Before there was ratemyprofessors.com, we relied on word of mouth to choose which classes to take in college. When I was a freshman, a junior gave me a sympathetic look and, snapping her gum, said, "Oh my gosh. You have to take Sister Mary Johanna?" She paused with a dramatic eye roll before adding, "She's like, so mean."
My stomach lurched. Sister Mary Johanna was the only one who taught most of the required courses for my major, religious education. Had I inadvertently signed up for years of misery at the hands of a mean professor? I had heard stories about sisters slapping students with rulers -- would this happen? (In hindsight I realized this made no sense. This was college. Rulers? Seriously? Still, I was a wreck.)
On the first day, Sister Mary Johanna walked in and brusquely handed out the syllabuses. It was the most work I had ever seen crammed into a semester. Papers due every week. Exams. Projects. No excuses. What had I gotten myself into?
Then, Sister Mary Johanna launched into a passionate lecture about the mission we were embarking on as future religious educators. We listened, entranced. She clearly loved teaching more than the average professor. She explained that this class would be very, very hard. But it would be hard because this was very, very important, and she wanted us to graduate prepared, ending with her trademark line: "You're here to learn how to teach people about Christ. If you're not ready to learn how to do this well, then go sell shoes."
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Sister Mary Johanna was not only the best teacher I had in college, she became a mentor and inspiration. By the next semester, my friends and I were bringing Chinese take-out to her office and spending hours chatting with her about our classes, our faith and life in general. She advised us not just on our majors but on careers, relationships and that we had BETTER all wear stockings under our graduation gowns because this might be 2004 but, for the love, ladies, bare legs at graduation? Not her students.
Did Sister Mary Johanna deserve a reputation for being strict? Yes. Was she mean? Absolutely not. She was strict because she wanted -- and got -- our best. In return, we realized what we were capable of. Not a day went by that I wasn't grateful that I didn't base my decisions on the advice of the junior-adviser-wannabe and took the risk to meet Sister Mary Johanna for myself.
Pope Francis's recent visit to Brazil has a lot of people talking. Talking about what they heard he said, what they've heard the Catholic church believes and what they think might be written down somewhere in the Bible.
Looking back, I know that switching my major based on the advice of some flaky junior would have not been very wise. Decisions that affect the entire course of your life should not be based on hearsay. Yet many are willing to write off the future of their eternal, immortal soul based on a vague idea they got about religion from a 30-second clip on television.
Sister Mary Johanna's courses were no cake-walk, but the effort we extended yielded fruit in our personal and professional lives. Everything she had us do made sense when we hit the "real world" prepared. The structure of the church is there to help us become better people. Catholics even call the church "mother and teacher" because -- like a good parent or teacher -- the rules given are not in place to confine or ruin our lives but help us to be happy and actualized, ready for all we'll face now and in eternity.
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