‘Come out from behind your mother’s dress and let me see you.’ This was the encouraging but scary voice of Sister Xavier.
I retreated further, but edged one eye around the folds of Mum’s skirt just long enough to see the ‘penguin outfit’; a full-length black dress with long sleeves and a cape, and a veil held in place by a stiff white detached yoke-like collar sitting over Sister’s shoulders and extending up her neck… and further… to cover everything other than her face from the eyes down. Nothing else was visible except her hands.
Blood thumped through my veins. I had never been so close to a nun and this image made me want to cancel school altogether. My excitement at the promise of this adventure was already dampened because there were so many people and so much noise… all a little overwhelming for a shy 5yr old.
Sister tried again. ‘A pretty girl like you should be out playing with the other children.’
My bottom lip quivered.
Sister Xavier circumnavigated my mother, her long rosary beads swinging from her waistband in the flurry. She patted me on the head, then left with, ‘You won’t cry when Mummy goes will you?
I stared at her and my gut lurched with the full force of realising I was about to be alone among all those people. This would be the first time I was separated from my whole family at once.
Terrified the tears would spill, I tried desperately to control my… by then… over-active lip. My mother took my shaking hand and led me through the sea of legs and excited children. She deposited me about ten feet from the closed building, kissed me on the forehead and, in her experienced-parent and past-teacher wisdom, made a quick exit.
Silent and still amid the chaotic uproar of giggling kids, crying kids, and chattering mothers lingering too long, I contemplated the myth that going to school was fun.
My fear was halved when I was held in the gaze of a boy sitting alone on the top step. He looked as though he couldn’t wait to rush inside away from everyone else, and I felt much the same. Our moment of connection was interrupted when water began to trickle from where he sat, over one step, then another… and yet another, to form a puddle on the path below. As a matching flow rolled down his cheeks and splashed onto his shirt, he looked past the gathering crowd to the safety of my compassion.
The bell startled me back to the school yard. Sister Xavier seemed to appear from nowhere. Heavy black cloth bounced inches from my eyes and the sound of clapping filled my ears.
‘Over here, children. Come along, it’s time for Mum to leave now. Boys here’, she said pointing to my right. ‘Girls behind Kathryn here’, she continued, patting me on the head for the second time that morning.
My face burned with embarrassment. My ears throbbed with increased heartbeat and sudden crowding from other young bodies. I glanced sideways to see if anyone had noticed and found the warmth of a knowing look from the boy who had sat on the steps and now stood in uncomfortable wet shorts as though nothing had happened.
I didn’t yet know his name, but I knew we would be friends.
Sister Xavier led the way up five cement steps, across the end of the enclosed verandah and into the largest room I had ever seen; except of course, the church.
I gazed in awe at the high ceilings and was hurried along to the first table in the front row. That my feet reached the floor when I sat back in the chair was equally astonishing to me. The small furniture contrasted with the enormous space which seemed almost undisturbed by the shuffling of around two hundred feet and Sister’s rushing from window to window as she released blinds. Strips of morning sunlight filled the room through long hung windows. Sister stretched her lanky body to reach the latches with the hook on the end of what looked like a broom handle, and pulled the top windows down about six inches. I was fascinated.
A lady in a floral dress appeared in the doorway and Sister Xavier hurried her inside. ‘Come along’, she motioned. ‘Come and meet the girls and boys… this is Missy, girls and boys… she’s going to help me teach you… say “Good morning, Missy” now.’
‘Good morning, Missy’, we all mouthed with varying degrees of energy. Hardly any sound passed my lips.
Missy smiled, but Sister Xavier cut off any response she may have had.
‘Now, I’m Sister Xavier and I’ll be teaching you this year.’
Sisters of Mercy at my school four years after my first day of kindergarten. Sister Xavier is the tall one in the middle of the back row. (Photograph from: The Catholic Church in Casino 1887-1987, p32)
Then came the rules, delivered to the beat of black shoes on wood and the rattle of beads, as she paced the floor:
- ‘Line up as soon as the bell rings
- Stand straight in line, and in body
- No talking while lined up, or in school
- No playing on the verandah… unless instructed to do so on wet days
- At lunchtime, eat your lunch before playing
- No crossing the lane between this building and the other classes
- Keep away from the church
- Say “Good morning, Sister” and “Good morning, Missy” at the beginning of classes, and “Good afternoon, Sister” and “Good afternoon, Missy” before we go home after classes…’
I looked around at intent faces.
‘…and always watch the front’, sister continued with emphasis.
I swung back towards the front and found her glaring at me, and instantly felt fire in my cheeks as I had earlier at line-up.
‘Girls’ ports and boys’ bags will be kept out there’, she went on pointing in the direction of a door which led to the back end of the enclosed verandah. ‘…and that will do for now… oh, except… if you’re good and do everything you should, you might get an early mark. Now we’ll listen to Kindergarten Of The Air… please Missy.’ She motioned towards a radio on a small table against the side wall.
Missy checked the station and I wondered what an early mark was: it must be something we would like if we got it for being good. I decided there and then to sit up straight, never talk, and never turn my head… so that I could find out.
Not talking in class was easy. Judy, the girl who shared my table, hung her head to one side and kept her mouth closed even when Sister told us to sing along if we knew any of the nursery rhymes. I pretended to sing even though I didn’t know the songs, for fear attention might again be drawn to me.
Not turning my head was more difficult. I was bursting to see where my friend from line-up was sitting, and had missed him in my momentary look earlier. Nevertheless, I resisted the temptation and was dutiful all day. So, it seems, was everyone else. In the afternoon, when we had folded our arms and rested our heads in them on the desk, Sister Xavier declared, ‘You have been such good children, you can all have an early mark! Good afternoon, girls and boys.’ She cradled her right ear with her hand in anticipation.
‘Good afternoon, Sister. Good afternoon, Missy’, the class chirped, and still my voice had next to no sound and Judy’s lips remained sealed.
‘Get your bags quietly now children, and we’ll see you for the bell at nine-thirty in the morning.’
Judy and I were last to collect our bags and stroll to the front of the building. We sat on the long bench seat under a tree of full shade and watched each other in silence. I wondered why there was nobody there to meet me and tried to work out what the ‘early mark’ was that Sister Xavier had promised. She didn’t seem to give us anything, certainly nothing that could be called a mark!
c. Kathryn Coughran ~ 26th February 2021
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