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Kicking the habit

(Nice nuns from the film “The Sound of Music”)

I suppose there are some teachers out there who realize that, in the throes of their venomous behavior, there might be a student or two who might grow up to write about them.  I do not think this occurred to Miss C,  who was my grammar and junior high school instructor.  She might not have believed it of me, a bit of a quiet, backwards sort of child who braided her shoelaces instead of tying them.

Miss C began as Sister Diane, a towering, large set nun whose enormous breasts jutted out like mountain peaks from behind her long and grey nun’s habit.  She came to us after our more-than-sweet 2nd grade, mini skirt wearing teacher left us mid-semester to get married.  Sister D was the icy cold that wind that sweeps in after an afternoon of sunshine and cool breeze, or like the express mail nun of one’s demonic Catholic nightmares.  She wore standard issue black rimmed glasses that could scarcely hide those large brown eyes that small children could only identify as a weapon capable of shooting out pinpoint lasers of meanness.  She had her favorites, students that she coddled with the sweetness of a witch staring at a delectable evening meal, but made doubly sure to use her least favorite students as dart boards.

She ignored me most times, but would call on me whenever I was sure not to know the answer to questions in math.  This would, of course, mean that I was always called on to answer math questions since I was a very poor math student.  Once I would timidly answer my math question, there was the usual Catholic retribution which happened so often that instead of school work, I began to draw pictures of Snoopy all over my homework.  My mother got called in for this, of course, and my nice little Snoopy stencil ruler was removed from my pencil case.

There was on particular day, however, when Sister D was looking for a Catholic volunteer to participate in an experiment back at the nun’s home.  Since I was one of only a few Catholic students, Sister D gave me the sort of brilliant smile that had been reserved for one of her favorite students.  I immediately raised my hand, and Sister D chose me.  She escorted me to the back entrance of the nun’s house, a very large and grand old 2 story Victorian home.  I remember walking past my favorite pussy willow potted plant before being led into the kitchen.  Sister D turned and went out the door, leaving me with a strange, young nun with a very friendly face.

We went down to the basement, where the nun seated my little body into a chair.  “I don’t want you do anything but stare straight ahead until I tell you to stop.  It will get dark in here,” she smiled.  I nodded my understanding, and she shut all the basement curtains until there was only a small pinpoint of light.  I could hear her leave the room, and I was left alone in the darkness, too scared to do anything but stare straight ahead for what seemed like an eternity.

This is, of course, where someone in Texas would start calling for the electric chair.  Leaving a 7-year-old in a pitch black room for a long period of time as part of a science experiment is a bad idea, and it caused me to be afraid of the dark for a very long time.  As expected, someone with my crazy imagination began to wait for ghosts or Martians to appear, and a cavalcade of old Twilight Zone episodes began to parade through mind.  The nun most likely believed that I had not yet been exposed to such television programming, but she did not know my father  and of his propensity for filling my mind with absurdities and science fiction.  Nonetheless, that long period of darkness was terrorizing.  I was too afraid to move my eyes for fear of the legendary Morning School spanking machine, a mythical device I had imagined stored in the janitor’s closet.  I remained still and obedient until the nun returned, thanked me and sent me out into the school yard with instructions to return to class.

I wanted to run far, far away.

Sister D would later come back as Miss C when our school embraced cell type teaching that would put us with instructors who specialized in a certain curriculum.  Miss C had traded in her penguin suit for short skirts and tight blouses or dresses that showcased her enormous breasts, from which her lacy Jane Russell missile bra would make an appearance whenever she moved.  Discarding the nun’s outfit, however, did nothing to lighten her oppressive personality.  In fact, she seemed as mean as ever, and we were now subject to singing classes where she blew into her melodica and moved her hand up and down in accordance with a song’s pitch.  She began to put together end-of-semester Catholic musical showcases that were so unpopular with the students that we were told that report cards would only be distributed to parents at these events.  For my parents, who both worked some form of a night shift, this was some sort of three hour off-key musical punishment which only resulted in my mediocre report card.

Miss C was also our English teacher, and a rather terrible one at that.  She continually rewarded students whose work near plagerized popular stories she read in class.  There were several of us who chose to write original stories, but we were rarely acknowledged for our work.  I am not sure if she understood that some of us were far too clever to figure out her modus operandi, but I remember discussing our mutual dislike of Miss C and her teaching methods with several school friends after school.

While she was a frustrating teacher, there were glimpses of a more human Miss C who was trying to break away from the nunnery past to become part of the dating world.  She once sent me to clean all the cups in the teacher’s lounge as part of my Catholic duty, and I stood at the tiny sink with bubbles around my hands as a speaker guest from the 49ers sat at a small desk speaking to another instructor.  I remember watching Miss C sweep into the room wearing a tight suede short skit, a light blue blouse and a strand of heavy beads strung around a leather string.  She walked up to the 49er with hand extended in introduction, said, “Hi!  I’m Diane,” and thrust her breasts out in his face as if making a sacrificial offering.

It was that moment of epiphany, that live demonstration in life, that was created for the sole purpose of allowing me to understandd the potential power of breasts.  It was a lesson quickly lost, however, as she continued to sidle up and move closer to the poor 49er, whose seemed embarrassed.   For some reason, I felt a bit embarrassed for Miss C, and wondered if she should return to the nunnery.  She was someone I had long disliked, but I could understand her social awkwardness.  Unfortunately, I doubt she could.  I stayed in that room watching her for as long as I could until she gave me that familiar glare, and I scurried out as fast as I could.

There were times, however, when she would delicately allow us to mature into our teenage years.  She would allow us to close the door and turn off the lights for our mini classroom dances, and acted as bouncer when the kids from other classrooms wanted to watch us dance.  Sometimes, it was good to have the natural pitbull in one’s corner.

Unfortunately, she followed us to Cathedral Junior High School.  She would, however, snag a very popular teacher at the school as a husband.  When their engagement was announced, Miss C and Mr. R were probably surprised at the amount of shocked looks and “…it’s not too late to back out now!..” warnings that were issued to the popular male teacher.  Nonetheless, our particular class would be out of her hair soon enough.

I sometimes wonder if Miss C every looks back and has any regrets as to her behavior towards any of us.  While there are instructors who are tough and demand discipline, Miss C was just someone who acted on her own sadistic whimsy.  She was my English teacher for three years, never once telling me that I had any writing talent.  In fact, she was so adept at giving my mother the impression that I had no skills whatsoever that I was no longer pressured to study.  It was a 6th grade TA who finally told me that I should pursue a career in writing, and that finally inspired me to start doing well in school.

I was not the worst of Miss C’s casualties, however.  That honor would be bestowed upon Lamont, a classmate since Kindergarten. Lamont was the only one of us who had ever taken acting lessons, and Miss C made him do an interpretive dance to “Bridge Over Troubled Water” in fourth grade.  This is something that Lamont never lived down while we were in grammar school, and I was careful never to remind him of this as we became close friends in junior high school.

I did see Lamont at the bus stop once when we were in our twenties, and I asked him if he remembered dancing to “Bridge Over Troubled Water”.”  Lamont remembered the dance and the humiliation of having to act so forlorn and sad for the entire 3+ plus minutes of the song.  From my standpoint, however, Lamont got to do that dance because he was always one of Miss C’s most favored students. a little gentleman who was very intelligent and quite talented.  He had special qualities that Miss C wanted to showcase, even though the end result would be my own lifelong recollection of a sad boy in a short sleeve shirt, casual pants and a giant afro dragging his foot along the stage to the verses “…when you’re weary…”

Somewhere between expletives, Lamont did mention wanting to meet Miss C again. His reason?  There was something within him that went far beyond the shame of having to do an interpretive dance to “Bridge Over Troubled Water” in front of an entire student body and their parents.  Lamont long resented being treated as a favored student, and wanted Miss C to understand that it was not right to isolate and treat other children so poorly.

Open your books and take note.

(Thank you to Joanna Lee for proofing this blog post!)

(2014) Slow Suburban Death. All right reserved.

Published inCatholicChildhoodSan FranciscoShort StoriesUncategorized

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