The room is seldom silent. At any instant, some of the one hundred and three first-grade students are squirming, giggling, coughing, sniffling, belching, weeping or whispering. The children answer Sister’s question with a sing-song chant, or one of them answers with a grating squeak. The sound of one hundred and three pencils being taken from zippered plastic cases rattles and clacks like a spastic rainfall of twigs sweeping down a slanted metal roof. Jacqueline Hughes puts her head down and drifts to sleep, her deep-breathing snores masked by the grumbling books being shoved out of sight. One book flops to the floor. Kathleen McWilliams reaches for it and bangs her shin on the curved cast iron girders supporting the boxed desk-tops. She yelps. Somebody laughs. Martin Kane crumples a candy wrapper, while Anne Marie Orsini crinkles a potato chip bag. Maybe for fun, Joseph Howard lets loose a handful of marbles. Every now and then, a few close neighbors take disdainful note of google-eyed, myopic Mary Celeste Porter. See-sawing back and forth on her haunches, she releases a pulsing stream that spills over the front edge of her seat. Arthur Lucchetta and Christopher Barksdale hear a running rill splashing and pooling beneath her swaying black and white saddle shoes. Without warning, from his front seat in the third row, George Carlin vomits breakfast or lunch—oatmeal mush or liverwurst goo—on to the speckled green and yellow linoleum floor. Soon the ashen-faced, gray-haired custodian bangs into the room pushing a rumbling, rolling barrel. From a large brown bag Mr. Smith pours a seething stream of sawdust that douses and smothers the reeking mess. He sweeps the lumps into a hinged, rusting, industrial-sized dustpan attached to a pole the size of a cane.
Only a sneeze tilts the room toward silence. Anybody’s sneeze arrests Sister Marita Helen in mid-motion. She could have been zinged by a freeze-frame ray. Maybe her pointer was tracing the curving contours of g or j or w along the black and yellow alphabet cards lining the cork strip just above the chalk-dusty blackboard. Or perhaps Sister was explaining in rapturous tones how God had made them all—“All”—in His image and likeness. Possibly she was over-pronouncing phonetic imponderables that distinguish long “a” from short “a.”
“Kay-ay-ay tah. Kate. Cah-ah-ah-at. Cat.”
Following any snotty gust of expurgated air, Sister stops, widens her eyes and scatters the near-silence.
“God bless you!”
One hundred and two repressed little voices have license to shout the name of the Lord. The gushed cacophony—“God bless you”—blasts the air and bathes the sniffling child in a shuddering downpour of divine benediction.
My parents had just moved their five young children from a rectilinear, claustrophobic city to a recently developed row house neighborhood, a suburban liberation zone of long curving streets, tenuous saplings tethered in wobbling cylindrical cages, and an adjacent wood with a clear running creek packed with schools of minnows and colonies of round-headed tadpoles. Occasionally a shadowy bull fish darted from under a rock and zigzagged beneath red and yellow leaves. There was a baseball field we could walk to without crossing a street.
This new neighborhood was a living laboratory experiment in the optimal dynamics of Baby Boom population sprawl. As pre-Kennedy Romantics wrapped in the blue collar mantle of Eisenhower confidence, we did not know that the turning world was slowly approaching a mad-decade roller-coaster ride through Beatlemania, Race Riot Infernos, an Assassination Trifecta, the Vietnam Mire, Hippie High Consciousness, and Nixonian Imperial Hubris. We were three years away from the Cuban Missile Crisis. On television that autumn evening, President Kennedy must’ve said “Quote. . .unquote” a thousand times. I asked my father what was going on. He said, “We might be having a nuclear war.” I went out back to the driveway and tossed a spiraling football into the air, the tip of the ball piercing the purplish sky and descending softly into my cradling hands.
On that new school morning, my older brother had gotten dropped off in a second grade room under the care of the temperamental Sister Andrew Marie. A harridan nun with a short fuse and shrieking voice, she was called Sam by the older children. In the hallway my mother and I followed the principal. Her heels kicked the hem of her Navy blue habit with a staccato rhythm.
After we entered the first grade room, the principal whispered something to Sister Marita Helen and left with my mother. I stood staring at rows of white, balloon-like faces.
Sister Marita Helen clapped her hands three times. The noise abated but did not go away.
“Today, we have a new boy.”
I took an empty seat in the first row, directly beneath the long skylight. Sister walked to the far left upper 90 corner of the blackboard, where the daily roll was displayed: 102 Total, 98 Present, 4 Absent. After picking up the eraser, Sister swiped away the 2 and 8 and made corrections that now read 103 Total and 99 Present.
In our school there were three first grade classes, each with more than a hundred students. One nun was in charge of each class. We had no educational assistants, no teaching interns, no special education consultants, and no homeroom mothers. The discovery of Gifted and Talented Children was a generation away. Montessori might as well have been a fancy brand of macaroni. I was startled by how little most of the children knew. I could read some and not many of the children could read at all. We spent a lot of time watching Sister’s pointer jab the alphabet cards, a lot of time being drilled by the droning misery of phonics. We wrote Palmer Method letters in our copy books, upper case and lower case, no block printing. Sister read to us about Jesus. She was particularly excited by Jesus in the Temple at the age of twelve. She read to us about rocks and planets. She was less excited by them. She also covered spelling, geography, history, civics, arithmetic, and arts and crafts. Sister did it all—just one dedicated, overworked nun ministering to a pack of noisy children who teetered on the sloping, slippery edge of babyhood.
A week passed and I was still the new boy, though the role had ticked back to 102 Total. The weird boy who cried may have run away to the circus.
“Today,” Sister Marita Helen said, “we will let the new boy clean the erasers.”
At the end of each day, a chosen boy stood in the parking lot outside the back door and smashed erasers together. I held two erasers and banged them over and over. Billowing clouds of white chalk dust created a drifting toxic mist. The rest of the students packed their bags and waited their turn with the paddle-like brushes we used to sweep under our desks, pushing the accumulated mess between wooden runners before handing the brush to the next student. Sister called the little fuzzy clumps of dirt “pussies.”
“Children, be careful not to miss any of the pussies.”
In our pre-ironic state we could sweep up a pile of pussies and dump them in the trash. There was nothing funny about it.
Sister gathered leaning stacks of black marble copy books and slipped them sideways into two large black leather bags with drooping handles. These bags looked formidable, like luggage. After the erasers were cleaned and the pussies discarded, after Sister wiped the chalky blackboard with a large sponge she had dipped dripping into a metal bucket, we settled into our desks for the loud discord of afternoon prayers. After the last “Hail Mary” and just before the dawdling minute hand sneaked to the bell-clanging blast of 3:00 p.m., Sister had a question for the next boy in the row.
“Mr. Seiler, would you like to carry my bags back to the convent?”
Every day, as the serpentine line left the building, I watched the chosen boy stagger across the parking lot, dragging one bag in each hand, his face straining forward like an over laden mule dragging boulders up the steep, rutted slope of Mount St. Sisyphus.
When my turn came and Sister asked whether I would like to carry her bags to the convent, I answered with a polite, “No, Sister.”
As her face flushed red, one hundred and one sycophantic hands shot toward the ceiling to the sound of a hissing windstorm, “Sis, Sis, Sis, Sis, Sis, Sis.” Even the girls were volunteering to carry the bags. After Sister’s fists jabbed her wide hips, she stared me down. With a poking finger, she picked another boy and proclaimed me a “bold, brazen article.”
The sneering glances and nasty grins of nearby students embarrassed me. A panicked strangle lifted into my chest. Where I came from, questions were questions and commands were commands. It was never, “Would you like to go to bed?” Only a dirtball or a pussy would like to go to bed. Perhaps in a few more weeks, I would have adjusted and realized that a question was not always a question.
I don’t remember staying after school, though I must have done so. By the time I got home my father had already returned from work. He was talking on the kitchen wall phone.
“He just walked in, Betty. I’ll tell you this: I wouldn’t want to carry them, either.”
Garbled female laughter exploded from the other end of the line.
Sister Marita Helen was a member of the same order of nuns to which my father’s identical older twin sisters belonged. To get me in more trouble, Sister had phoned one or both of my aunts. Aunt Betty had called my father and here they were—laughing about it. Aunt Betty must have known that Sister Marita Helen could be a crank and a scold. In my experience, I found that grade school nuns came in three varieties: nice nuns, mean nuns and in-between nuns. Aunt Betty was a nice nun. Sam was a mean nun. Sister Marita Helen was an in-between nun. Aunt Betty was always smiling, composed, content, patient, happy to see you, happy to be alive. Years later, during the summer after my freshman year in college, I went with my father to visit Aunt Betty in the hospital. She had gotten brain cancer on top of breast cancer and they were doing more tests. I can see her standing in the hospital room in a robe, her head covered in a blue scarf, and letting go with her great, full laugh. Aunt Betty spent her working life teaching first grade students and I’m sure she never screamed at the large, leaking legion of babies left in her charge. Nor would she have, as an irate Sister Marita Helen once did, stuffed me or anyone else—butt first—into a trash can. Aunt Peggy looked exactly the same as Aunt Betty, but she taught older children and was more formal, could be stern, and was decidedly nobody’s fool. Aunt Peggy was an in-between nun. I have a photo of her sitting at a table with my parents, my father’s mother, his siblings and in-laws during the backyard reception following my first marriage to a Catholic Jersey girl I had met when we were ill-prepared-for-anything undergraduates. Nine years later, two years after the divorce and six years before my second marriage, I sat one table over from Aunt Peggy during my sister’s wedding reception. We had never discussed my divorce, but I felt, or imagined, a slight censorious stinging behind my left ear as Aunt Peggy contemplated my appearance at the wedding with a lady friend clearly not my former wife.
Had my twin aunts not entered the convent shortly after high school, had they not taken vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and become brides of Christ, they could have become brides of mere men as well as beloved mothers. Or Aunt Peggy, who had a great gift for drawing, might have followed an alternative path into art school. With her prodigious organizational powers and no-nonsense approach, she might have conquered the worlds of advertising or design. She would have been just the woman to make shards of any glass ceiling. I could see Aunt Betty, with her kindness and empathy, becoming a counselor or a pediatrician—a healer of minds, bodies and souls. But my twin aunts, like many young women in the early 1940s, spurned secular, mercantile America and the ambiguous, deceptive lures of romance, marriage and cramped row house living to embrace communal life in the service of God, Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. The world they lived in is simply not there anymore. It was not unusual for graduating high school girls to feel that the Holy Spirit had imbued them with the humbling gift of a religious vocation. In the 1950s and 1960s the Mother House was teeming with new recruits, novices they were called. At our parish, Father Gaffney, the founding pastor, who frequently hectored the congregation about money, added a wing to the back of the convent, a brick two-story addition of what looked to contain fourteen eight-by-eleven bedrooms. The nuns called their bedrooms “cells.” There were seven windows on the first floor and a matching seven on the second. Today, right now, the sprawling brick house with an attached chapel and attached cells that once housed twenty five to thirty nuns is home to three or four.
When I was growing up, everyone around me was Catholic, but I was the only one I knew with twin aunts who were nuns. Every year at Easter, after my father’s overtime pay at the oil refinery helped buy the boys new shirts and ties and the girls Easter bonnets and shiny patent leather shoes, we dressed up and visited Aunts Betty and Peggy. One convent we visited had high arching hallways and an orphanage feel. The ghost of Dickens would have used the place to house a starving, straggling army of surplus children too big to sweep chimneys. The waxen floors were shiny. In the dining room a long table was already set at two p.m. for dinner at five. These visits never ended. We children sweated in our hot woolen suits and crinkling, scratchy dresses and sat on overstuffed sofas and padded chairs decorated with white doilies. While my parents and Aunt Peggy remained immersed in talk, we were free to take all the cookies we wanted from round tins left open on dark oak buffet tables. Occasionally I got up and ambled down the long corridor and caught glimpses of other nuns and their visitors in other rooms. It was like being in a hospital without patients. You had to be quiet and never knew if you were about to interrupt someone or enter a room that was off limits or touch something that shouldn’t be touched. There was a final room, a lounge with a card table, beat-up sofas, old cushiony arm chairs and a black and white TV. Everything here could be touched. On the screen there played the back and forth sameness of professional basketball. The day’s cathedral weight pressed harder. The clock was stuck. The seat cushion grabbed my legs. My wool pants itched. The black and white TV did vertical flips—one, two, three times—before stabilizing. Every now and then, in a seemingly bored way, Wilt the Stilt Chamberlain used his surprisingly trim behind to butt some skinny white guy out of the way so he could turn and dunk the ball.
1942. War-torn North Africa. Noir night. There on the fog-misty tarmac, the escape plane’s propellers whirling, Ilsa Lund looks into our eyes with pain and regret, longing tinged with troubled resignation. We tell her—firmly, with self-assured stoicism—that we will always have Paris. Everything’s arranged. Corrupt Louis has signed the last two letters of transit and they are made out to Mr. and Mrs. Victor Lazlo. As the plane taxis, the Nazi Major Strasser arrives to arrest Victor Lazlo. We adopt the reasonable moral expedient of shooting this Gestapo villain dead. Corrupt Louis switches sides and orders his stooges to “Round up the usual suspects.” With Ilsa Lund safely on her way to Lisbon, we saunter with Louis along the fog-misty tarmac, basking in this beautiful new friendship that will carry us toward an unscripted haven in some North Africa free colony of the mind.
But now, in another spinning Netflix reel, the sight of her beautiful face stirs multiple layers of dislocation. We no longer have Paris. Instead, there’s a crumbling building, an inner-city schoolyard teeming with Caucasian boys and girls. Even the fight that breaks out is more choreography than savagery. Flailing arms and errant combinations subside into a neck-hugging brouhaha. Something’s wrong. Sister Mary Benedict, nee Ilsa Lund, does not charge into the melee and wallop the offenders, twisting ears and pulling sideburns. She merely interrupts the proceedings, leaving the bully perpetrator chastened but otherwise unscathed. Nevertheless, the bullied Eddie seems to be staggering, a pitiful bundle of aw-shucks ineptitude. Does Eddie later get jumped and mauled by the bully and his three special friends? He does not. Instead, Sister Mary Benedict reads up on the pugilistic arts and there in the convent teaches Eddie to box—to jab and weave—a prelude to clocking the bully with an eventual stiff uppercut.
We can take the militarization of Eddie. We can take Bing Crosby sauntering around as the wry, smiling, jaunty, sometimes crooning Father O’Malley, the white clerical collar a good fit. We can even enjoy the creaking plot set-up, the classic non-problem: the decrepit school will close unless they find help from a redeemable rich man like the curmudgeonly, yet somehow likeable, Horace P. Bogardus, real name Henry Travers, best known as the probationary angel in It’s a Wonderful Life, my father’s favorite movie. In The Bells of St. Mary’s we can take Eddie and Bing and Clarence, but we cannot take the Ingrid Bergman redux.
We are distressed to find her locked within this stranglehold—the wimple, the mummy-like head wrap, the starched white bib, the black veil and the floor-length habit. This beautiful, all-giving, selfless sister, spiritually in love with Father O’Malley, is pious without being goody-goody. An embodied ideal she remains stable, measured, devoted, sincere, and fair, even throughout a pressing ethical crisis. She has no choice but to fail Patsy—“But I must uphold our standards!” A neglected child of thirteen, Patsy wants to flunk eighth grade so she can remain in the benign keeping of Sister Mary Benedict and the wonderful nuns of St. Mary’s.
Neither big screen nor little screen is very good at depicting true-to-life dramatizations of the brides of Christ in their nice, mean or in-between avatars. The extreme idealizations and the laughable stereotypes cover a scale that runs from the mundane to the disjunctive to the ridiculous. In The Flying Nun Sally Field portrays a novice stationed in a Fantasy Island Puerto Rico. With great reluctance, the rich playboy Carlos Ramirez joins Sister Bertrille in a cavalcade of hi-jinks—he the erring bad boy with a good heart who Sister Bertrille lectures to no avail; she the mischievous light-weight who gets carried aloft as gusty Caribbean winds snatch the aerodynamic wings of her starched cornette. In one episode she gets caught mid-flight in a torrential downpour. With her cornette soaked, she crash-lands on an island, where Carlos likewise happens to be stranded—abandoned by his vengeful floozy-of-the-week, who absconded with his yacht only to wreck it. The floozy washes ashore, covered in kelp—just in time for a straight-cut to eight minutes of triangular repartee until the headpiece dries, the winds pick up, and Sister lifts off into a commercial interruption.
Oddly enough, we are somewhat surprised to see that a plot-challenged, situational film farce called Sister Act manages to present the semblance of a living, breathing nun—not in the figure of Whoopi Goldberg, who channels Diana Ross as the faux Supremes entertain lounge lizards in a tawdry Reno, Nevada casino. Whoopi’s Deloris Van Cartier witnesses a mob execution, agrees to testify and thus gets sequestered Witness Protection-style in a cash-strapped convent of semi-cloistered nuns in the derelict heart of a San Francisco slum. Whoopi’s faux Sister Mary Clarence collides with the great Maggie Smith in her on-target performance as the stone faced, growling, old-school Mother Superior. With the beady-eyed inflexibility of a classic mean nun, Mother Superior glares and snarls. We blink our eyes and imagine her grabbing some adolescent galoot by the neck and shaking him like a rag doll. With iron fisted rigor she clashes with Sister Mary Clarence over her campaign to jazz up church tunes. Under Sister Mary Clarence’s tutelage, the renovated choir infuses life into those moribund hymns. With batteries newly charged, the liberated nuns follow Sister Mary Clarence into the streets and discover a teeming mass of needy reprobates—bikers, hookers, derelicts—who pour into church, drawn by the rocking siren-sound of “Salve Regina.” Mother Superior likes none of it.
On the first day of seventh grade, Sister Mary Timothy called the role. At my name she paused, dipped her chin, and asked, “Are you a smarty like your brother?”
Without hesitation I answered, “Yes, Sister.”
Her eyes blinked; her forehead creased. The surge of pride I had felt at being linked with my brother’s high intellect dissolved. Sister raised her chin and smirked.
“We’ll see about that.”
That afternoon, as I exited the cloak room, Sister grabbed my hair and dragged my tilted head up the aisle. When she let go, I slapped my head to smother the flames.
“Why’d you do that?”
Sister Mary Timothy stuck her tongue in her cheek and shrugged.
“Because I felt like it.”
For too many years, Tim had tangled with the puberty-ridden, testosterone-addled energies that fueled the overwhelming majority of her sin-stained, belligerent seventh-grade male pupils. As a mean nun par excellence, Tim possessed a stiff-necked conviction of absolute rectitude. When it came to the mutant species Boy (Puer Aggravatus), she was up to any challenge. Armed with a crusader’s unblinking confidence, she never had to look long for an occasion requiring discipline. She struck first in the strategic attempt to cow those who could be cowed by pulling hair or slapping faces. Those who could not be cowed would be handled on an ad hoc basis, usually daily. One of her tricks was to sneak up from behind and crack a boy’s cranium with the broad gold wedding band that symbolized her spiritual identity as a bride of Christ.
One day Tim asked a goody-goody girl if she had had a nice weekend.
“Yes, Sister,” Mary Celeste Porter crooned. “I went out shopping with my mother.”
“And what did you and your mother buy when you went out shopping?”
“I got new pimple cream and Mommy bought some big yellow flower underpants.”
A host of boys hooted and guffawed. Tim clapped her hands eight times, the Pavlovian signal certain to quell any uproar. As the noise diminished she scanned the room for the single face that most needed slapping. Gordon DiGregorio, a frequent troublemaker, released a loud fake sneeze that garbled the word “panties.” In a seemingly bored manner, Tim drifted over and gave Gordon a particularly sharp ring and knuckle cranium bop.
She announced, “Small things amuse small minds.”
You couldn’t really blame her. We boys were mostly a mess. Our bodies were changing. Our minds were careening down scary lanes. Hair was sprouting in new places. In the school yard I listened with amazement as the bold, bad boys talked about French-kissing the bold, bad girls and feeling them up. These boys bragged about stealing their fathers’ beer, whiskey and cigarettes. In seventh grade the room was seldom, or never, silent. Some of us made fart sounds by flapping our bent left arms and compressing armpit air beneath the fingers of our right hands. For no reason at all William Crane suddenly fell out of his seat. Theodore Simon made an art of clearing his throat in a disgusting, but medically plausible, way. He was stared down but never beaten. Non-goody-goody girls were constantly giggling and whispering, sending notes back and forth. Every now and then, a demented boy named Merkel jabbed one of the weaker boys in the butt with a straight pin.
From any sane perspective, something had to be done. It was not possible for Tim simply to teach. Even on a relatively sedate afternoon, many of us were climbing the walls, unsettled by problems at home, fueled by the jittery compulsions of ADHD or the lesser shades of autism. It’s not that we went undiagnosed. Diagnostic categories were not commonly available: if you looked normal, you were expected to be normal. We were either smart kids or dumb kids. Our parents cared or they didn’t care. We either learned during up-and-down-the-aisle drills or we didn’t. In the mid-1960s cognitive disabilities had yet to become generally recognized taxonomies. It was The Dark Ages for Learning Disorders. No one knew a thing about Disruptive Mood Dysregulation, Expressive Language Disorder or Pervasive Refusal Syndrome. Any condition you could name today probably churned somewhere within the large seventh grade population: Asperger’s, Rett’s, Syndrome X, Gender Dysphoria, Munchausen. Lurking inside unmapped nooks of the cerebral cortex were latent developmental effects of lead poisoning. The daily dose of humiliation for the dyslexic reader who staggered through the smoothly textured banalities of a Dick and Jane Reader might understandably incite cloak room fights or overt spasms of disrespect. One kid by the name of Billy Jenkins came from a notoriously troubled family—too many kids, not enough money, paternal drunkenness, open spousal warfare, screams that resonated down the block, this family a training ground for the criminally insane. He was overheard by one of the polished-apple girls to say, “Sister is a bum.” Soon after this slur was duly reported, Billy received eight or nine double-action slaps to both sides of his face before being sent to the principal’s office so Mother Superior could paddle him. The wooden Board of Education resembled a stunted oar.
In the scheme of things I was not much of a problem. Having been sufficiently cowed on day one, I stayed quiet for the most part and didn’t risk inane, insurrectionist outbursts. But at least twice a day, usually in the afternoon, I got scolded for watching the clock.
“Pay attention! Stop watching the clock!”
Watching the clock was preferable to the twentieth recital of things already known. I could tell the difference between numerators and denominators, multipliers and multiplicands, divisors and quotients. I was sick of Dick helping old ladies cross the street, while Jane played skip-rope on the sidewalk. Where was a fictional car crash when you needed one? Why couldn’t somebody kidnap Dick and hold him for ransom? Why didn’t he at least try to French-kiss Jane and feel her up? Or maybe one of the dummies was stalled out at the board, failing to carry five, and staring like Bartleby into dead-wall space. It never took long for my eyes to drift to the clock—the beautiful, mesmerizing clock. A haze descended and I wasn’t really there.
One day Tim started re-discussing Bolivia’s chief export—tin—until she had enough.
“Take all your books out of your desk and march to the front of the room.”
By the time I got there, my books pinned beneath my chin, my pencil case and ruler jammed into my blazer’s left side pocket, Tim had a gray metal folding chair set up between her desk and the door. The chair was tilted at an angle, facing the clock above the side blackboard.
“Put your books on the floor. You are now a full-time clock-watcher.”
For the next two weeks, I sat in front of the room, my books leaning in disheveled piles on either side of the folding chair. Except for when I wrote with a copy book on my lap or turned my head to see whoever was writing on the board, I did nothing but watch the clock.
Within her complex mind Tim possessed a flickering flare for absurdist comedy. The front of the room was a stage. She was playwright and director. I was actor and prop. Whenever we had a visitor—one of the other nuns or a priest—perhaps the chronically dour and fiscally preoccupied Father Gaffney—my evicted presence evoked quizzical smiles and odd looks.
“Please stand up.”
I knew my part. I stood up and faced Tim.
“What are you, young man?”
“Sister, I am a clock-watcher.”
“Thank you. You may be seated.”
I sat down and watched the clock.
About this time, while playing linebacker on the school football team, I bent down, both hands out in front, preparing to tackle a barreling fullback charging up the middle, head lowered. Just as he got to me he jerked his helmet upwards, catching my right wrist from below and turning it into a swollen mass. A bulbous wad of lumped flesh protruded from the back of my hand. At first there was no pain, just a shocked, frozen numbness. With my left palm cradling my right hand I sprinted off the field and found my coach, Mr. Jim McGee.
“I got hurt.”
I lifted my hand toward his face like some kind of weird offering. His forehead wrinkled. He jumped back one whole step.
A lot of people gathered—adults, teammates. A cheerleader screamed. One boy yelled, “Gross!”
“Is it broke?” I asked.
Composure restored, Coach McGee replied, “No, it’s only sprained.”
Adult laughter erupted with the suddenness of shattered glass.
The surgeon drew a picture of multiple breaks on the white plaster cast that bent around my elbow.
I came home from the hospital Monday morning and sat on the sofa, disoriented, as though I had been gone, out to sea, for years. My mother put a pillow next to me so I could rest my arm without wearing the sling.
That evening after practice the whole team showed up at the house. Someone brought the day’s homework assignments.
“Sister said you need to read through it.”
After everybody left I sat down at the dining room table and put my face in my left hand. Clogs of dirt weighed down my mind. Six weeks would never pass.
Eventually I read the assignments listed carefully in Tim’s beautifully configured Palmer Method hand. At the end she wrote, “Please review this material with great care.”
There were some fill-in-the-blank math worksheets I thought I might do, but whenever I tried to write, I lost my grip on the pencil. If I placed the pencil into the wobbly clamp of my thumb and forefinger, I had to move my whole arm to write. The cast scrunched up the paper. Annoyed I decided to write with my left hand. The jagged numbers were not too bad, a bit overlarge, my letters etched in squiggles. A half hour’s work took me two hours—math sheets, religion questions, a paragraph on Argentina’s chief imports, some science fill-ins on rock layers. It was all slopped up, a lunatic’s scrawl.
When I got to school my folding chair was gone. When Tim saw me looking at her, she pointed to my desk. All my books were inside, neatly arranged. All day I did my work—what they called “seat work”—left handed. A spelling test, a quiz, multiplication problems. On a few occasions I caught Tim eyeing me with an analytical gaze. I looked away, careful to avoid the clock, which I now had to check with quick, peripheral glances. At the end of the day, as everyone made the usual packing noises, Tim called my name.
“Would you remain after school for a few minutes?”
When everyone else had gone, she called me to the front of the room. My papers—last night’s homework and today’s seat work—were set out on her desk. I figured there’d be trouble. Perhaps these spastic, specimen notes offended St. Stylus, the patron saint of Palmer Method.
“Please sit down. There.”
She pointed to a chair beside her desk. A pile of the special lined paper used by first graders lay before me. On these sheets Tim had lightly sketched the numbers zero through ten and all the letters of the alphabet, upper case and lower case.
“If you’re going to be writing with your left hand, I think you’ll find it easier if you practice your numbers and letters and learn how to form them properly.”
Standing behind me, the edge of her starched white bib boring into the back of my neck, she helped me grip the pencil properly and guided my left hand through each of the numbers. Then on my own I traced each number five times before moving on to the alphabet. I had special trouble with the swirling curlicues of upper case S. She took my hand and helped me do it slowly, her left hand on mine, leaning over my back, her rosary beads jangling.
“Try it again. Without my help.”
Tim’s voice was quieter than usual, almost kindly. That I insisted on writing left-handed must have pushed me outside the categories she used to comprehend the troublesome species Boy. This Boy had a “doctor’s note.” For six or more weeks he could have wallowed in sloth and no one—not even the Pope—could have done anything about it. Here he was—doing this work, however sloppily, even though he didn’t have to. Certainly, I was not trying to be a goody-goody. I had no love for the mind-numbing tedium of seat work, but I didn’t like being stymied, shut down, and incapacitated— not able to do. From her perspective, I must have become someone other than the boy she imagined me to be, the easily cowed smarty and serial clock-watcher. She wasn’t sentimental about this surprising novelty. There were no gushy compliments or fake encouragement, no approving calls to Aunt Betty or Aunt Peggy. Calm and reflective Sister Mary Timothy was merely bending her rigid spine in a new direction.
The ruled rows of squat marble headstones lay on cement slabs that line the lush June grass covering more than sixteen hundred graves. Cracked macadam walkways run vertically, slashing the markers into neat sections. The cemetery sits at the foot of a sloping hill that rises for a half mile to the Mother House at Immaculata University where naked iron girders trace the outline of a three-story addition. I have been to the cemetery twice before—the first time in 1972 when I was one of six nephews chosen to carry Aunt Betty from the Mother House to the hearse and from the hearse to the shiny, rectangular casket-lowering contraption set beneath a puffy white canopy. I came back many years later when it was Aunt Peggy’s turn. She reposes in the top row, second section from the left, beneath a line of mature evergreen trees. Her names are chiseled on her stone in bold block print. Aunt Betty is buried in the first section on the left, about ten rows from the top. Her stone is weathered, the inscriptions wearing down. As I walk among the stones, I remember faces sparked by other names. Sister M. Antoinette. Sister M. Abmirabilis. Sister M. St. Jerome. And now I see that Sister Mary Timothy—Tim—died in 2005 at the age of 86. Further on I’m surprised to find that a former Nora M. Kilgarriff became Sister Mary Clarence, deceased, January 15, 2008. I walk up and down and cannot find Sister Marita Helen. Maybe I missed her, though it’s possible she’s not even here. When I was in first grade, she seemed so totally adult, a massive, towering presence moving within a rattle of rosary beads. It’s easy to forget she was actually quite young, perhaps still in her twenties, a relative neophyte stuck with an impossible job.
But it’s time to go. The clock’s still ticking and I have some place I’m supposed to be. I’m not far from my brother’s house in Malvern and the family party is going on. Besides, this visit is not really a visit. There’s no one here. The subterranean cells are all but empty. Those dark holes contain little more than the detritus that outlasts a body’s final breath. The carved names remain, but the brides of Christ have risen out of bounds, salvation conferred to a transcendent degree. In a ballroom of unending light, they are receiving every gift—every testament—those noisy, crowded classrooms promised but could not convey.
John Wenke has placed short fiction and creative non-fiction in many magazines including North Dakota Quarterly, Chariton Review, The Gettysburg Review, Cimarron Review, and South Carolina Review, among others. His books include J. D. Salinger and Melville's Muse. He has also published numerous scholarly essays, chapters and reviews. John currently teaches American literature and writing at Salisbury University, Maryland.