by Joe Benevento
Sister Mary Leo was patient, kind just like St. Paul tells us love is. Young, probably pretty, but hidden behind all that black habit the Sisters of St. Joseph wore back then. There were sixty of us in her 1st grade class back in 1961 at Saint Teresa of Avila, a working class parish in South Ozone Park, Queens, but, unlike most of her sisters, Mary Leo never hit us or even menaced us with the possibility. How she managed I can’t really remember, but we were raised to believe in miracles back then. She taught me how to read, made it possible for me to walk with my older siblings to the local library just one long block from our house, to borrow books that began to transform my life. The first word she put on the blackboard was LOOK; she gave the two big O’s faces so they could look at us and smile over all that could lie ahead. Once she was behind a booth at the annual parish bazaar and my dime hit a number on the wheel of fortune she spun, winning me a bottle of bourbon my parents picked out. I only realized how funny that was when Sister’s blue eyes twinkled as she handed it over to me. Right before the May crowning, one of my classmates, Irving Noel Fannell, black way back when the supposed-to-be-polite word was “Negro,” finally got himself ready on time for dismissal and Sister Mary Leo hugged him with all the joy she could not contain. Ten years later Irving was a track star at Bishop Loughlin and I’ve always believed that hug had something to do with it. Sister Mary Leo, my very first teacher, how many children did you rescue from the impossibilities of that neighborhood that time, how much did my own life get shaped by the way you wrote LOOK? LOOK, Joseph, the world isn’t waiting to smack you down, LOOK, it’s smiling at you, patient and kind like love is supposed to be.
Joe Benevento’s work has appeared in almost three hundred publications, including Bilingual Review, U.S. Catholic, Dappled Things and Poets & Writers. He has had fourteen books of poetry and prose published, including: Expecting Songbirds: Selected Poems, 1983-2015. He teaches creative writing and American literature at Truman State University.