At All Saints School in Portland in the 1960s, I was in Sister Mary Carla’s first grade class.

Out of fear and respect, Sister Mary Carla’s students tended to reflect herself — serene, studious and strict. You could hear a pin drop as she slowly moved between desks, head down, hands folded behind her back, silently patrolling the cumbersome movements of thick pencils across wide ruled sheets.

I recall her, on one of her rounds, putting her nose up, sniffing the air, looking around and calmly asking the class, “Who gassed?” When no one fessed up to the indiscretion, Sister Mary Carla silently put her head back down and continued her patrol.

By contrast, across the hall it seemed everyone was always having a happy day in Sister Mary Marcelina’s colorful classroom. She was ever smiling, ever happy, hands clasped, chirping like a middle-aged sparrow. Her bulletin boards were adorned with brightly colored painted flowers and pixies. In the windows were cutouts of the seasons — paper leaves, paper snowflakes, paper birds hovering above a transitional paper landscape.

Sometimes in the mornings it sounded like a musical over there, as Sister Mary Marcelina conducted lessons, hands cupped to each ear as the children sang:

“Echo I can hear you, hear you, hear you,

Though I am not near you, near you, near you,

You’re so far away, away, away.

Now the rain is falling, falling, falling,

So I'll stop my calling, calling, calling,

‘til another day, a day, a day.”

Some first graders are not as mature as others, missing their mommies and crying. Sister Mary Marcelina would dry their tears, take their tiny hands, and share joyous anythings that made them happy again. And at the end of the day, she bid adieu to her tearful absent-minded little ones assuring them with a confident smile that they could come back the following morning. Then she would tie on her flowery apron, take the feather duster from her closet, and sing sweet melodies as she tidied up her beloved classroom.

All this I heard as I sat in the disciplined realm of Sister Mary Carla.

A few years later, my little sister Kathleen was placed in Sister Mary Marcelina’s class. Kathleen would come home full of songs, rhymes, glad tidings and shared happiness. I wanted to hear all of it.

I don’t remember just how I learned to read and write, except that I was eager to learn what those black phonetic shapes on the open pages had to say to me. But I will always remember the sweet voices floating mellifluously from Sister Mary Marcelina’s classroom a long time ago. I will never forget the joy that defined a middle-aged, 4-foot-11-inch Franciscan Sister from Dubuque, Iowa, who took a vow of poverty and made it her mission to spread happiness.

Van der Hout lives in Southeast Portland.