I went to my parents this weekend. It was just a short visit. The weather was looking bad so I came back on the same day. While I was there I got in a little yard work. They had a terrible ice storm last week. Many trees had fallen and the tops of trees splintered and lay in heaps. A tree hit their neighbor’s house but, luckily, there was no damage to my folks’ house. There were just tree limbs everywhere.
I spent more time on the road than actually working and visiting. But it was well worth it. I love spending time with them. My mom is so smart and funny and sassy and articulate. She makes me think deeply and laugh hard. She taught me a few new vocabulary words she learned from doing crosswords – of course I immediately forgot them. My step dad, Jim, gave me an important political article to read. We had lunch.
When I am with my mom we share stories from back in the day. Stories of siblings and neighbors, of growing up, going to school and what the world was like back in the 60’s and 70’s. My brothers and sisters and I went to a big Catholic school. It was a great education in a many ways, but not exactly a fun place to be a lot of the time. My mom reminded me of the time when my big brother Pat got in trouble because he pressed the hand dryer button more than once. They actually called her at school (she was a teacher as well) and fussed at her for Pat’s transgression.
This story came to me over the weekend. It is one I wrote a few years ago. Not all of my years at Saints Peter and Paul Elementary School were like this. Not all of the teachers were like Sister Mary Justin. I have wonderful memories of my friends and some of the priests and nuns and lay teachers. And I can honestly say I learned a LOT. Looking back, I wouldn’t have changed a thing. All of our experiences make us who we are. Surely I am the teacher I am today partly because of the teachers I had back then, for better or worse. Anyway, here is the first installment of The Lavatory.
In third grade I was in Mrs. Albert’s class. All these years later I have little recollection of her. She was heavy, pleasant, and neutral. She did not relate to kids in the violent manner of my second grade teacher, Sister Rachael Marie who would slap and pull hair and seemed to delight in making children cry. Sister Rachael Marie made me cry several times.
Mrs. Albert was mild by comparison. After having Rachael Marie for second grade, it was a relief to have calm, neutral Mrs. Albert for third. She taught pretty much by the book and her expectations weren’t too high which was fine by me. I was very glad that I did not have Sister Mary Justin for third grade. Sister Justin had a bad reputation among the kids. For one thing, she was a yeller, unlike Sister Rachael Marie who would sneak up on kids and then explode in a rage. You could hear Sister Justin yelling all the way down the hall.
“So, Mr. Kadar… What makes you think you are so special that you don’t have to do your religion homework?” she would shriek.
“But Sister, I did it. I just left it on my desk at home.”
“Now I will add LYING to your list of infractions!”
I disliked even walking by her classroom. I knew kids in her class and they confirmed that she was harsh. She hurt kids, and humiliated them. She made children cry. The smart ones would cry easily when she was angry. You got off easier that way.
Mrs. Albert had soft green eyes. Mrs. Albert had pudgy hands. Mrs. Albert hardly ever raised her voice. I wonder if Mrs. Albert was scared of Sister Justin. Everyone else was. Sister Justin was the meanest teacher I had ever heard of and I said many prayers of thanks that year that I wasn’t in her class.
Sister Justin patrolled the halls and when kids were not walking in a straight line she would smack or pull hair or squeeze shoulders painfully. Her presence in the halls was enough to make several classes walk in a straight, single file line with absolutely no talking, whispering or giggling. It is hard to imagine that 75 or 80 kids could walk from class to class and no one would talk or even whisper. I assure you that it was true. Sister Justin was so intense that her presence could block the spirit of several classes at once, just as a brick wall blocks wind or window shades darken the sunshine.
We all kept a safe distance, as I said, and although we pitied those who had to have her for a teacher, those of us in Mrs. Albert’s class considered ourselves very lucky top have only an occasional run-in with her.
On a cold November Friday, I walked to school with my two older brothers. The sky was gray and the snow was just beginning to fall. We cut across every field on the way to Peter and Paul. There were a lot of fields back then. The grass was crusty with frost and the mud was brick hard as we walked the mile or so to school. We attended Mass every morning before school and in those days we had to fast for an hour before receiving communion before mass. So none of us had breakfast at home. We ate cereal in the cafeteria after church.
In church, Sister Justin was constantly occupied with making sure her students had their hands folded just right, knelt down at just the right moments and, above all, were not talking during Mass. The candles by the altar twinkled brightly and the air always had the faint smell of smoke and incense. The statues of the saints and the Stations of the Cross were spooky to me although I could not help staring at them during Mass. In that same way I could not help staring at Sister Justin. I was afraid of her and mesmerized by her at the same time. She simultaneously fascinated me and repulsed me the way one is drawn to a scary story. You want to listen and, at the same time, you are glad that you are not in the story. Seeing her from afar was more than enough for me.