I think I have been very fortunate to have had many good teachers over the years and continue to have many in my life today. So it was a bit difficult to decide just who to write about but once I got to thinking about it felt very good to settle on Sister Alberta Marie, aka SAM.
In 1965 my family moved from a small family farm near LaPorte Indiana to another relatively small farm northwest of Chicago that came with a modest hog raising enterprise. My parents really sacrificed to send my siblings and me to Catholic Schools. The tuition then seems modest by today’s standards but it was a struggle for them in the 1950-1960’s to pull this off. They were though staunch Irish Catholics and so they spared no effort to keep their kids from being subjected to the vices rampant in the public schools.
My Catholic School career involved three institutions: St Peter school in LaPorte, grades 1-8, St. Mary High School in Michigan City Indiana and then Marion Central Catholic High School in Woodstock, Illinois. We moved near the end of my sophomore year in the spring of 1965. The Holy Cross nuns ran all three of these schools. This particular order of Catholic nuns traces its roots back to France and was based in this country in large part it seems in Indiana.
The mid 60’s were a very culturally tumultuous time especially in the arena of civil rights and the anti-Vietnam War effort was just beginning to pick up steam. That particular effort did not really take off until large numbers of young men started getting drafted.
I did not come from a particularly politically active family though John Kennedy was thought to be next to the right hand of God, an Irish Catholic president! I do distinctly remember where I was on November 22nd 1963, in the city library in Michigan City wasting time waiting to get the bus back home after school. The shock that he had been assassinated was almost incomprehensible to me at the time.
I remember little about my junior year of high school. I was involved with a group of kids very into listening to Motown and drinking beer. My life really began to blossom shall we say though in my senior year. I had great concerns by that time that I might be a homosexual and sought out counseling to see if this might be the case. My high school counselor turned out to be my first sexual partner and our relationship lasted for several years, but that is not today’s story.
One of our required senior courses was called “Civics” and it was the study of government, the officially sanctioned version of how the U.S. of A. worked. I remember a very boring book was the text for the course. SAM was the Civics teacher and to her immense credit did not teach much from the approved text. Our weekly assignment was to read Time magazine from cover to cover and we would then discuss and have a ten-question quiz, just to make sure we had actually read it. SAM was already quite involved in the anti-war and civil rights movements and to say her politics and teaching style stuck out like a sore thumb was a profound understatement.
She was continually challenging us to think about the U.S. involvement in Vietnam as perhaps less than a noble venture and that perhaps African Americans were also deserving of a fair share of the American pie.
SAM was always sharing analysis and readings from the left press of the time almost all very critical of the war effort and she kept us abreast of the latest developments in the civil rights movement. She was instrumental I believe in mentoring the school’s Peace Club, which I never got around to joining but was certainly a sympathetic fellow traveler. I was I suppose too caught up with my farm chores, my political awakening, Motown, beer and trying to get into the pants of my high school counselor.
SAM was responsible for bringing Daniel Barrigan to the school in a speech sponsored by the Peace Club. Barrigan of course was a nationally known Jesuit very outspoken in his opposition to the war. This may have been her undoing and did result in being called on the carpet I think by the local Bishop. In hindsight this may have been instrumental in her leaving the convent a year or so after I graduated, or perhaps more accurately being tossed out.
So my senior year was filled with all sorts of mind-boggling stuff and why my head didn’t just explode I’ll never know. One very memorable event that year was a trip SAM arranged for several of us seniors to an all black town in the Mississippi delta called Mound Bayou. There we hung out with a group doing literacy work primarily with poor black sharecroppers. The poverty we witnessed was nearly incomprehensible for young white kids from Republican suburban Chicago. No other event I can think of had such a profound effect in shaping my political views right up to this day. I am quite certain that this was her intent all along.
So you may ask where is SAM today? Well about a year ago I reconnected with my high school alumni association, something I do not recommend if you are not already on their radar. Turns out SAM had been at a reunion event of some sort at Marion High School relatively recently and they were able to give me her email address.
We have reconnected very cordially and I hope to visit her this coming spring. She lives in Manhattan and has been there for many years apparently working as an immigration lawyer. I have of course fallen all over myself thanking her for setting me on the straight and narrow politically so to speak for all these many years.