By the time I was in college, the 1980’s were unfurling like a bolt of sequin-studded silk, remnants of the disco era. Fashion was changing anew, and in some factory in Newark, someone was cutting foam squares into shoulder pads, which we were shoved or taped under bra straps to give the American woman the broad beam of a linebacker. It became clear, as we graduated and went out into the world that we would need those shoulder pads. The messaging of the culture seemed to say: Game on! Everything was changing, even though it was clear that there were lots of things that never would.
Nuns, at least the Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Cross were set free and out of their habits by the time I came to know and love them in the college classroom. As it goes with all lines of work, the older nuns “the lifers”, were faithful to the old ways, some chose to remain in their habits: a uniform that included a long black skirt, veil and leather shoes- even though there were no longer any mandates about wearing habits. There were the in-between nuns with one foot in the past and the other in the moment that elected to do a bridge thing with the habit. They wore the veil, a skirt to the knee and better shoes.
When I registered for a course, Introduction to Shakespeare, Sister Jean Klene had just turned 50. I never saw her in a veil, and had she not been called Sister, I wouldn’t have guessed she was a nun. She wore collegiate wool skirts, a blouse and cardigan and those sensible loafers where you could display a penny. Sister Jean didn’t put a penny in her loafers.
Sister Jean was a renowned Shakespeare scholar. She had traveled the world to study Shakespeare the playwright and poet. She had a reverence for storytelling in the theater and all it could do. She studied Shakespeare with other scholars, forging new friendships that lasted her lifetime. In turn, she taught us with more emotion, verve and knowledge from her travels. Sister Jean seemed to know everything about Shakespeare- she could pinpoint every production of his plays at a given moment in the world- where it was happening, who was cast, and who was hired to direct. She reveled in the director’s vision, the designers creations and the acting. She would share how Shakespeare was being interpreted on stage in the UK, up at Stratford, in various productions in nearby Chicago’s regional theaters and in Central Park in New York City. When I needed to understand a performance, she’d send me to the library to listen to productions. I remember sitting in a dark closet in the college library listening to John Gielgud, Derek Jacobi, Glenda Jackson, Ian McKellan and Diana Rigg- among other greats as they interpreted the plays.
I’d like you to picture Sister Jean- she was lanky, and had that way of bending slightly from the waist when she walked as tall girls often do. She had a Carly Simon kind of face- great bone structure, a big smile, white teeth and wide, pretty eyes. She had a thick bob of shiny brown hair. She didn’t seem like a nun. She appeared to be a mother of sons, on her way to a ballgame to watch them play. She moved like a shot. And, I’m just going to say it. Yes, she was a nun, yes, she had her priorities of the spiritual life more than intact, but her passion for Shakespeare was down to her soul. Her enthusiasm made the man and his work compelling. It was as if she had found something no one knew and couldn’t wait to share it. There was an energy, an urgency to her teaching that made us want to seek the answers too, or perhaps write a play, or direct one.
Sister Jean was patient. No pretension. Blunt. Funny. Quick to laugh. Exacting. Precise. Sister Jean fit into the landscape of the Saint Mary’s campus in South Bend, Indiana as though she were born to it. It turned out, that she came to college as a young woman with a honey back home; by the time she graduated was on her way to becoming a Holy Cross sister. She found her calling to the sisterhood in the golden fields of Indiana under a midnight blue sky with a moon so large it took up half the sky. She loved being a nun. I’d see her walking across the campus taking in the colors of the fall, or when it turned to winter, she seemed to revel in the drifts of snow. She paid attention to the world around her. She taught me that the key to Shakespeare was the moment as it played against the backdrop of time- of history- of a happening. The best stories find themselves rooted emotionally in the moment, but could exist at any time in history. Sister Jean loved a good story.
When I wrote Notes From the Nile, a full length play that retold the story of Antony and Cleopatra, she rooted for me. When it came time to direct it, she pushed me. When she came to see it on opening night, I could not have prayed for a better or more enthusiastic champion. Sister Jean’s belief in me made me less afraid. Maybe that’s all we can ask of our mentors- that they guide, push and pray for us- and when we aren’t sure we can do it, they are certain we can, and so we do.
I miss her already, and I am one of hundreds, of thousands, of students who had the great privilege of learning from her. She was one of a kind, as a professor and a person, and this world is a little more weary without her in it. When coming up against any grief, pain or problem in life she would remind us to read the plays. “Everything you ever need to know about life are in the plays.” And then, she’d laugh. I will never forget her laugh.
How lucky I am to have known her.