This story is by Mike Conradt and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Josh hung up the phone as his wife, Stacy, come into his office. She brought lunch for them, and as she walks to his desk, the distress on his face is clearly visible.
“Who’s on the phone?” she asked.
“Father O’Brien from St. Joseph’s elementary school,” said Josh.
“What did he want?”
“Sister Mary Magdalene passed away,”
“Sister Mary Magdalene. Do we know her?”
Stacy looked at him, bewildered.
“We know her?” asked Stacy, a little agitated.
“I do,” said Josh with a vacant stare.
“How do you know her? ”
“She taught me in the third grade. She changed my life dramatically,” said Josh, leaning back in his chair.
“Well, how did she do that?” ask Stacy matter factually.
“Like this,” said Josh as he thought back to that first day of school and began to tell her.
Josh fidgeted with the corners of the book as stood in front of the class.
“The………ra……….” Said Josh as he stumbles through the first line of a paragraph. The low, quiet snickering coming from his classmate’s made him feel hot with embarrassment.
“You can sit down now, Josh,” said sister finally. He bowed his head and sauntered, shuffling his feet as he made his way back to his desk. He felt humiliated as he slumped into his seat.
Finally, the bell rang at the end of the day and as Josh prepared to leave, Sister Mary Magdalene gently touches his shoulder. He turned, astonished to see Sister with her warm smile.
“Josh, let’s talk for a minute, shall we?” she said gently.
Josh reluctantly went back to his desk and sit down. By now, the classroom was empty and quiet.
“Thank you for staying, Josh. I don’t want to make you feel uncomfortable. We all have our crosses to carry, and hopefully, I can make yours a little lighter. Ok?” She said quietly. Josh hung his head.
“Could you please read this paragraph for me,” she said gently and handed him an open book.
Josh read halting and slowly, stumbling over the words.
“Ok. That is enough,” said Sister Mary Magdalene. “This is what we are going to do until you can read at the fourth-grade level or higher.” She looked him in the eye and continued, “every afternoon after school, I want you to sit in your desk, and I will give you a book to read, starting with a basic level. You will read out loud to me, alone, Ok?”
“Yes, sister,” said Josh.
“I want you to read until I am satisfied with your proficiency in each book. Then you will proceed to the next level. If it gets dark before you leave, I will walk you home, Ok?”
“I will call your Mother and tell her why you will be late coming home from school.”
Josh fidgeted with his fingers for a moment. He hopes his Mom will understand.
“Ok, Sister,” he mumbled. He felt this was punishment for not being able to read. His staying after school meant no football, no basketball, no playing with friends. Nothing but reading. He hung his head lower.
“Ok. We will begin tomorrow night after school is out, and when the bell rings, you go straight to the chapel to sit and wait.”
Josh left and went straight home, and as he walks into the front door his Mom confronts him,
“What kind of trouble are you in now, boy?” said his Mom, raising her voice.
“I’m not in trouble,” said Josh defensively, almost yelling.
“Then why did Sister Mary Magdalene call me about you staying after school.”
“Because she is going to teach me how to read. Is that ok with you?”
“Don’t give me any of that mouth, boy,” yells his Mom, pointing her finger at him.
“Go to your room,” said his Mom as she points toward his room. “And you better be damn sure you’re at school and not running around and getting into trouble.”
“Yea, Yea,” said Josh as he heads to his room.
“I hope Sister teaches you to read, God knows you can’t read a lick,” yells his Mom sarcastically. She then turned her attention to the television and lit another cigarette.
The next day after school, Josh went to the chapel as told. Later, Sister peeked her head in and motion for him to come. Once in the classroom, he begins to read from a beginner reading book. It must be a kindergarten book thought Josh. But he stumbles with some words, and Sister makes him read it over and over until she is satisfied.
“Ok, Josh. You did a fine job. It’s time to go,” said Sister Mary Magdalene. “I see it is dark, so I will walk you home. Ok?”
“Ok, Sister,” said Josh, relieved. As they walk, Josh said nothing, and neither did Sister. Only the sound from her shoes on the sidewalk and her leather belt slapping on her clothing give evidence she is there.
In the following days, as Josh read, Sister would sometimes move him to the convent to do dishes. Each evening, after he completed successfully, whether one page or ten, Sister would walk him home. Sometimes, enough daylight exists for Josh to walk home, but she walks him anyway.
As each reading session become weeks and then months, the conversation between them grew as they walk home. Sister told him about her childhood and why she chooses to become a nun. Josh said things about his life that no third grader would ever tell anyone, let alone a nun. But he began to feel comfortable with her, and when she talks, he listens.
By the end of the year, Josh could read at the fourth-grade level. An accomplishment he felt impossible until Sister Mary Magdalene began to tutor him. He didn’t expect it, nor did he want it. It cut into his time with his friends. But in the end, the benefits outweigh the regrets. As the year closed and the last day of school came, Josh went to Sister and asked,
“Sister, will you walk me home after school today.”
“Sure, Josh. If you just give me a moment,” said Sister with a smile.
As they walk, Sister said little. Josh reach up and grab her hand. She squeezed his. He felt sad. As they near his house, Sister stopped and turn to him. She bends down and grabbing him by the shoulders said,
“Josh, remember, and practice these three virtues. Love. Love God and yourself. Love your neighbor as yourself and forgive them for their transgression against you. Give of yourself to others in a loving manner. Always love others, and in return, they will love you. Hope. Hope to have peace in your heart. Have Hope to succeed; without it, you fail. Faith. Have faith in God. With faith, you will have the confidence to hope and love. If you have Hope and love, you have faith. When you have all three, nothing is impossible.”
As Josh finished, he looked at Stacy. He felt shameful for not telling her about Sister Mary Magdalene. The tears began to run down Josh’s face. His sobbing made it hard to talk sensibly. His wife smiled and took him in her arms.
“Her love for her students and me shines on,” said Josh in between the sobs.
“I’m sure,” said Stacy. “She must have been a magnificent woman.”
“I remember the law in those days, in the town I grew up in, that a Black man or woman could not be seen on the streets after dark,” continued Josh in between sobs.
“What?” asked Stacy in astonishment.
“Yea, and yet Sister Mary Magdalene, a White nun, walked me home, a Black child, in the dark with no fear of any repercussions.”
“I didn’t know,” said Stacy.
“I never got the chance to tell her, thank you, and I always had it in my mind I would.”
The tears came in a torrent as Josh sobbed uncontrollably. His wife held him tighter and began to cry.
“You are going to the funeral?” asked Stacy.
“Yes.” Said Josh.