There were giants in those days. And some of them were only five feet tall.
With her wide serge sleeves rolled brazenly beyond her elbows and a shiny baton in each hand, she stood at the edge of the St. Bernardine's School stage in West Baltimore in the spring of 1950, and — indifferent to our rehearsal fatigue — narrowed her eyes under the starched white headband and challenged us for the umpteenth time: "Again!"
Once more we twirled our batons in sync three times, then threw them in the air and … up, up … down, down … thump, thump, thump, thump. A litany of rubber tips hitting the floor.
Beth Reese, who grew up to be a statistician, could even then have predicted that the odds of 46 batons being thrown aloft by 23 second-graders and all being caught were not good. But Sister M. Gabriel Kane didn't care about statistics. She cared about discipline and perfection — and show biz!
And, therefore, so did we. In fact, the only thing we cared about more than wearing our white satin skirts and blue satin tops and stiff-felt, drum-majorette hats with the gold tassel was evoking Sister's approving smile. It crunched up her blue, blue eyes, revealed her perfect white teeth, and animated her flushed, young, joyful face — which several of us girls agreed must be what the catechism meant by "Beatific Vision."
Even her wrath was so dynamic, it was endearing. Will Freiert, who grew up to be a classics scholar and translator of Greek comedy, claims that his fondest memory of Sister Gabriel was the day she reamed him out in front of the whole cast of "Johann Strauss the Waltz King" for not knowing his lines.
Yes, whether it was the spring musical or the Christmas pageant, we had better know our lines and lyrics and make them heard in the back row — or answer to Sister Gabriel. And she didn't take excuses; not from shepherds, not from kings, not even from the Virgin Mary. Jack Horner, Bo Peep, Mother Goose herself knew better than to disappoint her. It didn't matter that you were Stephen Foster or the Student Prince. What mattered was that you were a student at St. Bernardine's. That was something to be proud of, and you had better uphold the honor.
And so we did. Blissfully oblivious to what some later educators might consider her "developmentally inappropriate" methods, we studied our music, we memorized our lines, we stayed alert for long rehearsals, and finally we basked in our magical moments under the bright stage lights and took our bows before an audience of justifiably proud parents and teachers.
When I heard that Sister Gabriel had died this year, I wept. Over the years, I have thought of her often and fondly. With every play I wrote or performed in or directed, I gave her a nod of thanks for the love of theater that inspired it and the discipline required to do it. And every time I dared to demand more from my students, every time I challenged them to stretch the limits of their talent, I secretly hoped they would remember me with even a fraction of the affection I felt for her.
Thank you, Sister Gabriel. May you rest in pride … the pride you instilled in us.
Pat Montley, a Lutherville resident, is a playwright with a Ph.D in theater from the University of Minnesota. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.