Sometimes when it happens, it knocks us off the horse and strikes us instantly blind.
Sometimes, however, it breeds slowly, beginning from a nucleus of hurt or disappointment, which sprouts vestigial buds that eventually grow into fully developed beings that have hideous hands with opposable thumbs and skeletal fingers. While still in the gestation process, it clutches into the tapestry of our souls. I guess you could call the “it” of which I speak, a belief. Perhaps it is a doubt. Paradoxical, right?
Mine began when I was four.
I was quick to learn most things academic, considering my brief school experiences. I
knew purple from blue and how to tie my saddle shoes. I could count to one hundred and
had begun to sight-read words that appeared on the “Dick and Jane” worksheets. Mostly
“go” and “jump,” but even — “surprise” that delighted me for its two-syllable sophistication.
I liked school. And I liked that while the kindergarten room was large it was only
partly imposing. It had a presence as powerful as if it were the teacher: An omniscient,
benevolent presence, which greeted us, then embraced us as we worked our way through the morning. Areas in the kindergarten room were designated for variable activities: the
whirligig, which sat near the windows, kept us spinning and thrilled. The jungle gym, which reared up from the corner of the room, acculturated us to each other’s ways, and the tiny-tot kitchen which played beneath the windows, separated us into gender specific roles. Tables and chairs—where most of the serious business of kindergarten took place—nestled in front of the brick fireplace and provided arena for counting to ninety-nine, keeping our school supplies out of “Topsy-Turvy Town,” and reading aloud from our green-covered primers.
I sat at Table Blue.
Just over me stood a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who watched from the mantle of the brick fireplace with arms outspread, garbed in deep blue and white robes which swirled over her feet. Dainty sandaled feet that balanced atop a miniature planet Earth. And under those feet slithered an asp, steel gray and menacing, that the BVM mashed under those tiny feet as she stared off, blissfully unaware of the souls she was saving or the evil she was crushing. Maybe this was part of the presence I felt—both foreboding and good.
You see, trying to be good was a habit with me not only because I sought approval, but because I was competitive down to the core of my four-year-old soul. I did as I was told, said good night prayers – “God blessing” my whole family in a ritualized litany of fervor. “God bless Gramma Florence and Grampa Webster, Gramma Gert and Grampa Harold, Mom and Dad, Sally and Susan, Tricia, Florence, Kathleen, Bobby, and everyone in the whole wide world.” Alliteration and exaggeration completed my absolutes. And then I’d race my sisters to get to the end of the list first. Wholewideworld came out in a blur.
I listened intently to Miss McDonough, our kindergarten teacher, as she taught us new songs. I stood up straighter than anyone else when we lined up in ranks—boys on one side, girls on the other. I drank all my milk even when it got warm. And whenever I swirled on the whirligig, I stayed within the speed limit set by Miss McDonough.
She was a sweetheart of a teacher—pretty and single. She wore pastels and high heels, and had a Cupie doll, berry-red mouth. This was in utter contrast to the nuns, who taught the older children in our school, who wore clothes shaped like Mary’s except that their black robes collared and corniced them into what looked like medieval armor covering full-body chastity belts. Even at four, I was seminally aware of the dichotomy displayed in their habits. [No, not behavior, clothes.] Joan of Arcs all – simultaneously unstained yet bellicose.
Miss McDonough wore mostly soft-as-sky blues – a fifties version of the Blessed Virgin’s robes. Cashmere sweater-sets over plaid, straight skirts. And in direct contrast to the confusing sisters’ shoes, she wore black high heels, which would have been exotic had they not been of such a reasonable height—simultaneously chaste and risqué to me.
She rarely spoke above a whisper. She got our attention through a series of repeated directives and erect posture. “Boys and girls…” She waited for us to quiet. “Boys and girls…” Because we craved her attention, we did as she requested as quickly as we could, even if the word “boys” did come first.
She was beautiful. I wanted Miss McDonough to think I was the best climbing on the jungle gym, the fastest finishing my worksheets, and the kindest to others not nearly as precocious as I. On a conscious level, I thought I was best-in-show, but secretly—within the deep cavern of my soul—I suspected sin curdled around the wholesomeness of my core, that I was mortally evil—unabsolved of Lucifer’s original sin. You see, that’s why I needed her approval, this kindergarten replica of the virgin on the mantle. So I sought it shamelessly as my arm waggled like a Northern on the fishing line, “Miz McDonough, Miz McDonough…” I called out, hoping she would allow me to answer correctly, so that I could temporarily rid myself of the awareness of the sin that swirled within my developing soul.
One day, as we sat snug to the edges of the tables under Mary’s watchful gaze and heavy heel, Miss McDonough stood in front of us. Cautiously, she cleared her throat and said, barely above a whisper, “Boys and girls, I am going to give you a difficult work sheet today and I want you to pay very close attention to my directions.”
I sat up a little taller and folded my hands for good measure, just to let her know that she had my complete attention—and that I was pure of heart. I watched her cherry mouth pronouncing words that I wasn’t listening to, so rapt was I with her beautiful, red-lipped enunciation and my appearance of dutiful concern. I nodded appropriately and smiled my hollow understanding.
“Now, because this is so hard, I’m going to come around to each of you to explain the directions again.” Miss McDonough blinked reverently as she watched for the glimmer of a question to appear on one of our faces.
“I’ll start with Patricia’s table.”
I squirmed in my tiny wooden chair eagerly awaiting Miss McDonough’s arrival, thrilled that she had identified Table Blue by using my name. “Patricia? Do you have any questions about this worksheet?”
I glanced down at the slightly yellowed paper in front of me. It was perforated on the side and contained rows and rows of pictures of Dick’s and Jane’s family activities: Dick and Jane walking Spot, Father and Dick washing father’s car, Mother and Jane feeding baby Sally in her high chair, Dick playing catch with Jane. And even though I hadn’t a clue as to what I was supposed to do with the worksheet, I was just as sure that I could figure it out.
“No, Miss McDonough, I get it,” I lied casually.
She was going to have to spend most of that morning explaining again and again to the dunderheads in class like Sarah McKechney and Jerome Metz who sat one table away. And because I wanted Miss McDonough to think of me as smart and noble, I turned to her before she could start explaining to Jerome who could wiggle his ears on demand, but couldn’t count past twenty on a bet.
“Why don’t you put a gold star on my paper before we start? That way, you would save yourself some time.” I smiled my best smile awaiting her grateful reaction to my generous act of beneficence.
The change in Miss McDonough’s face happened fast as a finger snap. Her blessed virgin magnanimity crumbled into asp-like threat, one eyebrow arching into a Mephistophelian bridge. Oh, yeah, that harsh.
“Excuse me, Patricia? What did you say?” Her voice was almost loud.
Clearly, she didn’t understand my good intentions, so I persisted—a littler softer, however. “Well, if you gave me my gold star now, you wouldn’t have to come back when I finish my worksheet. It would save you time…if you, if you…”
As I watched the change in Miss McDonough’s eyes, a sinkhole started to crater deep inside me and fed the fistula of doubt embedded right below my solar plexus. I’m sure Miss McDonough could not have seen it. Instead, she blinked her eyes to cover her disdain and moved on to the others where she explained and bolstered their flagging self-assurance.
Ignoring the tinny taste in my mouth, I got to work with the cornflower-colored crayon in deference to the virtuous blue-clad women of my kindergarten classroom and Table Blue. I circled one family member’s action per row, then drew a line from that picture to another wherein that member washed or walked or threw. I saw the series of pictures as a progression that told its own story; I loved the creativity and was spellbound by the excitement of my first attempt at authorship through these Dick-and-Jane storylines. I was in heaven!
After twenty minutes, Miss McDonough cleared her voice. “Boys and girls, it’s time to stop working. Please, put your Crayolas back into your cigar boxes. It’s time to check our papers.”
Within seconds of correcting our papers, I knew I was in trouble. Not only had I not understood the directions, I hadn’t gotten one circle or line correct. I realized with horror, that my crayola-constructed storylines didn’t hold up: Baby Sally couldn’t possibly have been fed in the dining room after Mother and Jane had just walked her to the store!
Even from her position in the front of the room, Miss McDonough could see the error in my blue-lined scrabble. I met her eye and understood my unpardonable ways. Just put a gold star on my paper before we start…
“Patricia? Come right up here.”
Slowly, I walked to the front of the room, past all the other tables. Desperately, I searched the reaches of the room for comfort — the whirligig lay silent, the little stove’s skillets remained cold, and the BVM remained blissfully unaware.
“Yes, Miss McDonough…” I stood, head bowed before her as she denounced my arrogance in front of all: in front of Jerome Metz whose wiggling ears looked like Dumbo’s in first flight, and to Sarah McKechney whose smiling teeth looked like venom-dripping fangs. All eyes were twinkling over hand-clapped mouths as Miss McDonough railed. I was probably the only one in the kindergarten room who didn’t hear the words she spoke that day.
Miss McDonough, for all the good she thought she was doing, only provided agar for the nucleus of a shame that was multiplying inside me as fast as a bacterial growth. And while I didn’t hear her, I felt each syllable rip into the tapestry that lined my four-year-old soul—and as they did, those skeletal fingers of belief, perhaps of doubt, or more likely of shame, clutched harder.