Pamela York Klainer
Sister Joan lived under a vow of obedience, which meant no one was required to tell her why she was being transferred from the Catholic high school in which she taught English to the College run by the Order. Nor did anyone ask Sister Joan if she would like to change assignments, or how she might feel about a move, or if she had any student projects underway that would suffer from her unexpected departure. But the chair of the English department at the College was a friend, a nun far more candid than most with a raucous, horsy laugh that softened the sharpness of her words. “Joan, dear, your intensity scares the children half to death – and the rest of the faculty and your Sisters in Christ too. Mother General is sending you up here to us in the hopes that we can tone you down, or at least do a better job of holding our own with you.”
Convent life meant group life: eating together, praying together, even going to the doctor with a companion, as nuns were never permitted to travel in public alone. The dumb ones were tolerated kindly, an easy expression of the Christian charity to which they were all called. The smart and intense ones like Joan were like a thorn in the side to all but the most confident of her peers.
Sister Joan had been an outlier since the day she entered religious life, which if she’d focused more deeply on feelings would have been lonely. Sister Joan did feelings via poetry, which were feelings on paper, once removed from the immediacy of life. If Joan did risk being slightly self-revealing, which usually happened with students that she found promising, it was always under the protection of her religious garb. Behind the long black folds of her habit, Joan was always in charge.
Her life’s exception was the small black and white photo of a young man, tucked away and revealed to no one, ever, and not a keepsake Sister Joan was supposed to have. Joan was sure no one in her family remembered him, and she’d lost touch with the high school girl friends who might have recalled Andrew and Joan as a couple. He was two years ahead of her in high school, graduating as she finished her sophomore year. They belonged to deeply religious families and went to mass in the same parish, were in youth group together, and more important to Joan, lived almost across the street from each other. They spent hours every night in the summer talking on the stoop of Andrew’s front porch, and there was no religious garb to construct a barrier then.
Joan had been in love, surrendered her heart in the way that only a passionate sixteen year old can. And yet Andrew never kissed her, or so much as held her hand.
Packing for her move, Joan slipped the photo from the back of her personal prayer book, ran her finger over the glossy surface and whispered to herself. “Andrew, where are you now?”
They hadn’t truly been boyfriend and girlfriend; Andrew never called her that. Joan wasn’t allowed to date in high school, so she had no way of knowing if Andrew would have asked her out if her father had permitted it. But she and Andrew were together all the time. He listened to her, his dark eyes focused intently on hers. He wasn’t like the other boys, who made stupid jokes about the size of a girl’s breasts poking out from under her sweater set. Andrew didn’t ever seem threatened by Joan’s intelligence. They talked about books, and about what was happening in the world, and about the cliques in school, and about their teachers and about everything else. Neither of them was part of a clique, but they didn’t need to be. They had each other. Joan and Andrew made a perfect pair as the soft light of successive summer evenings faded into darkness.
Andrew liked to catch fireflies, and one night he playfully set one on her finger as if it were a ring.
Their last conversation, sitting on that same stoop, was a shock. “Joan, I have something to tell you. Don’t be mad at me. I should have told you before. I’m going to be a priest, and right after Labor Day I’m leaving for seminary, and I won’t be home again. You can come visit with my family once a month. I’d really like you to. You’re my best friend. I want you to understand this, and be happy for me.”
Andrew kept talking, but Joan didn’t hear. They say that people stop breathing when they’re in shock, which Joan thought a silly expression because if you stopped breathing you’d faint. But she did stop breathing, able to take in only the faintest wisps of air, and she did feel quite faint. Her smile froze, so there was no warmth and no humor left, only the small muscles of her face left rigid and drained of the power to reflect sadness or grief or deep, aching hurt.
“Joan? Say something. Please. Talk to me. You always talk to me. Don’t do this. I need you to be happy for me. This is important. It isn’t just about high school stuff, or getting a job after graduation. This about God.”
Joan remained stonily silent, refusing his entreaties and rejecting the look of hurt in his eyes. Surely he grasped the meaning of her refusal to say a single word. She got up from the stoop and walked across the street, not even tempted to look back. And she never went to see him, not even when his mother called a few months later saying Andrew cherished his limited chances to see friends and was so hoping she’d come.
But Joan kept the picture, with his thick, curly hair falling over his forehead, the pristine white T-shirt, the chino pants and high-top sneakers. Andrew looked so young, surely he’d changed by now. In the photo he was smiling, his dark eyes looking straight into hers as they always had. When she declared her own intention to enter the convent she was supposed to end all romantic relationships. But this hadn’t been a romantic relationship, had it, at least not for Andrew. Uncharacteristically Joan didn’t have the words to explain what it had been for her. Whatever those halting words might have been needed Andrew to help her say them, and her Andrew was gone.
Joan was loved in her family but lonely, and lonely among her friends. She didn’t make it a conscious decision, to be so guarded. But that’s what was left of loving Andrew: the need to be in control. Her father teasingly called her too smart by half and said she’d never find a man. Her mother tried gently to say that maybe Joan could do more of what the other girls liked to do, even if she thought trying on clothes or practicing putting on make-up for a school dance was silly, instead of always having her nose in a book.
But Joan chose a different way. She wasn’t a thorn in the side for everyone; she hadn’t been for Andrew. And when she found someone who would be drawn to her no matter how intense she was, she would always cherish that relationship, and do everything she could to bring it close.
Joan saw that kind of potential in Loretta and reached out, and no one could think badly of an engaged and caring teacher of poetry for that.