“60 Minutes” of Sweat

25 Feb

About four hours after the interview, I finally could think clearly. I stopped feeling the hot lights on my face and the sweat running between my shoulder blades – indeed, I had showered and changed, eaten some dinner, and finally I could talk about what had happened – how we’d been ambushed by Bob Simon in a “60 Minutes” interview and held our own.

We were supposed to go on national television and talk about the pin. A pin that Beth, one of our art teachers, designed — it’s little and cute and has a picture of a laughing nun and it says “Sisters Rock.”

Sisters rock. What more needs to be said?

Sisters rock. What more needs to be said?

Sisters do rock. Our school, Sisters Academy, was started by four separate orders of nuns who came together 10 year ago to educate girls from Southwest Baltimore, kids who had long been forgotten by anybody whizzing down Martin Luther King Boulevard and away from these decaying neighborhoods.

Beth designed the pin in the spring of 2012 after the Vatican issued a critical report of American nuns, whom the leaders in Rome felt were pushing a radical feminist agenda at the expense of the church’s policies on birth control and gays.

Remember that report? This was before we had the cool pope who made the cover of Rolling Stone. For the record, I don’t talk much about church doctrine in my work, but I don’t avoid it because the nuns I work for have some sort of radical agenda. If they have an agenda – and I think they would much prefer the word “mission” – it would be better described as an “our families” agenda – as in how can we better serve our families at our school?

I don’t spend a lot of time telling the alumnae I work with how the church feels about birth control and other issues, because I am too busy helping them sign up for free SAT Prep classes, or writing recommendations for summer internship programs at Johns Hopkins. Recently, I helped a student find new housing after rats had overtaken her home.

That’s why our staff started wearing the pins. We love our work and we don’t want it to be considered radical. We want it to be the norm. Our pins made this statement, but not too loudly. Because that is the way of the nuns, the statement shouldn’t be bigger than the work itself. We handed out the pins to school supporters, to nun supporters, to people who liked pins, and we kept doing what we did.

The pope on the cover of Rolling Stone -- almost unthinkable.

The pope on the cover of Rolling Stone? Almost unthinkable.

Then we got a call from “60 Minutes.” They came to see our school, meet our students, and learn about our work. Then five of us – three nuns who started and still run the school, Beth, and me — were to sit down to talk with Bob Simon about the pin.

Oh boy, his style immediately alienated us. How does it feel to be told what to do by a man? He kept coming back to that, again and again, this lone guy interviewing five women about the Vatican and trying to bully the best TV answers out of them. How did it feel to be bossed around by a man? Funny you should ask that, Mr. Simon…

Not one bit of our interview made it on the air when they did their segment about American nuns. The five of us were too polite, too reserved, too calculated in our answers. None of us cried. Nobody threatened to shut down the school. We sweated a lot, but we still calmly answered the questions.

What is it that we would like the Vatican to know? That we are doing good work, we said. That we are doing good things and making a difference, and hopefully that is enough.

Hopefully it is enough, because you know what? It is what it is. My boss, Sr. Delia, dislikes that expression. Of course she does — she saw a troubled corner of our city and became part of a group that opened a school there. Imagine if she and the other educators had looked at those gutted rowhouses and insufficient schools, shrugged their shoulders and said instead, It is what it is.  

It shouldn’t be radical to want to teach a child who can barely read English but who had been promoted again and again by a dysfunctional public school. It shouldn’t be radical to help a student who had been bounced from one family member to another until she was truant so often her high school dismissed her.

It shouldn’t be political to see a girl who doesn’t have a coat and buy her one for Christmas. Or bring her family food.

But this is what it is. Sisters rock — we want you to know that — but mostly we want you to get out of our way while we do our jobs.

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