Friday, May 15, 2015

Sister Jane

When I was in the fifth grade, I had a Catholic nun for a teacher. This might pass as unsurprising in other times and places--afterall, I was in a Catholic elementary school--but she was the only sister who taught and still wore a habit. She was, by far, the worst elementary school teacher I ever had (and not for lack of competition). There were other women who taught that were also in the order, though they did not don penguin suits each day. Sister Jane was going to be the last bastion of a time when education and enormous headwear were indistinguishable.

She would never have portrayed herself as horrible, thinking herself rather worldly and sage. She talked of youth as a globetrotter, visiting Egypt by smelly camelback and trying to buy a hamburger in France and asking the waiter, 'Where's the beef?' (presumably in French, and I guess the patty was smaller than she expected?) It was all very condescending, as if Egyptians should cater their transportation to western naïfs and that France was obligated to produce American cuisine on demand to transient milliners.

She was old school, like the 830s. A classmate of mine's mother had had her as a teacher when she herself was a youth, and told stories of how the sister would use a ruler to discipline the knuckles of the inattentive. By the 1980s that was illegal (in California anyway), so she devised other methods to berate her charge, methods that would make even Dr. Harry Harlow raise an eyebrow.

She had us arrange the classroom desks by columns. At the conclusion of each week, everyone rotated their desks to the spot behind them. Those in the back moved to the front. For an entire grade, I stared at the back of a girl who was several inches taller than I--I could only see the blackboard when I was in front (being short and male was no excuse). I lacked corrective lenses at the time, but I sympathized with my classmates whose prescriptions mights not be up to the task as they progressed farther to the back.

In a school of eight grades, two classes per grade, hers alone did not have a free recess. Each break we sorted ourselves into teams and played kickball or softball, alternating each week. No other activity was permitted. Teams were chosen each Monday with two team captains--selected alphabetically, like our seating--picking out students by calling their name aloud to come over to their side of the classroom. One student was chosen as the referee and score-keeper, and this student made a note of the teams. If I wasn't a captain or the referee, I was chosen last; Ever single time; For a whole year. Granted, I was a shitty sportsball player--then and now--but Sister Jane never raised hair nor habit despite the fact that mid-year, I was crying midway through the ritual hazing.

(There was a boy, Dean, who was frequently chosen second-to-last. Not every time, but most of the time. When I was team captain--which happened twice if I remember correctly--I always picked him first. When he was team captain, he picked me last.)

I liked being the referee because it meant I didn't have to play stupid sportsball. I got to sit on the side lines and just call safe and out at home-plate and keep track of the score. Often there were disputes as to whether a runner was safe or out.  The usual shouting would ensue, but I can't recall a single time when a referee changed their ruling because Eric or Patrick (it was usually Patrick, and just because it was that sort of school, Patrick was of course a hot-headed freckled redhead) didn't like the call. I remember once calling "safe",  and Patrick and the rest of the outfield getting irate at my call. So I did what I always did, I put my fingers in my ears and sat cross-legged with my eyes closed. This time, Patrick was having none of this, and he got into my face, and shouted so that I was forced to hear his spit.  All the other boys in the outfield did the same. I was mobbed, kicked, and had the scorekeeper chalkboard yanked from me and used to hit my head. (The at-bat team didn't defend me, not that I blame them. In retrospect, it was a shitty call). Though bruised, I eventually got back to a seated position, and indicated that the next kicker should proceed to the plate. Patrick threw the chalkboard onto the ground so hard that it cracked. I kept on keeping score. Later in the classroom, Sister Jane blamed me for the broken chalk board--and I wasn't the sort who held any preconceptions about playground honor--so I ratted out all the boys on the team who attacked me. Sister Jane declared it wash. No one was punished who hadn't already been beaten.

But the worst thing that ever happened, the thing I can't scrub from my mind no matter how much CBT I use or alcohol I consume, is when she taught us the history of slavery in America.

Slavery bad. Mm 'kay? How hard could that have been to teach? Sister Jane must have had a confederate general in her lineage, or maybe she was just as asshole, but she deemed it appropriate that the best way to teach 5th graders the history of slavery in America was to appoint three students to argue the position of the North and three students to argue the position of South in a mock debate in front of the classroom.

Mock debates weren't something that we did regularly in the classroom. Or at all.

It was bad enough that three students had to come up with arguments for why slavery was a good thing, but to make matters worse, those students had no say in whether they even wanted to participate in the debate.

Sister Jane selected three white girls to argue the position of the North. And since she was a sadist, she picked three men to represent the South: me, Eric, and Paul.

A word about me. I'm white. And in fifth grade I was fairly blond. In addition to being short and wimpy, I was clamoring for nerd-of-the-year: I read all the books in the school's meager library, I taught myself Latin, and I fantasied about Space Camp.

About Eric. He was hispanic, but white enough to pass for maybe a Spanish slave holder. He was a big sportsball enthusiast. Also, he was as dumb as rocks.

And last, Paul. He was a big guy, both stout and tall (compared to me, anyway). He had a perfect attendance record every year of elementary school. He wasn't the smartest kid in class, but damn if he wasn't always there. Paul was also the only African-American student in our class.

We had a couple days to prepare. Because I wanted a good grade--not like I was going to win any new friends, so might as well at least get all the points I could--I tried to rally Paul and Eric to my cause. I could teach Eric to repeat a few stock phrases, but he'd be useless as an ad-libber. But Paul flat-out told me, "No."

"No, what?"

"No, I'm not playing."

"What about your grades?"

"I don't care. I'm not going to pretend to be a slave holder for a grade."

So it was up to me.

And boy, did I get up there and argue futilely for the dominion of the South. I remember feeling hot in my face, and sweating, and turning to Eric and Paul for help as the North failed to sympathize with my economic evidence. Paul sat sit still, looking down, refusing to engage in this inanity. Eric had forgotten even the two lines I'd had him memorize.

Though our opponents only argument was "Slavery is wrong," and a few other platitudes, they won the debate in a landslide.

How do I know they won? After the charade was over, Sister Jane asked us all to vote for the North or the South. Though it was supposed to be with our heads down, I peaked. I and Eric were the only ones to vote for the South. Paul voted for the North.  To this day, I wish I had, too.


Patrick didn't return to our school the following year.

In the 7th grade, Paul vandalized the Snack Shack, a (slightly) subsidized milk and Funyon dispensary that operated during the lunch hour. He and some other malcontents got drunk, broke the padlock, and drank or poured out all of the milk. Relevant, I think, because the snack shack was Sister Jane's responsibility, and her despondency at its sacking was felt throughout the school. I didn't learn who the culprits were until over two decades later.

I developed a rather nasty fear of public speaking that I didn't overcome until my late 20s (thank you Toastmasters!). An old, prissy neighbor out of the blue says--seriously, I was like, "How's the weather?" and she's like--"The Southern culture is lovely. It's a shame what they did to them in the Civil War." I shook my head, and said, "Slavery was bad," to which she replied, "yes, but..." and stopped talking. Also, at some point, I realized that I'm an atheist.

Sister Jane, old as fuck, finally died. A charity golf tournament is still held in her honor.