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by John C. Wright
Usually the back of your hand got spanked with the flat side of a ruler, and sometimes if you looked into the eyes of the nun as she brought that ruler down you could tell that she disliked you, and hated having to teach you and to even be around you.
Our nun was named Sister Helen Helga Helvetica, which we fifth graders thought was a peculiar name for anyone, especially a nun. On the first day of school she put a cardboard poster up on the wall at the front of the classroom. It was a picture of a mountain with its peak in the clouds and above the clouds was clear blue sky and sunshine. At the bottom of the mountains there were boulders and jagged rocks. She had made cutouts of thirty-five little airplanes and each one had the name of a student written on it. She explained that she was going to tack each of our airplanes onto the poster to show where we were as far as learning and godliness. If you were doing great, you’d be in your little plane soaring above the clouds, basking in the heavenly light and feeling the sunshine warm your body. If you were doing OK you’d be flying just above the mountains, streaking through the clouds, with an occasional glimpse of sun guiding you up and out and into the light. If you were not doing well at all your little plane would be down at the foot of the mountain on the rocks. “And if you are doing terrible,” she told us, “your little plane will be down on the rocks in an upside-down position.”
Sister Helen rearranged the chart each Friday after school ended, and it was supposed to be exciting to see where your plane was when you walked through the classroom door on Monday morning. At first all the planes were in the clouds just above the mountains, but already on the second Monday of the school year there was a slight, almost imperceptible, downward tilt to my plane. And by the end of the third week I was among a small group of boys whose planes were on a path of decent at about the midpoint of the mountain.
Sister Helen did not like me, for several reasons: Long before A.D.D. was an excuse for such behavior, I was one of those boys for whom the heat of the classroom, the unbearable itchiness of the heavy woolen uniform pants and the allure of fresh, beautiful snow falling outside the big windows made sitting still in a stiff wooden chair intolerable. She did not understand that boys like myself occasionally had to jump up out of their chairs and do something, something crazy or funny, or daring or stupid, simply in order to keep ourselves from succumbing to the maddening feelings and sensations that overtook us without warning and without mercy. Sister Helen did not abide such behavior.
The major cause of friction between Sister Helen and myself, however, was that I had trouble with my “Rs.” She must have fancied herself a speech therapist of some sort, because she was determined to correct my impediment, and became decidedly frustrated and angry at my inability to pronounce “R” correctly. It seemed that daily she would zero in on one “R” word or another that I had trouble with, trying to get me to enunciate it correctly by repeating the word over and over, louder and louder until she realized, much to her own embarrassment, that she was shrieking.
And so on one day, when I said the word “ridiculous” with my usual “wee” sound, she went off the deep end. “I’ll tell you what’s wee-dic-u-lous,” she shouted, loud so that everyone in the class could hear, “It’s wee-dic-u-lous the way you pronounce your ‘Rs’. Come stand up here.” She made me stand at the front of the class and told me to say the sentence, “Round and round the rugged rock the ragged rascal ran.” That’s a mouthful, even for a child with good enunciation, and I told her I didn’t want to say it. “Oh,” she said, “alright then, you can say ‘the red red robin is riding rainbows.’” I told her that wobbins were actually ohange instead of wed. As I said it, I knew it was a mistake; her face turned purple and expanded so that it looked as though it might pop out of her wimple. She told me to put up my hand. Her bony hand appeared from out of the folds of her habit grasping the ruler and quick as a wasp she brought it down. Then she told me I was to say “round and round the rugged rock the ragged rascal ran,” and that if I didn’t say it the entire class would have me to thank for keeping them in at recess.
“Wound ... and ... wound ... the ... wugged... wok ... the ... wagged ... wascal ... wan.”
The class got a good laugh out of it, and I would have laughed along with them except that by the time I got to the end of the sentence my hyperventilated breath had made me too dizzy and confused to even pretend to not care.
This happened on a Wednesday. The chart-planes had never before been shifted during a midweek school day, but when we came in from the playground my plane was down on the rocks and all of the others were either at the top of the mountain or up in the sunshine and blue sky.
The next day she flipped me.
I was so hungry that day that I couldn’t quite stand it. There hadn’t been much to eat at home for breakfast and sister Helen had made me stay in the classroom during lunch to work on my "Rs." After the rest of the class returned from the cafeteria my stomach was making so much noise that I couldn’t possibly concentrate on what she was saying about the lesson of the good Samaritan. James O’Brien always had something sweet to eat in a pocket or a knapsack and occasionally he would lend out a Mars bar or a couple of crumbly cookies. The note which said “Helly won’t let me eat and I’m starving…send something over…I’ll pay you back tomorrow,” made it only three seats away before it was intercepted as Bethy Finnegin attempted to hand it to Paul Murray.
“Who is Helly?” Sister Helen asked after reading the note. And then, “Jack, stand up. Now come up here and explain to the class who Helly is.”
Standing before the class, feeling the heat flow into my face and hearing both the rumble in my stomach and the white noise that howls in your head when you’re on the spot and know that there is no way to get off the spot, my eyes searched the room for a friend, someone who had the guts to stand and say, “Helly is what we all call you because the word hell is in your name three times and because you’re devilishly mean, and especially mean to Jack.” Of course I found no one ready to jump to my defence.
“Tell us, Jack, who is Helly? Say it.”
“I don’t know.”
“Did you write this note?”
“Yes I did.”
“Yes you did what?”
“Yes, I wote it.”
“You wote it, did you?” Her voice dripped with icy sarcasm. “Well then, you should be able to explain to the class what you meant when you wote the word, ‘Helly.’”
My eyes were stinging, and I could not answer, and so like a weaker dog that rolls onto his back, I simply presented my knuckles.
Her hand descended with a force that you couldn’t have guessed was in her frail-looking body. Always before, the ruler had come down flat like an open handed spank. This time, however, Sister Helen shifted the ruler, perhaps subconsciously, ninety degrees as she brought it down. I must have had my middle finger raised slightly above the others because the sharp metal edge, the one used for drawing a perfectly straight line, sliced down, hitting square in the middle of that knuckle and nowhere else. It was a startling pain and with it I involuntarily regurgitated the words “son of a bitch.” I felt at the time that I had only breathed the words to myself, but the last part must have come out louder than the rest because she screamed, “What did you call me?” And before I could answer she said “hand,” which meant that I was to present it again. I did, and she brought the ruler down a second time. She couldn’t have been aiming, and even if she had been she couldn’t have had the dexterity or the hand-eye coordination to do what she did, which was to guillotine the knuckle of my middle finger in exactly the same spot she had hit previously, again with the sharp metal edge. The finger went numb and I instinctively brought it up to my mouth to suck at a trickle of blood that tasted like the bitter copper of an old penny. Sister Helen then grabbed at the hair just above my left ear and pulled me out of the classroom and down the corridor to Sister Denice’s office. She pushed me into a hard-backed chair in the corner and told me that I should pray for forgiveness while I waited for Sister Denice to return, that I was not to touch anything and that I was to remain perfectly silent. Then she closed the door. I heard the key turn in the lock, followed by the sound of her hard black shoes against the linoleum.
My finger stopped bleeding, but it was throbbing and had swollen at the knuckle. I remained in the chair for as long as I possibly could, but finally, overcome by hunger and the throbbing in my finger, I stood up and made my way over to the desk. I rummaged through the drawers, hoping to find some crackers or an apple or possibly some Eucharist wafers. The only thing remotely edible was a small tin of Bayer Aspirin. I fumbled with the lid and when it popped open the pills flew out and scattered across the floor. I ate the five that I found, thinking that doing so might stop the pain in my finger and ease my pangs of hunger.
Then I sat on the cool floor and started to hum very softly to take my mind off the terrible pain in my finger.
It was quite dark outside. I didn’t have a wristwatch and there was no clock in the spartan office, so I had no idea how much time had passed. But I did realize that I had fallen asleep. I found the light switch and was startled to see that my finger looked like a fat carrot pulled out from weeks of hiding under the refrigerator. As the blood pushed through the knuckle it sent pain streaking up my whole arm.
I put my mouth up close to the door and yelled for help. Then I tried to raise the giant double hung window, but could not grasp the handle due to my pulsating finger.
A long time later I heard voices in the hall. I yelled at the door until the janitor came and opened it.
Later, mother was there, accompanied by Sister Helen and Monsignor Becket.
Monsignor Becket took a quick look at my finger and then ushered us all into his private study. “Boy,” he said to me, “Sister Helen says that you were put in Sister Denice’s room so that you could reflect in solitude and thereby recognize the error of your ways. She says she forgot that you were here and that she also forgot that sister Denice was gone from school today.” He looked at mother and then at me. “I think we can all recognize that sometimes people forget things and that she meant no harm in what she did. Don’t you agree, boy?”
“No,” I said, “that’s not what happened. Sister Helen purposely smashed my finger and then said that I was to tell everyone that I had hurt it on the playground, and when I told her I wouldn’t she said that I’d have to spend the night in this room alone and that if I yelled out or tried to escape or touched anything in the room she would break the rest of my fingers. She also said that she would pray that Satan would take me before the morning light shown through the window.”
He turned to her. “Did you tell him that he would have to spend the night in this room?”
“Of course not,” she answered, “I had to isolate him because of his bad behavior. I forgot that sister Denice was gone today, or else I would have returned for him at the end of the day.”
Mother interrupted: “And just what did he do that made him so deserving of your punishments?”
”I take valuable time out of my busy teaching schedule every day to help this boy with his pronunciation, and he has the audacity to mock me in front of the entire class by continually and purposefully accentuating a sound that he knows perfectly well is incorrect. Today, however, such mocking wasn’t enough for him and he added to it by authoring and passing a note in which he mocked my very name, a name of sacred significance to myself. And when I reprimanded him with a small physical punishment, he cursed me in a manner quite horrifying, and for which the punishment was most fitting.”
“Did you try to break his finger?” asked the Monsignor.
“Certainly not, I only slapped his hand with a ruler, a very common punishment for insolent boys.”
“Did you tell him you would break the rest of his fingers?”
“As God is my witness, no.”
“Did you tell him to lie about the manner in which his finger was hurt?”
“Did you pray that Satan would take him?”
The question elicited a very long silence from Sister Helen. Finally she cast her eyes to the floor and very softly said: ”Yes, I did.”
With that painful admission Sister Helen proved that although she was mean and spiteful, she was incapable of lying, at least to the Monsignor. And so of course he and mother both knew that most of what I had said about Sister Helen was untrue. Sister Helen hadn’t told me she would pray to Satan, but somehow I had stumbled across the idea. Perhaps it was divine intervention.
Monsignor Becket told Sister Helen to wait for him in her room. Then he and mother had a private talk in his study while I waited in the hall
The following day I returned to school with my wrist and finger in a plaster cast. Our class was ushered into the auditorium where Monsignor Becket announced that Sister Helen had been called to teach in another parish and that Sister Patricia, who had just arrived from Ascension School in Duluth, was to take our class for the remainder of the year.
As I entered the classroom Sister Patricia was at the front studying the airplane chart. Sometime during the night my plane had been flipped onto the rocks and both of the wings had been ripped off. The first thing Sister Patricia did after the bell had rung and we had taken our seats was to call me to the front of the class to explain the chart to her. My voice quivered as I tried to tell her what it meant to be flying above the clouds and to be down on the rocks. As I finished speaking, I saw that her eyes were moist. She then did the most extraordinary thing that had ever happened to me at school. In front of the entire class she reached down and hugged me tight in a way that I didn’t ever remember being hugged before. As I returned to my seat she removed the tacks from the four corners of the chart, took it down from the wall, folded it twice and stuffed it into the trash can. “We won’t be needing this any longer,” she said. “Please take out your arithmetic books and open to page 27.”