Sister Josepha teaches social studies to her sixth grade class


Inside the sixth grade classroom at St. Joseph’s the air is heavy with the humidity, and pencil dust of an early spring day. Sister Josepha is leading the class through a social studies lesson, as they twist, and squirm on the creaking wooden seats of their desks. On the wall above the blackboard, and the paper banner of a cursive alphabet, the clock ticks slowly. Even the statue of Mary on the pedestal in the corner looks bored.

Outside the wind is snapping at the flag on the flagpole, and low gray clouds are scudding across the sky. It is March 1980, and it seems like there are always low gray clouds scudding across the sky. I have long since stopped listening to Sister as she writes on the blackboard, pausing to wipe her nose with a Kleenex she keeps tucked in the sleeve of her habit. Flipping ahead in the social studies book, I have already read through the cultures of half of Asia and Africa, and have even lost interest in that.

The wind whistles as it blows over the gaps in the aluminum window frames, and makes a low, mournful moan. I look outside, and give up all pretense of paying attention. Out across the asphalt parking lot of our schoolyard, past the orange brick convent, and over the flat roof of the squat, square Gymnasium we call our church, the spire of the First Baptist church pokes into the sky like a minaret. Two doors down the stately stone castle of the First Presbyterian Church stands sentinel on the corner of Main and Liberty Streets.

There will be no turning back to the classroom. It is too late now, my imagination has taken flight. The Protestant Churches remind me of stone fortresses, and I am lost in a Tolkien day dream, of elves, and brooding heroes. At the corner of Liberty and School Street the presses of the Batavia Machine Shop, stamp out a metallic rhythm, like the forges of Mordor piling weapons for the coming Armageddon. I shiver at the thought, and imagine black tusked Orcs swarming through the alley behind Mancuso’s, marching towards our keep.

Surely we are outnumbered. The good guys are always outnumbered. The Russians have more ICBM’s than we do. The public high school football teams have more players. It never matters. It didn’t matter for David. If God is with us, who can be against us? I look further down Liberty, past the Agway elevator that looms above the Pok-a-Dot, towards the South Side. On the far side of Ellicott I can barely make out the bell tower of St. Anthony’s, whose green clad knights will surely ride to our aid, and turn the tide of battle at that crucial moment when all seems lost. That’s how it always happens.

Boys will fall, and our arms will ache, but we will keep swinging our swords. In the windows high above the girls will scream, and gasp, and gaze adoringly at our exploits on the field of battle. We will be too busy, and too proud to notice them, but our faces will flush as we warm ourselves with the secret knowledge of their love. They know us for the heroes we are, we are sure of it, though they act indifferent, or downright appalled at our savageness most of the time.

When the battle is over and the victory won, we will kneel on one knee, and offer it up to Our Lady, while the sounds of hymns soar in from a distance on the March winds. Could there be anything more heroic in life than to be a Sixth grade boy? In our uniforms of white and blue, our ties knotted loosely around our necks, our scuffed and dirty Hush Puppies and Buster Browns tapping nervously on the tile floor, we steal glances at the knobby knees of the girls beside us. Something is changing, something has already changed. Outside on the March winds, what rough beast, its hour come ‘round at last, is slouching toward Bethlehem?

4 thoughts on “Sister Josepha teaches social studies to her sixth grade class

  1. The smell! I REMEMBER that smell!
    Anyway, this sounds achingly familiar except my daydream had the Mary statue using laser beams shot from her eyes and fingertips to incinerate the Social Studies nun. This left us free to roam the building or continue our own personal imaginings of sharing a loft apartment with blond rock musicians. Ahem.

    • Yet further proof that girls develop sooner than boys. A fact that keeps me awake at night now that Lil’ Miss 20 Prospect is in the 6th grade.

  2. Took me right back to sixth grade–well actually seventh since that room had the view of the sky and the flag. Yeah that skanky smell that was always there. Well told on the LOTR battles. Watch out for that Balrog!

    Did you really study Yeats in sixth grade? And did you ever figure out what that lion-man thing was with the big thighs? I never did.

    • No, Yeats came in college. That Lion man things with the big thighs in this story is adolescence. In the poem I think it’s modernity.

      Now back to our regularly scheduled snarky comments.

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