What Do Children and Elephants Have in Common?

I watched a crowd of children at a bus stop recently, and my mind immediately flew to my introduction to first grade.  I was exceptionally excited to begin school, especially since I would be allowed to carry a plaid school bag and ride the big yellow bus that had carried my older sister Martha-Jean every weekday for the past three years. I was six years old and at least four inches shorter than Martha-Jean, but I had made it my life’s ambition to try and keep up with her.

 Shortly after beginning first grade, I discovered that school was not the bright happy place I had imagined.  Although my memories of Saint Ann’s School are cloudy, there are shards of clarity that break through the haze and pierce me as if it were yesterday.  The playground was a square of pavement that surrounded a dark brick structure.  It was separated into quarters, one for the little girls, one for the little boys, one for the big boys and one for the big girls.  Martha-Jean was a big girl.  I was not.  I hovered at the edge of the line of demarcation, longing to be with my older sister, who was fearless and bold, because I was afraid.

 Then source of my fear was a teacher named Sister Lucien.  Sister Lucien was a she-devil, a dragon-fire witch in a black habit, who ate small children for her lunch.  Sister Lucien’s kingdom was the afternoon session of the first grade. She was the queen, we her subjects. 

In my memory, Sister Lucien has no face, but she has a voice.  A voice with a thick French accent that screamed intelligible syllables to unsuspecting first graders.

“Ee ee, ooh ooh, ee ee.  Ooh ooh, ee, ee, ooh ooh.”

I had no idea what she was talking about, but each afternoon, I stared at the pages of my French book and pretended to follow along.

Sister Lucien obviously thought that six-year-old children control what time the bus arrived at Saint Ann’s because when it was late, I had to do penance.  I knelt on the hardwood floors, trying to remember not to rest my bottom against my heels, wondering why the bus driver wasn’t doing penance and why I was.

One day, I was called to print my name on the black board. I gripped the chalk hard and printed slowly, trying to make my letters perfect.  At last I was finished and stepped back to admire my work.  Sister Lucien was not impressed.

“Is… your… name…Gummy?” she screeched. 

I looked at my name, realizing that the “a” wasn’t completely closed and the “rs” ran together.  I stood red-faced and mute, and looked down at my scuffed shoes in humiliation.  The next ten minutes were spent in the corner, rapping my knuckles with a ruler, provided by Her Majesty herself.

One day, the class was told to line up and carry our papers to the front of the room.  There was a girl in my class who wore a heavy metal brace on her leg.   Born at the end of the Polio epidemic, she walked with a severe limp.  She hurried to find her way back to her seat, and as she rounded a corner, her braced foot slipped on the waxed hardwood floor and she fell, bumping her head on the desk. She lay crumpled on the floor, crying, as Sister Lucien rushed to her side.

I know what you are thinking.  This was the opportunity for Sister Lucien to redeem herself, to show the gentle, kind side that must have motivated her to become a nun in the first place.  This was her chance to be that “mother-away-from-home” that all first graders need.  My mother, a teacher too, would have gathered the child in her arms, soothed and coddled, kissing away the boo boo.

Sister Lucien assessed the child and then made a statement I shall never forget.

“That’s what you get for running.”

Now, you would think that with a horror story like this, I would have hated school for the rest of my life, but that is not the case, because after Christmas I was transferred to a public school where I flourished under the watchful eye of Mrs. Cassidy, a smiling lady who wore lipstick, smelled like flowers and never raised her voice.

You would also think that I would want to forget those days at Saint Ann’s.  But I learned some valuable lessons there.  I learned that I will never understand or speak French.  I learned to print my name clearly. 

And I learned that children never forget.  

What lasting impression do you want to leave with the children in your life?

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