The author Flannery O’Connor once said, “The things we see, hear, smell and touch affect us long before we believe anything at all.” I know one thing that affected me, before I knew what to “believe,” and that was an understanding that my Mom was a teacher and bore that moniker proudly.
I was taught to respect teachers and to understand the worthiness of the profession. I know that Jesus was called Teacher by his followers, and the Hebrew word “rabbi” means “teacher.” When I taught pre-school in the private sector I had no quarrel with the little children calling out “teacher” instead of using my name, although this was frowned upon by my co-workers.
Lately I have heard teachers described as public service workers, not professionals, who just want summer vacations, snow days, and their huge pensions when they retire. This is not a part of my experience, and I have known many teachers. The teachers I know, apart from their day job, have to prepare at night, attend extracurricular activities and parent/teacher conferences, take classes in the summer and sometimes have to get another job to make ends meet. Also, today they are expected to be social science experts focusing on self-esteem, character and keeping schools free from bullies while making sure their students have great test scores, without teaching to the test.
I taught in a public school for six weeks, and I couldn’t get out of that job fast enough. I found the job constricting because of the myriad rules and documentation involved. After that experience, I was in awe of schoolteachers. God bless them.
Not too long ago, I went to the Loyola-Notre Dame Library to attend a lecture about Flannery O’ Connor given by Sister Kathleen Feeley. I had read Flannery O’Connor’s “Wise Blood,” did not care for it, and never went back to any of her work. I knew Sister Kathleen was in the newspaper frequently, and was much ballyhooed in Baltimore, but I paid scant attention to her.
Sister Kathleen had written a book called “Flannery O’Connor: Voice of the Peacock” and she described her experiences researching the book and the knowledge about Flannery O’Connor she accumulated during this process. Sister Kathleen was able to visit the family Andalusia farmhouse in Georgia and was one of the first scholars to examine O’Connor’s milieu, spending an extended period of time in the unassuming, untouched bedroom where O’Connor created her stories. This was an opportunity to research O’Connor’s bookcase and most importantly to read “the markings in the margins.” Sister Kathleen’s plan was to discover the books that had inspired this writer and see for herself the “whole Local Universe” that so inspired her settings and characters.
Photos of Flannery O’Connor’s childhood homes, churches, and her beloved peacocks added to Sister’s presentation. Because of the lupus that ended her life at thirty-eight, Flannery O’Connor spent her last fourteen years writing in that humble bedroom—as she said “Sickness is a place and I am there.”
I was spellbound, as was the audience. I wanted to revisit “Wise Blood,” thinking I had missed the greatness of that novel because I had apparently read it in ignorance. Now, I understood the character of Flannery O’Connor. She was confident (when she was asked why she wrote, she answered, “Because I write well”) caustic, unusually talented, with an off-beat sense of humor.
The few things I remembered from “Wise Blood” became less absurd and more understandable. O’Connor did not suffer fools gladly or silently, and early in her life depicted southern societal absurdities through her well-executed cartoons. I learned why she wrote about the Protestant south when she had a Catholic upbringing. The Protestants in the South were much more overt with their religion, while the Catholics didn’t act out their religion in public, so to speak. Her literary works had the themes of redemption and of the prophet, not being understood in their time and locale.
When I finally met Sister Kathleen, I did confess, to cleanse my soul, I guess, that I had read one book and abandoned any attempt to read more. She offered heartfelt encouragement for me to revisit the Flannery O’Connor works. Her kind words truly weren’t necessary. I was inspired to devour O’Connor’s oeuvre as soon as Andalusia was introduced and truly determined when I heard that, at a writing workshop, it had been said of O’Connor that “the chair in which she sat, Glowed.”
In the evening’s printed program we learned of Sister Kathleen’s many accomplishments, including her recent five-year stint teaching English at the Catholic University of Ghana, but it was her lecture that impressed me. Her voice was quiet yet commanding, neither self-deprecating nor boastful. With her obvious love of the subject, she delivered a perfectly-organized and tightly-woven homage to O’Connor that revealed the cerebral and spiritual as well as the physical universe O’Connor inhabited. Flannery O’Connor has a long-lasting legacy that has surpassed the years she spent on this earth. I think Sister Feeley will have a long legacy too, because from her smallest accomplishment to her greatest, she is first and foremost a “Teacher.”
“Letters from Andalusia” will be on display in the Ferguson Gallery at the Loyola/Notre Dame Library through April 23.
The Bel Air Barnes & Noble Classics Book Club, July 18, will discuss Flannery O’Connor’s novel, “The Violent Bear It Away,” as well as the short stories “Good Country People,” “The Life You Save Might Be Your Own,” and “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Everyone is welcome!
Suggested Reading: “Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor” by Brad Gooch.
A notable paragraph by seventeen-year-old Flannery O’Connor about her father’s death:
The reality of death has come upon us and a consciousness of the power of God has broken our complacency like a bullet in the side. A sense of the dramatic, of the tragic, of the infinite, has descended upon us, filling us with grief, but even above grief, wonder. Our plans were so beautifully laid out, readied to be carried to action, but with magnificent certainty God laid them aside and said, “You have forgotten—mine?”