My routine at St. Mary’s was fairly predictable. I’d get myself into some kind of trouble, usually something idiotic like picking on someone, or screwing around during class. And that really got under Sister’s skin, to the point where the only thing she was capable of was trying to make me stop, while the rest of the class just sat there like mannequins. And I exacerbated that situation by playing it off as if it were funny as hell. I’d get on roll over something ridiculous, some antic which usually comprised laughing my ass off at something that was not in the least bit funny. And you know, once you start down that road there ain’t a damn thing you can do to stop it. Not tears of laughter. Not snot. Not nothing. And I had no fear of consequences. In fact, consequences never even entered my mind. The only thing that really mattered was my wayward belief that I was entertaining the whole class and driving Sister nuts. And the thing that made the whole fiasco even more fun was that I had boys in the class who were absolutely at the ready to join my disruption. That was it. We’d be off into that magical, uncontrollable place where only two things were possible. One was to laugh absolutely uncontrollably. The other was to try as hard as you could to stop laughing, which was of course impossible.
That always resulted in a call home from Sister. At home, I’d catch a beating from my mother (before my father got home, of course), and then I’d have to listen holy hell from my old man who actually had no real idea what was going on, and absolutely no interest in finding out what it was. He was just running his mouth at me, I guess because he thought he had to, being “the father,” and all.
And of course, I’d also receive some kind of punishment at school. Like staying after to clean the chalk-board, or write a hundred times I will not talk in school, or write a thousand word essay on why the things I did were so bad. A thousand words seemed utterly impossible to me. I’d write a sentence, count the words, and forge on.
I recall one of my strategies to get my essays up to one thousand words, which seemed impossible. I’d start bringing in all my family members and write about how bad they would feel if they knew the trouble I was always getting into. Something like, And if they knew that I was getting in trouble every week, all my cousins – Susan, Anthony, Ralphie, Terry, Sandy, Pam, Angela, Rose, and all my aunts and uncles – Uncle Angelo, Uncle Ray, Uncle Joey…. You know. Like that. On and on until I got to a thousand words. It was all so stupid. All these ridiculous punishments at school, and all the senseless, vicious beatings at home only made me worse. But nobody, not one single adult was capable of figuring that out. It seemed like the only person trying to figure things out was me. It really did feel that way. What I mean is that every time I got into trouble I would promise myself that I’d do better from then on. No more trouble. I was going to really try hard to do my work, and be nice to the Sisters, and not act like an idiot at recess. Seems easy enough, right? And it might have been, but I never mastered it. Maybe a day or two would go by where things were quiet. But sooner or later – mostly sooner – I’d find myself back in the middle of some kind of drama that was going to really make a mess of everything again.
Here’s a perfect example. I don’t remember what I had done to earn the “honor” of having to sit in the middle of the kindergarten class, in one of those tiny desks, feeling like a giant, a big, huge, embarrassed giant, but that’s where I was for one whole day. The next day, I returned to my own class after a full day of sitting in kindergarten on a miniature chair, in among all those little kids who smelled like Campbell’s soup, and where I was a hulk whose only purpose all day long was to play the fool for the kids, and the wise-guy for Sister Anthony Mary, the kindergarten teacher. I had been convicted – again – of some crime against St. Mary. Bad attitude. Talking back. Swearing. Fighting at recess. And when I think about it, humiliation was the favorite punishment of the nuns.
They loved things like slapping your hand with a ruler – in front of the class. Or making you stand in front of the room for being chatty while Sister was “teaching.” Or walking around the classroom and inspecting the back of every boy’s head, poking and messing up any boy who had a Vasoline Petroleum Jelly “duck’s ass” sculpted on the back of his head. And here’s a good one. There was a big indentation in the asphalt “play ground” at St. Mary’s. When it rained, that indentation filled up like a small pond. And oh what a temptation. We were drawn to it like mosquitoes. We could slam a foot down in the shallow part and splash eight or nine kids with one good stomp. We could walk around it, jostling each other, and pushing and shoving until someone inevitably stepped into the water, got soaked, and had to try and make it back to the classroom and through the afternoon without Sister catching on.
And here’s a perfect illustration of a humiliation type punishment Sister liked to dole out. The kind of punishment that reminded the criminal of what his infraction was, and reminded him, too, to never do it again.
One time, Tommy fell into the puddle. I don’t mean he “stepped in.” I mean he was running around like a knucklehead and he fell into the massive puddle, all of him, and he was soaking wet, head to toe. And yet, incredibly, Sister had missed Tommy’s drama. I remember getting back in the classroom and Sister finally noticing soaked Tommy.
“Thomas, may I ask what happened to you?”
Tommy said, in a voice so quiet it was nearly inaudible, “I fell in the puddle.” I mean, man, you could hardly hear him.
So Sister says, “Open your mouth, use the voice God gave you, and tell me again what happened to you. This time so we can all hear it.
Well, I think Sister kind of ticked Tommy off because he nearly shouted, “Sister, I fell in the puddle, Sister!”
“You come up here right now and take my shawl,” Sister hissed. She was holding out her black, serge shawl, heavy and warm and probably four or five feet square.
“Here,” she said, “take it. “Now go into the cloak room, get out of those wet clothes, wrap yourself in my shawl, and bring your wet clothes out here.”
Tommy disappeared into the darkness of the cloak room and we all watched the door with great anticipation. Soon enough Tommy emerged, holding the shawl against his nakedness with one arm, and holding his jumble of wet clothes with the other. His face wore the frightened, humiliated look of the mortified. And of course, how would a class of dopey eighth graders respond? We all started snickering immediately, naturally.
“Hush!” Sister snapped. And to Tommy she said, “Now drape your wet things over the radiator and let them dry.” Tommy walked to the radiator and began the awkward task of trying to hold up Sister’s shawl around him with one arm, while at the same time placing his wet clothes over the radiator with the other arm. He looked pathetic, I remember, especially when he had to drape his underwear on the radiator. Oh man, all I kept thinking was, “I’m glad that’s not me!”
What I recall most clearly was his skinny arm across his chest holding up the shawl; his arm seemed to glow against the black of Sister’s shawl. And then, at the other end were his white, bony legs and his big, long feet sticking out. Everyone thought it was pretty funny. Everyone except Tommy, of course.
“Hush up this instant,” Sister reprimanded.
And then came Tommy’s punishment for being a bad boy and falling into the huge puddle in the playground.
Sister began. “Thomas, your clothes should be fairly dry by the end of the day. Now you come and stand up here, next to my desk, while we wait for them to dry.”
Tommy’s face was red with embarrassment, but was also smiling that smile you smile when what you’re really doing is trying not to cry. It was awful, it really was. Tommy stood there, in front of the class for the entire afternoon, probably two hours, shifting his weight from leg to leg, occasionally smiling that humiliated smile, changing arms to hold up the shawl. It was a dirty trick. There were any number of ways that Sister might have handled this situation, but she took the one that would cause the most pain, the most suffering, the most permanent humiliation.
Anyway, like I said, every time I’d return from some trouble, I’d make a pact with myself. I am going to do better. I am NOT going to be bad. But that never lasted. Never.
Anyway, that day I returned from sitting in kindergarten happened to be spelling test day. Spelling tests and spelling bees were probably my favorite things to do in school. In fact, they were probably the only things I liked to do in school. They were so easy for me and I’d usually get a 100, which made me feel so good, so smart, so much like a normal kid. And my spelling tests would also be the neatest in the class too because I was the class Penmanship Champ. I liked proving to Sister Maria Richard that I wasn’t a complete loser, or a goose, as she liked to call me.
And sure enough. When she handed back the tests, mine was perfect. Flawless penmanship. Every word spelled correctly. And in her looping, dancing handwriting at the top of the page she put a big red A+ for penmanship, and next to that an opulent 100 for spelling, the two zeroes connected as if they were two cursive O’s.
I felt as good as I’d felt in days.
On the mile walk home, I carried the paper. I didn’t crumple it or fold it. Didn’t hide it away inside a book. I carried it so it wouldn’t get wrinkled. And I kept looking at it.
A+ 100. Nice!
When I got home, somewhere around three, I placed the test in the middle of the kitchen table where my mother couldn’t miss it. She’d be home from work in about an hour, and it would be the first thing she’d see. She wouldn’t be able to miss it.
She was never in a good mood, my mother, always swearing at me, and threatening to send me away, or beating me. Every day. Every single day.
But today would be different. A+ 100!! That would surely change her attitude.
I called her at work. That had to be the very first thing I did every day when I got home. I had to call her immediately and let her know I was home. She said she wanted to be sure I was safe. I think she just wanted a chance to scream at me for nothing. I hated calling her. She’d always start right away.
“Make sure you vacuum the living room.”
“And make your bed.”
“Sweep the garage. That garage better be clean when I get there.”
“Uh-huh. I will.”
“Are you listening to me?!”
“Huh? Are you listening to me!!?”
She called them my “chores.” I couldn’t do anything after school until I finished my “chores.” And every day she had a new list – vacuum the den, mow the lawn, take out the garbage cans, bring the garbage cans in, sweep the drive-way, sweep the garage. She rotated them. They repeated. I hated them. I just wanted to go outside and play.
Well, on A+ 100 day, I did a lousy job sweeping the garage. I knew I did. I was in a hurry. I was always in a hurry. That’s what my father would screech at me all the time.
“You’re always in a goddam hurry. That’s why everything you do is half-assed.”
Then she’d have to chime in, of course.
“That’s why everything you do turns to shit. You’re always in a great big rush for what?! Huh?! To go out and play? Do it right the first time, for Chrissakes, and we won’t have to go through all this shit!”
I was in a hurry that day. I felt so good about the test that I just felt like playing. I did do a lousy job sweeping the garage. I knew that. And I knew I’d get slapped around for it when she got home. I knew that too, and so I played, but with a vague sense of foreboding nagging at me. That always happened. I always worried about her coming home. Every minute, when I was outside playing, I was secretly worried about her coming home and starting in on me. Most days I wished she wouldn’t come home at all.
When she got home that day, she went in through the garage. Not two minutes later she’s yelling out the kitchen door.
“Johnnie!! John—–nie!! Get in here right now!!”
I used to wonder if the kids in the neighborhood ever had any idea what would happen next. If they ever talked about it among themselves, or maybe told their parents. For the longest time I just thought what was happening to me was normal. You know. That it happened to every kid. Until I realized it did not, of course.
“I thought I told you to sweep the garage!”
“I did!” She mocked me. “I did! Like hell you did!”
“But I did.”
“The garage is a goddam mess. Now get out there and do it right.”
I wasn’t in the mood.
I yelled back at her, “I did do it right! I did do it right!”
“Get out there, now!”
“Get out there, you dirty rotten little son of a bitch!”
And she swung at me with the broom she was holding, but she missed.
I ran for my room, snatching my spelling test off the table as I went by, and in one agile motion, I slide under my bed.
She followed, flailing the broom-handle back and forth at me under the bed, but I was squeezed all the way into the dark, low corner, up against the wall.
“Get out here, you little bastard!” She was out of breath. I just pressed harder against the wall and started to cry.
Then I tore my test to shreds, crying and tearing, crying and tearing.
“Wait ‘til your father gets home, you no good bastard!”
That threat never bothered me because if he came home at all, nothing ever happened. What was going to happen to me was happening now.
She pounded out of my room, slammed the door, and screamed, “And don’t come out until I say so! You hear me?”
When I was sure she had lost interest in beating me up I slithered out, went to my desk, got some Scotch tape, and slid back under my bed. I then proceeded to try and put my test back together, a wrinkly, torn up, good for nothing puzzle.
I finally got it all taped together, but it looked bad. It was a mess. Big spaces between some of the pieces. All wrinkled. I ruined it. I fucked up again.
You know, even way back then, as young as I was, I think a part of me realized that taping that test back together was an attempt at putting myself back together, something I have tried a million times. And I’ve always done a rotten job. To this day, I still wish I hadn’t ripped that test up. But I was thinking, “OK, you’re so worried about the dirt on the garage floor that you didn’t even see this wonderful thing I’ve done, even though it was right there in front of you on the kitchen table. Well, now you’ll never see it, you bitch!”
The minute I did it I regretted it. It looked so ugly, all wrinkled and pieced together with tape. I even thought that maybe I could glue it back together. But the damage was done. I knew that, and I was sorry I’d done it. It’s just that I wanted so badly to hurt her.
John L. Stanizzi is author of the collections Ecstasy Among Ghosts, Sleepwalking, Dance Against the Wall, After the Bell, Hallelujah Time!, High Tide – Ebb Tide, Four Bits, Chants, and Sundowning. His brand new collection, POND, published by “impspired” in Ireland will be out in October. Besides Praxis, John’s poems have appeared in Prairie Schooner, The Cortland Review, American Life in Poetry, The New York Quarterly, Paterson Literary Review, The Caribbean Writer, Blue Mountain Review, Rust + Moth, Tar River, Poetlore, Rattle, Hawk & Handsaw, and many others. His work has been translated into Italian and appeared in El Ghibli, The Journal of Italian Translations Bonafini, Poetarium, and others. His nonfiction has been published in Stone Coast Review, Ovunque Siamo, Adelaide, Scarlet Leaf, Literature and Belief, and Evening Street. A former New England Poet of the Year, John is the Flash Fiction Editor of Abstract Magazine TV, and he has read at venues all over New England, including the Mystic Arts Café, the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival, Hartford Stage, and many others. For many years, John coordinated the Fresh Voices Poetry Competition for Young Poets at Hill-Stead Museum, Farmington, CT. He is also a teaching artist for the national recitation contest, Poetry Out Loud. A former New England Poet of the Year, and Wesleyan University Etherington Scholar, John teaches literature at Manchester Community College in Manchester, CT and he lives with his wife, Carol, in Coventry.