Sister Mary Leo

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.   

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