I confess a certain affinity for today’s guest blog from author Mary Cecilia Jackson, whose novel Sparrow is in stores today. I also went to a Catholic high school, and remember some very stern teachers (some of whom were intimidating in their monks’ robes) — but whom I later learned had my best interests at heart.
I hope you, too, can appreciate Mary’s story about the nun/teacher that impacted her life.
I went to a Catholic high school in Arlington, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C. At sixteen, I was tall and skinny, with thick glasses and a mouthful of braces, painfully shy (especially around boys), terrible at math and science, and constantly trying to fly under the radar so no one would notice how uncool I was.
In my junior year, I took AP English, which was taught by Sr. Michel Marie, a nun who struck terror into the hearts of us all – the nerdiest nerd and the jockiest jock. Even if you didn’t have a class with Sr. Michel, you quickly learned the wisdom of scurrying down the nearest stairwell if you saw her coming. She was a physically imposing lady with steely blue eyes and a voice that got deadly soft when she was about to eviscerate you. Such a woman would be terrifying enough in civilian clothes, but put her in a nun’s habit, and Sr. Michel Marie was your worst nightmare. She wasn’t one of those warm and fuzzy guitar-playing nuns you see in movies. She rarely smiled, gave TONS of homework, and did not care that you had six other classes also assigning massive amounts of work. If we were overwhelmed, she said, we should stop whining and say the Rosary. Sr. Michel suffered exactly zero fools.
I fell in love with her on the first day of class.
Sr. Michel Marie had a deep, abiding love and reverence for literature and its power to heal hearts and change lives. I knew that I had met a kindred spirit, someone who loved books and reading and the wide and beautiful literary world as much as I did. I wanted to be like her (just not the nun part). She introduced us to Macbeth and David Copperfield and made us memorize and recite the first forty-two lines of the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales in Middle English, which I can still do (but don’t make me). We read Prometheus Unbound and Dante’s Inferno and Dylan Thomas and all the Romantic poets, but she also required that we read the Atlantic Monthly from cover to cover every month, so that we would be exposed to great journalistic writing about the world beyond our suburban Catholic school. She believed it was important for us to be able to speak about the issues of the day without sounding like the total idiots that we were. I learned to take tough critique from Sr. Michel Marie, a skill that has been invaluable, not just in my writing, but in every aspect of my working life.
As the year wore on, I came to realize that Sr. Michel’s reputation as our school’s Ogre-in-Residence was largely undeserved. She had high standards and demanded that we dig deep and give her our best work. If we fell short, she made us try again. If we did well, she praised us. And toward the end of the year, I learned first-hand that she was gentle at heart and deeply kind.
We had a huge research paper due in the spring, worth almost half of our final grade. Mine was on David Copperfield, and I’d amassed nearly three hundred note cards over the course of many, many weeks. The day before they were due, I lost them. I tore my locker apart, looked in my desk at home, my desks at school, my book bag, my mother’s car, my father’s car, under my bed, under the dining room table, in the trash. But they were gone, and I was in a blind panic. Surely Sr. Michel would murder me and boil my bones in the cauldron they kept in the convent kitchen. But when I told her before class the next day, my eyes filled with tears and my voice quaking, she smiled at me and said softly, “Mary Cecilia, everything will be all right. Calm down. Say a prayer to St. Anthony, the patron saint of lost things. Take the next few days and continue to search. And if they are truly lost, you and I will figure something out.”
The next day I found them in my locker, wedged between the pages of the previous semester’s biology workbook. I thought then how wrong I had been to believe the awful things I’d heard about Sr. Michel before I even knew her at all. By the end of the year, I understood that she was hard on us because she wanted us to succeed. And maybe because she loved us a little.
A few years ago, I tracked her down and wrote to her, telling her how much she’d meant to me, how often I’d thought of her over the years, and what a profound influence she’d had on my life. I told her I was writing a book. She was eighty-five, not well, and in a nursing home, but she wrote back and said she was proud of me. When she died a few months later, I sat at my desk and cried.
But after a few moments, as Sr. Michel Marie would have wanted, I stopped crying and said a Rosary for her. And then I recited the first forty-two lines of the Canterbury Tales.
In perfect Middle English.
In the tradition of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, Mary Cecilia Jackson’s devastating but hopeful YA debut is about a ballerina who finds the courage to confront the abuse that haunts her past and threatens her future.
There are two kinds of people on the planet. Hunters and prey
I thought I would be safe after my mother died. I thought I could stop searching for new places to hide. But you can’t escape what you are, what you’ve always been.
My name is Savannah Darcy Rose.
And I am still prey.
Though Savannah Rose—“Sparrow” to her friends and family—is a gifted ballerina, her real talent is keeping secrets. Schooled in silence by her long-dead mother, Sparrow has always believed that her lifelong creed—“I’m not the kind of girl who tells”—will make her just like everyone else: Normal. Happy. Safe.
But in the aftermath of a brutal assault by her seemingly perfect boyfriend Tristan, Sparrow must finally find the courage to confront the ghosts of her past, or lose herself forever….
Mary Cecilia Jackson has worked as a middle school teacher, an adjunct instructor of college freshmen, a technical writer and editor, a speechwriter, a museum docent, and a development officer for central Virginia’s PBS and NPR stations. Her first novel, Sparrow, was an honor recipient of the SCBWI Sue Alexander Award and a young adult finalist in the Writers’ League of Texas manuscript contest. She lives with her architect husband, William, in Western North Carolina and Hawaii.