Sr. Margaret Mary Feldner
Sr. Margaret Mary Feldner
Despite the fact that I was already a paperboy, choirboy, altar boy and safety patrolman, in middle school I kept myself busy doing bulletin boards for other classrooms and murals for school projects.

True, I had colorists to help me with the murals. Coloring the murals became quite an event for everyone involved, as we worked on the lunch hour, in study hall, and many times after school to complete the works.

I recall one afternoon after school when I was 12, sitting on the floor out in the hallway working on a bulletin board. Lost in thought, engrossed in my work, cutting away at something I had sketched to assemble, I was surprised when Sister Margaret Mary Feldner, principal of All Saints School, stood right over me and asked, “Do you mind if I join you?”

“Of course not,” I stammered, as I quickly jumped up from my work and looked all around for a chair for her.

“No no no, just sit down,” she replied as she held her hand up. “Besides, I always wanted to sit on the floor out in the hallway.” She laughed as she sat herself down, rested her hands atop her knees and looking up, studied the acoustic tiles on the ceiling, sighing and adding, “You know, this really gives one a different perspective on things.” She asked what I was working on, reminding me not to waste any paper, smiled reflectively and remarked, “You know, Michael, I’m really proud of you. And so are a lot of other people. I like to think of you as St. Augustine who got in with the wrong crowd like you did when you were sent up to my office last year. But then Augustine listened to his mother, as no doubt you did as well, and became this wonderful, glorious person, like you are now becoming. And now your teachers speak so fondly of you.” She patted me on the shoulder and squeezed my hand. I wasn’t about to contradict Sister Margaret Mary, but I didn’t think I really stood much of a chance against St. Augustine as his mother was also a saint, St. Monica, the patron saint of mothers and wives. Sainthood must have run in Augustine’s family.

I rather doubted it ran in my family. My sometimes-sarcastic mom was Irish and from Chicago. I suppose she performed miracles raising us kids and putting up with my dad. So, who knows? Maybe in a thousand years? That’s how long it took St. Monica.

Having started fifth grade as a paperboy, I realized how bad I was hanging out with bad kids from bad neighborhoods. The good sister was right. I always did well in school, but for a while in the fifth grade, I went the route of St. Augustine. I thought back to that morning I was sent to Sister Margaret Mary’s office concerning the assignment I never studied for, that I should have passed and on which I scored so poorly. I was to take the paper home and have my parents sign it. So I put it in my book bag and forgot all about it. The following morning in class, I realized I had forgotten the dreaded task. A shady kid sitting in the back row told me to just go ahead and forge my mother’s name. He said that he did it all the time and that it always worked for him. So, I foolishly tried it and handed the paper in. It didn’t work for me.

“Mr. van der Hout, did you forge your mother’s name on this paper?”

“Yes, I did.”

My teacher angrily shook her head as she jotted down the charge of forgery against me on the back of the failed paper. She then handed it to me, and sent me up to Sister Margaret Mary.

Frightened, I sheepishly entered the principal’s office and timidly handed her the paper. She told me to sit down as she looked over all the errors I made on the assignment and my poor grade. With a stern look, she laid the paper down on her desk, never bothering to turn it over to read the forgery charge against me. Instead, Sister reminded me of how truly bad it was to do so poorly on an assignment; how bad it would make myself and my parents feel; how much I was missing out in school with a poor performance that I never had before. She wanted me to write a page on what Christ would do if he fared poorly on an assignment in school and how he could make it right with Mother Mary. So, she handed the paper back to me, never turning it over. Whew.

That night, I wrote the page she requested. The following day, she had me rewrite it because I was beginning each sentence with the same word. Then, I was cleared. Double whew.

So, there I was, the following year, having started sixth grade as an altar boy, drawing murals and sitting on the floor in the hallway of a Catholic school with a middle-aged Franciscan nun talking about St. Augustine. Ira, the calm janitor, serenely pushed his broom across the floor and wished us both a good evening as he faded down the hall.

“You know Michael, Sister Mary Martin de Porres said that you were ‘God’s favorite child.’”

“I know she did, but she said that the year before last. I don’t think I’m his favorite anymore. Do you think that God has any favorite children?”

“Oh, I’m sure he probably does.”

“Like St. Augustine?”

“And like you, according to Sister Mary Martin de Porres.”

“Sister, about that paper last year, well, there is something I should probably tell you about it.”

“Please, son, I don’t really want to know.”

Van der Hout lives in Southeast Portland.