February 13, 2005

A Jack of All Words ... a Master of Nun

Back in fifth grade at Sacred Heart School in Staten Island, my teacher was a nun named Sister Mary Rita. Sr. Rita was every child's worst nightmare. She was about 5 Ft tall and as big around. She had a resounding voice with a hateful tone. When she taught, the underlying message was something like "you WILL learn this and you WILL like it ... dammit!" At that time in my life I was a skinny little platinum-haired beanpole, shy and quiet...the kind of kid who nobody really took notice of. I got good grades and minded my own business. I liked it that way.

One day the entire school was meeting together in the auditorium for an assembly.As we were lining up to leave the classroom, me always at the rear of the line (family name starting with a "W" back then ... I was used to being last), Sr. Rita turned and said "Carol, bring my statue downstairs with you and be sure to turn out the light." Now even for a fifth grader, this seemed like an odd request, but because it was Sister Rita, you just did what you were told.

In the front of the classroom there were three statues on the wall above the blackboard. One was Jesus, one was the Blessed Mother and one was some other guy, I don't recall who... maybe their plumber because he had a distinct crack in the lower back of him.

Everyone who knew Sister Rita was well aware that her favorite of the three statues was the Sacred Heart (Jesus with his heart exposed - ugh). Whenever she was about to clock one of us for talking out of turn, she'd spin around and ask Jesus for his forgiveness. No, seriously.

I had to come up with a way to get this statue off its pedestal, and I had to think fast. The only way I could reach the thing was to drag a desk over to the chalkboard just below it, stack up a few books, and pray. I worked quickly so as not to be late for the assembly. Last thing I wanted to do was walk in there late, try to find my class, and horror of all horrors, be noticed by anyone! I remember thinking while struggling to get this heavy two foot tall statue off its perch "Come on, show me a miracle, jump down." This was no lightweight statue! I had to maneuver it very carefully so that it didn't come tumbling down ~ cripes, I had missed Mass one day recently and had to stand in the back of the room for two hours... what would she do to me if I broke Christ!?

After I got the thing safely into my arms I struggled off the chair and made my way out of the classroom, careful to turn out the light with my elbow. I made my way down two flights of stairs balancing with my hip which was seemingly glued to the handrail the whole way. I could barely see in front of me. I made my way down the long hallway and into the back of the auditorium, quite proud of myself not only for being chosen to deliver Christ but for getting him there in one piece! This thing probably weighed a third of what I weighed.

As I stood at the back of the auditorium, I scanned the large area to find my own class... then noticed Sister Rita's pumpkin-like head sitting at the end of the row about halfway down in the middle section. I made my way over to her and stood before her, trembling from the weight of this Lord-load, yet proud as punch to deliver it her. You could hear a feather fall in this huge room... the assembly was about to begin and everyone was at full attention in their seats.

Sister Rita took one look at me, turned as red as a firetruck and stood up screaming at the top of her lungs "WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?" I could barely move let alone speak. When I found my tiny voice, I whispered "I have brought you your statue." Even at the sight of her, I still felt proud of my accomplishment in front of all the now-gaping students. Her words that followed were seared into my brain for eternity... "You STUPID STUPID kid... I said my SATCHEL, NOT my STATUE!" And the entire room pointed, stared and roared with laughter. Even the other nuns were doubled over and holding their hands to their mouths. "NOW PUT IT BACK AND BRING ME MY SATCHEL, THE ONE WITH THE LONG STRAP" My face was burning. I remember that much. I'm surprised I did not fall dead right there, clinging to Jesus in the auditorium. And what was worse was that, I was expected to carry the silly thing all the way back down the long hallway, up the stairs and into the classroom, get him back on his pedestal in one piece, then FIGURE OUT WHAT IN THE HELL A SATCHEL IS!" I had no idea. I hadn't heard the word in all my ten long years thus far. The shame of it all!

When I got back to the room, my knees were wobbly and tears were falling out of my eyes. I managed to climb my little book-ladder on top of the desk once again, boost Jesus back up to the pedastal and climb back down without breaking anything; anything but my spirit that is. I looked around the room while I was putting things back in order and thought carefully about what Sister Rita had just said. "...the one with the long strap" ... and there it was, right on top of her desk. A small, black leather bag... a purse, a bookbag, a pocketbook for Pete's sake... why couldn't she have called it by any of these more familiar names? The fact is, I'm convinced I didn't hear her correctly the first time around simply because I had never heard the word before, and said quickly, it could be mistaken for statue - at least when you're a skinny little kid intimidated by the mere sight of the person using it!

The moment I got home from school. I asked my mother if she'd ever heard of a satchel and she said "of course, look it up." And that was the very beginning of my love for vocabulary.

I'll tell you this ~ I don't let the meanings of words escape me for too long anymore.

I assure you from that day forward, I have never let a day go by without looking up any unfamiliar word that came my way. There are still a gazillion words I've never heard, but I still have some time. If I see an unfamiliar word in writing, I take the twenty seconds or so to look it up ... if I hear it in conversation, I rarely hesitate to ask.

Nowadays, one of my favorite leisure activities is a challenging crossword puzzle. Not only have I enjoyed countless hours solving them, I've also created more than a few. The New York Times will always be one of my favorites, but The London Times is a bit too "out there" for my liking. I'll usually try it and get part-way through, but I don't enjoy it as much.

One day while riding the Staten Island Ferry home from a hard day's work, I was completely involved in a crossword puzzle when the word "satchel" appeared as a clue. I gently put my pen down, stared out at the New York skyline and thought to myself "ain't life just grand?"


Blogger Wally said...

I have known a few nuns like Sister Mary Rita, so I can relate to the fear that you were going through. Especially, with my (experiencing) knowing the "wrath" that a nun can bestow on a young impressible mind... not ta mention on young knuckles! I am so glad that you didn't drop and break the statue of Jesus! I mean... just look at the consequence you get for dropping and breaking a mirror! ;-) Keep 'em coming, Weary Hag!


10:01 AM  
Blogger CarpeDM said...


What a great story.

Okay, actually, let me rephrase that. What a well-written story this was.

I didn't go to a catholic school, thank God, but when I was in high school I loved reading books written by people who had gone during the 50's. Not sure why. One of my favorite authors was named Caryl Rivers...I must have read her two books (at the time, she might have more) at least 10 times apiece.

Just to let you know, I blogrolled you (added you to my list of links). Beth has raved about your writing and I have to agree with her. What I've seen so far has been great. Next stop - archives!

1:36 PM  
Blogger Swifty said...

Everyone can see you're a natural storyteller, but what I think is more important is the 'message' underlying these posts. Your last three posts have revealed your concern about tender young minds and how they can be so cruelly abused. Only people who have 'been there and got the tee-shirt', so to speak, can communicate in such a way. You're such a great writer you make me want to hug the little child in you and make it all better. For me, by far the best post yet.

1:53 PM  
Blogger brooksba said...

Hi Carol,

Again, this is a good story. I can completely picture you trying to bring the statue to Sister Mary Rita and I know the feeling of being wrong in front of an entire class.

I truly enjoyed the way you brought the story back to today and how something minor can bring back a full memory. This was truly great!


4:43 PM  
Blogger Don said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

5:06 AM  
Blogger jimmymac30 said...

Carol, that reminds me of a story. My brother attended first grade at a Catholic school in Del Rio, Texas, on the Mexican border. We had moved there from Germany where the weather was quite a bit colder. Anyway, one warm Texas day, my brother informed my mother (a naturalized American citizen originally from the Sudentenland ~ the German speaking portion of Czechoslovakia) that the nuns told him "mittens" were required the next day. My mother, somewhat confused, inquired of the nuns, who were of Hispanic descent, to learn that in fact, "mittens" were not required the next day, but that "meetings" would be held. Love, Jimmy Mac

9:42 AM  

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