Words are just the hooks I hang my life on.
Some times the hooks are like the ones in the back of the fifth/sixth grade classroom. The carefully, colored counties of Oregon were pinned up neatly on the sliding cork board while our coats lurked underneath like empty prisoners.
Some times the coats fell off and lurked around the bottom like sleepy escapees from a gulag among the umbrellas and rain boots. It was a half-hearted attempt to find freedom. On Friday, that week’s “Sergeant at Arms” would carry out their duty and impose order on all those coats. Chaos and disorder were not to be tolerated for long. As for that Sergeant of Arms, it was never clear exactly what a “Sergeant at Arms” duty was. Why would anyone ever need to keep order at a meeting and how did a meeting have anything to do with the classroom? None of us where going to openly oppose Sister Emily. Even the boldest child was still a little bit afraid of her. We didn’t need a Sergeant at Arms. We did need an occasional organizer of coats and miscellany. And, we needed hooks to hang our lives on.
Sister Emily wore the old fashioned pre-1960s habit and exhibited a strong dislike of disorganization. No one knew what lurked beneath the massive folds of black serge. No one wanted to find out. There was often debate about whether or not she had any hair underneath her wimple A gusty day in autumn had shown those who were fortunate enough to witness it, that Sister Patricia had hair underneath her veil. It was almost pretty. The question of hair on Sister Emily was still open for speculation. None of us knew how old she really was. The bettors among us were gambling on some where in the 90s. All I knew was that a single look from Sister Emily was enough to grill up your heart and serve it back to you to eat. In the fifth grade, terror had a face and Sister Emily wore it.
At home, during a fit of frustration over some math homework that hopelessly confounded me, I uttered the words, “I hate Sister Emily.”
My dad reacted as if he were a bomb with a very short fuse and I had just lit it on fire.
“Never, never ever talk about your teacher like that especially if she is a nun,” he roared.
In the way of most children, I tried to argue and ended up only pouring gasoline on the bomb I just lit. I never vocalized my hatred of a teacher after that within ear shot of my parents. Fear, while the least noble form of control, can be a highly effective deterrent. That is another story.
Sister Emily kept us all on edge. She used her simple gold band, her sign of her vocation and “marriage to Christ” as an instrument of torture. If, when speaking in front of the class we failed to look at our audience, or during a spelling bee started over, or didn’t know which explorer explored what, she would tap her gold-banded finger on top of her massive wooden desk. The sound of negative judgment echoed through a quiet room. No one wanted to get the ring finger rap and yet we were all doomed. At some point, our behavior or performance would be below her high standards and the rap would come.
If, while walking and lecturing across the front of the room, she’d spy another class outside playing and some child was guilty of some infarction, she would rap her ring against the glass. I’d hold my breath expecting the window to shatter. It never did.
When another student got the rap. I’d look down at my desk in submission and in empathy. We, those for whom the rap came, were in it together. No matter the differences that separated us as individuals, when we were in the classroom, the power struggles, the class warfare, the have and have not, were all the same. There was honor among us. We did not rat each other out. We had a code and we were fiercely loyal to it. We protected our own kind and hid each other just like those sliding cork boards hid the coats and the hooks we hung our lives on.
Much later, I discovered that Sister Emily wasn’t what she had seemed to be to a terribly shy and some what fragile child. She was old school and had high standards but she did care for her students in ways we never imagined. Underneath all that black serge she had a heart. Fear and dislike had merged with a tender respect, it flooded my memories with a confusing haze. Things are often not what they seem, people, lives, a life, mine. . .
In between the words, the ideas, the concepts, the perceptions and misconceptions, life transcends the ordinary words that try to confine it. Words are just the hooks, I hang my life on. Life is so much more.