Second Grade Scandal
I loved going to school but cried on the first day because I had wanted Sister Martha, who used to give the children crackers to eat after they’d rested their heads on their desks. Instead, I was to have Sister Janice, who taught a mixed first and second grade group. It was boring, because my sister had already taught me to read and write and count and spell - so I listened in on the second graders’ work, and learned with them. Realising I was well in advance of the other first graders, my teacher suggested to my parents that I be moved up a year. But since my sister was in the second grade, they felt it would be unfair on her to have me made her equal. I was already three inches taller than she was, which she greatly resented.
When I advanced to the second grade, things changed. We had Sister Norbert - who was my sister Judy's all time favourite teacher and I could see why. It is hard to draw an accurate picture of a nun back in those days when they all wore head to toe black habits. Our nuns were Benedictines, and as well as the long black dresses, their outfits had very awkward and bulky white head garments called coifs which they wore to shield their faces - with a rounded bib part under their chins to cover up their chests, and a black veil over their hair. But what I can tell you about Sister Norbert, was that she was fairly young, tall and thin, probably in her mid-twenties. She wore rimless glasses, and had a pleasing voice. Most importantly, she could tell the best stories. Our favourites were of little children whose parents were cruel to them, but they prayed to God for the courage to go to Mass barefoot in the snow (since their parents had hidden their shoes). We believed every word of course. We thought Sister Norbert was the next best thing to a Saint.
The class was large - 60 children, aged 7 of all ranges of ability. Our schoolroom was in the annex of the main school, containing two classrooms and toilets. The classrooms were heated by oil stoves which also held pans of water to hydrate the air. We were always very cold in the winter (which lasted from October to April) when the outside temperatures were usually well below freezing, with several feet of permanent snow. It usually dropped to -40º F for at least one period in the winter. We girls wore long thick stockings held up with garter belts (you might call them suspenders) under our heavy woollen dresses and cardigans. I can remember getting dressed for school while standing on a chair over the hot air radiator. We wore heavy overcoats, gloves, hats, and overshoes over our regular study brown Oxfords. We also tied scarves tight over our mouths. If you didn’t and you had a runny nose, the snot would freeze on your face. We wore slacks while walking to school, but had to take them off during school hours and hang them with our coats in the hallway. Seated at one of 10 tables according to our ability, I was very proud that I was on Table 1, with the most able students. Table 1 actually spent most of our time that year coaching the not-so-able students. We moved our chairs out and sat side by side in the hall that had no heating at all and where you could see your breath. Even that was fun.
In the centre of the room was the table for the problem children. Among these were Carole and Cheryl, possibly twins (I never asked) who had what would now be called learning difficulties. They were very skinny and wore ragged clothing. Their eyes nearly popped out of their heads. I don't think they could say many words, and generally they did not fit easily into the classroom picture. They also were hyperactive and never sat still. Sister Norbert had a solution for them. She tied them to their chairs and put sticky tape over their mouths. It didn't happen all day long, or every day, but often enough that it was considered to be normal to the rest of us. If Sister Norbert thought it was the best thing to do - then we agreed 100%.
But the scandal I am writing about happened because sometimes the more normal children were naughty too. Sometimes they said bad words and literally had their mouths washed out with soap. “Serves them right,” we thought.
Joseph Zirbes was new into the school that year. He was friendly and fun, and always wanting to show off. His dad worked for the circus and I expect Joseph was training to have a job in it too, where he would be the centre of attention. One day he really was the centre of our attention. He annoyed Sister Norbert once too often, and was tied to his small wooden chair with string and had his mouth taped shut with 2" wide brown sticky tape. Somehow because he was “one of us” rather than “odd” like Cheryl and Carole, this made more of an impression on the rest of us. Well, Joseph did what Cheryl and Carole had never done. He told his dad what had happened to him. And his dad got very mad. He came into school to confront Sister Norbert. But she knew he was coming in, and before class started that day, she said to us, "Joseph's father is coming in to ask about how I dealt with Joseph when he was naughty yesterday. You are to say that I didn't tie him up or put tape over his mouth. You will do that, won't you?" And we all knew that if she said it, it was the right thing to say, so we agreed.
So Mr. Zerbes marched in. "Children," he said, "Did Sister tie up Joseph yesterday?" "No, Mr. Zerbes" we all chanted.
"Are you sure she didn't put tape over his mouth either?"
"No, Mr Zerbes," we said with angelic faces and the ring of honesty in all our voices. "Well, then," said Mr. Zerbes, "Joseph will get a licking for lying!" and he raged out of the room. We sanctimonious children didn’t give a stuff that Joseph would be punished unfairly for telling the truth and because of our lies.
That's the end of the story. Now I can hardly believe that I, who had been told the value of not telling lies, and must have known that we had been asked to do just that, had acquiesced without guilt and without ever telling anyone about it. We had spent our religious lessons preparing for our first confessions, and one of the sins we knew about was, "Thou shalt not lie."
Disobedience was also wrong and if we had not done as Sister Norbert had asked us, we would have been disobedient. Maybe she even reminded us of that. I don't remember.
Many years later, I asked my sister Judy if the same sorts of things had happened when she had been in Sister Norbert's class. She denied it, and I could tell that she didn't believe my version of things either. I don't keep in contact with any of the other 59 children from that class - so I can't ask them if they remember it as I do. I just have to go on what I consider a very clear memory.
In these days, Sister Norbert would be considered a child abuser - and the fact that she regularly abused children with learning difficulties would have been even more damning. Perhaps she would even have gone to prison. I wonder if she ever felt any guilt. I can imagine how difficult a young and inexperienced teacher would find it to discipline 60 very tiresome children. Perhaps she thought she had no choice. But whatever she thought, we thought she was wonderful.