It was around two in the afternoon. She interrupted the ongoing class like she always did. Walking in with a pile of report cards stacked tightly against her chest, she held them as one would hold onto a rebellious child.
Her face was the usual color of red and tan, her spectacles thick and squared sat precariously on her sweaty face. Her head was covered with a scarf except for a few strands of coarse, black, unruly curls that peeked out; perhaps she enjoyed not being perceived as a bald nun! Her skirt did not go all the way down, its white layers seemed to stop short right between her knee and ankle. She wore those skin colored pantyhose and her black sandals carried her tiny, fast feet.
I cannot recall her smiling! Her face was always pinched and angry. And needless to say I was terrified of her!
Well this particular afternoon I was in deep despair, so desperate that I was willing to pray to any God for help, hers, mine, theirs, I really didn’t care! Like a prisoner ready to be executed, my heart hoped for reprieve! I hoped she would be kind, I hoped she would notice that this was my very first time, I hoped she would not be loud in her callous announcements, I hoped the other girls would not smirk, I hoped my parents would not mind. After all it was a ‘moral science’ test and I never really studied for it!!!
As was the ritual, we all stood as she walked in and wished her a very good afternoon! If the day was ridiculously hot and the stench of the girls toilet situated right next to our fifth grade classroom bothered us, we pretended it was okay. There had been no running water in there and who could be blamed. Due to my medium height I sat in the third or fourth row on the far right, away from the classroom door and close to the windows. I used to sit there a lot!! I recall letting my mind wander amongst the trees, the thick foliage, the moss, the mushrooms and the occasional rabbit right outside the window! My mind wandered a whole lot and quiet often!
She stood right in the center of the classroom to announce each of our ranking. She waited for absolute silence, which was handed to her without any resistance. We were all ranked, all forty-five of us, each according to our academic performance. Everyone who had passed in all the subjects tested was given a ranking. At times I procured a ranking as far down as thirty-fifth or forty-first! But my real life was the life outside of school and there I was content!!
We clapped our hands for the first three rank holders, as she curled her lips slightly letting out that rare smile in appreciation of their hard work. After which, there was no clapping, she called out our names and our ranking for all of the class to know. Those who had failed ‘a’ subject came under the category of ‘failed’, these kids would not get a ranking, they were special. They were to be pushed down deep into the underworld of hellish humiliation on account of their laziness and stupidity there they would have no friends and no consolation. After all punishment was atonement for your sins!! And I had sinned!!! I had managed to fail in ‘moral science’!!!
I wish I could tell you that this failure made me contemplate the nature of my morals and my unwillingness to abide by some unseen yet fully recommended code for all of mankind! But I was most interested in just lasting my ordeal with as much grace as possible and to hold back those tears if they should push though the firm barriers of my strong mind. I had learnt at that young age that I had to remain strong and not to look anyone in the eye when I was in pain. I preferred to nurse my wounds in private and then again there was this other and significant challenge of having to have this report card signed by a parent. So like a starving man rationing his supplies, I too had decided to ration my suffering cause I was to suffer in two separate places for the very same crime.
She paused after all the ranks were announced, as if she wanted to gather everyone’s attention once again for the grand finale — the essential slaughter! Her favorite part!! Where she would decide which hell and what punishment would purify the young and deviant souls of those of us who had failed. ‘Vandana’, she called, I stood and walked quickly towards her, I wanted this to be over with. Her face twisted in fury and I forgot the tears and focused on the bladder that was ready to come loose!!! ‘ What a pity?? Failing in moral science!!!’ she announced before the entire class. ‘I am sorry! I managed to whisper and rushed back to my seat. My body felt hot, and sweat trickled down my back, I had to sit down and wait for the blood to flow out from my face and for my heart to stop pounding!! I just stared at my desk for as long as I needed to gain composure. I had survived!
That year was rough! I had no friends and my sisters were not in the same school anymore! I walked back home like I usually did, rehearsing what I would tell my mother all along the way. Catching her in a good mood was important, how I worded my plea was important, the promises I would make for future betterment of my sinned soul was important. All of this would determine her management of the expectations of my father who would in turn sign the report card.
My mother was burdened as usual with too much care! She was irritated and bothered when I approached her with my confession. She was a good mother, who had protected us often from the many disgraceful things that we were tempted to participate in. Due to her inability to speak the English language, I considered her vulnerable and was terribly protective of her as well. Beyond doubt I knew she loved me but this particular incident involved the extension of her power in the household, as my father was the one who would place his signature upon this shameful card and I could not imagine him wanting to partake in my shame. Anyway it had to be done and so I told her with my eyes as wide as saucers, that I had failed and that I had failed in ‘moral science’. I expected the worst!! It was an abnormal situation and in hindsight her abnormal reaction was natural!!! ‘What about math and science?” she asked. I had done well in those so I replied confidently. ‘Alright, she said, never mind moral science!’ With this casual remark she went on with whatever it was that she was busy doing. It had ended even before it started and my heart filled up with love for this easy going and understanding soul whom I called mother. She must have spun a good tale as my report card was signed and I took it back to school the next day.
But sister Geraldine was right!! Even today my morals are murky and subject to constant change. I have lied to keep my children from school, I stole a magazine from the dentist’s office, I take great risks to appease my own heart, I love wine and several R-rated movies and I tend to indulge in life and enjoy it to the fullest!
So this is what I have to say to her!
“Dear Sister Geraldine, never mind those morals, please learn to love, love at any cost and fully at least once in your life, please do not forgo the joys of this life in exchange for rewards in the other and find that heaven right within you. I have survived despite failing! In fact I am thriving, have ample love in my life and smile often. You see, you knew the rules, the codes and the right morals but I have God’ s hand upon me!”
“What a pity?? Wasting your life!!!”
Originally published at vandananittoor.blogspot.com on November 26, 2014.