March 05, 2006

Jack of All Words; Master of Nun

"I will email a word-a-day to Little Hag"

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!"

At that time in my life I was a skinny little platinum-haired beanpole, shy and quiet...the kind of kid 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 "Haglette, 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.

This statue greatly resembles the smaller one I mention

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 that statue had a distinct crack in the lower back of it.

Anyone who knew Sister Rita was well aware that her favorite of the three statues was the Sacred Heart (Jesus). 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. The last thing I wanted to do was to walk in there late, try to find my class, and to be ~ (gasp) horror of all horrors ~ 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 moved carefully 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 shuffled as quickly as I could down the long hallway and into the back of the auditorium; I was quite proud of myself ~ not only for being chosen to deliver Christ but for getting him there in one piece! This thing was at least half of my own weight.

As I stood at the back of the auditorium, I scanned the large area to find my own class. Soon, I 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 there 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 brick 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 next words were seared into my brain for all of 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. Even now, if I close my eyes and return to the moment, I can still feel it. I'm surprised I did not fall dead right there, clinging to Jesus in the auditorium.

Worse than that 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 is a satchel! 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 from my eyes. I managed to climb my little book-ladder on top of the desk once again, boost Jesus back up to the pedestal 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. It was a small, black leather bag... a purse, a book bag, a pocketbook for Pete's sake... why couldn't she have called it by any of these more familiar words?

The fact is, I'm convinced I did not 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 saying 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 that 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 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 solving 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, many years later, 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.

After filling in the answer, I gently put down my pen, stared out at the New York skyline and thought to myself, "Isn't life just grand?"

(This is an edited and enhanced version of a post I originally published on Feb. 13, 2005)


Blogger PBS said...

Funny how such a horrible situation could turn into a good one! That was such a mean way to treat any child, especially a shy one, but she helped you find a love for vocabulary! Well, actually you found it yourself. Great story, even a moral to it.

7:24 AM  
Blogger Genna said...

This was such a great story. Not only was this interesting, it had a great outcome. This could have easily had a different outcome--made you terrified of words instead of curious. Thank you for sharing this!

9:30 AM  
Blogger kenju said...

What a great story! That Nun did you a favor, though you couldn't have know it at the time. Life IS grand and sometimes things work out for the best even when we can't see it. I walked every step with you while you were carrying that statue, and I can just imagine how nervous you were.

10:02 AM  
Blogger Grant said...

Uh oh. Recycling posts already? Surely your life isn't out of stories. If so, time to hit the biker bars for new experiences.

When I was young, my mother and sister used to trick me into learning the wrong definition / pronunciation for new words I encountered as a "joke." It turned me off the whole vocabulary experience for awhile. Fortunately, when I encountered Conan the Barbarian, I learned that books could entertain and teach so I got over it.

11:32 AM  
Anonymous bekah said...

I know it must've been horribly embarrassing when you were young, but this is a hilarious story. And remember that nuns turn into bitter old bitches because they never get laid :-)

12:57 PM  
Blogger katie said...

Great story! It's always amazing to me how those put in charge of educating children could be so cruel.

2:21 PM  
Blogger frustratedwriter said...

While I'm not into the iconology of the Catholic church I do understand how "sacred" the statue would have appeared to you. Unfortunately, you didn't drop the Jesus on her foot and let her howl the Lord's name in some interesting phrases that would have sure caught the interest of the headmaster.

Glad you love vocabulary. Your blog is always a fun read!

6:16 PM  
Blogger Bill Jones, Jr said...

Funny, I don't have any nun stories that don't involve fear, pain, or fear and pain. I do have a similar experience in first grade with the word "boulder". It was the 1st time I learned I could turn on the water works and emotionally manipulate teachers. Ahh, for the good old days.

7:04 PM  
Blogger CarpeDM said...

Yes! I was reading this and thinking "Huh. This sounds so familliar. Why do I know this?" and then I saw the end and realized that I was not going insane or channeling your life but had read this once before. I love the enhanced version!

10:17 PM  
Blogger L said...

heh heh :) I went to Catholic school and was taught by nuns too! I think it explains a lot...

11:51 PM  
Blogger Michelle said...

Carol, you really are a master writer! This was fantastic with a brilliant outcome :)

2:00 AM  
Blogger brooksba said...

This is a good story, even if I'm still scared of Sister Rita. I was reading it and thinking, "I've heard this before..." I like the pictures added. Very cool.

2:12 AM  
Blogger Don said...

I looked back at the original post, and was amazed to find only four people commented at that time. How things have moved forward for you!

I hope you don't mind, but as this is a re-worked post (and I have little to add to my original commment), it thought it would be fitting to re-work the comment... slightly. Is this a first?

Everyone can see you're a natural storyteller, but what I think is more important is the 'message' underlying this post. Here you show 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 a great writer. Because I too have suffered similar abuse in my childhood, I want to hug the child in you and make it all better.

6:25 AM  
Blogger sidcruise said...

Wow very nice post I enjoy when you get your memories back and explain is vividly..well even I dont let any word meaning escape for long but eventually I lose their meaning?
Now please write how one can remember all words!

6:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"One was Jesus, one was the Blessed Mother and one was some other guy, I don't recall who... maybe their plumber because that statue had a distinct crack in the lower back of it."

Made my morning.

9:02 AM  
Anonymous John said...

Great post Carol! I thought the statue was going to be dropped and then you'd be in even more trouble. Glad you didn't drop it though! That woman was mighty mean though.. Geesh!

John - Formerly from Michigan Blog

9:57 AM  
Blogger Rainypete said...

I can't think of school nuns without thinking fo the Blues Brothers.

All that humiliation and suffering were simply to set up the future payoff of getting a crossword clue right? I'd want a "do-over"!

11:39 AM  
Anonymous Kathy said...

Oh what a read! Thank you.

I'm thinking...thank goodness that your spirit was not permanently broken by the beastly Sr. Rita, as indeed it in could have been had you not been able to stand up to this brutality...which is what it was. Many young children would not have been able to step foot in her classroom ever again, and it could have worked out so that you grew to hate words - having gotten mixed up that one, as you so understandably did.
I'm glad for your big spirit Carol.

12:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Such a fun read, Carol.. I love the statue with the crack bit... Its such a shame that more people dont look up unfamiliar words... reminds me of the joke about George B, when he was being brought up-to-date on the weeks happenings "... and in conclusion, 3 Brazillian soldiers died this week."... George put his head in his hands, and said "Thats TERRIBLE!...say, just how many IS a brazillion?"
.. from the cool one

3:11 PM  
Blogger Tabor said...

So well written as always. I was pausing at the end of each sentence to see where you were taking me...just like an addicted customer. And never disappointed at the end.

5:17 PM  
Blogger Joe Tornatore said...

Jesus, that was a great story. I said satchel not statue, words I will always remember.

5:49 PM  
Blogger the Monk said...

nice one....funny...funny, isn't it, when some of the teachers you dislike might turn out to be the ones who benefit you the most? I enjoy crosswords too, but I'm not very good at it...kinda get frustrated quickly...

11:57 PM  
Blogger Don said...

I felt I cheated with my previous re-worked comment, so I thought I'd make amends by throwing in a couple of nun jokes (clean ones of course!)

A cop pulls over a car load of nuns. The cop says, "Sister, this is a 55 MPH highway. Why are you going so slow?"
The Sister replies, "Sir, I saw a lot of signs that said 41, not 55."

The cop answers, "Oh, Sister, that's not the speed limit, that's the name of the highway you are on!"

The Sister says, "Oh! Silly me! Thanks for letting me know. I'll be more careful."

At this point, the cop looks in the backseat where the other nuns are shaking and trembling.

The cop asks, "Excuse me, Sister, what's wrong with your friends back there? They are shaking something terrible."

The Sister answers, "Oh, we just got off Highway 101."


A man was brought to Mercy Hospital, and went in for coronary surgery. The operation went well, and as the groggy man regained consciousness, he was reassured by a Sister of Mercy waiting by his bed. "Mr. Smith, you're going to be just fine," the nun said while patting his hand. "We do have to know, however, how you intend to pay for your stay here. Are you covered by insurance?" "No, I'm not," the man whispered hoarsely. "Can you pay in cash?" "I'm afraid I can't, Sister." "Do you have any close relatives, then?" "Just my sister in New Mexico," replied, "but she's a spinster nun." "Nuns are not spinsters, Mr. Smith," the nun replied. "They are married to God." "Okay," the man said with a smile, "then bill my brother-in-law."

4:08 AM  
Blogger dulciana said...

Oh, I love this story! Sounds a bit like how I developed a love of grammar after I served a year as the editor of my college newspaper. My advanced grammar prof. used to take incorrect sentences I had missed in the proof-reading process and put them on the board for everyone to correct.

4:17 PM  
Blogger Lightning Bug's Butt said...

This is a way-cute essay, Your Weariness. You should send it to Readers' Digest.

The Big Man upstairs was probably laughing His Divine Ass off on that day.

7:08 PM  
Blogger Swathi said...

u do have a way with words...

luved that school anecdote and reminded me of my own schooling in St.Joseph's of Cluny which was run by the French sisters n we have our own Sister Rita in the form of Sister Damien fondly nicknamed Sister Demon :)

6:55 AM  
Blogger Kris said...

It was then, that you carried HIM . . .

8:35 AM  
Blogger Spinning Girl said...

Hi, just stopping by to say I have been sick & not into reading, but next week when I am on vacation I will come back & read all I have missed! xoxox SG

8:21 PM  
Blogger MYSTIC said...

Those of us that went through "Parocial School" all have Nun stories....
One young Nun much like yourself wanted to join a specific order. She presented herself to the Mother Superior and asked to join. Mother Superior told her that this was a Order that required SILENCE and OBEDIENCE and that if she could speak only when told to do so, she could join. The young Nun agreed and was shown to her cell. Five years passed and the young Nun was summoned by the Mother Superior...Mother Superior told her that she could speak two words. The young Nun thought and said...HARD BED! The Mother Superior thanked her and told her she would look into it and sent her back to her cell. Five more year passed...again Mother Superior summoned the young Nun. This is your tenth year with us. You can speak two more words. Again the young Nun thought for a second and said...COLD FOOD! Mother Superior again said she would look into it and dismissed the young Nun back to her cell. Five more years went bye. Summoned once again the Young Nun came to be in front of Mother Superior. Again! this is your Fifteenth year with may speak two more words...The Nun did not hesitate. She said I QUIT!
Mother Superior thought for a minute and said, Maybe that is for the best...You've done nothing but BITCH since you got here.....

10:18 PM  
Blogger mrhaney said...

i read your post and i just had to tell my wife about it. my wife almost became a nun. she had received her name but dropped out before her final vows. she still knows a lot of nuns and talks with them on the phone and with her e-mail. she is going to clyde missouri this summer to voulenteer to help the nuns at a monastery there. this will be the second time in three years that she will be going.

2:37 AM  
Blogger madcapmum said...

Oh glory! I love the story, I can just picture Wee Haggie struggling that statue down....

10:55 AM  
Blogger J said...

This was the best story about a statue I have ever read. I did not expect a satchel. No one ever expects a satchel.

6:23 PM  
Blogger Lyvvie said...

That nun was a venomous old cow.

Anyone ever did that to my child - habit or not, they're getting an earful on manners. Imagine - calling a child, in school of all places, stupid.

I'm sure that counted against her at the Pearly Gates.

6:21 AM  
Blogger Pallavi said...

LOLOL Things we do when we are kids.. reading your story brings back memories of mine..

6:48 AM  
Blogger Spinning Girl said...

Love this tale. It is beyond risible!

3:06 PM  
Anonymous Smoke said...

Drugs are just bad, you should try to use Herbal Alternatives as a temporary replacement to loose the dependance!

2:04 AM  
Anonymous Platinum With Help said...

I can vouch for the truthfulness of the character in Haggie's story, because we were "cousins" in more way than hair back in Sr. Rita's class. I'm glad to say that I must have been out sick that day, because I don't remember this horrible event - thank you Jesus! St. Joseph may have been the 3rd statue, but honestly, preservation of sanity has wiped much of my 5th grade memory from my banks! Sr. Rita was the epitome of the ruler toting (metal), red-faced, screaming, angry woman.
Cuz' you've done a wonderful job turning this ugly event into the last laugh!

6:43 PM  

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