It was late 1962 and time for me to start school for the first time ever. Just my luck, I got put in Sister Angeline’s first-grade class. This Catholic nun was a real terror, a diminutive, plump woman fully robed in black and a bit of white with a sharply winged white cornette that made her appear to be over five feet tall, although her real height was more like 4’6”. The only time she wasn’t angry was when she’d successfully humiliated and/or hurt some six-year-old child for some crime like talking out of turn or peeing in one’s chair for fear of raising one’s hand to be excused to the bathroom. Humiliating and terrorizing children always put a little closed-mouth grin of satisfaction on her face, for a moment anyways.
She was perhaps 60 years old at the time, hard to be certain because we never saw anything but her face and her hands. Her hair color was a mystery, always fully covered by headdresses, usually the severest of cornettes. I imagined her hair was grayish. She strongly resembled the actress Zelda Rubinstein, but was not as fleshy or double-chinned, as Angeline was chubby, not fat. And Angeline’s big eyes were a piercing icy blue, not brown. Rubinstein played the eccentric medium, Tangina Barrons, in the early Poltergeist movies.
Sister Angeline was infamous for her clicker, which I believe she called a frog, a hand-held metal object with a springy thumb tab that made a loud clicking noise when she’d furiously press it, rapid fire when needed. It was a sound that struck alarm and fear in the more timid of her flock of little children, and induced more of a snicker of defiance in the bolder among us, who were yet also fearful of the demonic nun once they’d gone too far or got caught committing some sin.
Fear urination and vomiting were a regular part of the day in the holy Sister’s classroom.
QUIET was the rule for Sister Angeline’s class, including in the lunch area. Only speak when called upon to speak, by her, and you’d better have the right answer. At lunchtime, while other classes sat straddling their benches talking a bit or otherwise being insolent (a testament to the contemptible laxity of other teachers), our class was dead silent, eating every speck of our lunches in the proper order, often without tasting anything, chewing thoroughly and swallowing each lump of less than wanted nourishment in fear, looking straight ahead. (Ah, a touch of home though, those lunches, made by our moms, and how we longed to be home!) It was very hard to work up an appetite when one felt nauseous most of the time, from a mixture of fear and loathing of the short woman with the hateful glare. Those light blue eyes felt like daggers when they’d bore into you, so you’d do anything to avoid attracting her attention.
But then, lo and behold, that obedient silence and rigidness would attract her attention! I sat in her classroom once, concentrating on the alphabet or something and suddenly she loomed over me, seething eyes penetrating my soul, and she roared, “You think all you have to do is sit there and look pretty?!!” “No, Sister, I’m paying attention,” I replied, or something similar. She bristled and huffed and walked away, seemingly satisfied with the abject fear on my face and in my trembling voice.
I had several instances of vomiting and peeing in class and so did several other kids. If one dared to raise one’s hand and ask to go to the restroom, she’d always shout something humiliating like, “You should’ve thought of that before class! You’ll wait till recess, dodo bird!” Needless to say, with the urgent need to urinate combined with the terror, the urine flowed in that classroom. Vomiting usually occurred after lunch, with food struggling to be digested in extremely nervous stomachs, and failing and spewing out onto the floor. The smell of vomit is a prominent memory from those days. At the vomiting she was really furious, embarrassed to be calling on the janitor every day to throw sawdust onto yet another puddle of puke from some “insolent” child. The janitor calmly took it all in stride as if he’d been doing same with this crazy woman and her first-graders for some time.
Filthy sinner child, confess and do penance!
Sister would pick some boys up out of their seats by an ear and drag them across the room to be shut in the closet, or under her desk, or to face the Virgin Mary statue in the corner for an hour or so, for some crime like uttering a word or two without permission, perhaps to ask a question, or for not paying strict attention to her. How dare they! One raised one’s hand and waited patiently for the good Sister to call on one if one had a question or statement. If not, expect possibly to be slapped hard upside your head. Hard enough to hurt badly and shock you, not hard enough to do actual injury, mind you. Even Angeline had rules to follow. The church and school frowned upon lawsuits, naturally.
My mischievous friend Coleen often got in trouble with Sister Angeline, since Coleen was loud and assertive and liked to clown around. Even though her natural ways were severely constricted under Angeline’s rule, Coleen would occasionally laugh out loud at something or commit some other crime, and she was grabbed and led by ear to sit under Angeline’s desk. When teacher sat down at her desk with Coleen under it, Coleen peaked out through the gap at the bottom of the desk to face the class and made the “stinky” symbol by holding her nose and grimacing. Several kids saw that and burst out laughing.
“Is something so funny?!” the little nun growled. “Someone tell me what’s so funny or you’ll all get ten demerits and stay after school for detention!” No one spoke up; Coleen’s face was no longer visible as even she was scared then, and I believe we all did get the punishment promised, since Angeline wasn’t one to not follow through on her threats.
The old standby, the famous nuns’ ruler smack across a kid’s little knuckles.
Angeline also wielded the wooden ruler and used it with a demented sort of enjoyment I’d never witnessed before. She’d whack kids’ knuckles with a flourish and it was so loud an impact that I’d jump at each lashing, until I became accustomed to it anyways. I don’t remember her ever doing that to girls, just boys, although with Coleen there may have been an exception.
It appeared that the good Sister took the lyrics to the old song, “School Days,” to heart:
Reading and writing and ‘rithmetic
Taught to the tune of the hickory stick…
The main thing you’d better have done in Angeline’s classroom was to learn her lessons and learn them well, so the alphabet, basic reading and writing, basic math, and the introductory religious dogma, we were all really good at, due to fear. Only the truly learning impaired kids failed to pick up on and grasp everything this evil little woman taught us. But we’d have all learned just as well with a teacher who wasn’t a tiny monster, who didn’t terrorize us into learning.
Imagine; this was my first school experience. I’d never gone to kindergarten or nursery school and started first grade when I was still five, nearing age six. So I think I may have been even more traumatized by the Angeline experience than the other kids, but I don’t know their stories so cannot be sure. It was an awful experience for a six-year-old girl or any child, and it shouldn’t have even been possible for such a crazy, mean, vicious woman to be put in charge of children of any age. But it was possible, because of the way the religion works and the way Christianity in general casts us all as sinners merely for being born, and having Christ’s crucifixion held over our guilty little heads as the reason we must confess our guilt and do continual penance for being so very rotten. The love for Jesus was paramount, even more than the guilty self-loathing. I assume all that sort of training played a big role in the dementia and cruelty of Sister Angeline. In later years, every teacher I had at that school, whether a nun or not, seemed absolutely angelic in comparison with The One.
Snitching on the holy woman was also terroristically advised against.
Sister Angeline conveyed to us all by some mysterious means that we were not to get her in trouble for her “strictness.” So it seems we were all hesitant to let our parents know exactly what was going on, or at least I was afraid to do so. But when things got bad enough and I would be extremely sick and nauseous before heading off to school and begging to stay home, tales of Angeline terror could be coaxed from me by my mom. She was saddened and horrified, but my dad, mainly at the urging of his devoutly religious Catholic sister-in-law, would convince me to hush up, that it was just the teacher’s being strict, and for me to not be so upset by it. Just laugh it off, he seemed to say. Oh how I tried, but no go. Both my parents did once have a meeting with Sister Angeline and school officials, but were dismissed with pretty much the same advice my dad gave me. Shocking to me then, but not at all now, after all I’ve learned about that church’s policies regarding pedophile priests.
Anyhow, that’s one standout life experience that formed who I became and who I am today, for whatever that’s worth. I never wanted to be anything even remotely similar to that little terror of a nun. Although I never could figure out exactly what she was. Except for evil, and extremely, devoutly Catholic.