††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† SISTER FELICIA OF SACRED HEART SCHOOL©
†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† By: Terri Keen Coffman - Copyright 1997
A tiny white-washed school building nestled amidst a convent, a rectory, and a church, all bearing the name of the Order of Sacred Heart, and one, Sister Mary Felicia, are all reminiscent of some of the happiest times of my life. Oh, I know what some of you are thinking: "Ugh! School! And a Catholic one at that! What are you? Weird?" Maybe I am - to you; but, you see, I was one of the lucky ones. I got to attend school in a foreign country, so my education covered more than just academic lessons; it covered a whole new way of life and experiences in cultural exchange.
My family had moved down to Belize, Central America, when I would have been entering the 4th grade, but it wasn't until after Christmas that I started Sacred Heart School. I didn't want to go. Everything and everybody seemed so strange to me. The townís only seamstress couldnít get any more of the schoolís uniform material so late in the year and, as much as I hated the thought of school uniforms, I hated the idea of dressing different than my classmates. I was scared to death that nobody would like me and that I wouldn't fit in. After all, I dressed differently, I spoke differently, and I was the only non-native student in the school, and definitely the only American - or so I thought. Because of the difference in studies, I was put into Standard III, which is the American equivalent to the 5th grade. Great! Now on top of everything else, I was a year younger than everybody else. No, I had made up my mind. I wasnít going to like it one bit. That was before I met my all-time favorite teacher, Sister Mary Felicia.
Sister Felicia was an American, like me. And we took to each other like peanut butter and jelly.† I guess you could say, I was her pet. And, as far as I was concerned, she walked hand in hand with Jesus Christ on the water. She often went "above and beyond" for her students, like the time I came to school with my right arm a sling and couldn't write to take my final exam. She kept me after school and personally wrote down my answers as I would give them. That was the most memorable "A" I've ever gotten. Besides being a great teacher, she had a marvelous sense of humor and was a terrific ball player, though I didn't find that out until much later when I had her again in another grade.
Sister Felicia, well aware that I was not Catholic, excused me from most of the religious activities that were as much a part of the school curriculum as arithmetic and spelling. Instead, as a replacement study, she assigned me the task of setting up an "Americanization Program", in which I would help her show the other students some of the differences between our two cultures. We usually combined this with Social Studies or even History or Geography, and the kids loved the variety of subjects: food, music, dancing, art, movies. She even borrowed my Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mystery books to read to the class. But, I think the most cultural shock came (for myself as well as my Belizean classmates) was when she told us about the Starship Enterprise, from the original Star Trek television series. At the time, even I couldn't comprehend that! But, the best experience of all was Sister Felicia's introduction of the whole class to American baseball and all that goes with it. She even brought in hot dogs and popcorn - a true novelty for a culture used to eating wild game and iguana!
To me, Sister Felicia was Sacred Heart School. I was lucky enough to have her not just in Standard III, but later in Standard VI, as well. Through the years, she helped me become accustomed to a culture which I soon adopted as my own. I began to feel accepted - as if I really belonged. I had a new school, new friends, and a new home in a place where it didnít matter what country I came from, or what religion I was, or that I didnít dress quite like everyone else. I learned, as did my new friends, that itís okay to try new things and new ideas. We all learned, from my favorite teacher, that itís okay to be different. Thatís what learning and growing is all about.
To this day, many years later, in my mind's eye I can still see her; out there on old Father Castillo's front lawn, her long black and white habit hiked above her knees in her best cheerleader stance, using palm fronds for pom-poms and shouting in unison with all of us girls:
"Two, four, six, eight, Who do we appreciate...?
††††† ...put 'em in a high chair, feed 'em with a spoon,
We can be your team any afternoon!
††††††† GOOOOOOO, TEAM!"
AUTHORS NOTE: I lost track of Sister Felicia after she retired in 1979. I spent 19 years looking for her and found her at Pallotti Convent in Belize City. I flew down to visit her in May 1998. Later that summer, she left Belize for her Mother House in Huntington, West Virginia, USA,† where she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. My family and I went to visit her over Thanksgiving that year. A few months later, on February 25, 1999, Sister Felicia went home to Jesus. Rest in peace, Sister. Thank you for encouraging me to write. Iíll love you forever!