Shortly before my mother’s death, she tells me that one of her biggest regrets was not being able to take me to my First Day of School. I don’t feel bad about it, because I know for her it was also a big day: her first day of school, entering Grade 11 after a twenty-year absence.
I sense the dread my mother must have felt when she realizes the only available person to take me is my brother.
I don’t remember entering St. Thomas School for the first time. My brother was probably running, with me trying to keep up. All I recall is suddenly being in the middle of a noisy, swirling crowd of kids in the main hallway—me, the only one motionless, not knowing what to do or where to go. My brother has indeed brought me to school, but has just abandoned me.
The chaos and noise empties out to me standing alone in the gigantic empty silent hall, not knowing what the hell to do.
I jump out of my skin when suddenly a deep growly man’s voice demands, “Name?” I turn around to see a scary figure which still haunts me to this day. In a classroom doorway is a towering figure in a black hooded robe, its face ringed in white, a huge crucifix where a belt-buckle should be.
“Boy. Come here.” I have seen nuns before but none had ever talked to me. They are scarier the closer you get to them.
“Name?” I cannot talk. She looks at her list, looks up, “David?” I nod. She points into her classroom.
The entire school is filled with children everywhere. Every classroom is crammed in straight rows with a wide variety of desks gathered from all over the Separate School Division: from shiny new metal ones with no inkwell hole to the heavily-scratched, classic wooden ones with a pull-out drawer for your books under the seat.
The aisles between the rows are so narrow, the sleeves of Sister Margaret’s habit hit us in the face as she swishes by to hit a talker in the back of the room.
It is quite unnerving when I am sweating an arithmetic test and suddenly sense a dark presence beside me. I slowly turn my head to be face-to-face with tortured, dead Jesus Christ: the huge crucifix at Sister’s waist. I look closely at his face, praying he will tell me the number I am looking for. He never does. He doesn’t even look up.
Above my Grade One classroom’s blackboard are large, printed pale-green alphabet cards in the proper upper case and lower case. Any deviation from these at any time results in an ear pull or a slap on the head.
Beside the blackboard, in descending order, is a photo of the Vicar of Christ, Pope Paul VI; a photo of our Sovereign, forty-year-old Queen Elizabeth II; and the old Red Ensign flag. Our school was reluctant to say goodbye to the Red Ensign and kept it around until being forced to change it to our new red maple leaf flag for Canada’s Centennial Year in 1967.
Being a small kid, my assigned desk is at the front. Though I am terrified of Sister Margaret sitting at her desk a few feet in front of me, she is much more interested and involved in the souls going to Hell in the back of the classroom.
In another life and era and gender, she may have been the greatest pitcher in baseball history. Her accuracy when she bolts up and throws her oversize white chalk is astounding. Seeing it painfully bounce off the forehead of a yapper at the back is an eerie thrill for me. One kid reacts like a whiny baby when she does a direct hit into one of his eyes.
Throughout every day, when someone does something wrong or against the rules or is just stupid, Sister gives the offender an instant slap on the side of the head or a quick pull on an ear. Even as a perfect boy who does not talk, I get a few of these. The worst offenders per day do not get an immediate penalty. Their names are printed in chalk in the corner of the blackboard and must simmer in terror until the end of the school day to discover their punishment.
My morbid fascination rises every time someone is singled out, a guaranteed front-row seat to every execution. Though the pronouncement is always Sister’s penalty-by-ruler, the number of times she will strap your outstretched hand is not pre-announced. It will be directly proportional to the severity of your sin against God. (I have yet to see the Ruler Punishment Chart but I am sure it is somewhere in the library.)
What fascinates and somewhat creeps me out — now, not then—is how I eagerly await the end of each day to watch the public flagellation of my classmates: the pasty faces of those waiting in line, the slap-snap sound of the ruler on their hands, again and again, the wincing of child faces in adult pain, the howls and the tears, the banishment of evil from our world.