By Sr. Andrea Koverman, SC Federation Temporary Professed
Today is International Midwives Day! Did you ever think about how much in common we religious sisters have with midwives? If you are a fan of the popular television show, Call the Midwife, you no doubt have seen the shared mission of bringing love to birth in the world played out in episode after episode. Like Sister Julienne who says in one of my favorite scenes, “Let’s see what love can do,” women religious are called to be the loving presence of God in whatever circumstance they find themselves in, and to witness what that love can do for the people whom we serve.
I was very surprised recently to be asked to be on a panel of parents sharing their unique experiences of parenting as part of the Cincinnati Storytellers series organized and hosted by our local newspaper, The Cincinnati Enquirer. One of the reporters, Mark Curnutte, has covered many of the events hosted by the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center, where I am a program manager, and we have had the opportunity to share some of our personal journeys and experiences with each other. Even so, I was surprised when he called and asked me to be on the panel of storytellers sharing unique experiences of parenting. There was a blind man, a same-sex couple, a single mother, a single father, a woman whose husband struggled with serious illness as she became pregnant, and me. A nun. Never married, no children. He explained that I came to mind as soon as he heard the topic for the panel because of the many stories I had told him about the students I taught. Though I have no children of my own, he said that I had mothered and helped raise hundreds of children during my years of teaching and continued to nurture people as a sister, and he wanted people to hear that story, too.
On this International Midwifery Day, I thought I’d share the story I told them with all of you. I hope you will see the connections between midwives and those of us who don’t deliver babies, or have our own children but dedicate ourselves to bringing love into the world, nurturing the people we encounter who are most vulnerable and in need of “mothering.”
Here is what I shared with the audience:
I know you all are surprised to see me up here as part of a panel on parenting since I’m a Catholic sister--a nun, because even if you know little else about Catholic nuns, you know that we make a solemn promise not to engage in the activities that produce a baby!
But, sisters are also called to be life bearers, to nurture and love not children we bring into the world, but the wider circle of all God’s children--and in particular those who are in most need of it. How I came to realize that I had a call for that kind of love is my story.
It was a gradual realization, and I started out like most little girls assuming that I’d grow up and have kids--and I wanted bunches and bunches of them! But looking back, I remember that I always preferred playing school or Sacagawea to playing house. I found that game kind of boring and wanted something with a mission or some adventure.
The first time I ever considered that I might not follow the typical trajectory of marriage and children was when I was in the fourth grade. I was at the Sisters of Charity Motherhouse in Cincinnati where two of my great aunts lived. We had our summer family picnics there because the aunts were told old to go elsewhere. I loved going to the “mount” and was fascinated by all the ancient-looking but sweet-as-pie old sisters. As I was running around in a game of tag with my siblings, one of the aunts, ancient and growing more and more senile herself, reached out and stopped me in my tracks. I stood respectfully in front of her, red-faced and sweaty with my messy long braids and skinned knees that let everyone know what a tomboy I was. I expected her to tell me to stop running around or some such thing, but instead she took my hand and leaned forward from her wheel chair. She looked closely into my face and said, “Darling, I just want to welcome you to the community and tell you not to worry about a thing. You’re going to make a fine, fine sister!” I should have been surprised by what she said, but somehow I wasn’t. It resonated somewhere deep inside me, and it just felt right and true. So I turned to the rest of my family and announced, “Hey! Aunt Mamie says I’m going to be a nun!” My proclamation was followed by a round of hearty laughter, which was more confusing than what Aunt Mamie had said. What was so funny?
Through all the years of Catholic schooling that followed, and despite the fact that I had two additional sister relatives, no one ever brought the topic of religious life up to me again. I assumed that Aunt Mamie was wrong in thinking I’d make a good nun, or simply that people just weren’t doing that anymore and let go of the idea.
What I didn’t let go of was my love of children and my desire to help them--especially the ones who were struggling. I still felt called to mission and adventure and dreamed of joining the Peace Corps, but couldn’t afford to. I got a special education degree from Miami University and landed a teaching job in a little town in South Carolina called Beaufort. I realized on my first day of school, that this was God’s answer to my Peace Corps prayer and I didn’t need to leave the country to get it. When I got to school on St. Helena Island that first day, I found that I couldn’t understand a word the children were saying. It was absolutely a foreign language. I came to find out that I had been assigned to teach in a school within the Gullah community. I had never heard of that before, and quickly had to educate myself about this unique and amazing part of our country.
The Gullah people are direct descendants of people who were brought to America as slaves from Africa. They were intentionally selected from countries that did not share a common language to reduce the threat of revolt on the plantations. Over the years, the people developed their own unique language that was a compilation of individual languages mixed with English words. When they were emancipated, they were allowed to purchase the land on the Sea Islands, off the mainland of Beaufort. The intercostal waterway provided a natural barrier between the white community and the African American Community. They remained isolated for almost a hundred years before bridges to the islands were built, which allowed their language culture to remain in tact.
But years of isolation and lack of access to quality health care, education and employment resulted in many of them living in really impoverished conditions. It was shocking for me to see people living without electricity or running water, and I found it hard to remember that I was in my own country. I never felt so needed and I was determined that I was going to be a good teacher and to give them every chance in life that I could.
The room I taught in came equipped with exactly one partial piece of chalk. That’s it, so we were starting from scratch. The children were in grades kindergarten to six, but many of the older children had been retained multiple times and were much older than expected. They had a range of types and severities of learning disabilities and came to me for special instruction from one to three periods a day. I had learned that the best way to teach children is to figure out how they learn, so we spent a lot of time getting to know each other. I asked lots of questions and as they opened up to me and shared what their lives were like and what they dreamed of, they became comfortable with me and learned to trust me. We created a community in which they felt valued and appreciated, and loved. And I really did love them. I was excited to see them each day and felt so privileged to be with them. Despite the hard lives they were living, they were full of enthusiasm, energy and hope. I saw in them the potential that they had and the innate goodness and dignity that all people are afforded simply by being created in God’s image.
My students felt loved, and they began to flourish. By the middle of the year, I knew they had made progress, but I was a nervous wreck as the first parent-teacher conferences came up. I wondered whether I had taught them well enough or fast enough to make their parents happy. I’ll never forget my first conference. I could hear one of my first grade students named Leona dragging her mother down the hall towards my room. She was saying, “Come on, Mama! Come on, Mama!" When they burst through the door, Leona said, “See Mama, see my white teacher? I told you she was white!” I didn’t quite know what to say standing there in all my whiteness except, “Hello, I’m Andrea Koverman, Leona’s teacher. And I guess you can see she was right, I am white.” She laughed and we sat down and began to talk about how much progress Leona had made. Leona leaned up against me while I talked about her with a sweet smile on her face. I was taken aback when her mother began to cry and said, “Miss Koverman, they told me my girl was retarded and she wasn’t never going to be able to do nothing.” I was shocked and didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t believe that someone had already put such cruel limitations on such a limitless possibility of a child. I said, “Well, I don’t pay too much attention to what the papers say, and you can see that they are wrong about Leona. She can do and be whatever she wants to be.”
As the year went on and the students continued to improve, I began to have other teachers come to visit my room on their breaks. I came to understand that my students were considered to be the “bad” kids by the rest of the school. But in my room, they weren’t bad. Like a child who wants to please their parents who love them, my students did not want to disappoint me and they did their best to do whatever I asked. Children with disabilities will often distract others from noticing that by misbehaving, but in our room where they felt safe and accepted, they didn’t need to. Because they were so eager to come each day, I think their regular teachers thought I just let them play. But when they saw them working, they wanted to know what my secret was. They couldn’t believe that the same students who gave them such a hard time were working so hard for me. It took me quite a while to figure out the answer to that question because there wasn’t a secret method or teaching strategy that I was using. The “secret” was simply that I loved my students and they knew it. I only grew more passionate about teaching each year that I did it. I believe education is a justice issue and the only real leveler of the playing field. Despite the poverty and other challenges they had, I was devoted to making sure my students were able to be as successful as any other students were.
I had a couple of close calls with my versions of Prince Charming or in my case, Captain Von Trapp, but the little seed that my Aunt Mamie had planted so long ago kept reminding me that my passion lie somewhere else. With all the pressure from family and friends, it was a scary and sometimes really hard decision not to get married and have kids, but I’m glad that I was able to follow my heart not to. When I was reintroduced to the Sisters of Charity as an adult, I found a whole community of women who were called to love in this broad inclusive way, and so I joined them.
I am now a program manager at the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center where we educate and advocate for peace, focusing on ending the death penalty and human trafficking, immigration reform, and nonviolence initiatives. Though I am not teaching children anymore, I am still teaching and hopefully helping people understand that we are all sister and brother to one another and that our circle of love needs to include the most vulnerable and marginalized people in our society.
When people who don’t know I’m a sister ask like they usually do, “Do you have kids?” I feel very blessed and privileged to be able to say, “Not my own, but yes, I have had many.” And I have seen what love can do.