.  Sister Mona had to leave our parochial school for the last time that June day in 1984 one hour before my classmates and I did, so she could catch her plane to the Bahamas.  I never saw her in person again.

Sister Mona also had a fiery temper and was not someone you would ever want to cross.  My classmates and I were so fond of her that rarely did it cross our minds to do so.  When one of us did…watch out!  She was no saint, but neither were we, and as adolescents it was valuable for us to see that, especially in a nun.  Nuns at that time were often seen as holy and virtually faultless.  Sister Mona, on the other hand, was very down-to-earth.  Once, someone brought a copy of Dr. Hook’s “Cover of the Rolling Stone”, a semi-novelty record, to school and played it in the classroom during a rainy recess.  Sister Mona, whom we didn't think was listening, thought it was one of the funniest things she had ever heard.  Every Lent, when Catholics are traditionally encouraged to make sacrifices, she gave up the same thing: potato chips.  As kids, we could really get on board with something as relatable as that.  She talked with us about what a challenge it was to stay away from them for that period of time, but also about why she did it and its importance to her.  Her leading by example meant a lot to us, and taught us more than any textbook ever could.

I owe a great deal to Sister Mona, and I regret that I did not get a chance in later life to let her know that.  As often happens, I lost track of her as I got older, and never was able to share my gratitude.  Books and writing are an important part of my life, and she deserves no small part of the credit.  When the day finally comes that I publish my first book, Sister Mona’s name will be right there on the dedication page where it surely belongs.

God bless you Sister Mona, and thank you.

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