It was the week before my elementary school’s Open House and I was in first grade. We were well into the school year and I was just about used to sitting still in my desk all day versus the carefree days of Kindergarten when we got up and ran around frequently. The culture of my Catholic school was driven home by the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, who were generally gentle souls (and surprisingly young, in retrospect) with a few exceptions. Our class had obviously drawn the short straw and received for the entire school year the terrifying Sister Mary Alice—a short woman who of course wore the habit of the order so that just her face showed. That face reminded me of the dried apple project done in my Brownie troop’s meeting prior to Halloween, where we were instructed to bring a peeled but not cut-up apple, and press whole cloves into it to create eyes and mouth while the troop leader carefully carved a primitive nose in the appropriate spot on our apples with a paring knife. We then dutifully took this browning peeled apple back home with us and placed it in the sun for about three days—and viola: the perfect witch head that we could place on a stick and clothe at the next Brownie meeting! Sister Mary Alice had this exact face, so I was a bit wary of her.
We were busy at work on an art project Sister had chosen for us to do that would end up on display in one week’s time for all the parents to ooh and awe over on the night of Open House. We were instructed, with no doubts remaining, that total silence must prevail while we sat bent over our projects in order to complete them with as much perfection as we were able.
I do not recall the details, but because I sat in the back of the room (I had earned that right by being generally obedient, the goal of every good girl and boy at St. Matthew’s School) I had access to the narrow tray along the back wall that held the eraser for the classroom’s secondary blackboard that was placed parallel to and just above this long tray. I was at the end of the first row and my new best friend (name long ago forgotten) was at the end of the last row. I had mastered smaller-sized printing, so during a brief lull in doing my project I decided to send her a little note (I believe the entire note said “Hi”) by inserting it between the soft material of the felt eraser and shooting the eraser across the tray all the way to the other end. Of course, to gain her attention I had to give a loud stage whisper, which was my undoing.
“Gretchen!” Sister Mary Alice screeched. “Come up here and bring that eraser with you
NOW!” I stood up and, not wanting my friend to be left out, asked if she should come up too. Of course, my little friend suddenly appeared to be sitting ramrod straight in her chair with hands folded. The only thing missing was a halo on her head.
“Bring your project with you,” Sister added. Sister was obviously favorably impressed by the one I considered to be my accomplice and rejected my suggestion to include her in this exercise.
I remember putting two and two together as I walked to the front of the room, eraser in one hand and project in the other. I was mortified that I had been discovered being “bad” and I pretty much wrote myself off as being hopeless for the remainder of my time in this classroom. Tears were welling up as I approached her desk.
“Give me the eraser and give me your project,” Sister Mary Alice loudly announced, holding out her hand (which strangely did not match her rotten-apple face).
Well, let’s just get this whole thing out of the way and shorten my agony, I recall reasoning to myself. I handed Sister the eraser, and then grabbing my art project in both hands I began to tear it up—deliberately and loudly shredding the thing until the pieces fell onto the floor. I bent over, tears by now streaming down my face, scooped up the pieces and threw them into the wastebasket just to the right of her desk. I then looked at her, distorted by my tears, and took a ragged, defiant breath.
Her mouth was open in shock. She was holding that eraser and staring back at me with such surprise that I would destroy my work (which, she appeared to be reminding herself, she had not ordered me to do).
“When the recess bell rings,” she said quietly, “Remain in here with me. Now, go and sit down.”
I endured the inevitable staring by my fellow classmates as I returned to my seat, but my friend never looked my way. Eventually, the bell rang and everyone left to go outside. Sister looked very far away up there at the front of the room. She got up and walked to the back of the room to my seat, replaced the eraser onto the tray and opened my note. I thought I caught a smile, but it quickly vanished.
She was probably about 40 years old. I don’t know how long she had taught school, but at the time I thought she probably started soon after Christ had died on the cross. She stood at the edge of my desk and spoke to me quietly, asking me if I was sorry (oh, I was!). I just nodded, wiping away the last few tears my eyes could still squeeze out.
“You know, there is still time for you to do your project. I want you to be able to show it to your mother at Open House. Every afternoon after lunch I am giving everyone a few minutes’ time to either finish their project or draw and color. I still have plenty of construction paper near my desk. Do you think you can do that?” It sounded like a veiled order, but it was also clearly another chance. I took it.