In third grade, I learned that the Irish nuns of Saint Apollinaris School were married to Jesus. It was true; each Sister of Mercy, in her heavy black habit that brushed the toes of her sensible black shoes, wore a gleaming band on her left ring finger as very shiny proof.
“But are you all married to him, Sister?” Katie Bickle voiced the question that most of us were thinking. It was 1968, and Sister Mary de Chantal was teaching us about love.
After Sister explained the mystical marriage to us, we learned another confusing truth: the sisters loved each other and Jesus so much that all possessions were owned in common. In their convent, no one could accumulate earthly treasures, as all belongings were shared.
“But what about your glasses, Sister? Aren’t those just yours?” I was certain that I’d never seen Sister Mary de Chantal’s black-rimmed, cat-eye glasses on any of the other nuns.
A four-inch wall of starched white stiffness covered everything above Sister’s eyebrows, and the waist-length black veil that encircled her face concealed much of her creamy pink skin. But her dancing green eyes were still visible behind her communally-owned glasses.
“Ahhh, Soo-sun, thar are soom things that are mostly far ahr-selves.” The lilt of her brogue was the music of my third-grade year.
Sister Mary de Chantal’s love was not limited to her community of Sisters and to Jesus. It extended to the world of dance. She spent most recesses teaching Irish jigs to any girls who wanted to learn. Our scuffed white oxfords tapped and thumped the pebbly asphalt, and our scratchy blue plaid jumpers swayed in time to our concentrated hops and skips.
“One-two-three, one-two-three, kick-your-heel-and one-two-three.” The six of us chanted and jigged our way through the 10:10 recess one nippy Napa morning.
“Let’s do it again,” directed my classmate, Amy Blackburn. Amy could run like a whippet, commanding our respect during recess activities. We lined up, awaiting her signal. But over Amy’s voice, we heard the sound of a tolling bell. The school’s one hundred and sixty girls froze. We knew exactly what that meant.
Boys and girls were segregated during recess at St. Apollinaris. There was both a back and a front playground, with all of the classrooms in the middle forming a barrier between the two. The girls’ area was far superior to that of the boys, however. Both yards had an asphalt playground, but the crowning glory of the girls’ yard was that it contained the only bathrooms and drinking fountains in the school.
The boys were not allowed onto the girls’ yard until just five minutes remained in recess. At that point, an 8th-grade girl would march to the boys’ yard at the front of the school. Holding aloft a large black-handled bell, she’d wave it over her head in broad strokes, loudly enough to be heard over the grunts and yells of the sea of sweaty boys. This warned the boys that it was time to head for the bathroom and water fountain.
Before the bell’s tones died away, we in the girls’ yard could hear a faint roar that grew louder by the second. The rumbling materialized in the form of a monstrous boy-herd, their grey-corduroy-clad legs pounding the pavement as they thundered toward the four bathroom stalls and three drinking faucets. Small and large alike, they rushed past us as one, surging toward the same watering hole.
It was terrifying to be caught in their path. Girls peacefully skipping rope could be knocked flat by a reckless stray. Boy-on-girl casualties were common between 10:25 and 10:30 at St. Apollinaris. So when the bell rang that morning during our dance, we waited until most of the torrent had passed us by. Amy then waved her hand, and up we hopped: “Ah-one-two-three, one-two….”
Suddenly, I felt a sharp stab in my right ankle. Looking down, I saw a plum-sized rock lying next to my uniform shoe. As I glanced around in confusion, my eyes fell on Frankie McDonough, staring at me, mouth agape. His throwing arm hung limply by his side. The sun glinted off his glasses that were always slightly askew, and his floppy orange hair was lit up like a halo of fire. Frankie’s big eyes and frozen stance made clear his guilt. The pain dazed me, but still my mind whirled. Why had he thrown a rock at me? What had I done to him?
As I trailed my classmates back to Room 4 after recess, I already knew I would not tattle on Frankie. I would bear my suffering in silence as the saints before me had done. The nuns told us stories of saints who had sacrificed comfort – sleeping on beds of nails, denying themselves food, wearing instruments of pain inside their clothing – all for love of Jesus. God sometimes recognized the piety of these believers by allowing them to witness a statue of Jesus or Mary crying, occasionally weeping tears of actual blood. I used to sit in church during Sunday Mass and lock my gaze on the statues in front, willing them to shed tears of blood for me. It had never happened, perhaps because I’d never sacrificed enough for Jesus. Well, I would bear my pain bravely now. I’d suffer silently the wrong that Frankie had done unto me, a true innocent.
I’d barely sat down when I heard Sister Mary de Chantal whisper my name, and saw her beckon me with a crooked finger. The finger was usually just for the bad kids. Was I somehow in trouble? I didn’t consider the fact that I’d done nothing wrong. Feeling vaguely ashamed, I hung my head, and shuffled up to her desk.
“Soo-sun, are ye all right? You’re very pale.” Sister usually smiled at me, but now she looked concerned.
Immediately, I burst into tears and cried out, “Frankie threw a rock at me, and it hit me and it really hurts, and I didn’t do ANYTHING!” There. I’d spilled it all. The statue of Mary, Mother of God, would never cry for me now.
Sister nodded, and turned to give the summons this time to Frankie. He got not only the finger, but also the narrowed eyes and the mouth squeezed tightly into an “O.” He was in big trouble. I couldn’t hear much of Sister’s stern whispering, but I figured Frankie’s punishment would consist of several missed recesses, or maybe even a visit to the Monsignor.
My wounded feelings throbbed more than my ankle as I limped back to my seat. Even the prospect of the Monsignor brought me no comfort.
Over the next two-plus years, Frankie inflicted a peculiar kind of torture on me. I was a smart kid, and he made it his life’s mission to attack me for that trait. He constantly called me names that drew attention to my mind. He discovered parallels between my last name and the words “Godzilla” and “Gorilla,” so the monikers he coined usually were derived from one of those. Frankie himself had a staggering intellect, so the names he used often involved word-play and many syllables.
“Hey, Godzilla-brain!” he’d hiss when Sister Mary de Chantal turned to write math problems on the board. “Supersonic Gorilla-brain! How many did you get right?”
I tried to ignore him, turning away and folding my hands atop my desk.
“Hey, Gargantuan Monu-Mental Brain! Bet you didn’t get number eighteen!”
I knew it wasn’t a holy response, but I grew to truly dislike him. In fifth grade, when Sister Mary Gemma directed those who’d scored 100% on spelling tests to stand up, Frankie and I were always on our feet. And I didn’t like being lumped together with him. I cringed when walking to the pencil sharpener, braced for the inevitable taunt, the annoying whisper. It didn’t matter how far away from him I was. He always seemed to find me, his broad smile an ever-present magnet of mockery.
On the last day of fifth grade, a hot June afternoon, Frankie crawled over to where I sat on the cool tile floor, cleaning out my desk. I waited for the infuriating remark, but it didn’t come. Instead of whispering something that started with “Gorilla,” he startled me by using my first name, and asked if we could talk after school. I knew how to turn away when he was irritating, but I was at a loss when he treated me like a regular person. I straightened the Peter Pan collar of my uniform blouse, and nodded.
At 3:02, we sat on the splintery wooden bench, leaning against the cinderblock wall of room 6. The sun beat down on us. I removed the bobby pins that held my woolen beanie in place, pulled it off, and turned to him expectantly. Mom and my three siblings would be waiting; I wished he’d get on with it. Why in the world had he wanted to talk with me?
I noticed that for once, he wasn’t flashing that gleeful smile. He wasn’t even looking at me. He picked at the bench with one finger, scraping off flecks of paint.
Finally he spoke. “Do you remember in third grade when I threw the rock?”
Did I remember? The day I’d decided he was the most obnoxious boy in the class? I nodded, and he continued.
“Well, I wasn’t trying to hit you. I didn’t do it on purpose….because…..” His glasses began to slip down on his sweaty, freckled nose, and he pushed them back up. It was so strange to watch him struggle for words.
“It wasn’t on purpose…. because I liked you.”
I was so stunned that I barely heard his next words: “And I still do.”
He’d hurt me — because he liked me. He’d targeted me – throughout third, fourth, and fifth grades – because he liked me. Frankie McDonough liked me? It was too much for my mind to absorb. It was like trying to stop a freight train with my hands, and then push it back in the other direction.
He looked right at me. “I wanted to tell you before I leave, because my dad got a job in Redding, and we’re moving there this weekend. It’s pretty far. I probably won’t see you again. I just wanted to say I’m sorry.”
I stared at him, my heart thumping. Now I was the one fumbling for words. But before I could find them, our moms pulled up in their respective station wagons, and we parted ways.
In the short term, my experience with Frankie confused me even more than did Sister Mary de Chantal’s plural marriage to a non-Earthly man. In the space of sixty seconds, I’d learned that I couldn’t look at a boy’s behavior and think I knew what it meant. I’d learned that a boy who seemed to dislike me actually had a crush on me, but I’d also learned that I’d likely never see him again. To my astonishment, I’d even discovered that once Frankie told me he liked me, I felt a weird nervous flutter in my chest, the stirrings of me starting to like him back.
But long after my confusion faded, something else took its place. When I think back now, what strikes me most is that Frankie apologized. And it wasn’t because someone forced him to. He felt remorse, and wanted to make things right with me before he left town for good.
My childhood love for Sister Mary de Chantal planted the seed in me of becoming a teacher. It’s been my profession for twenty-eight years now; my students are third-graders, the same age that Frankie and I were when he pelted me with the rock so long ago. As each year passes, I find that I devote more and more time to soothing hurt feelings, to helping students solve their daily squabbles. But it’s not because my students today fight more than did children of decades back. The specifics of the conflicts haven’t changed much over time; I’ve negotiated skirmishes that broke out because of a thrown rock.
I look at my students sometimes, and wonder what they’ll hold on to from third grade when they one day look back from adulthood. Will they remember a particular lesson on fractions, or the story we read about puffins? I doubt it, and I can live with that. Will they remember the time a friend excluded them from recess play, and they cried every day for a week? That one is far more likely. I can’t count how many times I’ve sat with a third-grade perpetrator of recess violence, only to have the child break down in tears and describe the ancient—second-grade—grievance that spawned the delayed revenge-attack.
So on most days, my third-graders and I take some time to put down the math and talk about hurt feelings, practicing the words of apology and forgiveness. The closer I get to the eventual end of my teaching career, the more I’m convinced of the importance of this practice. I apologize, too, and I thank them when they forgive me. There’s so much pressure on us teachers to cover curriculum and prepare kids for testing; some people might think it a waste for a teacher to take time out of social studies and science so one student can express anger to another who keeps pilfering pencils and breaking them.
But until the day I retire, I’m going to keep taking the time. Because the thing is, when I try to remember that red-headed rock-thrower from third grade, I can no longer summon up the hurt feelings that flooded me that day. But it’s easy to feel again the sweetness enveloping me, the sweetness of a young boy saying simply, “I’m sorry.”
photo by Harry Rajchgot, Barcelona, Catalonia, 2016