First impressions are deceiving. I learned early on not to fall into the trap of judging people too soon or trusting the impressions of others.
Before Sister Mary Augusta was my high-school English teacher, upperclassmen friends would fill my head with nonsense about how strict she was. How unyielding. The joke was that behind that stern emotionless exterior lurked a stern emotionless interior. And I, being young and much too gullible, unquestioningly accepted their groundless appraisal of her. I remember that summer before my sophomore year, praying to all the angels and saints to not let “Caesar Augustus” be my English teacher. Of course, those same bearers of teacher horror stories did their utmost to ruin my summer of 1956 with constant reminders that if I liked English, old “Caesar,” without even trying, would make me hate it by the year's end.
First impressions. The nun was the tallest I'd ever seen. Quite tall and heavily built, not obese, but imposing. Let me say, frightening, especially for those like me who had endured the knuckled pain of sisters who, with their ubiquitous rulers ever at the ready, behaved like despots in the classroom. Rulers with rulers. Not only that. Many of the more sadistic of the lot were short in stature, rather thin, and knew how to don a smile and twinkle the eye, at least before they were my teachers. I'd meet them walking along the avenue, two nuns who could have passed for two on leave from Angelsville or Saint City. “Good afternoon, Sisters,” I would singsong in greeting, and they would smile and nod their bobbing heads in perfect unison. How sweet. How utterly misleading. I have the scarred knuckles to prove how little one can rely on “love at first sight.”
Sister Mary Augusta stood at the classroom door as we marched quietly into her room for the first time.
In front of her stood a long wooden pointer, which she held there with one hand over the other, the way old men do with canes. Ah hah! I thought. This one's graduated beyond the ruler. She'll do her corporal punishment with a pointer. Forget knuckles. A few snappy thrashings on the shoulders, the back, perhaps across the face. My forehead popped a few beads of sweat. While her two hands were steady, mine were trembling. We took our seats.
“The shorter boys and girls,” she said, “come take the seats in the front please.”
I was always the shortest boy until Gerard moved to our school a year later. So timidly I headed for one of the seats closer to the front blackboard. Oh, what a big pointer you have, Sister, and Sister, likewise in my head, replies, The better to beat you with! Diane Butler, shorter even than I, sat beside me.
“Can all of you see the board now?”
“Yes, Sister,” we replied like a choir practicing the art of one voice.
Unlike the sisters who taught my other classes, Sister Augusta did not begin the first class by explaining her rules and what would befall those foolish enough to break them. She did not ask if we had a pleasant summer. Nor did she ask us to write a composition entitled, “How I Spent My Summer Vacation.” Instead, she read each of our names aloud, asking the owners of surnames a bit hard to pronounce if she had pronounced it correctly. When she got to my name, she said, “Salvatore Buttaci,” and I was amazed she said it the way my parents did, the correct way! Boo-ta'-chee.
“Is that correct, Salvatore?”
I nodded, then said, “Yes, Sister.”
Once done with roll call, she turned her back on us and wrote on the board. No one dared speak. They too, no doubt, had been psyched by friends to expect the worst. Then she laid down the chalk, picked up the pointer, stepped back and touched each word on the board with the tip of the pointer, and spoke them one at a time. Enunciated them slowly, pausing after each one.
Caesar! Here it comes. Here is where she reads us the riot act. Here is where she explains that “communicate” means “I command and you obey.”
In those few words Sister Augusta based her entire year of teaching. She taught us the value of language. No, more than that. The love of language. The desire to meet the master writers in the words of their poems and stories. She spoke of Shakespeare with reverence. When she read Alfred Noyes' narrative poem, “The Highwayman,” we were there that night
“The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas...”
And when my father pumped me up to believe I could write an award-winning essay that would be published in The Sunday New York News, I went to Sister after class one morning and asked her what my chances were. “You think I could win?”
“The important thing is, do you? Come up with a good idea, write that first draft, then spend a week or two revising it until it's as good as you can make it.”
“And if I do all that?”
“Salvatore, I have a good feeling you will do it all.”
Then the woman who influenced my whole writing and teaching life, the woman about whom I was warned was a Caesar act-alike, the sister who taught me to not only love English but love and thank the Lord Who gave me the desire to write poems and stories, all at once smiled at me. Her blue Irish eyes twinkled.
“You know what I think, Salvatore?” she said. “Your father is right. You can and you will win!”
Many years later I am still thanking God, especially for placing me in the classroom of that kind and loving Sister Mary Augusta.
Oh, yes, it is so true: often the appearance of what seems to be is nowhere near the reality of what is!