Beauty And Peril Of The Past

The first school I knew was a world apart, like other old places, and all the wood and stone kept its smell and coldness no matter how often washed. It was an old Catholic school, once a college but now served grades one through six. Too vast a space for such small students. Our wooden desks, which stood on cast-iron rods connecting several in tandem, resembled tiny sleighs, ready to launch into the air if we’d only had reindeer harnessed to them.

Our teacher was a young nun with an ivory face like a pendant, and we worshipped her. She was like a character from a movie, because she played guitar and sang. Her convent had given her the pleasure of two names but we thought she ought to have three, or four. She told stories featuring the class — these usually involved a monster which she would beat to death with an outsize rosary, making it clear she was willing to kill for us.

This was good to know, because I was certain there was danger here. The lowest floor of the school, for instance, was frightening with its slick cement floor and dim lighting. The stairs were also cement, and to my horror sometimes had vomit here or there which they would cover with sawdust. I detested going downstairs to the cafeteria for lunch. We went two-by-two: We were instructed to go in pairs, and you had to hold hands. If I tell you there was a little girl whose hands were covered in warts, with whom I was frequently partnered, you may think I’m exaggerating, but she was there.

The school itself was poorly equipped. There were no maps for my grade, except of ancient Palestine; no globes. I had no idea what the world looked like. This was all the world. Chalk and pencil were our supplies. We were so quiet, no one spoke out of turn even if the teacher left the room; not because of strict discipline. I think it was the high ceilings above us, the sawdust, the echoes and dark corridors. We were somewhere in God’s mouth.

Although my family moved and I left this school for brighter-lit ones, my thoughts return here more often than anywhere else. The grassy yards of the school and church seemed greener and more covered with violets than any others I can recall. Even inside that dark school, I remember the nuns moving about the halls like birds — clustering together a moment, then flying apart suddenly — and the black habits swung outward, illustrating the beauty weight gives to motion.

The days seemed quite serious, how could they not be when your feet made echoes everywhere you walked. The windows were unshaded and, like eternity, long and pointed. We were tiny but we had our own seats perilous here, and any moment our lives might assume a greater importance.

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