For all her hateful qualities, my third grade teacher inspired me to a richer communion with God. Because of Sister Dominic, my bedtime prayers took on a new fervency. “...lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen. And please, Lord, let me die in sleep so I won’t have to go to school tomorrow.”
He didn’t answer that prayer directly, but He was listening. He’d heard the public censure and insults she’d heaped upon me, the youngest and quietest student in the class: so stupid I couldn’t learn multiplication; so frivolous I owned a shoulder bag like a big girl and so immature that it was pinned to my coat for safe keeping; so impious I believed my mother when she said a hood was as good as a hat for school-day Masses; so picky I dared complain about curdled milk.
One day after school, I watched my favorite art project flutter over the heating register near my desk as I waited for the minute hand to creep around the clock. I did that a lot lately.
While Sister D held court with some of the other teachers in the corridor, I compared my picture to the others on the wall. It was one of thirty-four identical scenes of feasting Pilgrims and Indians posted around the room in perfect order, all outlined with heavy black lines and colored-in as we’d been instructed. I’d been so proud of my work…until I saw the D plus. Next to my paper was that of the teacher’s pet, a bossy only child. Her heavy crayon strokes raked the page at angry angles that had earned her an A. Were my lines too light? Too short? What was wrong with me? I couldn’t even color right.
I overheard Sister D talking about me in the hallway.
“Kept after school?” It was the surprised voice of my former teacher. “On the first day of vacation? Why would you have to do that? She was always such a nice child.”
I never knew she felt that way about me. Her kind words made me cry.
“Well, not anymore,” Sister D said, wagging her sour face under her tight white wimple. “Let me tell you…”
I sneaked my hanky from my shoulder bag and dabbed at my nose and eyes. Eight years old that week, and already I was a failure. She didn’t even know that I was also a sneak.
For two weeks I’d been hiding my apples – ever since my lunchtime buddy, Sean, had stopped eating them for me. No one within arm’s reach would take them anymore, and throwing away food was forbidden in Catholic school. Sometimes, though, I could swing a trade for a banana or an orange if I threw in a Ding Dong. The first time I couldn’t find a taker, I crumpled my paper bag around the apple and buried it in the trash, but that was a high stakes gamble with stiff penalties. Then I’d hit on the idea of hiding them in my desk. I knew it was a stupid solution, but I couldn’t think of anything else.
“Why does your mother put apples in your lunch every day if you hate them?” Sean asked.
How could he possibly understand? Him and his crustless sandwiches and bakery-bought pastries. You could bet his mother didn’t stockpile a three month supply of the season’s cheapest produce to serve at every meal. Raw apples, apple pie, apple brown betty, slimy apple sauce, and mushy baked apples for dessert.
“My mother likes them,” I said. “She thinks everyone does.”
The hidden stash haunted my dreams. I’d known I would have to deal with them sooner or later, and later had come. They were turning a silky tan color and starting to smell in my desk, though no one else had noticed so far. Loathe as I was to touch them, I knew I would have to smuggle them out of the building in my bag that day. But Sister D reappeared and pardoned me ten minutes “early” in an unexpected surge of holiday cheer. I slinked out of the room, rejoicing for the long weekend and praying for Divine intervention to solve my problem.
Thanksgiving break was one long, anxiety-induced gorge. The old apple smell in our storage room at home was starting to permeate the kitchen, so I know the smell of rotten apples in our warm classroom was bound to be vicious by the time we returned. I didn’t dare tell anyone about my problem because I was guilty, but I didn’t have a plan. I was even a failure as a criminal.
I imagined what Sister D would do to me when she found my stash. I pictured her force-feeding me mushy, rotten apples after school with the door closed and the blinds drawn. She would probably tie my hands to the chair and spoon-feed them to me, smearing them like baby food on my face, my clothes, my hair. She would snicker her Elvis sneer as I squirmed and gagged.
The bell rang at 8:15 Monday morning, just as it always had. This, despite my foot dragging, my hypochondria, and my feeble protests to Jesus. The classroom smelled more stuffy and sour than usual, concentrated in the back corner near my desk, but the apples hadn’t yet fermented as I’d feared they would. I sat down, red-faced and self-conscious, trying to act nonchalant while the kids around me wrinkled their noses and eyed me with suspicion.
“All right class,” Sister Dominick intoned. “Vacation is over and there will be some changes made around here. We’ll start by changing seats. Everyone empty your desk and put the contents on your chair. Then carry your desk to the wall and wait for me to call your name with your new seating assignment.”
My bowels churned. I wished my desk had a lift-top, but it was the boxy type with only three sides. I wouldn’t be able to hoist it without spilling my secret. I stalled until all the other kids filled the walls so that there wasn’t room for me with my desk, too. Being in the back corner of the room gave me a reprieve of sorts, but then Sister D started calling names.
“Tommy, right here, front row. Mary, behind him. Susan next. Then Peter.”
The move was going too smoothly. I wished someone would trip, scrape their chair legs, drop their books, do something to deflect Sister’s attention before she got to me. But no, I was as good as crucified. She pointed to me next.
“You, right here in front of my desk.”
I had to think fast. Maybe the helpless act. It wasn’t my style, but I’d seen it work.
“I can’t,” I whined.
“What do you mean you can’t? Pick it up and come over here.”
“It’s too heavy.”
“Oh for Chrissa…”
She marched half way across the room, then stopped, lowered her bushy eyebrows, and sniffed. She cocked her head, baffled, then swept toward me like a chalk dust devil.
“Don’t be stupid,” she barked. “Of course you can pick it up. It’s not that heavy.”
Sister didn’t like to be contradicted, and my voice had abandoned me, anyway. She leveraged the desk against her hips and ten rotten apples tumbled out with a plop on the spotted linoleum tiles and her black oxford heels.
She gawked at them, speechless, staring at the mess like a border collie puzzling over a new scent. When she finally spoke it was in a humbled hush.
“What the He...? Apples? Why would anyone put – apples – in a desk?”
It was a genuine, stupid question: not rhetorical, not snarky. She really couldn’t think of any reason a child would do that. She wasn’t as smart as I’d thought.
She didn’t yell. She didn’t call me names. She didn’t order me to clean it up. She just sighed, got a dust pan and brush from the coat room, and cleaned up the mess.
Did she ignore me out of surprise or respect for my originality? Did she see this as a sign of backbone she’d never suspected or did she fear the consequences if the story got out that I had hoodwinked her? Had she spent vacation praying to be a better person, just as I had prayed to die?
I never found out. Report cards came out the next day, followed by a parent-teacher conference, and I was transferred to public school within the week.
My new teacher was young and pudgy and pretty. She didn’t make us eat everything in our lunches. She thought everyone was talented in some special way, and she liked me even though I never could learn my multiplication tables. She gave me my first A’s: in penmanship, art and music, and she asked me to lead the class every morning in songs. I brought her fudge and flowers so she would know I liked her, too, but I never brought an apple for the teacher.