I lived in a state of constant panic. From the moment I stepped through the doors of Saint Andrew’s Catholic School, my stomach hurt, my fingers shook, my breathing was rapid and shallow, and I felt slightly sweaty all the time. I was Our Lady of the Perpetual Adrenaline Rush. It was because of a tall and thin bully with a perfect brown bob. She wore slacks, a navy sweater with a Peter Pan collar, and a tiny gold crucifix that laid on her sternum. I couldn’t escape her. She was my 4th grade teacher. Her name was Sister Sharon.
My nine-year-old self had no idea that the “bully nun” was a stereotype. I hadn’t been exposed to the trope of rulers on knuckles. My mother had mentioned Catholic school but she clammed up whenever I talked to her about it. Before, in my previous elementary school, we had one nun, the principal, Sister Joviata. She was a thoughtful yet feisty grey-haired nun who still wore a habit and once pulled me out of class just to give me a hug. Nuns, in my limited exposure, were about love, God, and hugs.
As nine-year-olds go, I was awkward. Not just regular awkward but a kind of earnestness that is reserved for rare, naive hearts. I was the kind of awkward that noticed a girl in my class had the softest hands I’d ever felt and gushed about it to her. Sure, that’s weird. But it didn’t stop there. I started calling her “Soft Skin,” as a nickname, ignorant of how It-Puts-the-Lotion-in-the-Basket weird that is. That’s a toe-curling. Level. Of. Awkward.
I was also a scholarship kid from an entirely different part of town. A class system existed in our school, and I was aware of it. So when a nun started humiliating me and berating me in front of my entire class, I didn’t tell anyone, not the school, not my parents.
Sister Sharon’s classroom worked on a demerit system. A demerit was a sheet mimeographed in purple ink that listed the date, the name, of the student, and the infraction. You had to take demerits home to be signed within 48 hours; every day after that they doubled. After five demerits, you received after school detention. Ten: in-school suspension. I got demerits for everything. For talking, not paying attention, laughing too loud. Most of the time, I got demerits for forgetting my homework. I was incredibly forgetful.
Scholarship kids arrived on a sleepy, pre-dawn bus that snaked through the outskirts of town and arrived to Saint Andrew’s way before the other students or staff. They unlocked a classroom and cordoned us off until home room. They didn’t even flip over the chairs from the nightly janitorial work, and none of us were brave enough to do that without permission.
We stood on the high gloss floors, swaying back in forth in silence or whispering to each other, waiting the forty-five minutes for first bell to ring. Once, my book bag snagged on one of these upside-down chairs, knocking it to the floor in a loud clang that reverberated down the hallways. We all froze, wide-eyed. Sister Sharon was there, lightning fast, grabbing me by the ear. She dragged me to sit in the principal’s office. I got a demerit for “horseplay” and another demerit for being tardy to her homeroom.
My parents couldn’t understand how I was getting in trouble so often. My dad turned every demerit into a lecture on how irresponsible and careless I was with my parochial education. Not even my mother, who seemed on some level to understand, could save me every day and from every demerit.
Sister Sharon would yell at me, insult me, call me dumb, or insubordinate. She’d mockingly tell me how shocked she was to be writing my name down yet again. But it wasn’t just her. I could picture my parents later that night, standing at the kitchen table looking incredulous. And disappointed. I’d sit at my desk, silently sobbing. Not saying anything. Praying that I’d be a better person. I got demerits for crying over demerits. I thought I was bad. Catholic-level bad.
That year, we went to confession for the first time. Second in line for the confessional, I told the priest everything. Bless me, Father, for I have sinned, this is my first confession. I told him how I forgot homework, I fought with my little sister, how I tried to be good but I wasn’t. He was charming and sweet. He listened and made jokes about how hard I was on myself. I felt so good, light. This was a fresh start. But when I left the confessional, Sister Sharon grabbed me, her fingers digging in, and shoved me into a pew. By the narrow fierceness of her eyes, I knew I had done something wrong. But what? Later, she said through clenched teeth, “You were in confessional for too long. You kept the class waiting.” Demerit.
I had in-school suspensions on a regular basis. It actually wasn’t too bad. The room they put me in was a tiny attic space in the turret of the brick school. A window faced the church and I spent a lot of time flinging gum at the stained glass windows to see if it would stick. I finished all my work within the first hour and spent the rest of the time drawing and reading. Without my tormentor, I enjoyed the respite.
The only time I regretted being in the tower was when my class would march past for lunch and Sister Sharon would “forget” me. I wouldn’t say a word, knowing that another demerit would itch in the palm of her hand if I left the room without permission. The sounds of their laughter as they walked down the hall and the smell of school pizza made me cry.
The idea that this treatment was unfair flickered in my mind whenever she gave me a demerit. Whenever I felt a protest rising in my throat, I’d squelch it. The scholarship kids were here as a favor. I could be thrown out at any time. It wasn’t like I belonged there. They were just trying to save me from myself. And I couldn’t let down my mom or my dad. Just be quiet and be better. Do better.
Sister Sharon kept track of demerits on a white desk calendar. She entered my name and on the day I received the demerit and she would write down the date when I returned it signed by a parent. Demerits doubled for every day they weren’t returned. I’d gotten a demerit for asking Angela what page we were on in our phonics workbook. I was just trying to make sure I was in the right spot.
It was my 10th demerit. I would be in the tower again and I just didn’t want to go. I felt the corner of my mouth tug down into an involuntary frown, a prelude to me crying. Don’t cry! Don’t be a baby! You’ll just get another demerit!But I only frowned more.
She flipped the calendar back and forth, letting out short “hmms” every couple of seconds. She looked up at me with a smile. “It seems, Jessica, that you have a significantly overdue demerit. One that should have been returned at least three weeks ago. Do you have that demerit?”
I stammered and picked up my book bag and looked through it. I had wads of paper scrunched up at the bottom of my bags, I tried unrolling them but I knew I hadn’t gotten it signed. “I don’t know.”
“It is your responsibility, Jessica. If you don’t have them, it’s your own fault. It’s not my job to remind you. If you forgot, you must pay the consequences.” Her smiling face turned stern as she sat down with the calculator. She punched in numbers and then in cursive in blue ink, wrote out the demerit. “I went easy on you and only counted it 10 days overdue instead of the full twenty-one days. I did you a favor.”
She handed it to me, the small piece of paper curled under her meticulous handwriting. It said one thousand and twenty-four demerits. One thousand and twenty-four.
How many days of in-school suspension that would be? How many times did ten go into one thousand? If ten went into a hundred ten times… Or would they finally just kick me out? Could I be kicked out for an overdue demerit?
Sister Sharon clucked her tongue. “Oh, you’re not going to start crying again, are you?”
I knew if I blinked, the tears would run down my face. I didn’t look up. I knew everyone was watching me. Staring at the girl with a thousand and twenty-four demerits. I heard the whispers already. I wished I could be noble and stoic and not to be the girl who always cried.
“For someone who is on scholarship, I feel like you are taking advantage of everyone’s generosity.”
My skin felt hot, and something was building inside of me. I was trying to push it down, but it kept rising. I looked at the demerit and thought about the kitchen table. I thought about my parents’ faces. How would I explain this to my mother? This wasn’t one demerit. This was a thousand and twenty-four demerits. There was probably no other kid at St. Andrew’s that had ever received a thousand and twenty-four demerits. My mother would have to tell my father.
“You brought this on yourself, Jessica.”
But it was just a mistake. I didn’t DO anything. It’s not my fault. I’m trying. Every day I try so hard and it’s never good enough. Tears and snot streamed down my face. But this time the feeling my body wasn’t dark and sharp but round as it rose to my chest and my throat. I was no longer crying because I wasn’t good enough. I was crying because of how wholly unfair it was.
“Why are you even a teacher if you don’t like kids!” I was standing, screaming at her. I jumped, not recognizing my own voice.
Sister Sharon turned around. Her mouth opened wide.
“Why do you hate me so much? What did I ever do to you to make you hate me so much? Aren’t you a nun? Aren’t you supposed to love everybody? If you hate teaching and you hate kids, can’t you do something else? I am not a bad person! You are the bad person.” Before she could respond, I ran out of the room and to the bathroom.
I sobbed loudly, the cries echoing off the tile walls. I splashed water on my face, crying more but also smiling. Because it felt so good. Good and terrible because I knew that yelling at a nun isn’t good but standing up for myself felt so much better than I thought it could. It felt right.
The girls in my class filed into the restroom, a break after the scene I created. I wasn’t looking at them as I continued to sob and tried to wash my face. I wanted to disappear.
There were gentle pats on my back and the whispers in my ear, “Good job. Wow. That was amazing.” It made me happy all over again. Angie whispered, “Sister Sharon says you have to go to the principal's office.” In the principal’s office, they were already talking about me. My mother was called; she was on her way. I didn’t speak to anyone. I sat and waited.
I imagined how embarrassed my mother must have been when they called her. What did they tell her? She didn’t get to hear my side of the story at all. Her station wagon pulled up.
My mother didn’t get out of the car. My shoulders sank as I slowly plodded down the sidewalk. The sun was shining so bright that I couldn’t look up. I just watched my feet take me to my doom. I pulled the handle of the car door and slid into the passenger’s seat. Without glancing up, I pulled my seatbelt on and fixed my gaze at the vents on the dashboard, memorizing the dust. I didn’t think I had any more tears in me, but just in case, I was willing myself to just concentrate on the dashboard until the yelling stopped.
I waited. There was silence. The anticipation made it worse, but I refused to look at her because I knew I would just start crying. Finally, she started the car. I heard her take a long, deep breath and exhale slowly.
“I have always wanted to tell off a nun.”
I looked over at her and she smiled, patted me on the leg, and we drove home.
It’s not about me; it’s not about me; it’s not about me, I kept telling myself as my boots clomped against the white linoleum in the basement of Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital. Round the corner, past the model train set stretched a long, lighted and mostly empty hallway. My skin sizzled as I launched myself into its wide, glowing mouth. Scanning the numbers on office doors as I passed, I searched for G83.
With my fingers mentally crossed, my heart thudded against my ribcage in competition with the beat of my boots on the hard floor. Certainly the pre-op room for children having their appendix out could not possibly be the same pre-op room for children having complex open-heart surgery...