NSJ:7 Danna Helprin, LCSW

Hard Times in the Age of Reason

It was first grade in a new school for me, and first-time-teaching-ever for Sister Redempta.

I began badly, clinging to Mother, wailing in grief, entertaining the school yard with high theater.

Sister Redempta began much better. Her face, what I could see of it beneath pleated cardboard and black serge, was pretty, kind, comforting. She greeted us daily with a smile, she told funny stories, she sang a song in Spanish about a brown duck. Oh, I loved Sister!

At home, I draped my grandmother’s black wool sweater over my head and my silver rosary around my neck. I stood before the mirror and sang, “Patito, Patito, Colore Café.” It was astonishing!

“Don’t I look just like Sister?” I bragged to Grandma.

“Spittin’ image,” she said. “Now give me back my sweater and take that thumb out of your mouth.”

Sister said we were reaching the Age of Reason, seven, and so would make our First Holy Communion in April. I trusted her implicitly. When she said, don’t chew the Communion Host because it is Jesus’s actual body, I knew, somehow, this must make sense. If she said First Communion would be the happiest day of my life, I felt in advance swirls of grace filling me with mysterious joy.

Her tone was less cheery about First Confession. “Examine your conscience! Tell Father how often you’ve disobeyed, you’ve lied, you’ve cheated, you’ve broken a promise, you’ve taken a crumb from the cookie jar without permission.”

“What if I haven’t done any sins?” one foolhardy first-grader asked.

“Hmm.” Sister looked concerned. “Another sin. Lying to yourself…”

Immediately, my conscience went into action. Thumb-sucking! It wasn’t God or the Pope who prohibited this, but my mother, a close third. Every time my callused, shriveled thumb sneaked into my mouth, I was disobeying Mother, a sin of at least venial proportions. And I still “gave trouble” to Mother every morning as she dragged me kicking and screaming to school. I loved Sister but, oh, my fellow children! They pushed, they shoved, they called me cruel names like thumb-sucker and crybaby. It was an outrage!

Relief came when I discovered the miracle of Going Home Sick. Examining my bodily sensations as carefully as I examined my conscience, I found aches, pains, itches, I didn’t know I had. If I told Sister about them in a weak, whispery voice, like the mystery of the Assumption, Mother soon appeared to take me home.

Mother began noting the way my health recovered as soon as we arrived home. “Call the Pope!” she’d say. “We have another miracle cure!” She arranged a meeting with Sister.

“Ah, yes, I see,” Sister said, when Mother suggested that I might be Going Home Sick too often. They agreed that henceforth, I would leave school only in cases of febrile convulsions, projectile vomiting or broken bones.

I was despondent. Sister said I should imitate the Little Flower of Jesus and offer up my suffering for the poor souls in Purgatory. “I do it myself, everyday,” she sighed. I believed her because as we stood in the hallway outside our classroom, we could hear the clamor, the shouts, the crashing sounds emanating from within. Ours had become the worst behaved class in the school and Sister’s face had gradually lost its look of serenity and holiness and had become red- hued, tearful, and desperate.

After the day the principal had to storm into our classroom to subdue a riot. Sister, forced against her nature, embarked on her own pogrom. She shouted, she threatened, and ultimately, she promised to keep the class in school ALL NIGHT LONG if even one of us misbehaved again.

The next morning, desperate, I grabbed my stomach and wailed. I feigned febrile convulsions. I even feigned fainting. Dragging me to the car, Mother lost all patience. “Would the Little Flower fake a ruptured appendix?” she snapped. “And anyway, Sister will not really keep the class all night long.”

“Yes, she will,” I said. “She PROMISED.” Breaking a promise? A Mortal Sin!

At school, Mother asked Sister to dispel my silly notion that she might punish the class all night.

“Why, I’d never…” Sister said.

“But you said…” I cried, atremble, weepy.

Sister turned red. “I will never keep you in all night. I PROMISE.” Then she whispered, “But please don’t tell the others, okay?”

I felt an urgent need to suck my thumb, but for the sake of the poor souls in Purgatory, present and future, I resisted.