May 10, 2009

In Memory of Sister Mary Kilian, R.S.M., born Joan Dunn, 1920-1968, American educator

The teacher who is indeed wise does not bid you to enter the house of his wisdom but rather leads you to the threshold of your mind.
                 — Khalil Gibran, 1883-1931
Lebanese artist and poet

kilianrosesIn a post from last year in which I outlined some of the careers I did not pursue, I mentioned my tenth grade English teacher, Sr. Mary Kilian, whose gravesite is pictured at left. I placed the roses there this afternoon, Mother’s Day, to honor this strong and insightful woman who led me to the threshold of my mind and pushed me across.

Sister Kilian was 42 years old when I met her. Her arrival at Bishop McDevitt High School just as I entered tenth grade caused much excitement among those of my classmates who had had her as their seventh and eighth grade teacher at a parish school. (Catholic schools traditionally follow the elementary model through eight years, with each grade in a self-contained classroom supervised by a single teacher. There is no middle school or junior high.) She’d been popular, known for her sense of humor, her sophisticated world view, and her knowledge of pop culture. You could tell her anything, confident she would not judge nor betray your trust. Her classroom was a gathering place, and her listening ear, her wise counsel, and her love were available to, and availed of, by everyone.

Her classroom had a view of the football field, and if I walked into it today I could go directly to the seat I occupied and see myself surrounded by my friends. The curriculum called for the study of “world literature,” a designation which in high schools, especially in the 1960s, meant important classical texts from Europe and Asia and the Middle East, with a little Shakespeare thrown in. In Sr. Kilian’s class we studied The Merchant of Venice and its important themes of prejudice and tolerance, mercy and revenge, the Greek and Roman myths, and the Epic of Gilgamesh. These texts can be dry and seem to hold little relevance to modern teenagers. Yet I remember Sr. Kilian’s class as full of laughter, full of light, full of joy.

I was just starting to write then. Sr. Kilian was the only adult I ever showed my work to. She read everything I showed her, commented thoughtfully, encouraged me. Surely she knew that the troubled and lonely girls I portrayed, girls who felt like outsiders with no one who understood them, were thinly-veiled versions of myself. She recommended authors to me, and on her advice I read To Kill a Mockingbird, then a current best-seller being made into “a major motion picture,” The Member of the Wedding, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the latter two especially presenting girls like me who felt disconnected from their environments, who saw themselves as “unjoined persons,” as Frankie Addams put it.

For most of that tenth grade year I pondered becoming a nun and prayed for discernment of God’s will in the matter. Every morning I would go to the library and look through a directory of women’s religious communities. It was sort of like a college catalog, all the various orders of Catholic sisters presented with a picture of a typical member in her official garb and a fact sheet about what the community’s particular ministries were. Surely I was influenced by a desire to be like Sr. Kilian, but I was also drawn to the School Sisters of Notre Dame because I adored my Latin teacher, Sister Euphemia. I talked to Sr. Kilian about this, and finally settled on the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, who did social work among troubled and adjudicated girls. I sent away for their application materials. My mother found the packet in my room and questioned me with some alarm and suspicion about my plans. This attitude puzzled me. Some time during the summer before eleventh grade my interest in becoming a nun waned as my interest in boys increased. Eventually I threw the application materials away, and never thought about it seriously again.

By the time I was a senior, Sr. Kilian was no longer teaching. She was instead the Prefect of Studies, sort of the head guidance counselor.  She had an office in the administrative area that was more or less inaccessible to students unless they were summoned there, and it was no longer easy to stop by after school for a chat. In March she called me to her office and questioned me about why I had not yet applied to any colleges. As I recall, I became quite defensive, and said that my parents (primarily my mother) did not think college was suitable for me because they didn’t think I could succeed there, and that I would probably go full time at Pomeroy’s or Bowman’s (the downtown department stores that gave most of us our first jobs). Several days later my mother handed me an application for the local community college, then assembling only its second class. “Fill this out,” she said. “We’ll give you one year to make something of yourself.” There is not a doubt in my mind that Sr. Kilian placed a phone call, said some sharp words, and intervened on my behalf, and that I have her to thank for my higher education.

I attended a Catholic Mass this morning that happened to be offered by another great influential figure from my girlhood, my Religion IV teacher, Father Haney. He called for prayers of thanksgiving for all women who are or were mothers in some sense – biological mothers, adoptive mothers, foster mothers, and “other mothers,” women who have been in someone’s life a mother in spirit.

Sr. Kilian is that figure in my life. She gave me unconditional love and support at a time in my life when my own mother was unable, by her training and her temperament, to do so. I never had a conversation with Sr. Kilian again after that March morning in 1965, and it would be years, years after she was dead, before I truly understood the gift she was in my life. If she were still alive (she’d be 89 now, not so very old these days) I would go to see her, show her some of my stories, tell her that I made good, finally, on the promise she saw in my very early work.

Instead, I do what I can, place roses on the simple flat plaque that marks her place among the other Sisters of Mercy who served the community I grew up in. There were a lot of cars at Holy Cross Cemetery today, a lot of flowers being placed in tribute to departed mothers. Mine were the only ones in the Mercies’ area. Next year I think I’ll bring a dozen.

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