Monday, March 07, 2005

Nuns Never Forget

If you went to Catholic school during the heyday of parochial education, as I did, you can never forget the nuns. Back then, before they all left the order or became elderly and retired, they were a formidable and simply unforgettable part of the experience. And no amount of lighthearted Hollywood puffery by a then-youthful Sally Field playing in "The Flying Nun" could convince you that these ladies meant anything but business. They seemed to care about your soul more than your parents did. Even post-Vatican II, these ladies played for keeps. I was reminded of these battleships in black habits after reading what has to be my favorite letter to the editor thus far this year (in fact, one of the best ever). It was published in last week's Free Times, and went like this:

Years ago, when I was a new nun, I taught in Cleveland and taught a student named Norman Kay. He was president of the 8th grade Civics Club and editor of the school paper. I'm wondering if he grew up to become the Norman Kay who recently wrote a real nasty letter to the editor about his councilman in Lyndhurst, Josh Mandel. Oh, Norman: remember how I used to say to you boys on the playground, "you'll never get to heaven on your tongue." Well, I say to you today: "You'll never get to heaven with venom on your laptop." I am sure Councilman Mandel is a very nice man--a hard worker, just trying to do his job. A wise and holy man once wrote: "All real leadership is crucifixion." Remember that, Norman. Instead of being so critical, try working with Mr. Mandel, for the common good. They printed your letter on Ash Wednesday. What a way to start Lent! For your penance, put your name on the board and see me after class. Fifteen years ago I retired from teaching. I'm an old lady now, Norman, and I spend most of my day praying for world peace. And I still pray for all my old students. Norman, is that you? If you are not Norman Kay, you are some teacher's Norman Kay, and the good advice is still valid--still holds true. Take it to heart. Thank you, Norman. I you know you will. The best of blessing to you, your family and those you love.
--Sister Mary Ignatius, Elyria
What a way to start Lent, indeed! Thanks, Sister Ignatius, for reminding everyone that teaching (at least when practiced at its highest level) is not unlike parenthood: you never stop rooting for, worrying over and praying for your kids.

Cleveland Museum of Art Vote in WSJ. From today's Wall Street Journal editorial page, a piece that begins thusly:

Today is D-Day for the Cleveland Museum of Art. The board is to vote on whether to go ahead with a $225-million, Rafael Vinoly-designed expansion and renovation that would unify the museum's four existing buildings into one, increase the museum's overall size by over 50% and its gallery space by about 33%. The decision has been getting a lot of attention in the local media owing to the museum's consultative approach taken in its dealings with the community. But it has also attracted attention because of the troubled nature of the project. The plan announced in November '03 called for a lager expansion, but it was scaled back last June. Nonetheless, the price tag is still 30% more than originally estimated. Meanwhile, attendance is down and last month the museum's director, Katherine Lee Reid, announced her retirement, leaving the museum to search for a new leader just as it is about to embark on a major campaign. Nor is the larger context more encouraging. Cleveland has been losing jobs and residents for the last two decades. Since 2003 it has had the higest poverty rate in the country, with one in three residents living below the poverty line. In an effort to get people to address the dispiriting stage of their city, the Plain Dealer has for the last four years run "The Quiet Crisis," an ongoing series it describes as "focusing on what Greater Cleveland must do to play a
more successful role in the 21st century economy." Hardly auspicious coditions under which to take on the debt and uncertainty of a major building program, not
to mention the higher costs associated with running a bigger institution. Which makes one want to ask the museum's board: Folks, are you sure this is a good idea?

The piece, written by a Journal features editor named Eric Gibson, is all about the larger trend toward museums commissioning monumental architecture as a branding device, which was touched off by Frank Gehry's astonishing Bilbao creation for the Guggenheim. But I was struck by how similar the theme of this opening was to a great piece on the Cleveland Orchestra in the New Yorker last month. It too asked the larger question: can Cleveland's world-class cultural institutions--first founded at a time when the town was a muscular, sprawling municipal behemoth just a few years removed from serving as the HQ for the world's oil business--survive in the same exalted state now that the city and surrounding region is of a more modest scale? I'll explore this subject a bit more as the week unfolds.


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