Agnus Dei by Heater Case


Agnus Dei

by Heater Case

I was born in late October, so I always started every grade a little younger than the others. I was still five years old when I started first grade.

I was told to listen to the nuns, to obey the nuns.

They all had two names, two first names. These were names of saints, of course, and gender didn’t matter. Thinking back, they all had names like news anchors and disk jockeys.

Our first-grade nun seemed as new to all of this as we were. She was young and sweet and we all loved her. She taught us songs. She had us make up songs. She was fun.

Three of us, another boy, a girl and myself, were her favorites.

We all heard stories about the other nuns and the kind of discipline that was being dished out. But, if this is what a nun is like, it couldn’t be that bad.

I was told to listen to the nuns, to obey the nuns.

After the holidays, she seemed changed. Even at my young age, I thought she seemed quieter, distracted, sad.

One day in late Spring and she called me to the back of the room for something. I don’t remember what the issue was but something was wrong. I think she thought I did something wrong. I don’t know if that was the extent of it or if I told her that I didn’t do whatever she said I did.

A full swing of her robed arm and a full-on smack across my face.

I was stunned. Yes, it stung like a son of a bitch, a lightning strike followed by a burning on the entire left side of my face. But I was more stunned than hurt.

I felt like I was standing at attention before her, below her gaze. I just looked up at her and tried not to cry. My lip trembled. I guess tears started to well up.

Then she suddenly broke down and she hugged me. She pulled me in tightly against her and held me. I remember getting her thick robes wet with tears and runny nose. I don’t know if she actually said she was sorry but I heard it in her hug.

The other nuns had gotten to her, I guess. I don’t remember seeing her after that first year. I wonder how long she lasted, which path she took after that. I wonder if she left or if she was sent away for being too soft.

Second grade started and corporal punishment became the norm. It seemed like they not only hit kids when they were ‘bad’, but they hit them when they were good.

I remember being called to the front of the class to answer a question. The nun had me back up until I was flush against the blackboard. Then she grabbed a handful of hair on the top of my head. She asked the question.

I gave the right answer. I remember this because she then proceeded to bang my head against the blackboard, not enough knock me out but enough to hurt, with each syllable in her reply.

“That’s. Right. You’re. A. Ver. Ry. Good. Lit. Tle. Boy. Are. N’t.You?”

My mom and I lived with my grandparents, her parents, at the time. My father left us when I was two. As I often describe that household, there were always a couple of stray uncles and aunts laying around. The idea of nuns keeping discipline brought chuckles about ‘rulers on the knuckles’ and ‘a paddle on the behind’.

I was told to listen to the nuns, to obey the nuns.

The nuns were always right.

We spent six to seven hours a day with these women. We were told at home to give them the same respect we gave our families. There was a Stockholm Syndrome aspect to it all. The candy store on the corner must have made a pretty penny from selling us plastic rosaries and cheap vinyl clip-on pen and pencil holders that snapped on and hung from our belts, just like the sisters.

We strove to please them and we watched in rigid silence as they punished others.

They must have punished the girls at one time or another, but it seemed like the boys got the worst of it.

Third grade. I had a brand new pair of shoes. They were chafing the back of one of my feet, above the heel, especially after a good round of running around the schoolyard at lunchtime. We were back in class and I quietly used my other foot to slip my shoe halfway off my foot to get some relief.

The asshole one row over and one seat back thought it would be hilarious to kick that shoe out from under my foot and it slid a good ten feet under the other desks. The nun was well into showing something, maybe long division, on the board and turned to see me raising my hand.

“What!” she yelled. She seemed incredulous that I had the nerve to interrupt her.

“Could I go get my shoe?”


“Could I get my shoe? It’s over there.”

She glared and, in an angry low voice said, “Go get your shoe.”

I got up and grabbed it and turned to go back to my seat.

“No,” she said, “come up here.”

I came up to her desk.

“Now take off your other shoe.”

I was confused, but of course, I did as I was told.

“Now throw them both in the trash can.”

At this point I was getting pretty frightened, but…

I was told to listen to the nuns, to obey the nuns.

The nuns were always right.

I threw both my shoes into the wastepaper basket.

“Now go back to your desk and sit down.”

I did.

She then went and opened the metal door in the wall next to the blackboard and pulled out the telephone handset for the school’s intercom. She turned her back to the class and whispered into it.

Then she turned around, looked across the room and said to me, “I just spoke to the Principal.”

The principal was also a nun, of course.

“At three o’clock, everybody gets to go home except you. A bus is coming for you. You’re being taken to reform school and you’re going to be put in a stone cell and you’ll sleep on a pile of hay. You’ll only be allowed to see your parents for ten minutes a year.”

I started crying my eyes out and pleading with her not to do this. Every time I went up to her desk she just laughed and then screamed at me to go back to my desk.

I don’t know if she ever went back to the long division lesson. I just put my head on my desk and cried into my arms for the remainder of the school day.

This must have been close to two hours, from wayward shoe to exhausted from crying.

The bell rang. I looked up. I looked at her. She just glared at me while the other kids went home. I imagined the men from the reform school were going to come in at any moment.

She said, “Get your shoes.”

I got my shoes, my brand new shoes, out of the wastepaper basket.

She said, “Put them on.”

I put them on.

And then simply said, “Go home.”

That was it, ”Go home.”

Confused, trembling, somehow even grateful to this monster, I walked out of the class as fast as I could. I did not run. There was to be no running in the building.

I was told to listen to the nuns, to obey the nuns.

The nuns were always right.

I went to my grandparents’ apartment. By then, my mom and I had moved out into an apartment across the courtyard from my grandparents and the stray uncles and aunts.

I was nine years old and perhaps one of the original Latchkey Childen. My mom would wake me up just before she left for work. She would kiss me goodbye and I would lock the door behind her. Then I’d get dressed, make my own breakfast and leave for school, locking up the apartment with my very own key. I would spend a few hours after school with my grandparents until my mom came home.

I told nothing of what happened to my grandparents. I didn’t tell my mom. I went back to school the next day and it all seemed like nothing had happened.

I don’t remember any other physical or psychological assaults that might have happened the rest of third grade. They might have happened. I just don’t remember.

Fourth grade came around and something was going wrong with me. I couldn’t retain anything that was being taught. I stopped doing my homework. My family would ask why I wasn’t doing homework and I’d just tell them that they didn’t give me any.

I was failing tests left and right. My fourth-grade nun began regularly humiliating me in front of the class. The other kids, probably to stay on the nun’s good side, joined in the taunting.

I had been an A+ student since first grade. Now I was The Stupid Boy. The Village Idiot.

Every day I walked home after school and told my family that I had no homework. Every morning I got dressed, locked the door, walked to school and would spend the day getting every answer wrong.

I was ten years old and I felt like I was drowning. I didn’t want to be The Stupid Boy. I didn’t want everyone making fun of me. I was really trying to get a grip on whatever was happening to me.

I guess there weren’t any child psychologists that were readily available in the South Bronx in 1963.

I would think so hard and try to get things right but I couldn’t.

One afternoon, the nun was teaching about the characters in the bible. She was talking about Abraham. After a while, she asked the class, “and who came after Abraham?”

I was positive I knew this. This was my ticket out of this hole. I had to get picked to answer this before anybody else stole my one big chance from me.

I raised my hand and frantically waved it back and forth to get her attention away from the other children. I can’t remember the look on her face when she noticed me, but she noticed me. She called on me, which meant I had to stand up to answer.

She asked, almost curiously, one more time, “Who came after Abraham?”

I knew I had the right answer. I just knew it, and that would change everything.

“George Washington.”

I really thought that was the correct answer. I really thought I wouldn’t be The Stupid Boy anymore.

Something was wrong. Everything was quiet.

Then the laughter. Everyone was laughing at me.

I was still The Stupid Boy

The nun was fuming. There was so much anger in her eyes but she released it in a low measured sentence.

“That’s it. If you fail one more test I’m moving your desk to the front of the class.”

I was in shock at my own disappointment in myself. I didn’t know what to do. At least I couldn’t hear the laughter anymore.

She told me to sit down.

I sat down.

I was thinking that maybe it wasn’t all that bad. If I failed the next test, maybe sitting in the front of the room wouldn’t be all that bad. But I couldn’t fail that next test. I just couldn’t.

The following week, we had another test. We all passed the test papers to the front of the room.

The next day, she had marked all the tests and alphabetically called each kid to come up and get their test paper. This was usually the case. You were to take the test paper home, have it signed by your parents and bring it back the next day.

I knew my name was next. When she called it I stood and started to walk forward and she stopped me right there.

“Stop. You’re sliding your desk to the front of the room. Right now.”

I was told to listen to the nuns, to obey the nuns.

The nuns were always right.

Our desks were little chairs of metal and wood, with a swiveling palette that was the writing surface. They were easy to push. I had been sitting about three-quarters of the way down my row and I slid my desk into the aisle and started scooting it up.

I wondered how this was going to be arranged. Was the whole row going to slide back one space? Was I just going to park in front of the first desk and stick out like a sore thumb? Awkward, but doable.

“Keep going,” she said.

I was told to listen to the nuns, to obey the nuns.

The nuns were always right.

I thought maybe she was going to have me slide my desk right up alongside her desk. Maybe being so close would be the answer to my problem.

But she said, “Keep going.”

Straight ahead was the cloakroom. A cloakroom was a large space behind the blackboard that ran the width of the front wall. It had a door on either end. It was lined with coat hooks and had an overhead shelf for hats, boots and whatever else.

“Keep going.”

She couldn’t be serious.

“Keep going.”

I was in the cloakroom. My desk was in the cloakroom. She told me to sit at my desk. I sat at my desk.

“I am not going to have you infecting this class anymore,” and with that, she closed the door.

The light wasn't on. The light switch was outside the door. But there was a small thin window, like a bathroom window, high up on the far exterior wall. A dim splash of light from the wall across the way barely lit the room.

And I sat there. I was stunned. I just sat there in the dim light until it was time to go home. The other kids came in for their coats and laughed at The Stupid Boy who was now The Stupid Boy In The Cloakroom.

And then I went home, first to my grandparents, then home when my mom picked me up after work. I said nothing. Not to my mom. Not to my grandparents. Not to the stray uncles and aunts.

The next day, I got up, made breakfast, got dressed, locked the door and went to school.

It was obvious from the nun’s scowl that I was to return to my desk in the cloakroom. I think she might have actually told me to close the door myself. I sat there until lunch, went to lunch, came back, sat in the cloakroom and the went home.

I can’t remember for how long this went on. I felt nothing. Time passed. I think it was a couple of weeks when I decided to purposely try to get hit by a car on the way home.

Suicide was a sin and I’d go to hell, so I had to make it just kind of happen.

Every day when I walked home, I would cross the several boulevards and avenues without stopping, without looking.

Nothing would happen. There were no Hollywood screeches to a halt and yelling. I always made it home. I just knew I couldn’t calculate it in any way because that, indeed, would be suicide.

Finally, one night, I woke up my mom and I told her what was happening and what I had been trying to do.

This has been the hardest thing I ever tried to write. It’s taken a week as I could only write a small part before I started trembling and had to stop for a while. This is the first time I ever shared this other than with a close friend or my therapist.

My mom took the next day off from work and went to school with me. She stormed into the Principal Nun’s office and demanded my nun be called down to face her. I sat in the hallway on a bench outside the closed door.

It sounded like a muffled thunderstorm. The only sentence I could make out was my mother screaming, “You call yourselves wives of God? You’re wives of the Devil!”

And then, it was over. I was still in a fog. I was in the building where so many things had happened to me for so many years. Things which I thought were condoned by my family. Yet, here was my mother fearlessly reading these sadists the riot act.

As clearly as I remember all those previous events, I’m unclear as to how the rest of that year, my fourth grade, finished. I think I went back up to my classroom. I assume I moved my desk out of the cloakroom and back into the classroom.

I don’t remember anything else. I’d been through a lot. I don’t know if I continued to skip homework. I don’t know if I was included in any more tests. I just know that I made to summer vacation and spent that summer, as always, up in Greenwood Lake. My grandfather rented a bungalow there every summer.

I don’t know what else my mom had told them, but I gather the nuns took a wide berth around me from that day on. I had a great summer vacation and I returned, believe it or not, to start fifth grade in that same school. I felt refreshed and clear-headed. My grades were back where they belonged. I don’t recall ever having a hand laid on me or being punished in any way at all that year.

To be honest, it was a half year. We moved to Queens right after the holidays. There were two schools within a few blocks of each other. St. Joseph’s and PS 70. My mom let me choose where to finish fifth grade. I don’t think I have to tell you which one I picked.

I never entered a Catholic school again after that. I don’t think I even set foot in a church more than a couple of times, if at all, since then.

I’ve heard other people talk fondly of the nuns they grew up with and how they still go back to see them. I guess I can grasp the notion that they experienced the kind of nuns you see on TV. Definitely not the ones I spent four and a half years with.

These were women who were as unqualified to be educators as they were to be maidens in service to their god. Yes, god with a lowercase g.

What sustained and perpetuated this coterie of child-hating bullies? I was a small kid. Looking at old photos I feel like I had the stature of a Howdy Doody puppet. I am now 6’3” and 250 lbs and yet I still feel like I’m the one who will get in trouble for telling this. As I write this, I still feel like that little boy who cried his eyes out for hours and was scared to death that he was being sent to a dungeon. I can still feel the ‘wedding ring’ that each nun wore and how it stood out from the rest of their hand each time I got slapped across the face.

I am polite whenever I have to deal with a nun in public. I keep it short and I hide the shudder that goes down my body when I see them.

I was told to listen to the nuns, to obey the nuns.

The nuns were always right.

Not anymore.

One would think I would wish them all to hell, but you know what?

I’m better than that.

And I’m better than them.