Ross Murray's Border Report
Ross Murray
Ross Murray
is a freelance writer living in Stanstead, Quebec. You can reach him at
Posted 09.29.06
Stanstead, Quebec


The nun inside us

I was with a group of students recently when one of them asked, "Can I go to the bathroom?"

"I don't know," I replied. "Can you?"

A voice in my head immediately whispered, "Did you really just say that? Is your name Sister Strachan?"

Sister Strachan (pronounced "strawn") was my Grade 1 teacher and the first of many inspiring teachers I had through school. Yes, she was a nun.

When I was growing up in Nova Scotia, Antigonish was knee-deep in nuns. But she was the only nun in my school, though she didn't really act like one. She was just a touch too sarcastic to be holy.

Pretty much all the students pronounced her name "Sister Strong," which was incorrect but apt.

She was the one who urged me to stand up straight and warned that if I didn't push my shoulders back, I would grow up round-shouldered. I didn't, and I am.

Sister Strachan was also the first teacher to really instill in me a love and respect for books.

And so I remember the anxiety of facing her the day my book bag ended up in the river. I was on my way home from school with Carrie Sears and Ellen Campbell one early winter afternoon. When we got to the Brierly Brook bridge, we decided to leave the sanctioned route and scuttle down the bank to the water.

I don't know whether my book bag slid into the river or whether the girls tossed it in. They denied it but I've had my suspicions to this day.

Away floated my bag, with us screaming after it. Just then, my older brother David bounded down the bank and somehow scooped the bag out of the river. It was saved!

But I knew I was in trouble.

My schoolbooks were drenched. Plus my paperback copy of Olga de Polga had expanded like a roll of Bounty paper towels. I had taken Olga de Polga to school to show Sister Strachan what I was reading on my own at home. I was so proud.

Now I feared facing her with my ruined books. It was worse than facing my parents, who would be furious that I had gone down by the river. But I was used to being in trouble at home. To get in trouble at school - that was unthinkable.

I don't remember the consequences but I do remember seeing Sister Strachan's disappointment and feeling stupid and ashamed.

You didn't mess with Sister Strong. She was a nun. She had connections. I mean, when she directed the Christmas nativity, you were confident she knew what she was doing.

Likewise when she replied to bathroom requests, "I don't know. Can you?" you rarely forgot to say "May I" again.

Many years later, it was a nun who taught me - kindly but emphatically - the English usage for "Ursulines" as in "Collè'ge des Ursulines."

If you're using the word as an adjective, it's always singular, as in "the Ursuline school." If it's a noun, you can make it plural, as in "The Ursulines came over to gently berate the editor."

When a nun tells you something, you tend to remember. Years later, you will hear yourself repeating it in nun-like fashion. It may stop you short, as it did me, to realize that there's a little nun inside you.

That's not a bad thing. In fact, we could all use more nuns in our lives. Maybe if there were more religious sisters admonishing us we'd be more polite and grammatically correct, not to mention more humble, more peace-loving, less fearful.

Instead of the Karl Roves of the world, perhaps our world leaders should have nuns as advisors. Just try invading a nation when you're getting a dirty look from a nun.