The nun who changed my life and helped me lose 80 pounds by stressing this one word

Nearly a century-old, St. Christopher's grammar school on Long Island remains the quintessential parochial institution, a campus of three connected buildings adjacent to its flagship church on a busy main street in the middle of a classic suburban town.

Just across from the school's original building on Merrick Road, a two-story rectangular structure constructed of grayish black Hudson River Bottom Stone quarried from the nearby Milburn Reservoir, sits the parish convent. The tall non-descript tan brick edifice is home to the Sisters of St. Joseph, a Catholic community of women who have been serving and teaching on Long Island for the last 169 years.

Today, most of the school’s teachers are lay personnel but back when I was a student many of our instructors lived there and would make the easy one-minute daily walk to their classrooms. As a youngster, the site of the nuns crossing the street, their briefcases in hand and their black and white habits flowing in the early morning breeze, often filled me with an odd combination of terror and admiration.

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On one hand, these were godly women, revered and respected, pillars of wit and wisdom. I desired their approval and acceptance. At the same time, they were no-nonsense disciplinarians, straight and strict women whom I feared and surely didn’t want to cross.

Sister Maria Martin was our seventh and eighth-grade math teacher. An imposing woman, she was the type who didn’t suffer fools lightly and didn’t shy away from candid communication with parents.

On Open School Night, she waved her pointer at the moms and dads, observing that many of her students that year were the youngest in large families. “They’re your babies,” she said, “and it’s been my experience that the youngest kids are often spoiled – even soft. Don’t expect me to baby your child. We’ll get along if they follow my rules and do things my way.”

As the youngest of five in my family, my mother told me about the meeting later that night, and warned, “She means business!”

My mom was right. After Sister Maria caught us staring at the clock one too many times, she covered it with a piece of paper that read, “Time Will Pass – Will You?” Her daily cultural commentary was delivered and often punctuated with a sigh and the wry observation that “The least common thing is common sense.”

When fellow student Dennis O’Donnell explained that the test paper his parents were supposed to sign had slipped from his textbook, the entire class was subjected to a spirited and comedic lecture about the efficiency of slipping handouts between the pages of a book.

“How is it that Time and Newsweek can mail its magazines across the country and yet never have its subscription or renewal cards slip out,” she railed, “but you jokers can’t walk three blocks without losing your math test?”

But between the lectures and the levity, Sister Maria introduced us to a one-word daily habit and principle that changed my life -- and that wound up helping me to lose 80 pounds.

That single word was:

Fundamentals.

Settling into our seats each morning, we were instructed to turn our attention to five simple equations on the sideboard. It was titled, “Fundamentals” – and we were to solve these math problems before doing anything else.

The “fundamentals” weren’t difficult – they were the basic building blocks of math. But doing them faithfully each day set us up for success. The rigor of the habit paid dividends (no pun intended) come the more difficult exams of the year.

“Do your fundamentals first,” she would say. “The rest will fall into place.”

It’s been well over 30 years since I sat in that classroom but the lesson that Sister Maria taught me by forcing us to concentrate on the “fundamentals” is a sound doctrine that I regularly apply to my daily life.

After bulking up to 255 pounds to play freshman football, I decided that I didn’t want to be heavy anymore. But how would I lose the weight?

I remembered Sister Maria’s admonition about the importance of fundamentals and began by running a mile. Then another. I cut out fast food, gave up sugary soda and stopped snacking in between meals. They were small changes and simple habits but I did them every day, rain or shine, cold or hot. Thirty-two years later, I’ve run 78 marathons – but it all started by running just one mile.

Great achievements are so often the product of a series of small things regularly done well over an extended period of time. Or, as the late Christian pastor Eugene Peterson liked to say, it’s a “long obedience in the same direction.”

Wealth and weight-loss seminars or advertisements for hair replacement or beauty products often promise miracles in minutes. Reality is often otherwise.

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Whether it’s better health, stronger faith or a fatter 401K you’re after, the benefits of daily, incremental and fundamental actions are the equivalent of compound interest – the eighth wonder of the world, according to Albert Einstein.

Sister Maria was right. In the end, it’s the little things that make big things happen.

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