The snow man the write made in fourth grade when Sr. Mary Athanasia was his teacher. (Courtesy Michael van der Hout)
The snow man the write made in fourth grade when Sr. Mary Athanasia was his teacher. (Courtesy Michael van der Hout)

During the 1966-67 term at All Saints School in Northeast Portland, Sister Mary Athanasia was my fourth grade teacher. My dad always referred to the young Franciscan as “the cute little nun” and his favorite. 

Sister Mary Athanasia would play softball and kickball with us. She could really swing a bat, and was an all-around good sport. Like my dad and others in my class, I took a liking to Sister Mary Athanasia, a kind and happy soul. 

One frosty Saturday around dusk, early in the Christmas season, I was walking home with my best friend Joel among the glowing Christmas lights and the fragrant juniper growing along the sidewalks across from the Joan of Arc Circle. We nonchalantly walked past the convent where Mary Athanasia lived, as we had hundreds of times before. Gazing up the embankment to the dimly lit old convent behind the fir trees, I began speaking fondly of Sister Mary Athanasia. I shared with Joel the good things my parents said about her, expressing what a wonderful nun I thought she was, and how I was fond of her.

No sooner had the words come out of my mouth, than I heard Sister Mary Athanasia’s sweet voice calling my name. In the scarcely visible light, I noticed her approaching us, strolling between the trees, down the embankment from the convent. Donning a long black cape, all Franciscan style, Sister smiled and waved a black-knit-gloved hand. Joel and I were surprised and embarrassed that our teacher probably overheard me singing her praises. So we did what shy nine-year-old boys would do: we ran home to hide until the problem went away. 

Later in the evening, as I reflected upon the events, alone in my room, I became more comfortable with myself, as I began to grasp that, perhaps, I had a bit of an innocent crush on Sister Mary Athanasia. But I made certain that I told no one, not even Joel. These were highly classified emotions.

On Monday morning, before the start of class, I sheepishly walked into the classroom eyes to the floor. As she always did each morning as I walked into class and passed her desk, she smiled and pleasantly wished me a good morning. I looked up to see that the snowman I made the week before was still hanging on the bulletin board with all the other snow people. So nothing had changed since Friday, as if my snowman hanging up there was any sort of indication of anything. But I had little else to go on. 

Sister Mary Athanasia never said a thing about the Saturday evening encounter. She acted the same as always, never saying a word concerning the praises I sang and the fact that I ran away. By Tuesday afternoon, I found myself beginning to feel a bit neglected and unappreciated. I don’t see how she could have failed to hear me. Or what if Sister Mary Athanasia had found out that I had a crush on her and wasn’t  sure just how to deal with that? I hadn’t disclosed my secret to anybody, but these nuns were sharp.

The next morning, as we did each Wednesday, the class headed across the schoolyard to the church for Mass. By this time, as far as Sister Mary Athanasia and the whole debacle went, the matter was slowly fading from my list of concerns. But as the cold fog that was burning off and allowing the sun to throw faint shadows, I could hear the patter of feet running behind me. Before I was able to turn around to see who it was, a black-clothed figure was walking alongside me. I looked up and Sister Mary Athanasia smiled brightly at me and said nothing, as she extended her gloved hand to me.

I took her hand and at that moment felt happy imagining that she overheard all my adulation that Saturday evening. More likely, she never heard a thing, and just sensed that something seemed to be troubling me. Whatever the case, as the two of us strolled together hand in hand, I guess you could say that Sister Mary Athanasia was at the top of my very short list of favorite girls.

Van der Hout lives in Southeast Portland.