When I was seven years old, I almost become a saint, and it was all Sister Agatha’s fault.
Sister Agatha was supreme ruler of the second grade class of St. Francis School, as well as a supreme ruler wielder.
We weren’t babies anymore, Sister Agatha made clear on our first day of school. We had reached the age of reason, ready to begin studying for First Communion, and continue our scholarly pursuits in reading, writing, and arithmetic. She had zero tolerance for slackers and dummies, and woe to anyone who stepped out of line.
Under Sister Agatha’s tutelage, we were a solemn, studious bunch. We spoke only when spoken to or when called upon. In time, our normal childish voices took on a sort of monotone cadence, as if we were always reciting by rote. We seldom smiled or laughed aloud. Any infraction brought with it the wrath of Sister Agatha. In a flash, she would screech and swoop upon her victim from a fog of chalk like some human-pterodactyl hybrid, leaving her little prey quivering in her wake.
In the middle of a lesson, she would abruptly decide to conduct inspections, and we stood at attention next to our desks, little soldiers, ramrod straight, hands extended, so she could examine our fingernails for signs of gnawing or grime. Failure brought a sharp rap across the knuckle. The interiors of our desks were also scrutinized and if declared, “a mess” would be emptied of their contents in an explosion of flying books and pencil missiles.
Mornings were devoted to reading, penmanship and arithmetic. Arithmetic proved my nemesis. Sister Agatha once made me stand at the blackboard for an hour as I struggled with adding fractions. I could feel Sister’s black, piercing eyes searing my back, heard the steady thump of her gnarled fingers tapping impatiently on her desk. I imagined twenty-four pairs of eyes sneaking pitying looks in my direction, but in reality, I knew my fellow pupils, engaged in their own self-preservation, kept their eyes and noses riveted to their open textbooks. Finally, I was ordered back to my seat. The problem on the blackboard remained unsolved, a symbol of my embarrassment, visible to all.
“Dunce,” was Sister’s only comment.
Afternoons were set aside for religious instruction and learning our catechism in preparation for First Communion. Our little craniums had already cemented to memory “The Lord’s Prayer,” “The Hail Mary,” and the “Glory Be,” in first grade. Now we struggled to memorize “The Act of Contrition,” and the “Apostle’s Creed.” We learned hymns like Holy God, We Praise Thy Name and Hail Holy Queen. Using her ruler like a baton, Sister Agatha would conduct us in song:
Triumph, all ye cherubim, Sing with us, ye seraphim,
Heaven and earth resound the hymn:
Salve, salve, salve Regina!
And we didn’t understand a word of it. We could have been singing in Mongolian.
Sister Agatha played “priest” during our practice communion sessions. She set up a bench in front of the classroom, a child kneeling on one side, her standing on the other, holding aloft a round thin wafer made with Wonder Bread. “Stick out your tongue”, she’d bark, and most of us took secret satisfaction in pointing our tongue out at her. She laid the wafer on our tongues with instructions to “let it melt…don’t touch it. And don’t bite down. In real Communion, this is the Lord’s body and if you bite it, blood will dribble down your chin.”
Gruesome. But we were immune to such horrors since Sister started reading from The Lives of the Saints. Sister would rhapsodize about St. So-and-So and St. Whosee-Whatzis and the courage they showed and the suffering they endured for our Lord’s sake. She’d read accounts of devout men and women whose limbs were lopped off, who were roasted over spits, boiled in oil, torn apart and devoured by lions, and we were both horrified and totally enraptured. The Brother’s Grimm was candy-ass compared to the Lives of the Saints.
One day, Sister set up a screen and projector and announced that we were going to see a movie called The Song of Bernadette. She explained that St. Bernadette was a little French girl who saw visions of the Virgin Mary and dug up a spring that miraculously cured people at a place called Lourdes. And it was during the showing of this film that I saw something that made me want to become a saint, too.
As Sister Agatha watched the flickering images, her face transformed. The grim visage melted and took on an expression of wonder, like a desert dweller seeing his first snowfall.
And I saw Sister Agatha smile. A gentle, pensive smile.
I was amazed. Saints were powerful beings. Saints could tame a wild beast with just a touch or a word. I wanted to be one.
I started by reading the Bible. I figured it was something a saint would do. It was a massive tome, weighing about five pounds, bound in red leather with a cross, embossed in gold, on the cover. I dusted it off, stretched out on the living room rug with the book open before me and flipped to Genesis:
“In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth…”
I told myself I’d read a chapter every night. I skipped over all the names and words I couldn’t pronounce which sped the process along considerably. When I got to the book of Exodus, my eyes begin to swim from the constant “begats” that floated within my vision. I didn’t know what a begat was, but people were doing a lot of it. I asked my mother what begat meant. She told me I’d find out when I was older.
In the privacy of my room, I’d kneel and pray. I prayed every prayer I knew because saints prayed a lot. I had prayer marathons. I wished Sister Agatha could see me.
I tried to keep the faith. I waited for the heavenly visions and miraculous signs.
About a week after starting my saintly regime, Sister Agatha was reviewing our catechism and told us to take out our notebooks and answer the following question:
Who is God?
Heads bent and pencils scratched furiously against paper. I paused, tapping my pencil, deep in thought. My mind whirled with thoughts of saints and Sister Agatha and communion and all the rest of it, my seven-year-old self wrestling with a question that has stumped the most learned theologians.
Sister Agatha caught my eye, frowned and gestured for me to start writing.
So I wrote.
One by one, Sister Agatha told us to stand and read our answers.
Michael wrote: “God is love”.
Katie wrote: “God made heaven and earth.”
I stood and read what I had written: “I don’t know who God is…”
I heard someone gasp.
“I don’t know what God is…”
I could almost hear Sister Agatha’s eyebrows rise.
“All I know,” I read, “is that God is.”
Sister Agatha glared. “God is what?”
The paper was steady in my hands. “God is.”
“What on earth does that mean?” She sounded exasperated. Not a good sign
But I didn’t waver. “He is, sister. He just IS.”
All was quiet. My classmates, befuddled, looked to me and back to Sister Agatha. They braced for an explosion.
It was as if there was no one else in the room but Sister Agatha and me. Then I saw a spark of understanding light up those dark eyes. A few moments passed. And Sister Agatha smiled. A sweet, gentle smile.
* * *
That was when I first learned the power of words. With words I had tamed a wild beast.
Colleen O’Neil lives in the lovely seaside town of Newburyport, Mass. and has scribbled stories for as long as she can remember. After a long hiatus in which “life just got in the way,” she has recently rediscovered her love for writing and is currently working on a collection of creative nonfiction. In her spare time, Colleen enjoys reading and dabbling in genealogy.