Icker’s youthful reportage on how the convent dwellers of his 6th-grade schoolyear approached a certain disciplinary incident in the classroom. (A previous adventure from Icker’s formative years can be found here).
A changing of the guard took place over the summer between 5th and 6th grades: the two chief mover-and-shaker nuns at St. Aloysius had been replaced.
Probably by decree of the Mother Superior, Icker supposed, grand matron of the entire diocese. Even the word sounded imposing. Diocese. Like fifedom or Principality or Holy Annunciation. She only came round to this parish once a year, Mother Superior, kind of like a grand inspection tour. You had to get your shoes polished and the other nuns were wicked scared of her. Icker was pleased to notice that most of the lesser, more innocuous nuns were still around, including the younger ones who didn’t know how to be stern yet and still looked pretty. Kindly, sweet, soothing, even grandmotherly Sister Rosemary hadn’t departed either; she was still teaching Religion and English. Icker always felt relaxed during Rosemary’s English hour, his mind free to become expansive as though the holy grace in the tone of her voice unpeeled his cognitive powers simply by its moral radiance. Even now, with many kids aged 12, she’d address the class as “Children”. Comforting, that.
But the two head nuns could be trouble. Icker noticed a trend. They were like a tag team, always travelling in pairs. One, the leader, was more administrative. The brains of the outfit who’d think up most of the disciplinary measures and motivations and generally serve as principal with minimal teaching duties. Sometimes the nun in this role would just knock on the door during art class or something and stride in with a smile and stroll around, lurking behind you somewhere. No distinct location. Maybe 18 inches behind your shoulder, peering at your work, or maybe quietly stepping in another direction. Friendly on the surface, but calculating, always measuring and taking stock. Unbeknownst to Icker at the time, perhaps keeping vigil for any budding signs of incipîent sexuality. This was the good cop nun, and the present incarnation was one Sister Martine Regis, intelligent and diplomatic, somewhat worldly. Up on her youthful slang. Martine Regis replaced Sister Rita Francis, an able older admin type who really wasn’t so bad. She was even a little fun during spelling bees. Her only creepy role was when she scared the crap out of kids who had been selected, for one minor infraction or other, to march down to the principal’s office and sign the black book. Once Icker had to sign the black book. It was March, after lunch, playtime out in the parking lot. You weren’t supposed to run too much but everybody did. Six or eight kids were getting heavy into an extended impromptu snowball fight vaguely in the region Icker and a friend were peregrinating past while lost in conversation. A hawk-eyed nun manifested out of thin air to scold the whole lot and imposed upon everyone the dreaded black book punishment. A permanently recorded mark on your ethical comportment bio. Rumor had it St. Peter received a mimeographed copy at the heavenly gates for your entrance exam. Deal was, you had to walk into the office, on shameful display through the large bay windows for all passers by, and confess your misdeed to the principal while writing the date and time and crime in the black book. It was an ordinary black and white composition binder, 59 cents, but emblazoned with a St. Aloysius Black Book sticker in the middle of the front cover. Under the crime column, Icker put ‘being in a snowball area’ somewhat cheekily. But not without a streak of righteousness, he thought. This was a Catholic School education after all. Icker never heard a complaint about it.
The bad cop nun was the henchman, the enforcer, the feared applier of punishments and deliverer of all humiliating castigations in front of classmates and such. This coveted role went to the terrifying Sister Anne Patrick. She of the studied theatrics of a sanctimonious prosecutor, able to concoct lengthy raging diatribes on the spot. She had perfected a truly unholy loathsome glare which she could unshield instantaneousy at will. As Icker saw it, Anne Patrick didn’t really evince the capacity to smile. At most, her face would relax into a dull stare when not impassioned by someone’s imperfect deed. Icker had heard of the term high blood pressure before without ever really associating any sensory perceptions to it. But that changed upon encountering Sister Anne Patrick. Her default facial pallor was a bellicose ruddy pink. When in full moralizing oratory mode she ranged through vehement oranges and frightening purples. Her voice could boom like an outraged bully and her long steely glaring silences for effect were excruciating to endure even when not directed at you. Whereas Martine Regis would arrive unannounced into the classroom milieu on occasion, Sister Anne Patrick’s torture regime was different. She would just appear menacingly in the doorway, brooding face visible behind the glass window, and stare with judgmental malice at nothing in particular for several long minutes before moving on to the next classroom. Once Icker happened to glance doorward and made eye contact with the demon and turned swiftly away in horror, not venturing to look anywhere but straight ahead for ten full exhausting minutes.
The Mortal Offense
Now the particular episode in question occurred about midyear, so the class was pretty well inured to Anne Patrick’s histrionics and various kids had developed their own coping mechanisms. Icker more or less kept his head down and seized upon any opportunity to make a seemingly thoughtful remark during her history classes, for ingratiation’s sake. This particular day, the kids gathered something was up fairly early in the school day. Even mild-mannered Jesus-infused Sister Rosemary had a collective bone to pick during the intro to her morning religion class. It seemed, in a word, that the floor of the classroom had become unacceptably dirty. As it developed, the matter was not dirt, dust or refuse per se, rather careless scuff marks. Icker looked down all about his extended area in the room, surveying the floor tiles. Indeed it was true… everywhere he looked there were thick or sometimes thin black skid marks pockmarking the beige linoleum. Sometimes five or six per square tile, but usually about two. Happily, near the edges and corners, one or zero. (Icker tended towards the analytical.) Engrossed in his study thus, his ears caught Sister Rosemary’s jingoistic encapsulation of the problem, which was evidently a collective character flaw rather than a physical consequence of wearing (mandated) leather shoes on floor tiles: instead of using the floor, students were abusing it. Then was dispensed some pile of unpersuasive logic about how this carelessness towards material things had become a generalized tendency and that the scuffed floor was merely an emblem of deeper more systemic moral shortfall.
Thankfully, Rosemary directly reverted to her forgiving and warm-hearted self soon as the topic was concluded and discussion turned to more typical subject matter, like the five signs of a holy calling. Duty fulfilled, reprimand accorded. It was more than implied that further details on this news item would be forthcoming throughout the rest of the school day, however. Icker considered. It was immediately evident that no intentional school property abuse had occurred. The marks were merely the result of months of accrued classroom usage. It was true he could recall to memory the telltale sound of squeaking, like on a basketball court, during moments of horsing around as happened in between classes. Should he be remorseful? He wondered as to the quality of his own shoes. Never thought much about them. Brown. Fashion was an irrelevancy in Icker’s youthful world: he did not select his own apparel. Not too likely many of his peers did either, he supposed.
Sure enough, as the morning deepened, each teacher (except for the odd lay teachers — hired hands not privy to convent summit meetings) introduced their lessons with a five minute diatribe detailing the lack of respect for school property. As clearly demonstrated by the condition of the floor. Geography. Spelling. Math. The accusations were building to a crescendo and gaining in passion. Each kid knew what the pre-ordained climax was to be: a virtuosic soliloquy of condemnation by Sister Anne Patrick, 1PM History class, right after lunch. Icker especially noted a recurring point of technique: each nun re-instanced the use-abuse talking point. Clearly this stratagem was a key verbal nugget from the mind of the principal, Sister Martine Regis. It was to be drilled into us, like religious doctrine. By the time lunch came, we were all self-admitted abusers. Some kids were testing their shoes, researching their scuff quotients. The skidmark sounds, just yesterday such an unconscious unimportant thing, was now a screeching car crash in Icker’s ears. Lunch hour was by turns morose or ironic with exchanges of gallows humor, depending on one’s temperament. Or, in Raymond J.’s case, sheer defiance.
Judgment and Penance
Reflecting back with the benefit of his adult consciousness Icker can begrudgingly admire the dramatic mastery and control within Anne Patrick’s bravura performance. (Also, Mr. Icker quickly perceives the economic element of this whole affair, likely boiling down to the local custodian complaining “ees nah my djob — or maybe you pay more”.) It commenced with an exquisitely lengthy frozen statue of indignation stance in the doorway. Icker felt at once riveted by the show and horrified. She then eased into a completely silent grave walk over to her desk at the front of the room, stage left, thudding down her black nun’s valise with derision. You really had to experience her booming voice to believe it. Sometimes Icker and his mates could hear it from two classrooms away when she launched into some tirade about penmanship. Her speech was brilliant as ever, maybe eating up fifteen full minutes of the class hour. It was replete with frenetic unpredictable pacing about, such that if she neared your orbit you would wonder about receiving a blow. And her digressions were legendary, all amazingly jigsawing together into one pulsing glowing tableau yielding the singular message that the scuffing of the 6th grade floor was not to be considered much less dire than murder or cursing the Pope. But it was her denouement which was truly inspired. Each child — there were thirty of them — had to one-by-one march up to front of the class and stand directly in front of Anne Patrick, within easy punching distance, and try his sacred best to create scuff marks with the full force of his heels. Woe betide any boy who was deemed not to be exerting intense effort and putting some leg into it! If even the slightest suggestion of a scuff mark resulted, you would stay indoors at lunch hour for one month and scrub clean the floor… every single black mark eviscerated. Only those whose shoes did not scuff would be excused and permitted to have a normal recess.
Icker was at once emotionally ensnared in the wicked ingeniousness of this contrivance. For if he succeeded, he was doomed to a month of drudgery with no break. But if he failed, he’d be subject to the lasting resentment of his less lucky peers, or perhaps accused of not scuffing on purpose in some clever way, or perhaps possessing sissy shoes. A few of the dumber, or were they smarter(?), kids at once jumped the gun and out of sheer curiosity began trying to scuff their surroundings with alacrity. This appeared for an instant that it would cause Sister Anne Patrick’s blood vessels to burst in her neck. Her fist came smashing down with Biblical gravity on poor William B.’s desk — the nearest child — who certainly at the present day is suffering from anxiety disorders. Dramatic gravitas restored, The Enforcer next went methodically down the aisles, summoning each boy in sequence by name up to her trial space. Icker saw he would be in the final third or so. The first dozen went down in flames. Anne Patrick made sure they tried three or four times each, and was quick to pounce if someone weren’t putting enough muscle into it. Each time she made her pronouncement while the boy helplessly stared down at the fresh black marks: “You will remain indoors and clean.” Selectively, for especially bright scuffs, she would improvise an appropriate bonus insult remark. Finally, one kid, Warren, failed to scuff the floor though not for lack of trying. She begrudgingly excused him and he sheepishly returned to his seat, one of the chosen few. When Icker’s turn rolled around he stepped up piously, careful to not make direct eye contact and positioned himself with as much space as possible between his kicking radius and the nun. She presented an imposing physical presence. A large woman, both broad and tallish. He politely waited for the signal to begin, and then staring downwards with severity he began kicking and chipping in an awkward frantic rhythm, fervently praying for the appearance of new scuff markings, nearly wounding his right heel. After five or six tries in vain he glanced up, a lamb of God. “You…”, the timing of the pause was flawless, “may go out”. It was delivered with equal vocal force, contempt, and implied accusation as the negative pronouncements were.
Icker had no clue why his shoes failed to stain the floor tiles. Perhaps the model his parents selected were less stylish? He shuffled back to his spot in a daze thinking about what it would mean to hang around for 20 minutes each day after lunch with Warren, whom he barely knew. And he pictured the remainder of his class cussing them out while toiling with mops and sponges, gradually reclaiming one tile at a time. Would it really take a month? And were new navigational rules to be instantiated while moving about the classroom so that sidewise skids and sudden stops would stop happening? If the ethical goals of hyper-disciplinary parochial schools were to usher in a mood of culpability in the soul, it was working. Icker, like all his classmates, were tarnished by the original sin of being boys. Happily though, Icker’s perceptiveness was left intact. Within a week, he noted, all parties concerned entirely forgot about the school floors or their shoes, convent dwellers included. And he only had to socialize with Warren a day or two before the status quo resumed. Until the next round of histrionics — Icker cannot recall it’s precise nature or whether it was a week or month away — the kingdom of childhood reigned supreme.
A purely theoretical point occupied Icker’s growing consciousness however. Did any of the nuns, especially the younger or less ideological types, ever reflect upon the ephemeral absurd nature of these periodic outbursts? And what was the moral of the tale they told themselves?
Buried deep within our guilt lies the seed of our wish to do better. Amen.
[ Sternly pious but fair — reminiscent of Sister Martine Regis ; The reason Raymond J. got expelled ; Adorable Japanese TV character: Samarai Sister Snake with her uzi ; Meryl Streep as the creepily deadpan uncoverer of evil in the film “Doubt”. (recommended!) ]
If interested in additional adventures from Icker’s formative years, have a gander here.
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