Word Count 498
By Terry Rainey
Sister Mary Xavier, SPC, kept vigil in her black habit while we read about a jumping frog from Calaveras County. Since I’d already read the story my mind wandered to the unique desk arrangement in SisterXland. Three rows directly faced Sister, the “extra attention” section, which included my best friends. I sat in the middle of the other three rows, which slanted away from the windows and towards the extra attention rows.
My friends were straining to look studious, fearing SisterX’s Pittsburgh-steel eyes, her sarcasm and her constantly twirling pencil. X emphasized points by flicking the pencil against her palm, on her desk, and, occasionally, on a student’s head. The pencil’s silver end had no eraser and was flattened, with flared edges. She called it the business end of the pencil. “No eraser?” my mother asked once. “Even the Pope needs an eraser.”
Suddenly, Sister snapped “Herman, keep your eyes open.” Herman jolted awake so quickly that his book fell and resoundingly smacked the floor. X stiffened. She barked a few of her favorite derogatory terms – urchin, twit, disgrace – and concluded with the essential X saying, “Must I Continue!” It was not a question.
“Must I continue?” We’d heard the phrase from our older brothers and sisters. We loved adding endings to it, like “…torturing all you kids?…ruining young lives?…being so scary? …doing karate on your head?” Having the last word on Sister, out of her earshot of course, was pure pleasure.
OLPS legend was that only one kid ever challenged a “Must I Continue.” Johnny Kotapish. Johnny was one of 11 Kotapish kids and got lost in the muddle of it all. Seven years ago, Johnny had blurted, “Yes. Please continue, X.” SisterX’s hands shot up to her ears hoping she and God above be spared such blasphemy. But her arm got caught in her habit and it bumped the pencil, which shot out of her hand, and landed, point first, in the white of Johnny’s eye. Did it stick there? Did he run screaming? Did it stay that way till the ambulance came? I was still afraid to look Johnny in the eye.
SisterX was not getting anything out of Herman, who’d woken so suddenly that he couldn’t come up with a satisfactory grovel. Herman’s obliviousness didn’t sate Sister X’s need for immediate contrition. In exasperation, she rolled her eyes sideways towards the windows, and, surprisingly, locked stares with me.
I was thinking about Herman’s plight and about growing up in the swarming Kotapish household, but mostly about the pencil in Johnny’s eye. Quivering. I was uneasy, fearful, and a bit wretched. I never disguised distress well.
Sister X paused. My pitiful expression seemed to satisfy her hunger for repentance. She’d found reparation from another source and it completed her circle of justice. The threat had been conquered and the world could go on spinning. She cleared her throat, hefted her book, and directed me to read aloud.
Mark Twain could now speak to us.