|On the road to a lifetime of therapy, my 5th grade class at Holy Trinity 1975 with the little nun who broke us all.|
She paced before us, her black orthopedic shoes screeching against the institutional black-and-white speckled tiled floor. We were four months into our nine months sentence with Sister Lawrence in the fifth grade of Holy Trinity School in Fort Lee. There was still a brutal six months ahead of us. If we survived tonight.
“Where is it?” she commanded. Her four-foot eight-inch frame striking terror into us. “Where. Is. Baby. Jesus?” her clenched jaw deployed the lever that made her fists curl into dangerous balls. She stopped in front of Rosemary costumed in a long dress, her head veiled by a beautifully hand-embroidered sheet.
How could Sister Lawrence be yelling at Rosemary? Rosie was the ideal Catholic! She was on the “A” string for Team Jesus! She was chosen from all the other girls to play the role of Mary in the Nativity Scene for the annual Christmas Concert, but she had forgotten her Baby Jesus, a.k.a. Tippy Tumbles, at home. We held our breath as Sister Lawrence rained insults down upon Rosie. No one could strip you of your dignity with such skilled precision like Sister Lawrence. Her meticulous dissection of the ego is still studied in some convents far, far, away.
“Did Mary forget to bring Baby Jesus to Bethlehem? NO! But YOU apparently think it’s okay to forget our Lord and Savior and deny us the pleasure of his blessed birth! Do you think that Baby Jesus grew up to die on that cross (our eyes automatically turned towards the crucifix she was pointing at) just so you could forget him at home?! Your sister didn’t forget him last year when she was the Virgin Mary!”
I felt dizzy with faint. I’m pretty sure the boy next to me wet his pants. For the last half-hour as we waited for our class to go on stage and perform for our parents, Rosie had been holding her arms to her chest as if she was cradling a baby hoping that Sister Lawrence wouldn’t find out she left Baby Jesus home. Now I could hear her sniffles and knew that Sister Lawrence had reduced her to tears. Like all my other classmates, I thanked God it was her and not me. Sister Lawrence already got her licks in with me earlier in the day.
That morning, she chose me, Mary Lutz, Helena Toledo, and Lia Bizzaro to stay behind at recess to wrap Christmas gifts for the retired nuns at Convent Station. (I always pictured Convent Station as a town with train-fuls of old nuns waiting to go to Heaven.) Feeling privileged to be hand-picked by her, she directed us on how to wrap presents. My euphoria of having been chosen quickly faded when, upon wrapping my first gift, she jerked it out of my hands and intentionally ripped the paper from the box, her face a blooming shade of apoplectic red.
“Look at this!” she bellowed. “What is this?”
I did look at it. It was a ripped open present. My sarcasm, being in its nascent stages, I kept to myself.
“Look at all this paper you wasted to wrap this gift! You didn’t need all this paper! Are you so rich that you can afford to use all this paper on one tiny gift? Look at the size of your side-triangles! You only need enough paper to barely cover the box and no more. These nuns have NOTHING and you’re going to show them how little they have by wrapping their gift with all that paper! Go sit down. You disgust me with your waste! You’re going to grow up to be a waste!” As instructed, I sat down wondering if these wounds would ever heal enough to have scars.
Despite Sister Lawrence’s wrath, we appeared on stage and sang to an empty manger while our Mary fought back her tears. Whenever I hear “What Child is This?” I think of 29 ten-year olds singing to an empty cradle while our parents snapped pictures capturing a moment we would spend years in therapy trying to forget.
But despite the long divide of years, each Christmas I can't help but think of Sister Lawrence and the legacy she left behind: Rosie’s anxiety attacks whenever she sees a nativity scene, my strong feelings of inadequacy whenever I see beautifully wrapped presents, and knowing that somewhere there’s a boy who just wants to wet his pants. Merry Christmas!