1950s, 1960s, aGING, American education, Art, Betrayal, Child labor, Church, City Life, Dance, Disintegration of the family, Drama, Family, Feminism, Freedom, Hard Work, Inner Strength, Juvenile delinquent, Love, Motivation, New York City, Old Age, Optimism, Positive Thinking, Reform school, Relationships, Religion, School children, Separation, Teenagers, Teens, Uncategorized



© PJ Hayward
New York, 2016
Revised from first publication © PJ Hayward, New York 2008 and 2013
by Hold On Publications

In my youth I was one of those kids some people referred to as “A Handful”. Others called me “Out of control”, “Just plain bad”, “Juvenile delinquent” etc.  My father, who had custody of me and who was totally ineffective at keeping me from fighting, stealing, skipping school and generally staying in trouble, called me an “incorrigible brat”.

Inevitably at the age of 13, I was deposited in a far away convent reform school for incorrigible girls. There the nuns tried diligently to reverse the depraved behavior that had brought me and my fellow degenerates to that pious house of purity for cleansing and reformation.

My father drove me to the place, left me there and eventually pretty much just forgot about me. There was a visit and a phone call or two my first year there. After that, nothing. No visits, no calls, no letters …nothing … although I did go home at Christmastime and an occasional but rare other visit home. From my second year there, I stayed all year round, working as a Teen Counselor at the summer camp the nuns ran through the summer.

Now, my reason for telling  you these things is not to elicit feelings of pity or sorrow or anything like that. Those things happened, but I mention them merely as a preface to the actual point of this story.

There was a nun among that stern and strict Convent group, who was unlike any nun I had ever known before or since. Not only was she sweet, kind, loving and sensitive but she was unique and an entity unto herself. Her name was Sister Jean.

Sister Jean, prior to becoming a nun, had been a professional dancer. Not only had she been a dancer but she was also a writer and choreographer. Even more extraordinarily, she had not just given up a life of dance and creativity to join the convent; in her secular life Sister Jean had been a student of the Icon of Modern Dance, Martha Graham, and a member of her dance company.

Sister Jean, aside from teaching us history, geography, biology and other subjects, was our physical education teacher. She would doff her nunly garb and don black leotards, tights and ballet slippers. Our schoolroom, (which was actually the cavernous former Carriage House of the Victorian era property) would become a dance studio and a couple dozen hard-nosed, gritty city girls would leap and plié as Sister Jean worked her magic to turn at least a few of us from granite to something softer.

Eventually my father stopped sending my tuition payments and never sent money for even the simplest of daily needs such as toothpaste and soap. Sister Jean became my shining star. Very quietly, with no fanfare whatsoever, she made sure I had the necessities of daily living.  From time to time, soap, shampoo, feminine hygiene products and all sorts of things would magically appear in my dresser drawer. Once when I needed supplies for a biology project in order to get my final grade, it was Sister Jean who quietly handed me a plain brown paper bag one day and when I peeped inside, there were all the supplies necessary to do my project to get my grade.

As I mentioned a moment ago,  the day came when my father  just stop paying my tuition.  Because of this the Mother Superior had given the order that I must be sent home. When I begged to be allowed to work to pay my own tuition, it was Sister Jean who advocated for me and battled on my behalf to obtain the Mother Superior’s permission for me to do so, even though such an arrangement had never been done before.  She made it very clear to me that the work would be extremely arduous and she would not be able to lessen the harshness of it.

The work was hard. From the age of 15, every Friday night I scrubbed and polished the huge school kitchen until it shone and gleamed like a mirror.  All day Saturday, then Sunday all day after Mass, while other girls played, shopped or had visits from family, I scrubbed and waxed that cavernous schoolroom on my hands and knees with a bucket and a scrub brush – yes – just like you see in the movies. I polished all the desks and chairs and restored order to the mad disarray our schoolhouse bookshelves would become each week.  All the while, Sister Jean took careful note of my hard work and dedication to my commitment.

patti age 15

ME, AGE 15

When I was a Junior, Sister Jean called me into her office. She told me she had arranged a scholarship for me to attend a two-week summer Dance workshop at Bard College upstate. I attended this workshop and had a life-changing experience. I had never seen such beautiful, peaceful countryside and foliage and I was inspired by the cerebral atmosphere and the people I met there. What I did not know was that behind the two-week scholarship, there was another plan afoot which I will tell you about in a minute.

Sister Jean had formed a semi – professional dance troupe from a number of the girls at our school. I was one of the students fortunate enough to be included in this group. We danced and put on little shows and performances in all the towns around our school and even in some other places far afield. One of the greatest memories of my youth was one such performance. One day sister Jean loaded a group of us into the big convent Station wagon and drove us to the city (New York) to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. There we held a small sort of command performance for none other than Martha Graham herself. I’ll never forget it. She embraced Sister Jean with such warmth and affection it made me cry.

I mention that for this reason. The other plan that was apparently afoot when I went to that summer workshop at Bard College was this: unbeknownst to me, Sister Jean had applied to Bard for a College Dance Scholarship for me. Having met the necessary academic criteria, my dancing potential was then to be secretly critiqued at this workshop by whoever it was that could approve a scholarship for me. I found this out when Sister Jean called me into her office during the winter of my Senior year. While she did not say it, I knew it was due to her fierce advocacy that I had been blessed with a four year all-expense paid scholarship to Bard College. Everything was covered – including room, board and even my books.

Tragically, mostly due to my own fault, that wonderful blessing was never to be.

Still having many of my wayward qualities fully intact, I had been sneaking out at night for about a year or so with a much older man. My arch enemy (see my previous post “Terrorizing Beatrice”) had snooped and found me out, had gleefully given me up and I was caught. Even Sister Jean’s most fervent pleas to the Mother Superior could not save me this time.

The next morning, very, very early, my father showed up at the school’s front door to collect me and my few possessions. As we drove away down the long, winding driveway, girls were standing on the front porch and hanging out of every window waving and a few were crying.

I was driven directly to the airport to be unceremoniously shipped to my mother’s Florida doorstep, where I was welcomed with love and tears. My mother, all this time, had never a clue about my situation. I can’t say why but in my letters I had never mentioned anything about my father’s neglect. She opened my small suitcase and cried out “rags!! nothing but rags!!”. She cried for days after my arrival.

But still, even though I was far, far away from Sister Jean, she still was advocating on my behalf. Bard College had been notified about my expulsion from school but Sister Jean had worked her magic once again to help me. The college sent me a letter inviting me to come up to Bard and meet with the Dean to explain my behaviour and offer a plan of redemption. They said that, due to the underlying circumstances of my situation at home, they still wanted to offer me the same scholarship. Unfortunately for me, this letter was sent to my New York City home address where it was cast aside somewhere in a corner for many months. All those months later, my father sent me the unopened letter with a note saying he had just found it. Being so young, it never occurred to me to contact the college to see if I still had a chance. I just assumed I was doomed and all was lost.

But Fate has its way of molding our lives.  In lieu of structured academic edification, I have had a life of great adventure, wandering, happiness, sorrow, joy, laughter, pain, blessings, trials and tribulations, and one-of-a-kind experiences!

So many wonderful people have passed through my life!

But one of the most precious, the most loving and wonderful, never judging me and always trying to help me, beautiful Sister Jean remains as a shining beacon to show what a real Human Being can be. I am very sorry to say she passed away only months after I left the school. She had been ill for quite some time – never complaining and always cheerful, never too sick to be there for those she loved. She is buried on the convent property. But thinking of her today, I was just driven to put her memory to paper to keep her alive in some way.

I was 17 then. I am 72 now. But I can see that beautiful face as though it were here today. God bless you Sister Jean. Thank you for believing in me and doing all you could to care for me and love me all those years ago.



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