Never Too Fast For Sister Speedy

by McKenzie Hayes

They call her “Sister Speedy.” She stands four feet eleven, dressed in a white habit, black cowl, sheer skin tone stockings, and black Reebok sneakers. The frigid air in her science lab prevents us from falling asleep and her heavy tapping on the smart board keeps us attentive. Her real name is Sister Eileen and her message is always stern and straight to the point: “Girls, I’m really tired of telling everyone to be quiet, if you don’t learn anything this year in my classroom, it is fine with me but what you will learn is respect.”

My nose picked up a wretched smell of nail polish one day in Sister Eileen’s chemistry class.  I looked to my left and Kelly was painting her nails. She felt my stare and passed me a smile.  Soon her nail salon secret was out and the whole class was sharing short, subtle giggles. Minutes later, the smiles subsided and turned into shocked faces.  I was the last to notice the pale look on Kelly’s  face as if she saw a ghost. A puddle of black nail polish seeped into the cracks of tile. We knew we would never hear the end of this if Sister found out.

I slumped down in my chair,  gave Kelly a disappointed look, raised my hand and asked to go to the bathroom. I knew if I didn’t do it, no one would. I ran to the bathroom and gathered as many paper towels as I could fit in my bra, pockets, and blazer and returned to class and passed them to Stephanie, who passed them to Kaela, who passed them to Kelly. We couldn’t keep a secret from Sister Speedy who saw the passing and the puddle. She launched into a long speech about our school being a learning environment, not a nail salon. Ending her speech, she changed tactics: Putting her hand on her hip and walking back to the smart board, she said, “Now what would be a good way to clean up nail polish?” Kelly, being the guilty one, raised her hand and said “Alcohol solution” with a smile. We all laughed. Sister Speedy even cracked a smile.

I met her in ninth grade.  She was also a teacher at Aquinas when my mother attended the school 30 years ago. Her way of teaching changed my life as a learner. In middle school, I was the girl who never had that push to achieve or take risks. I came to high school with that attitude. If I didn’t get something right the first time, I would give up. I might start my math homework and not even look at the notes on the problems and live with just getting the wrong answer. Yeah, that was me. A hunch controlled me with the message that I would never become anything. I would certainly not be a lawyer like my mother.  I would never make her proud or better yet, make myself proud.

When I carried the negative attitude about myself into Sister Eileen’s biology class in 9th grade, she wouldn’t accept it. Her message was clear: “Listen, apply yourself, and study, and you will do well.”  She inspired me to want to learn. Suddenly I skipped movie dates and parties with my friends and stayed home making crossword puzzles online with biology terms.  I started constantly going to Staples to buy note cards and glittery pens to make it seem fun. I think the cashier grew tired of seeing me.

Suddenly, I was tired of being that girl who just passed. I no longer could look down at my paper and shrug  at a 66 or hear my mother say: “At least you tried.” That’s not what I needed to hear.  My performance wasn’t good enough. I am now a senior who loves learning. I walk into school with a smile on my face (even when I have a triple period class of math.) Sister Speedy also influenced me to help other people by watching her full dedication to putting others’ needs before her own. It has opened my eyes in seeing that I too also enjoy helping people.

When my mother saw this interest my sophomore year, she encouraged me to work at an event called the East Harlem Pre-Thanksgiving Dinner. On the day before Thanksgiving, this annual event receives donations of food from restaurants to feed the homeless. I distributed flyers to people on the street, organized a group of my friends to join the effort, and also served dinner. I still remember the excitement when I first put on the hair net and plastic gloves. I watched the place fill saw the smiles on the faces of people who were so happy to get a meal  the day before Thanksgiving. It wasn’t just any meal either; there was a live band with tables full of different foods, desserts, and balloons. It looked like the exquisite dinners in a Harry Potter movie.

Sister Eileen helped me believe in myself enough to aspire to help others to respect themselves. In some small way, this happens at the East Harlem Pre-Thanksgiving Dinner. Sister Eileen also taught me that good lessons are always around us. They come as easily as the formation of a puddle of nail polish on the tile of a classroom floor.

McKenzie Hayes, a graduate of the Aquinas High School in the Bronx,  just finished her freshman at Northeastern University.