September 03

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Thank You, Sister Cabrini by Matt Forbeck

I went to Catholic school as a kid, and my grade school was run by the Brigidine Sisters, an order of nuns brought over from Ireland to my hometown in southern Wisconsin, by way of Texas. As a smart kid, I was often bored at Our Lady of the Assumption Grade School, and my idleness led me to get into all sorts of mostly harmless trouble. More than once I was caught reading a novel set inside of my classroom paperback Bible, which I’d propped up to hide the real story I was engaged in from the teacher at the front of the class.

 

The phrase I remember hearing most often from those nuns in their soft Irish brogue was, “Oh, Matthew. What have you done this time?”

 

Early on, my father taught me the three sentences you need to know to survive Catholic school: “Yes, Sister,” “No, Sister,” and “I’ll never do it again, Sister.” I made liberal use of these throughout my formative years, either in classroom detention or inside the principal’s office.

 

One particular nun — Sister Cabrini, who stood straight and tall in a modernish blue habit, complete with wimple that left a wispy curl of white hair exposed at her brow — saw right through me. She knew exactly what was going on in my head, and she knew the best way to deal with me was not to ignore me but to challenge me.

 

I’d always been an avid, even hungry, reader, but I’d only tried my hand at writing a few small things before I wound up in her eighth-grade class. That just happened to be right after the summer in which I’d been introduced to this amazing new game called Dungeons & Dragons — the granddaddy of tabletop roleplaying games — which had filled my head with all sorts of fantastic stories based on the wild adventures I’d had with my friends.

 

In class, Sister Cabrini drilled us all on the harder points of grammar, including how to diagram a sentence — a mostly useless skill that even the most ardent editors find hard to love. But at one point she also asked her students to take on a large writing project of our choice. I asked if I could write a story based upon Dungeons & Dragons.

 

This was back in the early 1980s, a period known as the Satanic Panic, when religious figures were known to take books like the Dungeon Master’s Guide — which had a demon emblazoned across the front of it — and use it for kindling. The idea that I would ask a nun if I could write about such a game for her class was a little nervy, the kind of thing a little troublemaker like me enjoyed perhaps a bit too much. I half expected her to turn me flat down, which would have launched us into a full-fledged discussion about the nature of fantasy literature and games I was well prepared to have, but Sister Cabrini just sized me up with her piercing gaze and gave me an approving nod with a wry smile.

 

Maybe I thought I’d pulled one over on her, but if so, the exact opposite was true. I set straight to writing the story. It was, of course, absolutely terrible. If there’s a copy of it floating around anywhere now, I have a book of matches set aside for it.

 

But, you know, what? I finished it, which was a huge accomplishment for me at 13. It was only something like 30 pages long, but it felt like I’d climbed a mountain and stood yawping in triumph atop the peak.

 

More than that, I discovered that I loved writing it. Not just having written the book, but the actual process of stringing the words together into sentences and paragraphs and something resembling a plot. I adored it. It hooked me for life.

 

Sister Cabrini gave me an A. That was almost certainly for effort rather than style or skill. Maybe for ambition or sheer nerve. But no matter the reason, I still treasured that and every bit of feedback she wrote in the margins.

 

In many ways, that school project launched my creative career. While I was in high school and college, I started writing for tabletop roleplaying games, including Dungeons & Dragons. Eventually I made the leap to writing novels, some of the first of which were also for Dungeons & Dragons, and I also took up writing for comics, toys, pop culture books, and video games. Last year, I even helped launch a new line of Dungeons & Dragons: Endless Quest books, interactive fiction that blurs the line between stories and games, kind of like that story did in my head so many years ago.

 

Because of that, I’d like to add one more entry to my dad’s set of phrases for use with nuns, one that’s proven even more important to me than the rest. “Thank you, Sister.” Despite all you taught me, Sister Cabrini — or, actually, because of that — I owe you more than I can say.

 

 

Matt Forbeck is an award-winning and New York Times-bestselling author and game designer with over thirty novels and countless games published to date. His recent work includes the new Dungeons & Dragons: Endless Quest books, Halo: Bad Blood, and Life Is Strange: Welcome to Blackwell, plus work on the Rage 2 video game and the Shotguns & Sorcery roleplaying game based on his novels. He lives in Beloit, Wisconsin, with his wife and five children, including a set of quadruplets. For more about him and his work, visit Forbeck.com