My fourth grade school year was traumatic in more ways than one. My father had died the summer before and our family was in a state of grief and uncertainty. We had returned to a familiar neighborhood after Daddy was killed in the hope that being back among good friends would help us to heal. Our home was a shell of the one that we had inhabited with my father. Without his engineering income we had to downsize considerably but ours was a sound house and the neighbors were warm and welcoming. I reenrolled in Mt. Carmel Elementary School and was looking forward to being united with the classmates that I had known before we moved in my third grade year. It was comforting to be back in a place that had heretofore been quite happy for me. When I learned on the first day of school that I was in Sister B’s class I had little idea that my emotional rollercoaster would become even more torturous.
Sister B was one of those old school Catholic nuns about whom legends and comedy routines abound. She thought of verbal and physical punishments as ways to build lasting character in young boys and girls. Those of us subjected to her classroom management style thought differently. It took no more than a few weeks in her presence for me to become utterly terrified, so much so that I was afraid to even speak of my fears to my mother. That environment was totally the wrong place to be for someone already scarred by the death of a parent. It was so hellish in my mind that I somehow began to believe that I had unconsciously and unknowingly done something terrible for which I was being punished. Why else would I have to endure a year with this tyrant, I wondered? I adapted each day by telling myself to just breathe.
I was actually one of the students that Sister B most cherished. For a very long time I was not the object of her wrath. She loved me so much that she became good friends with my mother. She often gave me letters of encouragement and special religious gifts. I should have returned her affection but I have always been a social justice warrior and I witnessed her unkindnesses to my fellow students more often than not. I don’t know if she just didn’t realize the impact of her humiliations but I did. With no place to turn, I seethed inside each time one of my classmates was harmed. I found solace in escaping to a place in my mind where all I had to do was just breathe.
Sister B once created a bulletin board that featured rockets advancing to the moon. On the side of each rocket she had written the name of a student and the grade that the individual had made on a test. Mine was proudly standing on the lunar surface with a one hundred indicating my success. Down at the very bottom were the spacecraft of less fortunate souls whose names were on display as failures with their rockets lying broken in half. Even as a nine year old I knew that it was utterly wrong to bring such negative attention to those who had not done so well with their academics. I felt embarrassed that I had to sit near the bulletin board filled with so much venom and hurtfulness.
I listened to the verbal taunts of my teacher until even I felt broken. I lived in fear that I might one day invoke her ire and become the focus of her anger. I hardly slept at night and thought myself terrible for thinking badly of a religious person. I was torn between hating her and wanting to forgive her. Since there were no counselors back in those days I suffered in silence often reminding myself to just breathe whenever the atmosphere became unbearable. Eventually things turned dark even for me, one of her pets.
We were in the middle of music class one afternoon when my bladder told me that it needed to be emptied quickly. I hated to interrupt Sister when she was so engrossed in a lesson but I felt that I had no choice. I raised my hand and calmly asked to be excused but my request was instantly denied. I crossed my legs and hoped for the best but as the minutes ticked by the pain that I felt became almost unbearable. I repeated my request several more times, being refused over and over again even as I began to wiggle in my seat to keep from having an accident. I was on the verge of tears and getting dirtier and dirtier looks from the teacher as I realized that I was not going to be able to hold back for much longer. I made one final attempt to be released to take care of the problem only to receive the same negative response. I was doomed and I felt my bladder slowly but surely ease the pressure as a puddle formed on the seat of my desk. At that moment I was in agony. I wanted to disappear so that I would not have to endure the fate that I knew was coming. I sat rigid hoping against all reasonable hope that nobody would notice what I had done. Of course that was not the way things were going to work.
Soon enough Sister was standing over me demanding to know what had happened. She ordered me into the hallway where she berated me for being absurd enough to wet my pants rather than race out of the room to the bathroom like any rational person would have done. I had no answers for her. I had learned long ago that she never accepted the excuses that any of us gave for our unwanted behaviors. I just stood silently wishing that I might run away and never have to face her or my classmates ever again and urging myself to just breathe lest I let my own tirade escape from my lips. She sent me to the office where I waited for my mother to come with clean clothing and a ride home. I was never able to fully explain to my mom why the incident had occurred. Sister B had already muddied the waters with her own defense and since my mother only knew her as a saintly woman I made no effort to disagree.
When I returned to school the following day my classmates pretended not to have noticed what had happened. I suppose that they all felt as I did that we had to weather the storm of our teacher’s angry behaviors together. Somehow we were bound by the realization that the way she was treating us was very wrong but there was little that we might do other than accept our fate and just breathe. I suspect that I first learned how to be a good teacher in that classroom. I remembered what not to do to students from those days. For that I am thankful to Sister B but I would have preferred not ever knowing her at all.
For a very long time I felt terribly guilty for disliking my teacher, especially since she was a nun, that is until I learned that my brother also found her behavior to be abusive and untenable. When he confessed to me it was like having a heavy weight lifted from my mind. I no longer had to just breathe when I thought of that terrible woman.
My mother corresponded with Sister B until she died, convinced that my old teacher had been a master educator and a saint. It was not until I was almost fifty years old that I shocked my mom with revelations that she found to be painful and difficult to believe. I kept my negative comments mostly to myself. I didn’t want to destroy the icon that my mother thought Sister had been.
I suppose that I developed lovely cursive handwriting under Sister B’s watchful and critical eye. I even mastered the lessons of the fourth grade curriculum with her guidance. More importantly, however, I understood the need to treat children with dignity and respect. I didn’t suffer permanent damage from that school year but I don’t believe that any of us needed to endure the shabby treatment that was inflicted on us. We were resilient but it seems that we never forgot what we had seen. Now I can laugh a bit at the memories of those days but I suppose that I always knew that what we endured was wrong. Thank God I survived by being able to just breathe.