Sister Justitia: An Extraordinary English Teacher

I recently attempted to ascertain what ever happened to a very special English teacher I once had at West Side Central Catholic HS, in Kingston, PA, in 1964/1965. After several attempts elsewhere, the Alumni Inquiry Office at the Bishop O’Reilly/West Side Central Catholic Alumni Inquiry Office, graciously wrote back and sent me her obituary, along with a PDF of sister from one other former student of hers in Oregon. The obituary did indeed explain the facts about her life, and sadly her demise in 1984, but it really did not do Sister’s life, nor her life’s work, the “justice,” she surely earned and deserves. In my very humble endeavor to “right that ship,” I offer a few thoughts and memories about this exceptional English teacher.

Sister Justitia was born, Marie Gertrude Downes, on April 15, 1893, in Birmingham, England, and moved to the United States with her family as a child. One fond memory she shared with some of her students, took place in England when she was very young. She and her family were watching a state parade pass by when her father, who knew Queen Victoria in some capacity, picked his daughter up to wave, and the Queen gave the little two-year old a kiss! Of course, Sister did not remember that event herself, but it was a sweet and special story her proud parents were able to regale her with over the years.

We all knew Sister as a former English barrister, who actually earned her Bachelor of Law degree from the University of Oregon. Unfortunately, the number of years she practiced law is unknown. However we do know that she took her vows in the IHM religious community, in Scranton, PA, after which she was then trained as a teacher. During her very long teaching career, Sister Justitia taught in schools in Portland, Oregon, Syracuse, New York, and Scranton, Pittston, and Kingston, Pennsylvania. I’m quite sure I can vouch for the fact that she was a very powerful and positive influence on hundreds, if not thousands of students. If my math is correct, she was already in her 70’s when she was my teacher in 1964/65, and she did not retire from teaching until 1971!

I’ll never forget our first week in her English class, when we were all instructed to write the following quotation in the center of the first page of our new composition books: “If it befalls you to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures; sweep streets like Beethoven composed music; sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well, that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper, who did his job well.” Sister Justitia was the consummate educator. She inspired all of her students in so many different ways. She taught and instilled in us some of the great and unforgettable Socratic maxims such as, “Know thyself.” “Everything in moderation. Nothing in excess.” She taught us so many great life-lessons in addition to a knowledge of, as well as a love of Shakespeare, many other great authors and poets, and of course, the English language. Among some of our assignments, were the required summer book reports (with covers we had to design ourselves depicting the plot!), as well as the memorization and presentation of lines from William Shakespeare’s plays and Robert Frost’s poems, among others, which have been burned into our brains, even to this day!

Sister Justitia was a most dedicated and hard-working teacher who expected nothing less than one hundred percent from all of her students, such that we had better be well prepared each and every day for her class! She instilled in us a motivation to always do our best and at least strive for, if not always achieve, excellence. There was never a disciplinary problem in her classroom because she was somehow able to quietly command our attention and our respect…talk about always using just the right words. Even the wise guys knew enough not to step out of line in her class! When you walked into her classroom, you knew she meant business!   You knew you were there to learn.

Lastly, Sister was very serious about telling her students countless times that we should make it a habit to read for at least fifteen minutes before falling asleep at night. As a result of that excellent practice, I’ve read and enjoyed hundreds of books over my lifetime!

I personally wasn’t one of the intellectuals in our English class (and there certainly were many), but somehow I always felt a little sharper when I walked out of Sister’s classroom every day. As a matter of fact, I’m sure other classmates of mine could have articulated this tribute to her, more eloquently than I…but from my heart, I say, thank you, Sister Justitia. You’ve enriched my life immeasurably, and it was a great fortune and honor of mine to have been one of your students.

Looking back, Sister lived up to every word she instructed us to write in our composition books that first week of school. I can honestly say that: Sister Justitia taught school like Michelangelo painted and sculpted, like Beethoven played and composed music, and like Shakespeare wrote poetry and plays. Here lived a great teacher, who did her job brilliantly!

There were many excellent teachers at Central Catholic HS, but our very own British-American English teacher, Sister Justitia, stands out in my heart and mind, as truly one-of-a-kind.

Adele (Jancik) Kaschenbach