Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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Innocence ended at 8 in the morning the day after Labor Day, 1959.
“Boys and girls,” the nun is saying. “Boys and girls.”
I am in Room One, the first on the left at the top of the wide marble steps, with the rest of the first-graders. The mothers are beginning to leave. A lot of kids are crying. It still has not occurred to me to be afraid.
One girl grows hysterical — trying to twist out of her sweater — as a smiling nun pulls her away from her departing mother. The more composed children sit at their desks, stock-still, hands folded on desktops in front of them. I stare at a haggard, spindly, ascetic little girl in profile against the mighty sycamores outside the windows. She is so still, she seems to be trying to disappear. Her skin is like paper; her face is white; her eyes are black marbles stuck in her face. I see the rapt terror in her blue-veined tininess.
I’m still standing, until told by the nun to “be seated.” With some gravity, my mother waves. I’ve a few more questions, but she disappears. A lot of children continue to cry.
The nun’s name is Sister Sara. She is young. Her face is pocked and blemished, her teeth yellow. She wears wire-rimmed spectacles. Her hands are very fine, a gold wedding band on the left-hand ring finger. The rest of her is encased in the voluminous head-to-toe black habit, punctuated by the white crest of the ebony wimple that covers her head to the eyebrows, and by the spade-like white bib — a black crucifix centered in it like a lump of coal in snow — that scoops across her bosom and braces her concealed neck like a horse collar. The remainder is black: the colossal rosary notched at her side like a chain; the hard orthopedic boots; the shawl draped across the back of her chair. She has no hair, no breasts, no shape. She smiles and calls us “boys and girls.” She is clearly in charge, and I want her approval.
A tall, rangy black boy has wet his pants. Sister Sara escorts him to the cloakroom, a narrow space that runs the length of the room, where each of us has been assigned a hook. At her momentary departure there is the audible declension of care and carriage, though tempered by intuitive stealth. Most of us, but not all, breathe and move and study each other at our walnut desks with hinged tops and wrought scroll-work up the sides. The tiny, blue-veined girl does not stir.
I glance out the window. The sycamore leaves are at eye level, bright yellow at their borders. The tree bark curls like parchment. Where it has fallen away, the limbs are like ivory in the sun. I ache for freedom. The windows above the clanging dinosaur radiators are so massive that a pole is needed to open and close them.
At the center of the room, above Sister Sara’s desk, is the ubiquitous brooding Christ, nailed to his brown cross; INRI is the legend above his crown of thorns. In one corner of the room is the Blessed Virgin Mary. In another corner is a little table and four little chairs. In the back of the room, against the cloakroom wall, is an ancient upright piano. The wall opposite the windows is covered with yellow-lined blackboards, above which is the alphabet: upper- and lower-case printed letters. The floors are stained pine. There is a gray trash can. The ceilings are very high, with long fluorescent lights. It is the kind of room, even with all its iconography, I would savor being in alone; but it scares me with its uniformity and throng of nervous six-year-olds.
When Sister Sara reappears, we stiffen, unbidden. The blubbering black boy trails mournfully behind her. He wears a calico dress; although every nerve in my body prickles in alarm, I laugh with the rest of my peers. It is the first day of school and we are already forming a hierarchy — a hierarchy which, for now, has placed this sorry child at its bottom and causes him to cry all the more.
Perhaps more intimidating to me than the dress is the nudity that must have preceded it — the submission, the shame. Even as I laugh sideways at another’s misfortune, I recognize the mercilessness that decreed such punishment for wet drawers. A defiance and resolve, of which I’ve hitherto been unaware, blooms within me.
“Stop your crying, Mr. Gregory, and get back in your seat,” Sister Sara says evenly to the boy, who now begins, amidst the chorus of welling laughter, to trip back to his tiny desk. Huge tears roll down his cheeks and over his quivering mouth to the floor.
Sister Sara moves to the front of the room and surveys us crossly. She brings her left hand down on her huge desk. Her wedding band barks against its metal top, and we jump and hush as she commands, “Not another sound!”
Everything becomes silent except for the measured gulps of Mr. Gregory.
Sister Sara folds her pretty hands, her forefingers touching her lips. Her eyes are lidded, her head bowed. When she raises her head, she asks, “Did anyone speak while I was in the cloakroom with Mr. Gregory?”
It is a casually asked question, curious, conversational. There is silence.
“No one even whispered?”
Now she is smiling. Because of the smile and her hands, I’d like to please her. As far as I know, no one talked while she was gone.
She jerks her head to the other side of the room and says, “Mr. Bannon?”
Everyone regards Mr. Bannon, one of last year’s failed first-graders, as he lowers his hand, rises like a pro, and stands next to his desk. He’s a nervous kid, rather large, with a raw, red, lipstick-like rim around his mouth from constantly circling his lips with his tongue.
“He talked, Sister,” says Mr. Bannon. His finger, three rows away, is pointed at me.
The momentum shifts like lightning. I am in the barrel now. Mr. Gregory — bless him — is relieved at the presence of a kindred scapegoat as all eyes turn toward me.
My eyes return to the front of the room where Sister Sara stands under the crucifix, cleaning her glasses with a white handkerchief. The bridge of her nose is notched by red welts. Random acne dots her very white face. I am comforted by the familiar and practical act of cleaning glasses.
She returns the glasses to her face and says, “Please be seated, Mr. Bannon.”
Then she fixes me inquisitively, a half-smile still on her pale lips.
“Did you speak while I was in the cloakroom with Mr. Gregory?” she asks evenly, almost pleasantly.
“No,” I say.
“No, what?” she asks, still evenly.
“No, I didn’t talk,” I answer.
“On your feet when you answer, boy!”
The illusion of safety has been broken. I shoot to my feet.
She asks again, “No, what?”
I reiterate, “No, I didn’t talk.”
She takes two steps forward and bangs a child’s desktop with her golden ring. The child jumps and nearly starts crying. “No, Sister!”
“No, Sister,” I parrot.
“You’ll have to speak a bit louder. I can barely hear you.”
“No, Sister,” I say again.
“No, Sister, what?” she prods.
“No, Sister, I did not talk.”
By now, the other children are thoroughly caught up in this drama. Its resolution will define the boundaries of the rest of our lives. I have no idea what I should do.
I think of my sister in the fifth grade, sitting at her desk in the classroom directly above my head. I think of my mother at home, holding a pillow in her teeth as she slips on a clean case; and my father, hanging from a boom crane at the steel mill in Braddock.
I lower my eyes to the desktop and survey its years of disfigurement, run my left hand around the lip of the anachronistic inkwell.
“You will please look at me when I’m addressing you.”
This time her tone is explicit. Whatever the game, it is deteriorating. I jerk up my head. The trees are lazing in the morning sun. Sister Sara’s face is stone.
“You are lying,” she says.
I feel the way I do when I’m waking from a nightmare. But this is not something from which I’ll wake. This hurts and will not go away. I am completely on my own, at the mercy of an adult who does not love me, and I cannot run away.
“Come up here,” Sister Sara commands.
I look one more time at Mr. Bannon, circling his mouth with his red tongue, before making my way to the front of the room.
“Come closer,” says Sister Sara. “I’m not going to bite you.”
She smiles. The class relaxes. I smile, too, and move to within three feet of her.
“You are lying,” she says, clamping her lips over her teeth.
“No, Sister,” I say, banishing my smile too.
“You have sinned,” she utters, picking up a twelve-inch rule from her desk.
I am undone at the mention of sin. She has taken me a step beyond my years.
“Hold out your hands.”
I offer my hands. On my left is an old Timex I wear halfway up my wrist. On my right ring finger is my Bazooka Joe Magic Circle Club ring.
I am whacked thrice on each upturned palm.
Walking back to my seat, I am rarified in the eyes of my comrades. I glance at the sparrows flitting in and out of the window eaves. It will be another two months before the skies of Pittsburgh are filled with their departure. A white pigeon dives from the roof, perches on the stone-slab sill, and looks into the room as the sparrows make for the sycamores.