I went to Meadowlawn Elementary School in Kettering, Ohio for kindergarten and first grade. I transferred to Ascension, a Catholic parochial school, and attended from second to eighth grade. I encountered my first nun in third grade. She was dressed head to toe in a black habit and wore squared off, black, leather shoes. She was a slightly stooped, fairly deaf, ancient woman. I forget her name, but her order renamed their sisters with a masculine first name and a feminine second name when the novitiates took their final vows. Let’s say that her name was Sister Thomas Marie.
She was a good teacher, fair and not too insanely strict, but had an unfortunate talent for turning arithmetic into processes as intricate as filling out tax forms. I think that long division required at least ten steps. She was patient about most things, but was strangely vigilant in restricting the time we spent in the restroom. Twice a day we were herded en masse down the hall to relieve our bladders. She waited outside for us to finish, but would open the door and extend her skeletal arm inside if she thought we were taking too long. She held a wooden, spring powered device in her gnarled fingers, and she would click it at us while calling out, “Hurry up, boys!” in her high pitched, wavering voice. She may be the reason why I have difficulty peeing in public bathrooms.
My second nun was my fifth grade teacher, Sister Joseph Marie. Her face was long and horsey, but she had a lovely spirit. She laughed easily and angered slowly, and won us over with her kindness and consideration. Even the hard cases who usually delighted in bedeviling our teachers left her alone. She was one of the few priests or nuns that I met who gave the impression that a vocation in the Catholic church led to a life of joyful service. My memories of her might be biased, however. At that time I was sometimes told at home and on the playground that I was a weird kid. She was the first teacher who appeared to genuinely like me, and was the first to understand and appreciate my sense of humor.
In seventh grade I had an ex-nun (they count–they never really leave an order like ex-Marines remain Marines for life) named Miss Engler. She was an unhappy woman who addressed us like an aristocrat giving orders to her least favored serfs. We didn’t merit her respect. She never bothered to learn our names, but would address a girl as “Missy” and a boy as “Bud”. She would look down her long nose at us as if inspecting something offensive: our entry into adolescence appeared to disturb her. She would praise the sweetness of the children in the lower grades, and let us know that we had fallen a long way from that state of innocence. She would tell us that we stunk, and that the groin was “the dirtiest part of the body.” She recommended that we wash that area frequently. She was especially vigilant about policing the skirt length of the girls. Their uniforms were cut so that they fell a few inches below the knee when they stood. When they sat down their hems were not supposed to rise more than an inch or so above the top edge of their kneecaps. Miss Engler frequently interrupted her lectures to point and bark the following at some unfortunate girl seated near the front: “Pull your skirt down, Missy!” I suppose she believed that when a thirteen year old revealed a few square inches of lower thigh it was a sign that the young Jezebel was headed for a career in the sex trade.
One day Miss Engler brought in a kitten in a cardboard box lined with a soft blanket. She was terribly fond of her pet and spoke to it with kindness and affection. We didn’t know that she was capable of that and were even more surprised when her goodwill spilled over onto us. We started to fawn over the kitten in hopes of extending our period of good grace. Our plan worked for about two or three days, but someone finally said something so saccharine that her suspicions were aroused. She realized in a moment that we had been playing her, and her hostility toward us returned with renewed vigor. The kitten was seen no more.
In eighth grade we came under the strange domination of Sister Mary Margaret. She was fairly twisted even for a nun, and had a lot of experience in using a distorted version of Catholic doctrine to manipulate us and to attempt to inflict mental damage. If we were in the slightest way disobedient as a class she would tell us the next day that she had spent the night praying for our souls. Whispering in class apparently put us at the brink of the fiery pits of Hell. If students did not intend after graduating from Ascension to go on to Carroll, the Catholic high school that charged a tuition comparable to a public college, she would take them aside one by one and assure each that their “soul would be lost.” (She performed this routine on me, and when I told her that my father couldn’t afford to send me she coldly ordered me to get a job.)
Her most vivid moment came when she discovered that an unknown girl (the letters were rounded in a feminine manner) had written “Fuck you Nun!” in the back of a vocabulary book. She held us back at the end of the first day of interrogation and threatened to keep us from riding our buses home if we didn’t give up the perpetrator. She relented at the very last minute, probably fearing the wrath of twenty-five angry parents, and we had to run to catch our buses. She spent days afterword grilling us to find out who the culprit was. When threats and intimidation didn’t work she turned to psychological warfare. She told us every once in a while over a period of a month that whoever had written such a horrible thing in a Catholic school textbook (she would pause dramatically before delivering the punch line) was disturbed and in need of treatment. She said that she wanted to help that poor individual recover their mental health and to come back into the good graces of the church. She was a pretty good actor when she said this, and any fool who didn’t know her better might believe that she felt actual concern.
The girl who had “desecrated” the vocabulary book finally broke down and confessed to Sister in the hallway outside our classroom one afternoon. I didn’t hear the confession but witnessed the reaction. Sister Mary Margaret dug her fingernails into the girl’s shoulders and shook her so hard that her head whipped back and forth. I forget what the nun snarled at her, but it had nothing to do with love and concern.
The Catholic church and I parted ways a few years later. I drifted away as Sister predicted when I was no longer under the daily influence of the church and was freer to think my own thoughts about matters of faith. I don’t regret leaving, and when any stray doubts flutter through my brains I simply recall the sight of Sister Mary Margaret’s face as she attacked a fourteen year old girl. Beet red and distorted into a grotesque mask of spite and hatred, it reminded me more of the Bride of Frankenstein than the Bride of Christ.