Recently I received an invitation to our 60th St. Peter’s high school reunion (New Brunswick, NJ). (“WOW, 60 years already!!!”) A very different event this year – a mid-day luncheon consideration for those who may not drive in the evening as we are reaching ‘that age’ in our lives.

I jumped at the opportunity, wondering how many would come (and how many are no longer around these 60 years later) and excitedly mailed in my reservation check, hoping that by that September date we might have the venue open for this milestone event.

Then I began reminiscing about those formative high school years as I lay wide awake at 4am in bed. I wasn’t in the ‘in-crowd’, so didn’t expect many who might come would even remember me, or maybe me them.

Quickly I focused in the dark bedroom on three life-changing memories that I so excitedly wanted to share at that reunion, honoring and celebrating the dedicated Catholic nuns who in those days still taught most of the classes and ran the school with non-challenged authority and a kind, caring heart. But just in case the event doesn’t come off (only 15 out of what I recall was 200 of so classmates have responded 1 month after the invitation went out), I decided to celebrate their memories in writing this blog of Petrean memories.

Life-changing moment #1
It was October of my first high school year that began by attending the noviciate for future brothers at St. Joseph’s (this was before that became a private high school). It had become clear that I wasn’t ready for that monastic life (having not experienced life or girls yet – smile!). As a St. Francis grammar school graduate (Metuchen, NJ), our church was sending district to St. Peter’s (New Brunswick, NJ) some 6.5 miles by public bus distant. Mom took me to see if I could register at St. Peters where we met the principal, Sister Helen Rose (Sisters of Charity supported the school). We were told that all classes were full (huge disappointment!) BUT if I could return next Monday somehow she would find a place for me (somehow!). The first life-changing event due to her compassion and understanding!

Life-changing moment #2
Once assigned to 9D (classes were numbers by skill level, 9A being the best) but a desk was made available and I thrived in that less challenging grouping. I can still recall begging to take biology in place of a study hall (that class wasn’t in the college prep curriculum but I loved the out of doors life of my Summer day collecting frogs, fish, dragon flys, etc.). Each Friday sister would line up the class around the room for a vocabulary drill, one wrong answer and you sat back down – sort of a ‘last man standing’ drill. We were always nervous and the person before me was asked “How do you get down from an elephant?” Little did we know that she was serious, so when that person responded “Sister, you climb down.” she was not amused, angrily told him to sit down, and moved on to me with the same question. With the advantage of his mistake, I of course replied “Sister, you can’t get down from an elephant, only birds have down feathers.” Right answer! Usually, by the end of those weekly drills, I was the last man standing, sometimes just due to luck as in this case. But that leads me to the real 2nd life-changing memory.

Climbing up the stairs, coming down at the feared and strong strict Sister Mary Matilda (a tall woman which made my looking up to her on the higher step even more frightening. I don’t think I had ever encountered her before this moment, she being the teacher of the higher-level classes like physics, religion and even her homeroom was the seemingly ‘elite’ class., certainly not the “D level” where I was now in my junior year, about to move up to that fateful SENIOR year with fateful decisions about what college to apply for, etc. Sister stopped me (on that lower step), looked down, and said, “I’ve talked to Sister Rose (the principal) as asked to have you transferred to MY homeroom. What do you think of that?” While she saw that as a generous and thoughtful way to challenge my learning, I still today can’t imagine how I had the nerve to respond, “Sister (you ALWAYS addressed them as ‘sister’), I don’t like that. I can stay down where I am and get my ‘A’s’ with little effort (work) – remember I was 15 going on 16 and a precocious nobody – or I can go to your classes and maybe get a B or C.” She walked off and can’t recall her words, if any, at my rejection. But of course, the kid’s rejection doesn’t carry any weight and I did find myself reassigned to her classes without recourse.

In her class one day, sister came down by my desk and asked me what college I was going to. My reply was that I wasn’t planning to go to college, not having what I thought high enough grades to qualify, and certainly, my family couldn’t afford my going. Sister told me to fill out some form, which of course, when a sister told you to do something, you DID! Little did I know that it was an application for a NJ state scholarship. Surprisingly, I got approved for $200/semester and decided, ok, if they were willing to pay for half (remember this was 1960, not today’s $50,000/year tuitions), I guess I could come up with the other $200 and applied to just one college, the Catholic college of Seton Hall University in South Orange, NJ (as a commuter, so no food or room expenses). Once accepted, I began my 4- year college career with its own very special memories in the Fall of 1960.

As it turned out, Sister Matilda got assigned as principal to some high school that was just off my college commute path. I made it a point to often drop in on her many Friday’s as we became good friends. She shared her side of that stairway moment, admitting that I almost got knocked down those stairs with my too honest reply to her offer. I certainly deserved that and in those days no parent would have objected if she had. Without her intervention, I would never have gone on to college and certainly not the 40-year teaching and corporate computer industry career that followed, both of which I enjoyed every day of those decades of working life.

And the story continues
But the story doesn’t end there! Once graduated from Seton Hall, I went into teaching and ended up back at St. Peter’s teaching algebra and geometry, loving the students and the daily challenge right alongside the very nuns and lay faculty that had been my teachers. My ‘math lab’ classroom was the basement converted from a janitor’s room when I was a student when bottled milk delivered daily at the doorstep for that janitor. What a unique experience/blessing. While teaching, I went on to earn my graduate degree (nights of commuting down route 1 to Trenton) at what is now the State College of New Jersey, a degree that has also served me well these many years, all thanks to that caring nun, my life-changing encounter with Sister Mary Matilda!

“Thank you, Sister! – and thanks to all those dedicated ladies who gave their lives to convent life and teaching in Catholic schools everywhere.

I am so looking forward to sharing those Petrean life-changing memories and challenging the others to recall their own impactful moments some 60+ years ago at the hands of those nuns at our September 60th reunion!

My high school yearbook picture (1960)
Here’s me today! (2020)
(26 years with a heart transplant received back in 1994)

PS: Despite what I feel is today’s poor memory, in talking with the woman putting this event together, as she mentioned fellow student name after name, I could actually picture their face in my mind! Wow, after 60 years, wouldn’t you love to think you too left that strong an impression for those around you? I would be very surprised if my face came to mind if they heard my name today, but we will find out shortly.

Volunteering as a Metuchen First Aid Squad cadet (1960)
Back to St. Peter’s as a math teacher (1965-67)