It was 1959 in our Iowa town of 130 plus residents. I was supposed to be studying Latin, but I was composing the latest note to pass to Vern.
The minute she stormed into our homeroom, I knew that Sister Placid had found the toad. She aimed her now familiar stare straight at me and didn’t even glance around the room.
“Dictionary,” she barked.
The class laughed. I said, “Yes, Sister,” and she returned to the science lab.
I was a Senior in high school and this scene had been repeated so often that we no longer wasted energy with full sentences. She knew I was guilty and I knew I would be staying after school writing a page out of the dictionary while the rest of the class went home. It wasn’t only the toad. It was the firecrackers, the fake throw up, the snake, the alarm clock hidden in the desk, the homework not turned in and many other just minor incidents that had formed our new relationship. I didn’t have a clue, but my life was being changed. Drastically.
After the last bell I dutifully dug out my paper and dictionary and lined them up on my desk. But I didn’t write anything. That part of our time together had been over for a month now. Once the classroom was empty I cleaned the blackboard and took the erasers outside to clap them together and made a cloud of chalk on the stairwell. I liked the smell of firecrackers, but I sure didn’t like the smell of chalk dust. Next, I dry mopped the floor and emptied the wastebaskets. Our small school didn’t have a janitor and the sisters were expected to keep it clean. In fact, we were so small that there were only eleven of us in the graduating class. There had been twelve, but Gary was pulled out of school right after eighth grade to help his Dad on the farm. Education was definitely not a priority in our small town.
I hurried through my duties and no matter how quickly I finished or how long it took she seemed to finish her paperwork at exactly the same time. The paper and dictionary would then sit untouched on my desk while we talked. Not about the toad or fake vomit or whatever gimmick I had contrived that day. Not about school either. But about me. About my life. No subject was taboo. She even let it “accidentally” slip one day that the cute freshman I was too shy to ask out really did like me and was waiting for me to talk to her. Over the months we discussed many things including small town life, etiquette, responsibilities, dreams, an upcoming summer job, and the future. My life was being shaped during the hours after school rather than during the hours of school. She was good.
But I really didn’t listen very well when Sister Placid talked to me about college. There had been only one other person in town that went on to college and he went to a seminary. Yet, here she was, trying to convince me that it was possible to go to college and possible to get out of the small town. Ahhhhh, she did hit my hot spot. I did want more out of life than the small town offered. And she took advantage of that. The more we talked after school, the more I wanted to believe that she could be right. So, in order to continue our relationship and conversations, yet still save face with my buddies, I had become the class clown.
Shortly before graduation the parish priest dropped by one day during my daily “dictionary” session. It seems that Sister Placid had been talking to him, too. He told us that he had contacted Loras College in Dubuque and that I was in. All I had to do was fill out the paperwork. And since I had a good summer job lined up working road construction, money would be no problem. A car would have to wait. I was destined to be a freshman in college that fall.
Four years later I graduated from Loras and joined the real world. I was armed with a fresh sheepskin and a new confidence. The future was out there for me to grab. I didn’t know it then but my future wife was a student in one of Sister Placid’s classes when she transferred to another town and school. So, after we met and got married, we visited her at school. Sister Placid said that it was only fitting that she had been involved in both of our lives.
Three sons later my family and I visited her again. Only this time she was in a nursing home. She still had that fire in her eyes and I knew she was proud to be a part of our lives. My sons really liked her.
Sister Placid died a short while after our last visit and her memory faded over the years. But this summer, while on vacation, I found a toad house and it rekindled the fond memories of a person who had such a profound influence on my life. It now sits next to a tree by our driveway. When people ask me what it is I just tell them that it’s a toad house and that I have a thing for toads. Then I smile. Sister Placid smiles, too.