Deep listening opens doors
My elementary school, St Vincent de Paul Catholic School, in Rogers, Arkansas, consisted of three classrooms for eight grades, 1st through 2nd, 3rd through 5th, and 6th through 8th. Consequently, I had the same teacher, Sister Stephen (now known as Sister Stephanie, a member of the Order of St. Benedict), for three of my most formative educational years: 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades. Some of my classmates, especially boys, remember Sister Stephen as exacting and a little too challenging for their taste. I remember her as my first infatuation. On Saturday afternoons, I’d ride my bike three miles—all the way across town, which seemed like a very long way to me then—just to spend extra time with her. I’d help her design displays on the bulletin board, pick up supplies (with my bike) at Shoffner’s Office Supply store, or deliver a message to the parish priest, Father Bujarksi. Whatever task she assigned to me, I accepted with exuberance.
Dressed in a full black habit, Sister Stephen commanded attention. I never understood how she could smile when her headpiece stretched so tightly across her forward that it caused a permanent crease above her eyes. But somehow, she did, and I loved her for it.
When I admitted to her that I didn’t like to read, Sister Stephen recognized it for what it was—it wasn’t that I didn’t like to read, it was that I didn’t like what I was reading. The Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew might have entertained me, but they didn’t hold my interest long enough to stay engaged with them. Sister Stephen introduced me to the lives of true women heroes like Clara Barton, Florence Nightingale, and Harriet Tubman, and, in doing so, inspired my lifelong love of women’s biography and memoir.
When Lee Harvey Oswald shot President John F. Kennedy in Dallas in 1963, she covered her own devastation by ushering all of us children into the church to pray the rosary while we waited for our distraught parents to arrive. When I told her I wanted to be a nun just like her, she didn’t placate me and didn’t dismiss me. Instead, she listened carefully and encouraged me to listen to my heart to discover what path my life should take.
Although I ultimately chose not to follow her path, Sister Stephen taught me through her own life and the lives of the great women she encouraged me to read about, that women could be strong, live lives of purpose, and be trusted to hear the word of God, if, as she said, “she listened deeply enough.” That was the clincher, of course, listening deeply enough to hear. Even though I no longer believe in a supernatural God that speaks to me individually, I do believe my own inner voice and the spirits of my ancestors have a lot to say, when, that is, I choose to listen. I have Sister Stephen to thank for that.
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