I’ve been speaking to civic groups in the past few months, retelling humorous stories from my early school days that first appeared in these columns. One in particular, about the day in fourth grade when my hamster accidentally got lost in the several-layered 1960s-nun-garments of Sister Susan Marie, seems to attract the most attention and laughs. Several times I’ve been accused of making up this story, so I was happy to get verification on a recent Saturday night.
A year ago, a reader passed along to her son in California one of my columns about my grade school years. I had not seen Tom Gonter since 6th grade, but last spring he emailed me that he was moving back to Atlanta and proposed we organize a reunion of our grade school class at Christ the King on Peachtree Road.
While high schools and colleges usually keep good records of alumni, we found that our early years existed mainly in our own minds and in the fragments of paper some of us have kept through the years. Our reunion effort began when five of us met for beers in Buckhead and played a game of sorts, writing out on two napkins the name of anyone who had been in our classes during the 1960s. As the list got longer, it took on the air of a Trivial Pursuit game with everyone giving a rousing cheer when a particularly obscure person was recalled. We then began an email campaign, slowing finding more than three dozen classmates through the Internet.
In early February, we gathered at a condo clubroom across the street from school to excavate long-buried memories of learning from the often sweet but sometimes fierce order of nuns. Nancy Sterne brought her first-grade report card, reminding us how we were judged in our early years on subjects such as “is reverent at prayer” or “ keeps profitably busy.” For years, we had suspected Nancy was a straight-A student, but we found Bs and Cs scattered across her scores for “handwriting.” Mike Egan and I admitted to failing in handwriting in first grade. I recalled how the principal, the most feared of all the fearsome nuns, Sister Mary Timothy – or “Big Tim” as some dared to call her behind her back – suddenly would burst into our first grade class and check our work. Once she looked over my work in handwriting class, tore it up in front of everyone and yelled, “Chop Suey – your handwriting is nothing by Chop Suey!” (I’ve never been able to eat the stuff since.)
Mark Murray drove in from Greensboro and announced to all that, had it not been for the tight reins of the nuns, he would not be the successful husband, father and businessman he is today. The secret, he recalled, was that when he got in trouble with the sisters at school, he would walk home that afternoon to find his mother and father waiting on the doorstep to administer follow-up punishment. Parental responsibility back then was not delegated to schools as it often is these days; it was a 24-hour partnership. In his adult years, Mark has visited several of our sisters, including meeting Sister Loretta Joseph at her school in Philadelphia. He told her students of how she kept him straight at an crucial time.
As we left the reunion, we joked about how some things haven’t changed over the years. Despite our best efforts to keep this reunion top secret, the nuns heard about our plans for this mixer between the boys and the girls. They dispatched a proper chaperone, Sister Eileen, to monitor our fun for the entire five-hour party.
There’s talk of meeting again soon and watching one of our classmates, Libby Whittemore, perform on stage at her Buckhead cabaret. Given we may have a nun secretly watching us, she’ll have to have a G-rated set.
And though many classmates can now testify to the day my hamster ran amuck, before I give my next speech, I will be sure to scan the audience to see if any nuns have been sent to monitor my remarks. I just hope she doesn’t ask to see my handwritten notes!