Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Lavatory, Part 4

Thanks for staying tuned in. This is the fourth (and last) part of a longer story. If you want to catch up just scroll back a few posts. I don’t think of Sister Justin that much anymore. She doesn’t haunt my dreams. I had forgotten her for years until I began to write this little memoir. I know I have been unreasonable with my own students from time to time. But I hope they never have to think back on second or third grade and think of me like this…

Part 4

I had actually done the sentences! I couldn’t prove that I had done them but I had truly written all 100 sentences during the long miserable weekend. I did it without letting my parents know so they couldn’t vouch for me. What was I going to do?

I didn’t take communion in church that morning knowing that I would have to pass Sister Justin’s pew. Being in the cafeteria and on the playground with her that day I just waited for her to come swooping over to me, her long black habit flapping behind her to grab me up by the back of the neck and yell in my face what a worthless loser I was for not finishing my assignment, my penance for talking in the lavatory. I waited for her to pick me out in line and humiliate me in front of my classmates and Mrs. Albert.

After school I searched for the sentences. Nowhere. I waited for the phone to ring and for Sister Justin to tell my parents about my failure to complete my assignment. She didn’t call. I thought about just doing the sentences again but it would take me a couple of days and if I turned them in on Wednesday or Thursday she would know for sure they were late. I didn’t know what to do. I called Kevin.

“Hey man, did you turn in your sentences this morning?”

“Of course,” he said. “You think I’m nuts? I put them in the homework basket with my other stuff.” He chuckled. “My hand was sure sore from writing. Yours?”

“Oh yeah. 100 sentences in cursive. It took me all weekend.”

“Your folks find out?” he asked.

“You kidding? They’d pound me if they knew.”

“Well I hope they put ‘lavatory’ on the next spelling test as a bonus word. I’ll be able to spell that for the rest of my life.”

We spelled it together, laughing – Kevin a little heartier than me. “L-A-V-A-T-O-R-Y!”

After that phone conversation I figured my best hope was that Sister Justin didn’t check off the sentences she assigned. Maybe she had forgotten that she had even assigned them to me. After all, she terrorized kids all day every day. She must have dozens of pages of sentences turned in every day. How could she keep track of all of them? Or maybe she had a notebook, a register like the one my mom and dad used for their checkbooks, to make sure she got every sentence she assigned.

I just hunkered down for the rest of the school year. Any time I spotted Sister Justin I tried to make myself invisible. When she was in the hall, I was a model student, walking straight with my arms at my side. I never took an unnecessary restroom break. In the cafeteria, I sat with my back to the teacher’s table and I put myself at the opposite side of the playground whenever Sister Justin was on duty.

I’m sure there were times during my third grade year when I wasn’t worried about Sister Justin. But looking back, I remember more about my fear of her remembering the missing sentences than just about anything else. I went to Saints Peter and Paul through grade 8 and Sister Justin was there the entire time. For my remaining five years I thought of the sentences every time I saw her. When I became an altar boy and had to hold the paten for those who received communion, I held the gleaming golden dish just under Sister Justin’s throat while the priest placed the host on her tongue. I tried to never catch her eye, to never receive any undue attention.

I made it through Peter and Paul without another run in with Sister Justin. As I write this, after more than forty years, a teacher of young children myself, I wonder about Sister Justin. Is she still around? I have no idea how old she would be. Are there many others who have similar memories of her? Was she a good teacher in the classroom? Did she ever soften? What did she really think of the children she taught? What was her childhood like, her own schooling? Was she ever a friend to a child?

While we are products of all the people we have crossed paths with, all the places and times in our lives, Sister Justin left her mark. She taught me some things about teaching I will always carry with me. Through her meanness I think I learned a little about compassion. By looking at Kevin and me as just another worthless McDevitt and O’Keefe, she taught me to look at all children as individuals, not just another family member like all others. By controlling children through fear and intimidation she showed me that being gentle and reasonable with kids is the best way to solve problems.

By viewing us as obstacles to her teaching, she reminds me that children are the reason we teach.


Chris Hass said...

I wonder, did she just forget? If other teachers are anything like me, then forgetfulness is a common ailment of educators. The gentler Sister Justin in me sometimes has the kids take their homework home to do over the weekend if it hasn't been turned in on Friday as I had asked. I often wonder if the kids think to themselves "Well, I've probably got about a 50/50 chance he'll forget by Monday!" I'm guessing, though, that Sister Justin was not one to often forget. Rather, it seems she probably took great satisfaction and comfort in her punishments.

Your story has me thinking, now, of the stories from my own childhood that have involved a bathroom. I started thinking about this while fixing the kids' breakfast this morning and I was amazed to find that I could think of at least four or five strong memories that involved a bathroom in some way. I may publish one or two in the near future. There are no nuns in my stories but I'm strongly considering putting one in just for the heck of it. Maybe a real one, maybe a statuette in the window. It could be like the Little Critter books where you search for the hidden spider on each page.

Gloria (The Mamafamilias) said...

I'm wondering why she never asked you about them too. From what you've written about her, she seems the type to have kept up with every little detail of punishment. But mostly, I wonder if she ever felt bad at all about how she treated children. Guilt nearly consumes me sometimes when I think about mistakes I've made with children - hurting their feelings or whatever.

You are so right though, we are a product of those around us. I have thought of that so many, many times over the years as a parent. I have/had the best parents in the world, but they weren't perfect. I certainly have not been perfect either, and hope my children will take the not-so-good they learned from me and do a much better job. But hopefully they realize that I've loved them with every thing that's in me, no matter what I've done wrong.

Okay, confession time over.

Ruth said...

My personal Sister Justine was Sister Ruth in the fourth grade. She couldn't have been much more than 10 years older than I was. But boy, did she have the meanness thing down. She must have perfected her humiliation techniques in a concentration camp. I don't know what I would ever have done without my twin. Everyone should have one. Ruthie

Teresa said...

Wow...what a story! Reflection is so powerful; as is the impact that we as educators have on the children that spend their time with us. How energy consuming being that harsh must be. However, as you have said, this experience helped make you who you are today and I am sure anyone who knows you would say that even in your harshest moment your students/ friends know you are fair; therefore, they are not fearful of you but respect you. In some strange way Sister Justin probably has something to do with that...