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Bearden: Sisters will teach you a lesson, all right

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Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 05:56 AM

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We make decisions every day in life that could have a profound impact on our future.

The one that forever altered my stint on this Earth came on the playground at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs in Birmingham, Mich.

"Let's draw straws to see who will throw the pie in Sister Martin Mary's face," one of my classmates whispered conspiratorially. (A boy, naturally.)

I was in eighth grade, on the brink of being sprung from Catholic school forever. My parents had promised that if I got good grades and stayed out of trouble that final year of school, I could go to the public high school.

No more nuns! No more ugly plaid uniforms! No more daily Mass!

I held up my end of the bargain. And then, on that last day of grade school, with freedom just hours away, I agreed to join the dissidents in this act of rebellion. Only we thought we could pass it off as a humorous send-off. Ha, ha, Sister Martin Mary. You were really tough on us all these years, and we wanted to show our gratitude with this shaving-cream pie.

I drew the short straw. And, I realized immediately as the cream dripped from her black wimple and her shocked, reddened face, Sister was not amused.

Neither were my parents. For that crime, I was sentenced to four years at Marian, an all-girl's high school. No amount of pleading ("My life is completely over!") or tears would budge them.

Even my mother, the non-Catholic of the two, agreed that I was better off under the impenetrable supervision of the Immaculate Heart of Mary sisters. That she would side with my dad on this was a complete act of betrayal.

And the thing is, Mom, you were right. You're no longer with us, but I wish you were here so I could hug you again and thank you. Given my inclination to follow the crowd (see: shaving cream incident), I'm not sure I would have made it to graduation without a rap sheet.

I understand the sadness that former students of Sacred Heart Academy in Tampa are feeling right now. After 81 years, the school will close in June, due to declining enrollment and changing demographics. No one knows yet what will happen to the 10-acre campus and red-bricked building with the scuffed wood floors.

If you had told me decades ago that I would be thinking fondly of my alma mater one day, I would not have believed you. While my public-school friends were wearing mini-skirts and buying Yardley makeup in bulk, the Marian Flowers (as we were called) had to kneel on the floor to make sure our royal blue plaid skirts hit our knees. Our face paint was kept to a bare minimum.

Modesty was a virtue, we were told. Don't let vanity – or boys – get in the way of a good education.

Those IHM sisters, with their 360-degree peripheral vision and strict countenance, did something for us that never could have happened in a co-ed school. They taught us Girl Power. Because we were the class presidents, the heads of school organizations, the leaders in academics.

With the male distraction removed from our midst, the sisters instilled lessons beyond academics: You can be anything, do anything, once you put your mind to it. Stay focused on the bigger picture. Think before you act. Honor your parents. Pray a lot. Be a giver, not a taker.

I used to think those nuns were a humorless group. What fun could they possibly have, especially wearing those habits? In retrospect, I think they chose to focus on a mission to help us blossom from awkward teens to accomplished women. They sacrificed their own lives to serve God – and us.

At my 20th reunion, I spotted Sister Maureen. How could that be? She was at least 100 years old when she caught me napping in a corner of the Marian library and gave me an earful. That would make her 120 by now. Though nearly all the sisters by then were wearing street clothes, she was still in a habit. As she walked slowly toward me, bent over and slightly shaking, I felt my heart race a little. She could still instill a little fear in her subjects.

"And what do you do now, Miss Bearden?" she said, looking straight at me.

"Well, Sister, I'm a reporter for a newspaper," I replied.

"Hmmm. Interesting. And what do you cover?" she asked.

"This may come as a surprise, Sister, but I cover religion," I told her, somewhat relieved that she would be pleased.

Sister Maureen shook her head in disbelief. She looked toward the heavens, pointed a bony finger upward, and spoke to the Almighty.

"Dear Lord, you do have a sense of humor!" Then she cracked up.

To the Sacred Heart alumni, I can tell you this much: No one will be able to take away the memories and foundation laid for you by the sisters who lent you their wisdom and gave you guidance. Your school will soon be closed, but what lives on is far more important. Now I get it. It just took me a few years.

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