Sister Mary Andrew stormed out: a harbinger of the apocalypse. The anger in those eyes held no Christian charity or turning of the other cheek. As I plucked a clump of grass from behind my ear she descended the short three steps from the front entrance of the school down to the lawn. Her finger waved at us from her outstretched arm, accusing.
She was not a slight woman. She was built like a linebacker. She sounded a bit like a linebacker as well; drawn out suburban Massachusetts drawl with an authoritative depth. Sister Mary Andrew could make the word 'no' last for seconds.
She was not in habit. She wore a grey wool suit and white blouse, bullet proof opaque tights and black brogues. I think she wore that every day. I wonder if her closet held a series of identical wool suits, labeled with their respective day: her cupboard a collection of cloned blouses. Her habit, no doubt, would be kept separate. I never saw any of the nuns that taught me in their habits. I'm not sure I would have recognised them.
My hands stopped scraping the grass from my hair as I noticed the approaching juggernaut, my principal. I slapped Stevie Delicata's shoulder and pointed towards the path where Sister Mary Andrew marched towards us. She leaned forward slightly, as though her legs couldn't match the speed of her wrath. The delirium of the previous minutes evaporated as Zach, the third of us, muttered the only thing that came to mind.
None of us could say anything else.
Not much more than a minute before, the fire alarm sounded throughout the school. The odd fire drill never really meant much to us. We were only 9, maybe 10. We lined up in two lines in front of sister-something-or-other (I think Sister Mary-Ellen that year, because I think I was in 4th grade) or miss-what's-her-name and once we stood in two orderly lines, we'd be led outside to our meeting point. If anything, it was 5 or 10 minutes of not being in class. If you had a tendency to misbehave, as I did, it could be up to 20.
That day was different. I don't know how or why, but the ear-stinging shriek of that alarm ignited some manner of delinquent telepathy. Stevie, Zach and I weren't allowed to sit next to each other. Some earlier shenanigans led to us not even being allowed to look at each other that day. Nothing was planned because we didn't plan anything. We never planned anything. It just seemed to happen. Trips to the principal's office would ensue. Either that or being forced to stand out in the hall. Or, and this was the worst, being sent to the grade below's classroom. I would simply run and hide in the boy's room whenever that happened. That would undoubtedly lead back to the principal's office.
Who stood up first? Was it Zach? Always the craziest, the least in control. Was it Stevie? Was it me? It may well have been me. Maybe we all stood up at once, synchronised by that delinquent telepathy.
We screamed mock panic, hollering to be heard above the din of the alarm itself. Out the classroom door before the teacher could stop us. We tumbled and bounced through the hallway, banging on all the other classroom doors, lunatic klaxons shrieking 'FIRE!' and howling as though we burned. We leapt down the stairs two and three at a time and continued through the ground floor hall, topsiders squeaking along the linoleum grade school floor tiles. This was the home of first, second and third grade. Zach started imitating the wail of the alarm. Or maybe it was a fire truck.
Out the front door we flew, hoarse with our roars, and jumped arms and heads first out on to the lawn. Our chant changed from 'FIRE!' to 'STOP, DROP & ROLL!' - instructions on what to do should you happen to catch fire. I think Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck delivered the message. We stopped, dropped and rolled; somersaulting and writhing along the grass, extinguishing the non-existent flames and covering our chinos (no jeans allowed) and striped shirts (were there kids' shirts in the eighties that didn't have thin, horizontal, multicoloured stripes?) in grass stains.
None of us were strangers to her wrath. But as she towered above us, purple-faced and speechless with rage, it dawned on us just how stupidly we behaved. I'd never seen her that angry. Our mania drained away, siphoned by the apoplectic Sister staring down at us. I looked towards the school and there were no classes lining up to be counted. The alarm had fallen silent. We gasped and grasped for breath, trying to look penitent. In the quiet of it all, in the soft Spring afternoon, I tried desperately not to giggle. I bit my tongue and looked down at the grass, avoiding Stevie and Zach's eyes.
She shook her finger at us from the shoulder, jabbing, still unable to speak.
And I giggled. Then Stevie. Then Zach.
She didn't speak. She roared.
I don't remember what the punishment was. I don't remember how long my parents had to speak with Sister Mary Andrew or my homeroom teacher. I guess I was grounded. That's what tended to happen. Stevie and Zach probably were too.
As I write this my tongue probes the gap where a wisdom tooth used to be, and I think about growing up. It's a fond memory to me. I cling to episodes like this in times of necessity, times of conformity, times where I do what I have to do, rather than what I want to do. It's a comfort. Now, of course, with friends who teach at all levels, I understand the other side. I understand just how much they must have loathed our behaviour. How they must have breathed a sigh of relief when a day went by without incident. I sympathise with teachers who have students anywhere near as problematic as I was.
My tongue rubs that spot and I remember 23 years ago and I realise I wouldn't take any of it back. I'd still scream down that hallway, bang on doors and leap out onto the lawn, breathless and maniacal.
And when the nun caught me, I'd try not to giggle.