They were trying to teach me something.
I didn’t realize it when I was 7, desperately trying to see the cloistered nuns hidden behind the ornately carved screen at St. Paul’s Shrine in downtown Cleveland.
Or when I was 9, and Sister Geraldine vaulted over three desks to see what the troublemaker in row five was up to.
Back then, they were mysterious figures that my brother and I tried to avoid every morning as we ran down the “nun’s path” — a sidewalk behind the convent that connected a side street with the school campus.
They had names like Seraphim, Bartholomew and DePaul and wore black habits and veils with a white strip across their foreheads. They taught me math, reading and writing, mixed with some Hail Marys and Our Fathers.
In high school, I was shocked to find that nuns were allowed to wear real clothes. They mixed mauves, pinks and purples into their wardrobes and even wore T-shirts. Some, with names like Illuminata, Assumpta and Consolata, still went old school with the black habit and traditional, high-in-the-front veil.
After bus service was cut my sophomore year of high school, the principal, a nun, took five or six of us home every day. She drove a brown-striped conversion van with the speed and precision of a Nascar driver.
The only things standing in her way were the railroad tracks on McCracken Road in Maple Heights.
Each afternoon, we braced ourselves as the van flew through the air, sailing over four sets of tracks at once.
ONE DAY, after a particularly rough landing, a hubcap spun off the van and rolled down the tracks. The principal, who wore civilian clothes, sent Sr. Illuminata, who still wore the traditional habit, out onto the tracks to find that hubcap. The plan worked perfectly. As soon as Sr. Illuminata’s foot hit the pavement, 20 cars stopped to see if she needed help.
In college, I met journalism professor Sr. Mary Ann, the woman who would change my life. She painted elaborate pictures of the world with her words and challenged us to do the same.
During my junior year of college, while working on an investigative piece in Cleveland, I got a traffic ticket. Since it was related to my assignment, Sr. Mary Ann and I headed to court to plead our case. I remember her leaning down to whisper in my ear as I sat with a handful of other defendants in the courtroom. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I wore my big cross today.” I still had to pay the fine.
Today, there is Sr. Lu. She hugs me as I walk into Mass at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church. She is as comfortable in church as she is shoveling mulch or adding a screened-in front porch to her house.
I look back at those women now. They are so much more than nuns. They are teachers and construction workers and journalists and cheerleaders.
I try to use the lessons they taught me — stand up for what you believe in, it’s OK to make mistakes and use what you know. You just never know when a hubcap might go rolling by.
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