Revisionist History

It’s often what we do when someone dies, because who wants to speak ill of the dead?

Perhaps because we’ve just come back from our 50th reunion and are attuned to College events, two classmates with professional connections to the College sent out word to everyone on the email list that the Dean of Women during our time at the College has died. They talked about hoping that her wonderful influence on us would outlive her.

Good God. We can wish the departed fair winds in the afterlife without indulging in revisionist history. The person in question had a doctorate in sociology from a good university, and she was probably bright. She started as a professor; I took one course from her as a freshman. She was appointed  Dean of Women during our sophomore year, and it was a miserable fit. The role brought out all of her autocratic and rigid rule-abiding tendencies, neither of which served students well.

That year, barely a year after my father’s death, my mother was on one of her rather frequent sojourns into the hospital for tests that would supposedly unearth a physical cause for her unhappiness. For her, going into the hospital was like staying at the Marriott, only health insurance paid. She packed a pink satin bed jacket, and tucked little bottles of champagne into her day bag. She was good at getting admitted, and of course in those days it was easier to do. She was good at it even in later years, after insurance companies cracked down; being labeled a “frequent flyer” bothered her not one bit. No satisfying diagnosis ever came.

My younger sister Wendy was staying with family friends so she could continue to walk to school. I needed the car to go and see Margaret in the hospital, then to drive to Kearny to have supper with Wendy, then to get back to campus by 9pm or so to start my unfinished class work for the next day. Resident students in those days couldn’t have cars on campus, so I had to get special permission from the Dean of Women.

The Sister, who shall remain nameless but my classmates reading the blog will know just who I mean, was still in a black habit with starched white trim. She had a pale face, and thin lips that never really smiled. She had a particular smirk, and it often preceded a sarcastic comment designed to reduce a student to a quivering mess of inadequacy. I recall her icy blue eyes staring mercilessly at me as I explained why I needed the accommodation with the car.

“Pamela, you know there is a rule. Rules exist for a reason.”

People with absolute power — and in those days nuns had absolute power — can be cruel. I didn’t bend, but kept insisting I needed the car. She finally gave permission, but she made me walk through the fires of holy hell and over broken glass to get it.

Classmates who stayed in touch with her over the years claim she mellowed with age and got nicer. I think that’s great. Everyone deserves the chance to become a kinder, gentler human being. And Catholic theology teaches the possibility of souls transforming in the light of God’s grace. But Catholicism also teaches that atonement and reconciliation are part of the deal. I hope that at some point, Sister X asked forgiveness for all the mean years.

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