When I was 5 years old I went to a convent school run by nuns.
Pause and reflect. That sentence on its own has led a few reactions over the years. Some people say with a chuckle "Well, that explains a lot". Others have asked if I got bummed by the clergy there. Others still have wondered at the discipline of a 1970s education controlled by the wives of Jesus Christ.
Thing is, the school was awesome.
My imagination ran riot at St Mary's
, Roman Catholic
Road, Southam, UK.
I began at Nursery in 1975 and stayed until 1979 when my family moved to a town
10 miles away and stuck me in the shit hole that was/ is Clinton Primary in Kenilworth.
But I digress.
St Mary's was fab for so many reasons. It had a huge playing field with other fields behind that where we would sometimes go on walks with our teachers. I first learned what Cuckoo Spit was on one of these jaunts. It also had a big hall where we'd not only eat our lunch but also put on the Christmas Nativity play every December on the stage there. The dressing room at the back was Mrs Smith's class of M1 (Middle 1, now Year 4) and it had two doors on the side that opened out into...nothing. They were locked and sealed shut but we wondered just what they were for. I mean, a door that opened onto a sheer drop!! That's just silly!!
In the middle of the playing field was an old brick hut that was permanently locked. We were allowed to play near it but woe betide anyone who tried to actually get inside. Years later I found out that it had a dry well in it and was beyond dangerous to scampering, inquisitive kiddies.
The staff in my era were predominantly female. I never actually noticed this at the time but it explains fully why me and most other kids were so scared of the Deputy Head, a quietly spoken man named Mr Lafferty (who we swore blind was called Mr Lavatory until corrected by adults trying to suppress laughter). The teachers were, in the main, consistent, fair and compassionate and not in any way vindictive or shallow or cuntish like some of the fucktards I had at later schools.
My memories of this place are magic, imagination, running around and having fun and an education in both school and social interaction that laid foundations I hold dear to this day.
This ship of shaping was led by a nun named Sister Joseph Claire.
Now Sister wasn't just a nun. She was the Jason Bourne of nuns.
The first time I remember seeing her was when my mother took me to her office after collecting me from Nursery. Apparently I'd not been saying "please" and "thank you" at the appropriate times so Sister gave me a stern lecture on the importance of good manners and said that in future I should always say "Please may I?"
If you got told to stand outside the classroom, or stand in the corner by your teacher then you had better pray that Sister wasn't walking around. Because if she caught you in the middle of a punishment then you would get it double.
While EVERYONE was scared of being sent to Mr Lavatory (a tactic used on frequent occasions by teachers wishing to set an example with errant ne'er do wells) it was sometimes possible to talk nicely, have a good explanation and show contrition and just MAYBE he wouldn't smack you. Sister on the other hand...well. She could have just had a private audience with the Pope and you would still get exactly what was coming to you. No more, no less.
Sister was like the tides of the sea, or the phases of the moon. Incorruptible, unchanging and terrifyingly yet reassuringly consistent.
She didn't have a birthday, she had a Feast Day. At the PTA Christmas pantomime the only member of staff not appearing was Sister. At the time I thought this was because Sister didn't have an 'off' switch and had a duty to remain serious at all times. A version of Peter Pan with Stinkerbell ("be nice to me or I'll cast a smell on you!") was, in my mind, far too silly for Sister to be involved with. She was probably in her office signing death warrants or something while we were laughing at our parents and teachers clowning around on stage.
One day when I was about 7 or 8 we were taken in groups of 4 or 5 to her office. Once there she told us that we had all been being extra horrid lately and in future any and all bad behaviour would result in us getting the slipper on the arse. As this information sank in she then said "And it will hurt." Years later in 1991 I came back to say goodbye to her as she was about to retire. When I reminded her of this story she smiled and replied "Yes Lance...but I never actually did it, did I?"
The threat had been enough.
When I left St Mary's in 1979 I realised just how lucky I'd been there. The staff at both Clinton and a school called Park Hill that I attended (after bullying at
had both me and a mate moved by our parents) were lazy, vicious or stupid or a
combination of all three. Secondary School was even worse with all but one teacher
(the wonderful David Hardy) treating education like a factory with dinner ladies.
St Mary's had been a golden 4 years in my life. Adventure, education, fun and above all boundaries set by people who clearly loved children but knew that they needed fair discipline in their lives.
My sense of right and wrong came from this school. While I gave up on religion by about age 13 (I still refuse to believe that God looks like my Dad with long hair and a beard or that the Bible just couldn't be bothered to mention the dinosaurs) I still hold ethics and moral codes that I learned there. Some have been adapted in the intervening years, it's true but I am eternally grateful for what this place did for me.
It was like Narnia with nuns.
Years and years later I found out where Sister had retired to. It was a convent in the
I wrote her a Christmas card and she wrote one back, expressing her love and
hoping my life was fine. In 2012 she came back aged 79 to retake her vows at
the church next to St Mary's where we would sometimes be reluctantly dragged to
Mass. I turned up there with a
photo of myself aged 8 in case ID was required and a small, old nun approached
"Can I help you?"
"My name's Lance Manley. I'm here for Sister Joseph Claire's ceremony."
"That's me, hello Lance."
The lady who had once made my heart stutter with fear was now a LOT shorter than me and walked with a stoop but when she shook my hand it felt like it was being put in a vice.
I had written a children's book called THE CATASTROPHE OF THE EMERALD QUEEN which had huge anti-bullying themes and a character I'd based on Sister, the head of an orphanage named Madame Veer. I had even drawn upon my first meeting with Sister in the introductory scene where Veer is telling off one of her pupils for not saying "please" and "thank you" enough.
In 2014 Sister moved to a Franciscan convent in
and after phoning her I arranged to visit her for Christmas. As I sat in the
guest's lounge sipping a cup of tea she came in to greet me, still stooped but
smiling broadly and gave me a hug. I stayed for lunch and we went over loads of
old photos, reminiscing about the "good old days" of being forced to
eat your school dinners while fighting the gag reflex and learning the recorder
with Miss Rice on Thursday afternoons. Blackburn, UK
Last Christmas I went to see her again and she was sending out photos to all the people she knew. She gave me two albums of snaps from the 1960s and 70s with the words "If you can find who these belong to then please give them to them. I won't be around forever."
I hugged her goodbye and said "Thank you for being such a positive influence in my life". She got me to choose a book from her private collection and then, as I walked to my car in the requisite December rain, Sister waved at me from the doorway and then went inside so she didn't get cold.
Tonight I found out that last Thursday Sister died.
While I'm sad about this, I'm also glad that I kept in touch with her and said what I wanted to say to her when it mattered. Her funeral is this Friday and I'll be going to pay my respects.
Sister...you were one of a kind.