Murray, KY – Nine years old. First day of fourth grade. I have barely mastered Double Dutch and long division. Our classroom is on the third floor of St. Francis School, not the first level like last year. After grade three, the girls have classes separate from the boys because males are deemed near occasions of sin, whatever that means.
Grade 4 - Girls is the room right across from the principal's office. On the first day of school it is she, Sister Philippa, who greets us.
You will have two teachers this year, she announces, quick to add how lucky we are. Sister Eulalia and Sister Johannes are among the finest teachers in the Diocese of Trenton. She pauses long enough to glare, as if daring one of us to disagree.
Fourth grade is important - too important to be entrusted to one teacher, Sister continues. You girls don't know how blessed you are. Make sure you appreciate your good fortune.
The Sisters Eulalia and Johannes may well have been among the diocese's finest teachers - 50 years before. By the time they are led to the gentle pastures of St. Francis School, neither one has the strength to teach a full day.
Eulalia floats into our classroom each morning at 9, or thereabouts. She arrives with a bulging black book bag, but they are never the right books. She twitters and chirps, a plump, black sparrow, talking as earnestly to the statue of the Virgin Mary as she does to us, her bewildered students.
Every day, she regales us with cautionary tales from 9 until noon. We learn that flames will erupt from the soles of our oxfords if we ever enter a non-Catholic church, and girls who push to the front of the line at recess will be last at the pearly gates. The most horrifying tale is that unbaptized, dead babies are banished to a cloud between Purgatory and Heaven where they become little heads with wings sprouting from the place where their shoulders are supposed to be. They spend eternity there, always struggling to see the face of God, but only permitted to hear His voice.
Sister knows all this because she has a hotline to heaven, just like President Eisenhower had to the Kremlin. She tells us the end of the world is held in abeyance because, seated next to her son at the throne of God the Father, Mary holds Jesus's hand in her own.
If she ever stops doing that, Sister drops her quavering voice to a whisper, the Russians will drop the bomb and the world will end like that!
Her fingers are too arthritic to manage a click, but we get the idea all the same.
Sister Johannes takes charge of our class after lunch. She is so frail that, on windy days, two eighth grade girls are dispatched to the convent so they can be her anchors as she makes her way across Library Place to the school.
Johannes tries to teach us whatever Eulalia misses - which is everything. We memorize all the countries of Central and South America; learn to add and subtract decimals; master the diagramming of sentences with compound subjects and verbs.
As the year progresses, we witness Sister Eulalia's decline. Her stories become scarier, her behavior more erratic. She has it on good faith that the Red Chinese are planning an attack on America. When they land on our shores, they will head straight for St. Francis, where they will slurp holy water right out of the marble fonts and wipe their slimy, pagan hands on the silken vestments of the priests. After they pocket all the candlesticks and make a bonfire of hymnals and St. Joseph's Daily Missals in the middle of our playground, they will torture all of us in the hope we will renounce our belief in the Trinity.
With that, I abandon hope that there will ever be a St. Constance of Metuchen.
The whole class is terrified, but we do not tell our parents. We are loyal even in our fear. But the day Sister Eulalia knocks over the statue of the Blessed Virgin and it crashes to the floor and breaks, we know things cannot go on this way. Before she releases us for lunch, Sister hides the pieces under her desk and makes us swear, to a girl, we won't tell.
The next morning, Sister Philippa sweeps in at nine to tell us that our bad deportment has so exhausted Sister Eulalia that she needs to take a rest and will not be coming back to our classroom for the rest of the year.
I do not recall who tended us in the mornings after that, or if Johannes managed to muster the strength to spend the whole day. In any event, I finished the remainder of fourth grade without further incident and even won first place in the diocese writing competition.
My prize was a brand new silver dollar and a portrait of Lucy, the patron saint against hemorrhages and blindness. Her eyes had been ripped out because she rejected her pagan bridegroom. In the picture, she held her eyeballs on a silver platter, her empty sockets cast heavenward.
After all these years, I am a long way from St. Lucy, but still have vivid recollections of grade four. Who could ever forget the grisly tales told by Sister Eulalia? And Sister Johannes, her skin fine as Irish linen, patiently explaining how coffee was grown and harvested in Brazil.
It is the year I became a poet.