One Mean NunFirst grade came with many new rules. Every morning we got off the bus and were herded into the auditorium where we mingled with other waiting children as additional walkers trickled in. By a time certain, we would be escorted to our classrooms and the day began with one Hail Mary, one Our Father, and the Pledge of Allegiance. This repetitive ritual was the perfect way to start my day. After that, we were banned from talking unless expressly called upon to do so.. Forbidden. Prohibited. Verboten.
Richard Todaro lived on 213th Street my block with his mother, grown sister, and his brother Billy who acted like a girl and took tap lessons at my dancing school. Sister Anna MarieMichael Mary took Richard out of alphabetical order and locatedsat him rightdirectly in front of her desk. This was his second time in first grade. He rarely did the workbook pages we had for homework and never had a pencil. His white shirt was gray and the cuffs were as black as his fingernails. He always looked like he needed a haircut and sometimes fell asleep at his desk. Sister Anna Marie Michael Mary moved him, she said, to stop the socializing in the back of the room. No talking in class.
On one day in October, as rain hammered the classroom’s windows and Sister Anna Maria Michael Mary raised her voice to be heard over the deluge, Richard conversed with a neighborchatted and giggled with the kid next to him, undeterred from chatting despiteby his change of venue and the nun’s regardless of having been warned to be quiet repeatedlynumerous warnings. He just wouldn’t shut-up..
Sister Anna Maria Michael Mary abruptly stopped the math lesson, evidently as if to issue Richard a yet another warning. She put down her chalk, walked to the back of the classroom and took a small stack of brown industrial grade paper towels from the metal supply cabinet. All heads followed her as she walked back to the front of the classroom. She walked back to her desk and told Richard to join her stand and come foward.in the front of the classroom. He stood next to her and Once he complied, she methodicaldeliberatelymethodically tucked three coarse brown paper towels into his collar, covering his tie. All eyes were fixed on Richard as this breach of routine unfolded. The nun then opened her desk drawer and took out a heavy, clunky dull gray stapler.
“Richard,” she enunciatestarted.enunciated over the downpour bouncing on the windows. “What is our rule about talking in class?” Her voice was frighteningly loud over the so we could hear her over downpour bouncing on the windowsthe squall. When I looked out the window, I concluded that the view from a submarine was probably similar.
“What is the rule about talking in class?”
“There is no talking in class?” he answerprobedanswered sheepishly.
“That’s correct! What a smart boy you can be when you try!” she sarcastically praishailed.praised. “And do you know why I moved your desk to the front of the classroom?”
“Because I was talking too much?” he asked back.
The whole class watched the repartee unfold like a well-rehearsed play.
“Correct.“Such a smart boy!” she answered. “ Did you know that I thought that moving you closer to me would encourage you to follow the rules?” she said to the class with contrived melancholy.. “But do you know what happens every time I turn my back to the class to write on the board?”
“Does anyone know what happens when I turn around to face the board?” she asked shouted to the class.
About a dozen uniformed sycophants raised their hands with the enthusiasticHands shot up from her rapt audience servility of Nazis. Sister.
“Yes, Michael stood on her toes a little and craned her neck from side to side, deliberating whom,” she would choose to help her humiliate Richard. More than half the class was vying for the honor by now.
I was suddenly reminded of the small fish tank in our dining room. Once, my mother added an odd-looking metallic fish with a big head to the tank. She thought it would look good with our six fat, pink kissing fish. I remember thinking he looked lonely since all the kissing fish were paired off and he was alone. In the morning, the metallic fish was ripped in half and the kissing fish were gnawing on its two buoyant carcass chunks. My mother scooped the halves out of the tank with a delicate net and flushed them.
“Yes, MichaelMatthew,” sheSister Michael pointed to the fourth row.
“Richard talks,” he compliedtestified..
“Richard talks. Indeed,” she repeated with a heavy, solemn tone. “Richard. Don’t you think it’s enough that I have to compete with Noah’s deluge out there? So now I am You have forced meforced to do the only thing I can to make sure you remain quietkeep Richard quiet.”
She dramatically paused before announcing: “I will staple hisyour mouth shut.”
She tapped the stapler rhythmically on her left palm.
“Face me Richard,” she demanded.
Richard stiffened and clasped his mouth with both dirty hands, one over the other.
“That’s why I put the paper towels in your collar, Richard,” she calmly explained. “So you won’t drip any blood on your tie or shirt.”
Richard took a step back and began to shake his head from side to side violently; hands still firmly attached to his face. and hHis his brown eyes were wide and round and overflowingfilling with tearstears, which ran down his cheeks in dirty streams.. I saw that Richard was starting to cry and I heard the foreboding stapler clicking like a castanet as Sister Anna Maria Michael Mary bounced it maniacally on her palm. It could clearly be heard over tThe torrent of rain was still striking the windows.
Richard’s tormentor stood as still as Lot’s Wife,. until she Then, suddenly, she lunged at him, causing. Fueled by an intrinsic survival impulse, which overrode the whole class to gasp and lurch back as if spooked by a horror film. Fueled by a primitive, congenital n intrinsic survival impulse, which overrodequelled the callany dutycall to obey, Richard ran to the back of the classroom, his grimy hands still shielding his lips, rivers of muddy tears dripping over them.. Sister Anna Maria Michael Mary shot up the aisle after him, the sound of clinking rosary beads emanating from the waist of her habitrhythmically augmenting the clinking stapler.. He ran back down the next aisle and she followed, nipping the stapler at closer to the back of his head.
While I watched them in complete terrorhorror, violently mutilating my twirling strands, my classmates roared with laughter. The terrified boy and the irate nun ran up and down the aisles,isles between the rows of desks until the nun wore-out, put down her weapon, and breathlessly told a despondent and sobbing Richard to take his seat.
She leaned on the desk for a moment, caught her breath and casually returned to writing on the blackboard.
I kept trying to pay attention to the lesson, but every time I looked made him keep the paper towels at Richard, I was awash with pity, fear, sadness, and empathy. I couldn’t understand what the other kids were laughing at. I tried not to look at the pitifully, whimpering Richard who was, which was hard because he sat in the front of the classroom. Sister Michael made him keep the paper towels tucked in his neck for the rest of the day and he used them to blot up his tears. I wished a giant fish net could mercifully just scoop him away.
Sister Michael Mary was a bully. A grown-up bully. Her habit, like a policeman’s uniform, cloaked her with absolute authority. Yet, I sensed something familiarly unsettling about this classroom. It was the mandate to obey, without question, someone who I sensed resented being there. She was always angry. I wonder if her dad drank beer too.
She made First grade was the scariest place I had ever been besides my living room. keep the paper towels at his neck for the rest of the day.