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Geography the Hard Way

Spring 2007 • Vol. XV, Issue LVI

“Today, this class has the assignment to move the milk crates to the lunchroom kitchen,” the bossy nun said. “I want James Fenton and Kevin Gordon to handle the job this time. You may leave the room at 9:30 and return as soon as you have finished.” . . .

“Yes Sister,” the boys acknowledged in unison, emphasizing each syllable.

Sister Margaret Mary, teacher at St. Anselm’s Grammar school, was short, stocky, and scary. Her black habit accentuated her size, like a penguin with a pituitary gland problem. She spoke in quick, succinct sentences; no one dared ask her to repeat anything. The wide veil of the habit covered squinty eyes behind horn-rimmed glasses, so her stare seemed magnified. The seventh grade boys believed she was bald, but the girls weren’t sure. After all, she was quite elderly, they all thought.

The daily ritual of Sister Margaret Mary, after a morning prayer, was a comparison to the other seventh grade achievements. She related everything about her students to the “competition,” like an addiction. The game ranged from test grades to attendance records to deportment and to carrying out assignments.

“Hey Kevin, this is a good deal for us,” Jim said, as they ran down three flights of stairs and outside to the Tinton Avenue entrance to the lunchroom.

“Yeah, well, don’t be too sure. Those crates are heavy and, if we break any bottles . . . “

Jim interrupted Kevin, “Don’t worry. I’ve done this before. What are you, a wimp?”

The milk delivery truck dropped off the crates each school day morning, rain or shine or snow, at nine o’clock. Two students from either of the seventh-grade classes were chosen to carry the two dozen crates inside. To the boys — girls weren’t strong enough — this was a big deal, worthy of a proud announcement to their fathers later that day. The honor system was at work for these pre-teens.

“Let’s get this done quick,” Jim said, hustling to carry the last crate by himself.

“Wait for me,” Kevin gasped, already out of breath. “What’s the hurry?”

“My mom didn’t give me any desert for lunch. We can run across the street to the candy store and pick up someum.”

“Hey, not me. I’ll wait for you right here. Sister said,” Kevin declared, sitting down on the cold kitchen floor to rest.

“Whadaya chicken? Come on! We’ll be back in two minutes.”

They rushed back into the classroom, each hiding a five-cent Hershey bar in his pants pocket. Before they could go to their seat, Sister called them to the front of the class. She glared at them, like they deserved to be sent to the gallows.

“How could you do that?” She said; her voice quivered, but she held back tears.

“Oh my God,” the boys thought, afraid of what comes next.

“I thought I could trust you,” Sister said, walking to the high classroom window facing 155th Street, beyond the eight-foot-high chain-link fenced-in schoolyard, with a momentary view of the White Plains line elevated tracks on Westchester Avenue. Gottesman’s corner candy store was in clear view. Slowly, Sister turned back to the two boys. They stood at attention, too frightened to move.

“Hold out your hands,” Sister said, as she grabbed the forty-eight inch ruler off her desk. “This is for disappointing me,” Smack! “And your classmates.” Smack! The ruler snapped in two.

Kevin thought his mouth would never stop trembling. Jim had a sheepish grin on his face to mask that he may burst out crying.

“Your parents will hear of this.” She pinched them hard on their arms and twisted as she led them through the aisle back to their seats. The girls snickered at them.

A week later, James Fenton was transferred to the other seventh-grade class. Kevin Gordon and his parents were told he was on probation; good behavior was his only salvation for the remainder of the school year.

Kevin became a model student, so much so his buddies taunted him with, “Here comes goody-two-shoes.” His conduct and report card was exemplary right up to the end, except, that is, for the last day of the school year.

Sister Margaret Mary had instructed all the children that their school books must be returned properly covered. The books would be given to incoming seventh-grade students in September.

Kevin and his mother covered all his books, except one. She had cut up all her shopping bags as thick covers — the acceptable way — and there was no proper paper left for the last book..

“You should have thought about this beforehand,” she said to her son on the night before the books were due.

Kevin was next in line to hand Sister Margaret Mary his uncovered book. He had a good excuse, he thought.

“Sister, my dog peed on the paper just before my mother was goin’ to cover the book.”

It’s lucky for Kevin that Sister was only four foot-eleven inches tall.

The book, all four-hundred-sixty-three pages, thumped on top of his head. His knees buckled and stars appeared from nowhere. He saw his classmates looking stunned and wide-eyed, like their eyes would pop out of their sockets.

“Next,” Sister said.

Kevin sat down, cradling his head in his hands, embarrassed all the girls were staring at him. The throbbing was subsiding. He was glad he held back tears.

“Why didn’t my mother cover the Geography book first?” he moaned.
At a class reunion years later, they all agreed, including Kevin Gordon, that Sister Margaret Mary was the kindest, best teacher they ever had. “Wouldn’t it be great to see her again?” Kevin asked, a wistful look in his eyes.

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