By Tim Hayes
On a balmy afternoon in June, it felt like the weight of the world had lifted. A grueling slog had, at last, come to an end. The daily grind of living up to expectations, the mounting pressure, the seemingly unobtainable had finally been obtained.
Kindergarten was over.
No more suffering under the lash of Mrs. Beecher the Teacher. Sweet summer had burst into its full spectrum of Technicolor glory, filling our lungs with its savory scents with every breath, and offering shackle-free unending sunshiny days with no rules and no limits. The very thought of being in school again – ever – was not to be mentioned, tolerated, or countenanced.
But of course, like all perfect dreams, this one came to a sudden, sullen end as my next-door neighbor and I made the first of what would be thousands of walks to and from our parish’s parochial school. We headed off to first grade to meet our teacher, Sister Dorothy.
I went to the same grade school as my mother, sat in the same wood-and-wrought-iron desks lined up by slats on the floor, with a shelf under the desktop for your books, pencil cases, crayons, and other elementary essentials. These antiques had been around so long that a hole for inkwells still remained as part of the desktop. Inkwells! Initials carved into the wood could be the leftover childhood vandalism of the town’s current police chief, for all we knew.
The room smelled of floor polish, pencil shavings, and the wax paper around the lunch packers’ sandwiches. Ziplok hadn’t arrived on the scene yet. The handwritten alphabet rode along the top of the blackboard made of real slate. How did we know this? Because a couple of years in the future, an enraged teacher would use a class clown’s noggin to put a crack in one of those slate blackboards. Corporal punishment? Oh, you bet.
Sister Dorothy never became physical with any of her first-graders, though. She wore the full “Sound of Music”-style habit, with just her face sticking out of her veil and wimple, and a set of rosary beads hanging from the belt around her long black tunic. But instead of presenting an imposing, fearsome image to me and my classmates, Sister Dorothy exuded warmth and kindness. Her classroom became a safe, comfortable place to start the long, never-ending climb toward deeper knowledge, greater understanding, and unassailable character.
You never could tell from which direction a new intellectual challenge may arrive. One of the first puzzles came when Sister Dorothy told the boys that we could use the lavatory. “Lavatory? What the heck is that?” I thought to myself. “We’re only in first grade. Why are they letting us get near chemicals and tubes and stuff? What are we supposed to do in this lavatory?” So, like a good little lemming, I just followed the single-file line into the boy’s bathroom, still looking for the chemicals and beakers. What a fun-sized twit.
Then came the day when some fourth-graders came in to our room, selling cupcakes or something for their class’ field-trip fund. We knew this was coming, so most of us came prepared with money. As the older kids wrapped up their little sale, one of them said, “Does anybody need change?”
“Gosh, that’s a pretty deep question to ask a bunch of six-year-olds,” I again thought to myself. “Yes, we all need change – that’s why we’re in school, to change and grow and get smarter and all that. But what does that have to do with cupcakes? What am I missing here?” The perfect little Catholic bubble-brain.
The year with Sister Dorothy passed without incident, for the most part. Until the day, that is, when somebody didn’t quite make it to the lavatory. And I mean really didn’t make it, in the worst way possible, if you get my drift. Then it was into the cloak room (Can you believe it? The “cloak room,” like we were all magicians attending Hogwarts, wearing our flowing black cloaks!) one at a time, boys first, to identify the guilty party. But anybody cursed enough to be sitting downwind could have saved Sister a lot of trouble on that score, trust me.
When June rolled around again, it became time to say goodbye to Sister Dorothy. The sense of busting through chains and shackles, felt so keenly a year earlier, never happened. We loved Sister Dorothy and she loved us. Second grade held the specter of another lay teacher, clouding our shared nun-less future. But Sister Dorothy knew just what to say.
“Boys and girls, I want you to enjoy your summer with your families,” Sister Dorothy told us as we lined up to march out of the school building for the last time that academic year. “And remember, I will always remember you and pray for you every day.”
I’m not sure I’ve received such a lovely sendoff since.
Copyright 2016 Timothy P. Hayes