My Sister Bernadette

Kitty Burns Florey writes about her youth: “Diagramming sentences is one of those lost skills, like darning socks or playing the sackbut, that no one seems to miss.” She goes on to talk about Sister Bernadette, who taught her this “skill”.

I had a Sister Bernadette – Miss Webster. She was half-Maori, all-Kiwi and very strict. One of the first things we learned was that New Zealand was not on the other side of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, nor was it to be confused with Tasmania. If you answered a question without properly reflecting, she’d say, “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” Since I was attending school in Geneva, Switzerland at that time and we were required to use fountain pens, my fine motor skills got quite a workout. If there was an ink splotch on the paper, we’d be asked what happened. Now, I was 10/11 at the time and my response was usually a variation on “My pen splattered.” Miss Webster’s raised eyebrows and her disapproving, “A poor workman always blames his tools” soon broke me of that!

Penmanship was important to Miss Webster. I still have copybooks filled with pages of properly (and improperly) slanted l’s, m’s, w’s and other letters. Thanks to her I have two different styles of handwriting, the very upright looped version I was taught in my American public school and her version.

We were also taught “New Math” by Miss Webster. To this day I can do bases. In later years I was able to do quadratic equations and I was taught geometry, trig and even how to find f(x). Do I remember any of that? No. But her lessons have stayed with me:

  • how to write an interesting essay (remember not to repeat the opening word of any sentence more than twice)
  • how to write neatly
  • how to use a fountain pen (which I now use when solving the NYTimes Crossword Puzzle)
  • how to take responsibility for your thoughts and express them appropriately
  • how to play Maori stick games
  • how to diagram a sentence
  • how to be (and not be) a teacher.

She’s also the only teacher I had in my early years that I remember with any clarity. The American teachers are all a blur, but she remains fixed in my mind. Back then we called her “Webby” and couldn’t wait to get out of her class. I wish I had the opportunity to tell her how much she influenced my life, and how I now appreciate her.

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