My Earliest Motivation by Mike Harsh

MOTIVATION:  the experience I recall from my days as a “Mackerel-snapping, booger-picking, bead-counting” Catholic school kid –

      The legacy of my Catholic education was probably what led me to teaching as a profession in the first place. I have always been the kind of person who is determined to show people who make judgments about my abilities just how wrong they are, so my desire to become a teacher grew from my earliest experiences in first grade. It was there that I was a victim of the most notorious member of the School Sisters of Notre Dame ever to strap on a rosary: Sister Mary Iguana-breath. I doubt that was really her “professed” name, but it certainly describes for my memories one of her outstanding personal characteristics.

      Her physical dimensions were better suited to professional wrestling than to teaching first graders, as she must have topped the scales at 350 pounds of righteous flesh wrapped in 10 yards of heavy black cotton fabric and sealed with reams of starched white sail-cloth.

      Sister Iguana-breath decided from the first day we met that I was not the ideal student. Of course, the fact that I yanked one of my classmate’s pig-tails so hard from behind that she cried and wet her pants had nothing to do with that impression! Clearly, she concluded, I was a trouble-maker from Williamsport and needed severe correction. Repeated correction.

      Our class was arranged into “ability groups” for subjects, especially Reading and Math. The front of the room was where the seats of distinction were: these were for the “Eagles” and “Cardinals,” the top brown-nosers. Next, in the middle of the room, were the “average-ability” students: “Bluebirds” and Robins,” not her favorites, but still, in her mind, trainable.

Then came my group. There were two of us: Cletus and me. We were the “Starlings,” but the rest of the class called us the “Birdshit” group. Classy students, we little Catholics. Sister had determined that we were not teachable, and that all she could do was discipline us in preparation for our future careers in reform school and the state prison. That’s all the motivation Clete and I needed. We were determined to prove her wrong.

      It’s now 65 years later. Clete owns an entire city block of Philadelphia and runs the leading toxic-waste disposal business in Pennsylvania. He also has donated a scholarship in the name of Sister Mary Zoo-breath to Loyola College.

      Me? After having finished a Bachelors degree, a Masters degree, and almost all of a Doctorate, I will soon celebrate my 45th year in teaching other “Eagles,” “Robins,” and more than a few “Birdshitters” how to achieve academic success. It is a profession I would likely never have entered if Sister had not developed so strong a negative opinion of my lack of academic prowess.

      Bless your pungent vapor, Sister. I would have never made it without you!

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