17. SAINT MARGARET’S SCHOOL part II (Mid 1960s)
I got up early for school. It was a long walk down Dravus Street, across the railroad tracks and up Queen Anne Hill to St. Margaret’s. I felt sorry for the nuns who were my teachers when the weather turned warm. I would be uncomfortably hot in my shirt and sweater and could barely imagine how they could function in their black outfits that were heavy, floor length and crowned with a starched wimple that was bound around their face.
Sister Ann was much smaller than her sister nuns. She wore a slightly modified habit as she had not taken her final vows yet but was still allowed to teach our class. Her veil did not hang down her back as long and thin wisps of blond hair would escape from the sides of her wimple and she was constantly tucking them back in place. She had obviously not gotten the hang of the complicated dress policy that the more experienced nuns had down pat. She stood in the playground watching the boys play kickball and the girls playing hopscotch and tetherball. One particular girl seemed to easily defeat all comers in tetherball. “Who’s that?” I asked one of my mates. “Oh, that’s Connie Mears, cute, huh?” She was cute but I was equally impressed by her athleticism.
I didn’t fancy myself a teacher’s pet or anything. The rowdier students were my mates and we lingered behind in the lavatory where we were temporarily beyond the close supervision of our teachers. My friend Ralph, who was always getting in trouble, made a rude comment about Sister Ann and how puny she looked compared to the rather rotund nuns who seemed to lord over her their superior authority. I rose to her defense stating how serene she was in the face of the ridicule she endured and reminded him that she wasn’t a full fledged nun yet and should be given a bit of slack on account of her youth and inexperience. Ralph dismissed my comments with a cursory wave of his hand, zipped up his fly after pissing and left the lavatory.
Now that I was in the upper grade, I could eat lunch wherever I could find a spot rather than with my classmates at a particular table. Normally, I brought my sack lunch with me and would trade my cupcake or other sweet for some chips or an extra carton of milk. This time though I bought my lunch from the kitchen and with a heaping pile of mashed potatoes and meatballs I scanned the cafeteria for an empty spot. All the available tables were packed with kids who weren’t anxious to leave their seats on account of a rainstorm that rendered outside recess uneventful.
The sisters occupied a long table along one side of the hall and Sister Ann sat alone at one end while thee other nuns conferred privately at the other end. Still looking about the room for an empty seat I heard Sister Ann’s timid voice beckoning me to sit at her table. This was rather unheard of and no one ever was allowed to sit at the nun’s table. I hesitated and looked for another spot with eagerness but when she repeated her invitation I did as she asked and took a chair opposite her and set down my tray. "Thank you sister", I said in a hushed tone.
Our eyes would not meet. She asked me how I was doing and whether I was able to keep up with the lessons. "Yes sister", I spoke while focusing on the silver cross that was suspended from her neck. She knew that I was one of the younger students in my class and my introversion was somewhat alleviated by the fact that I had shot up like a beanpole over the summer and was taller than most of my fellow classmates, even those in the upper grades. "You should go out for the basketball team", she said simply, as if height was the only prerequisite for membership on the team. I knew better. The wealthier students had a lock on the basketball squad. Oh, I could get on the team but would never see any play time at a tournament and really only could serve as opponents during practice for the first string players. I told her with lowered eyes that I really wasn’t interested in the long practices and the long drives to neighboring schools for games. She softly repeated her comment and said I’d make a fine player.
I could feel the eyes of my classmates on me as I shoveled in my mashed potatoes knowing that I would be teased for eating my lunch at the nun’s table and the other three nuns sitting at the far end would shoot me derisive looks that indicated that I was impertinent to sit at their table even though Sister Ann had told me to sit there. Sister Ann’s soft eyes were averted when I finally looked up after I’d finished my plate. She seemed detached and not engaged with her surroundings. The other nuns refused to include her in their discussions and she seemed completely alone and in a world all her own. She hadn’t eaten very much of the little food she had and I wondered whether she wasn’t hungry or was denying herself for spiritual reasons.
Regardless, we sat without speaking and I began to shift nervously in my seat. She sensed my discomfort and said maybe I should get ready for my next class. I excused myself and got up to leave when she asked if I could stay behind class and help her clean up before the weekend. Lent would begin next week and she wanted the classroom as clean and sparse as possible. Normally requests like this were more in the form of a direct order but I sensed that I could refuse and would not be in trouble but still said, "Yes sister". She told me to run along and she would return my tray to the kitchen for me. Her soft hand gently brushed mine as she reached for my tray.
As expected, Ralph and some other students gave me a hard time for sitting with the nuns at lunch. No sooner was I getting my books together for my next class that they were calling me a brown-noser and a suck up. Ignoring their taunts I took my usual seat in back of the room and waited for Sister Donald to arrive for the next class. Sister Donald was the heaviest of the nuns and her waddling down the halls gave her the appearance of a penguin. Normally I would snicker along with my mates as she came in and assumed her place at the desk in the front of the room but today I felt differently somehow. The cruelty demonstrated by some of my classmates repelled me and I determined that I would not stoop to their petty level.
This was English class and we were attempting Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. I was reading aloud the part of Romeo’s doomed friend Mercutio and tried my best to follow the story and read my lines with all the distinction I could. Unknown to me, Sister Ann had come in quietly and was standing out of my line of sight. I uttered my lines and was surprised that Sister Donald smiled and seemed to appreciate my forceful delivery. The passionate tale of star-crossed lovers had little real appeal to me and I was more interested in the swordplay and violence of the drama. My extra emphasis had an effect on the others who were reading the other parts and soon the drama took on the intensity of a real production. I was happy to not be reading the part of Romeo who had to speak of love, desire and faithfulness.
Sister Ann had slipped out of the room as quietly as she had entered and I would never know that she had been there. The final bell rang and I nearly forgot that I had promised to help her after school and was all ready with my books packed for the long hike home when I remembered and walked the now empty hallway towards her classroom.
"Thank you for coming", she said as I came through her open door. Various projects were pinned around the room, done by students with a dull sense of design and poorly constructed. These were the first items she wanted taken down before Lent. All other colorful posters and decorations would be next. Sister Ann reached for a ladder to remove some patriotic bunting that was adjacent to the flag and asked if I would hold the ladder while she unfastened it. I offered to climb up instead but she was insistent and I complied as she wished. It was only up five steps and even if she slipped it wouldn’t be much of a tumble. She put her hand on my shoulder as she stepped up the second rung.
After she unfastened the material, she started down and reached for my shoulder for support but her hand missed its mark and thumbed me in the neck instead. I gasped and she reacted awkwardly and started falling off the ladder. I had to readjust my balance to catch her and I threw myself forward as she was coming down and got under her just before she crashed on the floor.
I broke her fall but my legs got twisted and she lay with her hip in my side. Her wimple had slipped off to one side and strands of blond hair smelling faintly of lavender were across my face. We both groaned and then asked simultaneously, "Are you all right?" She pressed herself against me more as she rolled to one side, pulled her habit down around her and laid on her back. "I think so", she said softly, more embarrassed than concerned as she looked up at the ceiling.
I told her that I might have hurt my ankle and she sat straight up and changed her expression. "Let me see", she asked and I sat, stretched out my leg and pulled up my pants leg. It had a red mark on it and we both realized that I’d bruised it. She held my foot rigid with one hand and touched the sore gently with her fingertips. "We’ll get some ice on it right away", she said as she lifted herself from the floor and helped me to a seat nearby. I propped my leg on another chair while she went to the office freezer for some ice.
My mind was swimming a bit but not from any injury to my leg. Thoughts of Sister Ann’s body against mine had me flustered. The scent of lavender still hung in the air. When she returned, she was completely composed, not a single hair out of place, her wimple straight and true. She carried a bowl of ice and a towel over her arm and pulled over another chair and sat at my feet. "It’s fine", I said, "I’m okay really ". "You know that Christ washed the feet of his disciples?” she said. I thought I might’ve heard that phrase as I let her untie my shoe.
There was a hole in the big toe of my sock and I felt flush with embarrassment. She smiled up at me without a trace of judgment on her kind face. She wrapped some of the ice in the towel and laid it over my ankle. I winced for a moment but the cold felt good and I hoped it might not swell too much. She continued washing my feet and I failed to see how this was attending to my injury. Her hand was cupping my heel and with gentle strokes she washed and dried the bottom and top of my foot and then between and under my toes. "May I wash your other foot?" She asked.
"Please, sister, I’m really fine and should be getting home, I’m sure I can walk on it". I hurriedly put my sock and shoe back on and then slowly stood up and put some weight on it. "See!” I said and took a few steps around without limping at all. It was killing me but I didn’t let it show. "Well, if you’re sure", she said, with the limp towel in her hand as she reached for the bowl. Now we both started apologizing to each other. "I’m sorry I asked you to help me with the decorations. No, I’m sorry I didn’t hold the ladder better. No, I’m sorry you hurt your leg". And then, "Are you sure I can’t see if someone can give you a ride home?"
"I’ll be fine", I said and grabbed my books and made for the door. She waved feebly as I looked back and I felt her eyes on me until I turned at the end of the block. "OUCH!" I said to myself and put my foot up and rubbed it. I limped the rest of the way home and told my folks some lame story about accidentally getting kicked at recess.
By Monday, my ankle didn’t hurt so badly and I went about my affairs as usual. In class, Sister Donald wasn’t around yet and I was standing near the door before class had started. My back was turned and I couldn’t see that Ralph was aiming a big rubber kickball in my direction. "Hey Wikstrom, think fast", is all he said as he let go. I turned around just in time for the ball to smack me square on the head sending my glasses flying off my face. What a jerk! I snatched the ball and hurled it back at him as hard as I could. Of course, he saw it coming and managed to dodge out of the way. The ball struck the corner of a desk and ricocheted forward and up and crashed against the crucifix that was displayed above the chalkboard causing it to fall and smash to pieces onto the floor.
Aghast, I look over where the shards of plaster and twisted cross were strewn in a thousand pieces across the floor, then looked with contempt at Ralph and then looked towards the door where Sister Ann stood, frozen in horror. She hadn’t seen Ralph throw the ball, only it leaving my hands. She covered her open mouth with her hands and let out a muffled cry just as Sister Donald was coming towards the classroom. "Sister, I’m sorry, Ralph hit me with the ball and I… "
It was obvious that I was in serious trouble and no excuses were to assuage the retribution that was to be swift, painful and humiliating. We were both marched to the principal’s office and eighty year-old Sister Norbert wasted no time in deciding my fate. It was left to Sister Donald to administer my beating and Sister Ann was obligated to witness the execution thereof. The basement play area was empty since everyone else was now in class and we were ushered to one side. Ralph received the first strokes of the yardstick and leaned over a table as he grimaced and stifled his cry. He was then sent back to class and skulked away whimpering.
Now it was my turn. As I stepped forward, Sister Donald ordered me to take down my pants. "Please, sister", said Sister Ann, "is that really necessary?" "You’ll learn, Sister Ann, you have to keep these hooligans in line and I mean it! Now get over here and do as you’re told". I looked at my defender weakly as I reached to undo my belt and slid my pants to my knees." All the way, mister!" Sister Donald snapped. I turned away as Sister Ann’s face turned bright red and I became ashamed and exposed my nakedness to them. Sister Donald smote me again and again and I heard Sister Ann gasp with each stroke as long welts were raised on my bare ass.
After ten whacks she was finished and was out of breath as she told me to pull up my pants and return to my class. She knew it would hurt more to sit down but felt she was helping me to learn a valuable lesson. If that lesson was not to react impulsively when I’m being taunted, then it struck home. I would take my revenge, not only on Ralph but also on the entire structure of the established order. In my seat, smarting from my punishment, my mind began turning on how I would get back at my tormentor and the restricted system that was allied against me. The bell rang and students began to clear their desks and collect their coats from the cloakroom for the hike back home. "You two stay behind", barked Sister Donald to Ralph and me as the rest of the class headed for the exits.
We hung our heads at sister’s desk and she made us wait until all the students had vacated the classroom. "The sisters will be taking a retreat next week and I’m ordering you two to clean the convent from top to bottom while we’re away. Come on Saturday morning and the caretaker will let you in and tell you what to do", she snapped as if there was no choice in the matter and there would be hell to pay if we disobeyed. On our walk back home Ralph bravely declared that no way was he going to give up his Saturday to clean out the nun’s living quarters. I kept silent and though I had no desire to scrub floors or wash windows I was also intrigued at what was behind those shuttered doors and longed to see in what way they lived together.
Saturday came and I explained to my parents that I had offered to help with the cleaning rather than admit that this was punishment for an irresponsible act and they were pleased at my willingness to be of service to the nuns. It was a long hike to the convent and I was out of breath by the time I got to the door and gently knocked on the oak door that was decorated with arcane symbols that I could not decipher. After a few moments the door opened and Sister Olivia, one of the senior nuns beckoned me to enter. I noticed that her bags were at the door and she was preparing to leave.
She showed me where a broom, mops and buckets were kept and informed me that the caretaker was running an errand and that once he returned he would direct me to the other chores I would be doing. I could begin by sweeping and mopping the main hallway. She told me to be as quiet as possible because one of their order was staying behind and was at her prayers in the small chapel at the far end of the hall. A gentle rap on the front door signaled that her ride had appeared and I offered to carry her bags to the car. “No thank you” she said as the driver reached in, grabbed both bags and started down the steps without looking back.
I entered the darkened confines to see a long hall with various doors and the office and a dispensary off to one side. At the far end was a shrine with a lit candle and I assumed the chapel adjacent to it. I could tell that it was going to take all day to scrub the floors and started in as quietly as I could. Down one side, I swept in short strokes and pushed my gradually growing pile of dust and lint along the baseboard.
As I neared the far end and looked carefully around the corner I saw the back of the remaining nun kneeling at a prie dieu. She was gently swaying from side to side in unison to what I assumed were her prayers. I absently reached for the broom that I had leaned against the wall and it slipped from my hand and slapped sharply on the tile floor. Diving for the floor, I hoped she didn’t know that I was watching her and played the innocent, as Sister Ann appeared in the doorway moments later with her face flushed red.
"Excuse me Sister", I said, “Sister Olivia told me I should sweep the halls and the scrub and mop them. I’m sorry I dropped the broom and startled you". She looked at me quietly for what seemed a long time. "Can you tell me where a sink is so I can get started with the mop?" She took my hand and began leading me towards the dispensary when the office phone rang out. She stepped inside the office and lifted the receiver. It was the driver informing her that an emergency had come up and he would not be returning to the convent for the rest of the afternoon. "I understand", is all I heard her say. She returned to me in the hall and beckoned me into the dispensary where there was a sink, some chairs and a small examination table with cupboards around. "Please sit", she said. "I’ve been thinking about you and would like you to know something about me".
Inside, I couldn’t begin to imagine what she could be talking about. I had always assumed that women entered the sisterhood with the sole purpose of serving God and his Holy Son. "I wasn’t always like this", she said while lowering her gaze. "I have sinned gravely in the past and have prayed and fasted and tried to atone for my mistakes, I’ve even …" her voice trailed off. Nervously, I shifted in my seat and began to feel very uncomfortable. She continued; "The other nuns despise me, they don’t include me in their conversations or show me any respect. Am I not one of God’s creations too?" She began to speak of temptations we all face and that desire was not evil and human emotions need care and trust.
I rose to my feet and backed towards the wall. She stood and advanced toward me. I couldn’t think of what to say but opened my mouth to say something, anything. She put her hand across my open mouth and came within a couple inches of my face and looked deeply into my eyes. “Sister, why are you telling me this?” I managed to whisper through her fingers. She was trying to read something in my eyes and then seemed to slowly deflate as she took her hand from my mouth and sat down on a stool nearby with a sigh. “You have your whole life ahead of you”, she said simply. “Don’t waste your time trying to be like others. Remember that it’s not what happens to you in life but how you respond to it that counts.
She slowly rose to her feet and opened a broom closet door. “Everything else you need is under the sink”. She said averting her eyes and moving towards the door. She turned to look me in the eyes once more. “Thank you, Sister,” I said softly.