I am the product, or perhaps the victim, of parochial school, which is to say that I sat in a dingy little room and was tortured by nuns for 12 years.
Chief among them was Sister Clement. When I was in the third or fourth grade, Sister Clement towered over me in a way reminiscent of the way Godzilla towers over Tokyo. In fact, she walked a lot like Godzilla did: with a slight waddle, as if constrained by a grotesque rubber costume.
Only with Sister Clement, it wasn't no costume. The furriest pair of eyebrows you've ever seen on a human, much less a woman, crawled out from under her habit like caterpillars, trying but not succeeding to reach the ziggurat that was her nose. That enormous Irish edifice, scored with veins and red as a broken thumb, dominated her face - an effect exacerbated by a positively giant mole right on the tip of her nose, from which sprung three hardy hairs like mountaineering flags on some barely surmountable peak.
This poor lady was ugly, if I haven't made it clear enough.
Now, I'd like to say that her frightful, Halloween mask of a face was softened by a grandmotherly personality, and that she exuded kindness every moment that she was among children.
But saying so would be a lie, and a bunch of big, mean nuns told me that was bad to do. In actual fact, her ugliness was only exceeded by her pious cruelty, which found an outlet in a truly imaginative array of torments she would inflict on us kids, like the gum torture.
Why is chewing gum in school bad anyway? I can see not letting kids chew snoose, smoke cigarettes, or drink hard liquor in class. But what's the harm in a little gum? Something to occupy your jaw through hours of arithmetic, sentence diagrams, and the endless recitation of dates: "1066, 1215, 1492, 1605, 1792, 1804."
"Are you ruminants, children," she would ask. "Do you chew your cud like the beasts of the field?"
I didn't know what ruminant meant, but I figured whatever it was, it was probably a damn sight more friendly than a nun.
At any rate, the punishment for being caught with so much as a shred of Beeman's Gum between your teeth was that old Sister Clement would reach her leperous claws into your mouth - into your mouth - and retrieve the sticky gob of gum, walk over to the chalkboard, and stick that gum right on its surface. Then Sister Clement would grab you by the ear, drag you over to the gum-sullied chalkboard, and mash your nose into the gum. You were supposed to sit there, unmoving, while your classmates snickered. What's worse, the gum was just high enough that you had to stand on your tiptoes to maintain the position while a sharp ache spread through your legs.
"Gary likes to chew gum so much that he's decided to start wearing it on his nose, too. What do you think of that class? Who wants to join him up there? We don't have to do multiplication tables. We can all just sit with our noses in yucky, sticky gum for the rest of the afternoon. Who wants to do that?"
Unrepentantly snotty to the end, I raised my hand from my post at the chalkboard. Obviously, I couldn't see the class's reaction, but a handful of nervous chuckles were reward enough.
"Put your blooming hand down, you little demon!"
A yardstick across the knuckles will take the fight out of nearly every 12 year old. But the yardstick was hardly Sister Clement's weapon of choice. Hell, she might have preferred a pair of brass knuckles, a grenade, or a good solid blackjack but was willing to settle for the Catholic school's hand-made window stoppers.
These were old wooden gizmos that looked like stairs, and the nuns would the window and then let it fall on whichever "step" of the stair they wished, higher for more open, lower for more closed. It stood about six inches tall, with a handle you could hold to put it in place while lowering the window down, but which also made it a nasty implement of righteous discipline.
Girls got smacked on the open palm for being bad, and boys got smacked on the back of the hand across the knuckles. At least once I saw a boy get a fractured knuckle, which the nuns were benevolent enough to treat with a bag of ice and a stern frown.
Sister Clement was well into her 60's by the time I ran afoul of her, but she had the swinging arm of Wade Boggs. From 2nd grade to 5th grade, my knuckles were pulp.
Now, I'm pretty sure it says somewhere in the Good Book not to speculate what happens to other people after they die - that is, whether they make it to the good place or the bad place. That having been said, her service to God and church were unpaid, strictly voluntary, and I'm confident that she's sitting even now at the right hand of God. Probably asking if He needs anyone whacked.
But the problem as I saw it wasn't so much to corporeal punishment, which even I had to admit I might have deserved, but the fact that she obviously liked it as much as she did. She could enjoy an athletic bout of kid-smacking with as free and joyous a heart as if she had gone picking wildflowers in the Alps like Julie Andrews.
Finally, I'd had enough.
One afternoon in junior high, I had to go back to the classroom to retrieve a book I'd left in the desk when I found myself alone. The school was literally a stone's throw away from Spring Creek, and if you can throw a stone you can probably throw a window-stopper - especially since they came with handles, like a German Steilhandgranate. So I gathered all of them, every single window-stopper in the building, and threw them into the Creek. I watched them settle into the water and disappear with satisfaction.
What followed was a lesson in the wages of sin. First, my mistaken assumption that if you took away Sister Clement's favorite toy she'd stop smacking us. Not so. Reflecting on the misadventure from the vantage of 60 years on, I realize my mistake. You can take away a cowboy's spoon, but he'll still figure out a way to eat his beans, if you catch my drift. Suffice it to say that for the next week or so, the yardsticks saw a great deal more use.
A deep, dark, foreboding guilt (and a very uncomfortable few days without ventilation) and I developed a sense of penitence, not to mention a desire to atone.
I drew the design for the window stoppers on paper, and asked Dad if he would make some. He cut out a set of eight on his band saw - one for each of the classrooms.
As soon as the last one was fabricated, Dad promptly smacked me on the back of the hand with one of them.
"That's what you get for destroying church property, you little blasphemer."
Somehow he had put together the whole story, but then he always did know me better than anyone else.
Gary Shelton was born in Lewistown in 1951 and has been a rancher, a railroader, a biker, a teacher, a hippie, and a cowboy. Now he's trying his hand at writing in the earnest hope that he'll make enough at it to make a downpayment on an RV. Hell, scratch that. Enough to buy the whole RV. He can be reached at [email protected] for complaints, criticisms, and recriminations. Compliments can be sent to the same place, but we request you don't send them - it'll make his head big.