My Year in Sister School: Part II, The Punishment

IN WHICH I partially figure out how some things worked.

Ninth Grade Pillorying

My buddy Chuck was told that his hall monitor services were “no longer needed” because he’d been lax in handing out yellow slips to malefactors. His sudden replacement by Callahan made me wary, so I skulked past him, but he nailed me anyway. I had just turned my head towards Diane Lester and smiled at her. She smiled back and I said “hi.” That must have pissed him off, because she was short, cute, and available.

I liked Diane. We often chatted at lunch, and more than once she made fun of my sailboat tie clip. I’d call her “shortstop,” even though she didn’t play baseball. I thought it was the funniest thing I’d come up with all year, and unfortunately it probably was. As far as I know, she never looked twice at Larry Callahan.

The Sailboat that Carried off the Heart of Diane Lester

So green-eyed Callahan issued me my second offense for “mumbling,” which was – technically – still talking in the halls. This time for punishment I was sent “into the fields.” The nunnery next door had its own huge vegetable garden, and it was infested with weeds and destructive insects. Like medieval serfs, class miscreants were made to break up the tough rocky ground and get rid of all the lambsquarters, pigweed, and buckhorn, as well as to squash any grasshoppers we could catch. It was the hardest work I’d done since excavating the fallout shelter.

A few weeks later Callahan pulled me over again.

What now?

“Bates, get over here. Gotta ask you something.”

I walked over and looked him straight between the eyes, right where Clint Eastwood would probably aim in a thrill-packed episode of Rawhide.

“What’d you get for number four?”

“Four? Which one was that?”

“The one about the council.”

“Oh. Council of Trent, 1545.”[1]

“Damn! Not the Council of Nicea?”[2]

“No, that was in 325 AD.”

“Tsk tsk, too bad for you.” He took out his detention pad and started writing.

“What’s this for?”

“What do you think? Talking in the hall.”

“But you. . . .”

“You want another one? We’re allowed to give up to three, you know.”

Another one wouldn’t have mattered. Three was the jackpot. Almost immediately I was reported to “the office” and my parents were contacted by Sister Superior and instructed to attend a parent-staff meeting the very next day “of utmost importance.” That night my father demanded to know what it was about, and I said I didn’t know but we’d certainly find out soon. That ticked him off so much he didn’t let me go out after supper to fly my screechy gasoline-powered model airplane.

Next day during third period, the loudspeaker boomed out my name and everyone in class looked at me as if I—oh, I don’t know, I was too nervous for similes. The booming staticky box told me to report to the principal’s office. My stomach suddenly tightened up. My mind couldn’t stop whirling and inventing scenarios like the following.

Peter Bates, these three detention slips prove you’re a little too fond of flaunting the rules. That is something a typical heathen would do.

It is?

Are you a heathen, Peter?

No, I hate heathens!

We’ll see about that. Heathens are bold impudent beasts. But perhaps you really are a devout Catholic boy. You will prove this by doing an appropriate act of penance.

What’s that?

For the rest of the year, five weeks we calculate, you will toil in our garden after school two hours each day, rain or shine.

Oh no!

May God have mercy on your soul.

Actually, the outcome ended up being worse than that.

I walked as slowly as I could to Sister Superior’s office, but got there too soon anyway.

My parents beat me there. My father had on one of his four-inch-wide, red and white, diagonally striped ties, and my mother wore her pink church outfit, topped by her best pink pillbox hat. They were probably expecting a priest or two, but the only one facing us was Sister Superior. She nodded to them across a wide mahogany table, thanked them for coming in “at such short notice,” and motioned them to sit down. I was to remain in a courtroom witness-sized chair about five feet from the table. She played with her chin as if she had a beard and every so often twitched her mouth after hearing an answer.

Sister Superior was Sister Rita Perpetua and some classmate who studied these things told me she was named after Saint Rita of Cascia (1381–1457). I’d looked her up in Lives of the Saints and found that she was into “mortification of the flesh.” Statues and pictures showed her with a bleeding wound on her forehead, which is supposed to indicate a “partial stigmata.” I looked hard at Sister Rita to see if she had one too, but the white serre-tête covered her forehead. Didn’t matter. I knew it was there.

Saint Rita of Cascia Busy at Work

“Mr. and Mrs. Bates, I am pleased you could come in right away. You seem like respectable, intelligent people, so you must know how important discipline is at a learning institute such as ours.” She spread out both of her hands, as if she really meant “mine.”

“Yes, yes of course,” my father said. “That’s true everywhere, isn’t it? For example, where I work. . . .”

“And you might have read how educators have shown that boys like yours tend to be more of a discipline problem than girls of the same age. Not their fault, of course. Just the way they’ve . . . been created. Be that as it may, we consider disturbing school discipline as one of the worst offenses a pupil can commit.”

Suddenly I got furious and leapt out of my seat. “It’s all Larry Callahan’s fault! He’s mad at me because. . . .”

Without looking at me she held up her right index finger and shut me up as quickly as if she’d flipped a huge cork into my mouth. A cork that tasted crumbly and moldy.

“I’m sure,” my mother said, “that Peter is very sorry for that last outburst.”

I said nothing.

“Very, very sorry,” said my mother.

“He d. . . d. . . darn well better be,” said my father.

“Yes,” I finally said. “I’m very sorry.”

“Yes what?” The nun leaned toward me and glared, as if spotting a spaghetti stain on my chin.

“Yes, Sister.”

“Yes, Sister what?”

“Yes, Sister Superior.”

She turned back to address my parents. “And I am sure that you both will agree that anyone who breaks this discipline, no matter how much penitence they display, must inevitably face the consequences.”

“Of course,” my mother said in a quavering voice. “I, uh we understand.”

Oh no, she going to start crying?

“That goes without saying,” said my father. He’d shrunk down in his seat, as if he were getting a bad performance review from his own superior. Which, in his case, was no one because he ran his own business.

For now.

Without even saying “excuse me” or “be back soon,” Sister Superior got up and went through a small doorway in the back and closed the door. I could hear some mumbling but could make out none of the words. I wondered if she were a soundproof room, like in the spy show The Third Man[3]. If they were deciding to throw me out, I’d have no choice but to go to Danvers High School the next year. I was five weeks short of finishing this year, so would they make me repeat the whole year or just these weeks? Would I have to go to summer school? I pictured myself walking into my first DHS home room with all the kids laughing at me. “There’s the kid that got tossed out of Fishwick!” Then I’d have to schedule a whole new set of daily fights with the worst of them to defend my honor. Or maybe they didn’t make fight appointments at DHS, they just pounced on you without warning.

What seemed like ten hours later, Sister Superior came back into the room and sat down.

“Mr. and Mrs. Bates, I’m glad we’ve had this little talk. I feel that now we thoroughly understand each other,” she said, looking down at the report. “Happily, I have some good news for you. Peter will not be expelled at this time. Since this is his first infraction, he will experience only three days suspension from school duties. During this period, he is expected to reflect upon his actions.”

“Oh sweet Jesus,” said my mother.

After flashing a split-second smile, Sister Superior stared straight ahead for twenty long seconds. She said nothing. She had suddenly become one of the expressionless officials in Goya’s aquatint from Los Caprichos. That could be me on the dock, wearing a capirote hat.

Goya, Los Caprichos. Plate 23. Aquellos polbos (Those specks of dust)

Sister Superior folded her arms behind her white wimple, straightened up and took a deep breath. “Naturally, he must make up any schoolwork he misses when he returns.”

“Oh Mother of God,” said my mother. I expected her to cross herself, but she didn’t. Not that it didn’t occur to her.

“Thank you, Sister Superior,” said my father, now almost two feet tall. “Thank you very, very much.”

She waved her left hand to the side.

“And I’m sure it goes without saying that if this type of behavior continues, there will be harsh consequences. Very harsh consequences. Thank you for coming in.” She stood up and walked out.

It was over. We quickly left and my father held the corridor door open for my mother.

On the ride home he suddenly turned around at a stoplight and said, his index finger two inches from my face, “You fuck this up, I’ll take that $250 tuition out of your hide.”

My mother, maybe for the first and only time ever, completely ignored such profanity.

My suspension wasn’t at all what I’d thought it would be. It wasn’t sweet and carefree like three days off from school. The first day, all I wanted to do was throttle Callahan for getting me into this mess. I fantasized about waiting for him after school and jumping him. It was a first-rate fantasy, stellar, actually. It made me happy, I patted it on the back and called it “ole buddy,” and we almost became great pals. Then it deserted me overnight, leaving behind a yawning pit of boredom. I had no idea what I was supposed to do. I couldn’t watch TV because my parents had shut it off and locked it.

Facsimile of Our Locking TV Cabinet

They blamed “zany” shows like The Twilight Zone for being partially responsible for my bad behavior. Since neither its stories nor the plot line of my life made a whole lot of sense to them, they were convinced there was some kind of connection. Worse than no TV, however, was the Demon of Solitude. He howled at me hour upon hour, and pressed his hollow face against my bedroom window at night. He knew there was nobody to talk to, because everybody else was at school. He even barged in on one of my dreams, just when I was about to kiss Diane Lester. The school didn’t even give me any homework to occupy me for at least a little while.

On the second day my mother came into my room.

“Peter, you know we’re doing this for your own good, don’t you? Just so you know that.”

She spoke extra slow without raising her voice. She must have been really mad.

“So your father and I thought it would be good if you had a little task to do. We would like you to come up with three solid lessons that you’ve learned from this suspension. Here’s a pad of paper. I’d like you to give them to me tomorrow.”

“Three things! That’s too many.”

“What did you say?”

“I might be able to come up with one. But three!”

She tightened her lips and squinted. “Three things. And they better be good ones.”

I didn’t need a whole day. I’d already learned lots of stuff. I’d learned you can get in trouble even if you didn’t get caught doing anything. I learned that people don’t listen to your side even if you’re right. I learned that turning the other cheek never works and that standing down bullies like Callahan does.

And I learned that I couldn’t tell my parents any of this. Based on the way they kowtowed to Sister Superior, there was no way they could process my newest revelations.

And if I had told them?

Okay. That does it. In the car.

Where we going, Mom?

So where’d you hear these bits of wisdom? Your Protestant friends?

No.

Never mind. In the car, I said! It’s off to confession for you.

On the third day, she came into my bedroom and told me to sit down in the unpadded straight-backed Windsor chair we’d inherited from Grandpa Bates.

I had been reading my first copy of Ripley’s Believe it Or Not when my mother came in. I couldn’t believe this stuff was actually true.

“So, had enough time think about our little talk?”

I nodded.

“All right, so what three lessons have you learned?”

I straightened my back to match the rickety old chair back. “I learned I shouldn’t talk in the corridors. If I have something to say to my friends I should talk to them in the playground. Either . . . during recess or uh, after school.”

When she did one of her lickety-split smiles (used mostly on delivery people), I knew I’d hit at least one target she’d been waving around.

“Well, that’s a start. What else?”

Wow, a chicken that lived for months without its head. Have to tell Steve and Chan.

“That’s it. Can’t think anything else.”

They won’t believe me but I’ll show them this book as proof.

“You can’t?” She stood up and put her hands on the chair back and stared down at me.

“Frankly, Peter, I’m disappointed in you. I thought we agreed on three lessons. Well, didn’t we? What are two other things you’ve learned? Come on, you’re so smart. How about ‘1: Do my work diligently and quietly, and 2: Try to be helpful at all times’? Maybe those two lessons will rescue your reputation somewhat. And your teachers will forget all about this, this . . . what you did.”

I flipped the page. Lobsters never stop growing. Wonder how big they can get.

“Will you put that trashy paperback down?” She’d just had her short hair done in a permanent, so it didn’t move when she snapped her head back and forth. “Now?”

“Sure Mom.” I put it in my lap, open halfway through. I could still read the back cover. “Guess you’re right. Shoulda thought of them.”

“Just don’t forget those two things, Mister Wise Guy.”

She must have realized that was all she’d squeeze out of me, so she got up and left. But as she was walking out, she shot target arrows at me over her shoulder. Sort of like the ones Ripley used to point out which Siamese twin was Chang and which was Eng. But my mother’s arrows were sharper.

There were things I didn’t think of then, because I just wasn’t equipped. My brain hadn’t been fully wired yet. I hadn’t figured out that the Sisters of Notre Dame probably stuck together and shared information between them about every student, and had most likely done so since Napoleon was crowned Emperor of the French. My imagination was so puny, it was just paddling at the ocean’s edge of plots and consequences. I couldn’t see that Fenwick was like a scary deep-sea dweller, a giant octopus with Sister Superior as the big bulbous head and Sister Corde Maria as one of the grasping tentacles. All the other nun-tentacles were in on it, too, constantly communicating with each other, even about something as petty as my God-drawing skills or a Latin correction of a name.[4] I could never have grasped that they were hard-wired to remember such transgressions forever (or least for as long as I was there). I also couldn’t have known that such vital networks were not unique to Bishop Fenwick, but existed in all schools, in fact, pretty much everywhere. And still do.

As ignorant as I was of these setups, it was a kind of merciful ignorance. There wasn’t much I could’ve done about them at fourteen. But I did manage to figure out that my mother was probably right, that maybe it was time to lay low and not chuck my Boy Scout knife at every hollow log I came across. There could be hornets inside.

I once saw a picture of a person in a pillory, being punished for doing something that insulted God. People were throwing rocks and vegetables and rotten eggs at him. Being on suspension was like being in a pillory. Because when I got back, instead of squishy tomatoes, I got side whispers lobbed my way and the ole silent treatment. Lasted a whole week.

When I finally wriggled out of this pillory, I realized I was more like a spy during World War II who’d gotten stuck in occupied territory. And that there was only one way to survive.

I’ll learn your way of speaking, I’ll learn your French, I’ll learn your Latin. I’ll attend Mass not just on Sunday but on holy days of obligation[5], listen to the same gospel sermons year after year. I’ll go to confession, make up sins if I must. If one of your teachers says something stupid in class, even something deliberately scary or false, you’ll hear no challenge from me. I won’t even make a face. Because from now on, I’m undercover. Nobody will ever know what I’m really thinking.

For now.

  1. They taught us that at the Council of Trent, “the church condemned all Protestants as heretics.” They didn’t tell us that it was also where they condemned Michelangelo’s Last Judgment fresco in the Sistine Chapel for nudity (and later painted over the profane parts).
  2. We were told that at the Council of Nicea, “Constantine decreed that Christianity was the one true religion.” They didn’t mention that the Council also featured summary banishments, bloody violence on debate floors, and intricate theological debates about tiny versus gigantic demons.
  3. Syndicated thriller from 1960–1962, based on Carol Reed’s famed 1949 film. My mother found it “creepy.”
  4. The Latin name incident was the first of my many blurting episodes, which might have been sparked by the ADHD I didn’t yet know that I had.
  5. Non-Sunday days on which a Catholic must attend Mass. In the United States there are eight. One of them is now called “Mary Mother of God” and is celebrated on January 1. If January 1 falls on a Sunday, you don’t get out of it, you must attend Mass the next day. For some reason, its name was changed from “The Feast of the Circumcision.” Another HDO, “The Body and Blood of Christ,” was moved to the second Sunday after Pentecost, but is still called a holy day of obligation. All Saints is always on November 1, which we figured was invented to compete with Halloween. But if November 1 occurs on a Saturday or a Monday you do get out of it. Most confusingly, Hawaii doesn’t have eight days, but only two. When we heard this, we figured it was because of all that surfing.

Author: Peter Bates

Peter Bates is a writer and photographer living in Florida. He is the administrator of this blog and also runs the blogs Stylus and Hdrbodegaphoto.

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