“William! Put your answers on the board now!”
My name is not and has never been “William.” But you would never know that if you had watched me in my freshman homeroom, or worse, sophomore mathematics classes with the infamous Sister “The Pulverizing Penguin” Clara.
This is one of those posts about St. Nard’s that any of my former classmates will know was bound to come if they happen to be reading. Leading up to this writing, I debated on whether or not to use Sr. Clara’s real name, but because she’s been dead for ten years and I have no fears of the alleged magic powers of nuns, I feel that it is perfectly fine to not keep secrets.
Sr. Clara was the sole nun at St. Nard’s by the time I began my freshman year. She stood at about 1.3 meters with the overall shape of a fire hydrant topped off with a few strands of stray white hairs. She was well into her 90s and showed a plethora of symptoms of senility at best or dementia at worst. She was openly racist and would ridicule the few non-white students in the school using slurs that were generally unheard of by my generation and were more likely to be found in some 1920s or ‘30s setting. Her classrooms were segregated with white boys in the front, white girls behind them, and all non-white teenagers in the back.
For my entire freshman year, I was called “William” in homeroom and grew to just accept it. I was in a mindset where I’d rather not correct a nun who was clearly kept on the roster out of sympathy and ageism. That, and she was quick to slap you with a yellow plastic meter stick if you didn’t comply with her commands. She may have been dwarfed by every single student in my class, but goddamn did we learn to fear her.
By the time I was a sophomore, I had to endure two full semesters of math with Sr. Clara. Nobody was safe from her. She was the only math teacher sophomores had, regardless of their placement level. Every class was divided into Level 1 and Level 2, with Honours becoming available for upperclassmen in English and electives. Level 2 was equal to the standard curriculum in a public school, Level 1 was advanced placement. I was in Level 1 for all of my courses, including sophomore geometry. Even if I decided to change my placement, I still would have been stuck with the penguin.
Let me tell you this: you don’t know true fear until you look at your predestined schedule on the first day of the term and see her name on it, and knowing that you’re stuck there no matter what.
This woman had no idea how to teach. Every class for 180 days involved having our (incorrect) names being called to the board, we’d write our homework on said board, and then she’d slowly walk down the length of the wall, inspecting each equation. She’d stare at your work for several minutes and either check it or strike an “X” over it. If you got the “X” you were required to report back to the board and correct it. I saw plenty of my classmates stand at that board for the entire class, trying to correct the same equation they started with. Sr. Clara would not show you where you made a mistake, and instead forced you to redo the work from scratch with all eyes on you. The only help she provided was to tell you if you were correct or not.
She never once helped a student who had made an error. Had she shown you where the mistake was made, you would, I don’t know, learn something. This would make solving future geometric equations much easier. Instead, you were on your own and you either sank or nearly drowned. I can say, without hyperbole, that everyone Sr. Clara taught had below average grades. The highest grade in my classroom was a C+ and the average amongst her Level 1 classes was a C-. The average for her Level 2 classes was a goddamn D.
I never struggled with math. I would find it boring at times and lose interest in studying and applying the work (until later in high school and college when I took Calculus), so I normally had a B to A- in my math courses after the 4th grade. However, I can say that I did struggle with Sr. Clara. She provided no instructions in class, and if you used the textbook to learn how to apply the theorems and formulas, you would lose points as the penguin wanted you to use her methods only. Methods that she never shared.
Her classes revolved entirely around presenting our homework as stated above. If we were done sharing, we were to start the next chapter’s assignment. She did not instruct in anything, but one of the methods we did glean from her was that we had to be able to recite every geometric theorem and postulate from memory, word for word. Spelling counted. If you used shorthand to write “Two parallel lines cut by a transversal create congruent alternate exterior angles,” the entire equation would not count even when you had the correct answer and proofs. If you ran into the margins, you were marked wrong for the entire equation. If you made a spelling error, you lost half the points on the equation.
This was fun when you only had six lines to work with, and to write all six steps within their respective lines and margins and you needed to write something like this: “When two secant segments are drawn to a circle from an external point, then product of one secant segment and its external segment is equal to the product of the other secant segment and its external segment.” And no, we weren’t allowed to draw our own lines to create more space.
Our exams were equally lacking in information. Most geometry classes or chapters I had taken prior to or since Sr. Clara’s involved three things: one, the given. Two, the geometric shape. Three, what I am required to prove. I then have a list of lines where I am to write my statements in the left column and reasons in the right, using the given as the starting point, or from finding the given myself using the geometric shape. It’s not hard and not much different from solving any other logic puzzle.
Sr. Clara’s exams were usually just a hand drawn shape and the lines for us to make our statements and reasons. She never provided a given, and never provided information on what to prove. That was our job. I can understand this but the hand drawn shapes offered little information by themselves, especially when a blind Tyrannosaurus could have sketched something better. We never had anything like “write a justification for each step” or “find the inverse of the following statement” with questions getting progressively harder throughout the year. From the first quiz to the final exam, it was just a sheet of paper with some poorly drawn shapes on it and no usable information.
Passing had more to do with sheer luck than with math, logic and geometry.
I have a friend who works as a chief mechanical engineer for the United States Navy who still keeps a geometry and trigonometry notecard with him at work to solve formulas and other necessary equations on the job because of, as he put it, her.
Making this more fun for myself, I was docked points on several homework assignment and exams in geometry where I used some trigonometry to solve equations. Had I done that in a public school, I'd like to think that my teacher would have recognized my work as an advanced approach to analyzing triangles rather than chewing me out because I didn’t use the more basic methodology.
By the time I was a junior, I was a straight A student again in Algebra II and math was something I came to enjoy. My teacher was awesome, and she actually showed us what to do and how to correct mistakes in our work. She was only a few years older than us as well so it was a huge and welcome change of pace.
Here, we also had to write our homework/classwork on the board and she swiftly noticed our apprehension. After asking why we were all so scared, we shared our stories of Sr. Clara who was still working with the sophomores. She brought this lack of education to the headmaster’s attention who eventually moved the penguin to the basement library to oversee the few books and computer lab in a move of pointless busy work. She dwelt there like a troll, living out her days until she died in her early-100s in the spring of 2009.