‘Fight for Sister Joe’ by Richard Coleman
This story, in which Sister Joseph teaches third-grader Eddie to defend himself like a true Irishman, inspired an incident in the 1945 film The Bells of St. Mary’s starring Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman. This short story is one of several that are paired with the Bayley Bulletin Winter Quarter Short Story Contest.
Sister Joseph reached into her great bottomless pocket and took out her signal, a wooden prayer book, that gave a loud clack when its two halves were snapped shut. The class folded their tracings of the map of Arkansas, signed their names on the upper left-hand corner, handed in the papers to the boys in the front. When the eight papers of each row were in the hands of the boys in the first seats, Johnny Briley slid from his seat by the door, collected the sets of tracings and took them up to Sister Joseph, bowing almost imperceptibly as he handed them to her.
The little wooden signal that was made to look just like a prayer book snapped again. “JesusMaryandJosephhelpmenottowasteamomentofthishour.” The class droned the prayer, running the words together in a meaningless jumble.
At the first word, the awful name of Jesus, heads jerked forward in a bow of automatic reverence. “You will please to take your arithmetic books and work the fifth, eighth and tenth problems in short division on page 29.”
Up shot Benny Cavanaugh’s hand when Sister Joseph had barely finished the sentence. Eddie watched the hand covered with rusty brown freckles waggle back and forth insistently, and wondered why Sister Joe did not box his ears for him some day when he demanded importantly that she repeat what she had just said. “Yes, Benedict?” said Sister Joseph patiently.
“Please, Sister, I didn’t get the page.”
“Page twenty-nine, Benedict. How did you ever happen get the numbers of the problems?”
The class tittered and Benny sat down swiftly and wrote page twenty-nine on his pad and the numbers of the problems. There was a flipping of pages and the struggles against problems fifth, eighth and tenth began. The room was still but you could almost hear the creakings and strainings of minds that were still a little stiff because they were rather new. Eddie chewed on the red rubber eraser on his pencil. It broke away and he chewed it meditatively as he wondered how many times seven went into thirty-seven. Should be even with a seven on the end of it. The eraser crumbled in his mouth.
He chewed the dry little bits of rubber thoughtfully until he saw Sister Joseph’s eyes upon him. In sudden fright he swallowed hard. Sister Joseph would make the seat of his pants smoke from a ruler if she thought he had chewing gum in his mouth. He worked frantically, writing seven and thirty-seven all over his paper. He knew she was still watching him. When he dared to look up again, she was reaching into the voluminous pocket for her little red demerit book. Eddie thought it must be wonderful to have two pockets as big as Sister Joseph had. She carried almost as much stuff as the little fellows in her class.
You could never be sure of what she would take out of one of those pockets next. Eddie had seen the little tin capsules that held tiny lead statues of the Blessed Mother, St. Joseph, and St. Benedict. The little statues had tiny crooked faces. The small dot that was the face of the infant Christ Child who was in the Blessed Virgin’s arms was perfectly blank except for a slight projection in the lead that was meant to be a nose.
There was always a clean, large gray-checked workman’s handkerchief in one of the pockets, the wooden prayer book that was a signal, a little pencil sharpener that Eddie himself had bought for her from the ten cent store at Christmas and which Reverend Mother had allowed her to keep as her own. There was a pearl- handled penknife, a pen wiper which she had made herself and in which she was always putting clean bits of old cloth. She carried a copy of The Following of Christ, a pocket dictionary and a big shiny Ingersoll watch.
There was room too for a telescoping drinking cup with a lid. From the left side of her old shiny leather cincture was hung, by a piece of black tape, a pair of scissors in a sheath. She had a box of Smith Brothers Cough Drops for any boy who was lucky enough to strangle sufficiently to need one. Once she had taken from her pocket a little bag of gum drops and given them to Eddie when he had washed down the blackboard and beat erasers until his hair was white with chalk dust and his hands felt dry and hard. When a boy gave Sister Joseph an apple, orange, or pear, she thanked him and dropped it into one of the great pockets where it was lost. There was no bulge, no curving outline of the apple lying among all the other treasures.
Eddie watched Sister Joe write his name in the demerit book for eating in class. It was tough to have to write ejaculations a hundred times for eating a dried-up eraser, but there wouldn’t be any use telling that it wasn’t candy or anything good. Eraser or not, he had eaten it. For almost an hour after school he would have to scrawl, “Mother of Christ teach me to obey.”
Eddie remembered the nuns who had been his first three teachers. When he had been brought to the convent as an orphan to be kept until his elementary education was complete and then returned to his guardian, he was ready for the kindergarten, or what was known at St. Bonaventure’s as the Chart Class.
Sister Rabona, tall and lean, had pointed out the meanings of the pictures, fables, and figures on the charts which lined the room. In her less rigid moments she called the Chart Class the Rubbish Class because she said it was made up of hopeless odds and ends. The only time the little boys did not tremble when she looked at them was when she called them the Rubbish Class. She expected so much of babies who were first learning to tell red from green, A from R, and a five from a two. Her discipline was as strict as if she had had a roomful of callous adolescents fit for the reform school. A boy in the Rubbish Class waited until his mouth felt like he’d eaten too many persimmons before he would ask for a glass of water from the big enamel pitcher on the window sill. Sister Rabona believed that as the twig was bent so grew the tree and the best time to start bending the twig in the right direction was in the Rubbish Class.
Eddie’s face turned red and hot now when he remembered how he had once watched in horror as his insides suddenly and without warning had betrayed him and a pool gathered at the foot of the iron pedestal that held up his little bench. He had sat numbly and watched the pool reach out into the aisle. Sister Rabona towered high over him, her face stern and terrifying. He had looked up beseechingly while the other little boys had watched the pool in fascination and fright. The same thing had happened to them and they hadn’t forgotten. Sister Rabona walked to her desk, reached under it and brought out a gray-speckled hand basin. From a bottom drawer she brought out a clean blue dust cloth. She handed them to Eddie, who was frozen to his bench. He hated to get up so everyone, especially Sister Rabona, could see that spot on his little stove pipe pants which was wet and dark. The basin was thrust in his hands and the voice came from far above him, “Clean that up, sir.” For agonized minutes he had worked. For hours there was a dark brown spot on the floor beneath his bench where the wood was still damp.
Sister Theresa had been little better than Sister Rabona. She was less tall, less lean, and a little less stern. In the first grade she had rapped knuckles, knocked sharply on dodging heads with her scepter-like signal, and made poor spellers kneel by her desk for half an hour. Once when Eddie had stretched to peer above the window-sill at a grind organ man whose feet-tapping music was coming into St. Bonaventure’s, Sister Theresa had caught him a sharp lick across the cheek. She had startled and humiliated him.
Sister Veronica in the second grade was broad and substantial. When she came down the corridor she looked like a heavy steamboat plowing down the river. She struck seldom, but her look could freeze the blood in your veins Eddie was a skinny little Irishman. Sisters Rabona, Theresa and Veronica had put the fear of the Lord into him. When he came to the third grade he wondered what Sister Joseph would be like. He had watched her in the play yard. Once he had actually seen her pick up a ball that had rolled at her feet while she was saying her breviary and throw it back deftly and surely to a delighted group of boys. They said she was “regular.” Didn’t everybody call her Sister Joe? Not to her face, of course. A mortal sin would not have been eyed less askance than such a thing as calling one of God’s religious by a nickname. But to all the boys who had passed through the third grade she was Sister Joe. Somehow she seemed like one of them, and yet never lost that inspiring distance that lay between her and any layman and was greater still between her and those worthless little hooligan boys.
Eddie loved Sister Joe with all the love in his small Irish heart. She was Irish too. When you asked her (with a great show of respect, of course) where she was from, she invariably answered, “From County Kerry, God Help Us.” Eddie, like the other boys, thought that the “God Help Us” was part of the name. Benny Cavanaugh told his mother one day that Sister Joseph was from a funny place in the old country called County Kerry-God-Help-Us, and did not know why his mother was always repeating the story.
To Eddie, Sister Joe was more than regular. She was wonderful. Hadn’t she whittled out her signal to look just like a prayer book with her own pearl-handled knife? Lying on the desk it looked so much like a prayer book that even Father O’Rourke had been fooled by it. Sister Joe had whittled it perfect, then she’d made thin little grooves at the end to look like pages, skillfully hiding the hinges in the wood, painted the ends white and the back black. She had even painted “Prayer Book” on the front in gilt.
Because Eddie was an orphan and didn’t have a loud, cheery Irish home to go to, but had to live in a little room in the convent, Sister Joe had helped him make a pencil box. When it was through and she asked him what kind of picture he wanted painted on the lid, he asked her to help him decide. She didn’t think of a thing religious and had ended up by painting five lively little monkeys clinging by long arms or curling tails to a green limb.
She wasn’t less religious than the other nuns. Anybody could see that. When Eddie watched the procession of nuns going into the chapel for vespers he looked for plump, stubby little Sister Joe. Her face was bright and holy when the spatter of light from the altar candles fell on her. Eddie’s heart bumped with love as he saw her take her place beside tall, lean Sister Rabona and steamboat Sister Veronica.
After problems fifth, eighth and tenth had been worked to yield some twenty answers from thirty boys, the bell rang for mid-morning recess. The prayer book clacked, the boys slid up from benches, filed out decorously, alert after having been drugged with arithmetic. At the door they broke into a wild screaming mass. “Comanches,” muttered Sister Joe in the doorway. “A tribe of wild Comanches.” She went to get her glass of cold milk and piece of bread with jam.
Sitting at the refectory table by herself, she was dreaming of her girlhood in County Kerry-God-Help-Us, the new vestments she and Sister Juliana were making as a surprise for Father O’Rourke for his ordination anniversary, and the new Mass by Bach that she was trying to learn on the chapel organ, and hoping that she would remember to tell Sister Wardrobe that she was one coif short last week in the laundry.
The Comanches seemed wilder than ever as their piercing screams came through the high latticed windows.
She put down her glass of milk and listened carefully. Instinctively she felt a little thrill of excitement when she realized that there was a fight going on. From the sound of it, a good fight. She ate her last bit of bread hurriedly, drank the milk lest it be wasted, and hurried down the corridor, her giant rosary whipping about her wide skirts in which her short strong legs were hidden. The rattling of a rosary was a sound for which all ears had learned to listen. Bedlam became a place of utter quiet and repose when the word went up because some ear had caught the warning sound. The fight put the boys off guard. Sister Joe’s rosary was swinging wildly and rattling loud, but no one heard.
She stopped at the door to take in all the details so that punishment would go to every boy that deserved it. She caught her breath sharply when she saw what was going on inside the ring of howling boys. Rick Mulhall, a big boy in the fifth grade, was beating her own Eddie unmercifully. All the boys fought when the time came, but Eddie just put up his poor skinny arms in an effort to save himself. No one had ever seen him take his arms down long enough to strike out once against another boy. He wasn’t yellow exactly. He could take it. But that was his trouble. Always, Eddie stood up and took it.
Sister Joe loved Eddie, not just because he had no good Irish mother as he should have had, but because there was something about him that stirred her love as well as her sympathy. She tried to hide her love from the community and the boys. And from Eddie himself. She was positive her secret was her own. Silently she moved toward the flowing ring of children. Benny Cavanaugh looked toward the door at that minute and gave the word. The ring broke, spread in all directions. Rick Mulhall hurriedly started a game of hit-the-stick. Eddie stood there, thankful for whatever had ended his beating. He didn’t cry, but whimpered a little because no one was watching him now. He rubbed his arm across his face, then saw the soft-looking, high-topped shoes peeping from beneath a black robe on the gravel in front of him. Was it Sister Theresa who would box him harder than Rick had? Or was it Sister Veronica who would make his heart stand still by her freezing look? He took his arm slowly away from his face and looked up. He didn’t have to look up as far as he would have had it been Sister Rabona.
“Would you like a glass of milk and a bit of bread and jam, Eddie?” said Sister Joe slowly. He followed her, carefully spitting onto his handkerchief and wiping his grimy face. She washed his face herself in the refectory sink. He ate the soft fresh bread that Sister Philomene had baked that morning, and sort of breathed in the tart lumps of damson jam. He closed his eyes while he drank the cold, sweet milk. When he opened them he sighed a little at Sister Joe’s back over by the china shelf.
After the lunch hour recess, Sister Joe rapped Benny Cavanaugh on the head with her wooden prayer book because he didn’t know the Feast Days, and it made such a loud crack that Eddie thought she must have split the soft wood. Benny rubbed his head gingerly. He knew he had not got that lick because he could think of only the Ascension, Christmas and Circumcision. At that he had got off light. Sister Joe had given him the ruler across the knuckles because he had given Rick Mulhall the signal when he should have helped his own classmate. Sister Joe was a staunch third-grader herself and wanted all her boys to be. She didn’t hate a fight as much as she made out, but she hated to see a third-grader get the worst of it.
After school Eddie waited to be told that he would have to stay and write a hundred ejaculations for eating the eraser. As the boys marched out he felt her hand on his shoulder and he stepped out of line.
Sister Joe wasn’t thinking of ejaculations. She hesitated before she started to talk when they were alone. She wanted to reach him, to talk to him the way his father would have talked to him if he had not been dead. At last she said, “You’re an Irishman, Eddie. There are some things an Irishman just doesn’t do. When he sees he’s in for a fight, he puts up his fists and goes at it as fiercely and proudly as if he were fighting for the old sod itself. I don’t want you to be a bully, a boy who starts fights, but I do want you to be man enough to finish one when a fight is forced on you.
“All this is our secret, Eddie. No one else is to know about it but you and me. Your dear father’s dead, God rest his soul, but if he were living, he’d teach you the way I’m going to teach you. I’m going to be your mother and your father. That’s our secret. In class I’m just your teacher, and you’re just a pupil, but in everything else you’ll find me on your side, if you’re right.
“The first thing I’ve got to teach you is this.” She doubled her rosary up into the worn leather cincture so that it would not get in the way. She rolled back her great sleeves, planted her small feet firmly on the ground and held her fists under his nose. When Eddie got over his amazement, he laughed as Sister Joe danced about in the soft old high-topped shoes, thrusting and parrying, urging him to put his hands up and fight. Every day after school they practised. The plump, stubby little nun with her full black skirts swishing about her, and the little boy standing up to her with thin little arms fighting for an opening.
At every recess she gave him milk and bread, with butter and sugar, or preserves, and every day she taught him that an Irishman doesn’t stand and take it, but fights back proudly and righteously as a man should. She made a punching bag out of an old gingham apron that belonged to Sister Wardrobe and that had been filled with sand. He could hit it hard. She hit him, but he seldom hit her. She was too quick for him. At first he was overcome at the thought of having struck a nun, but Sister Joe laughed and urged him on by a smart clip to the cheek.
He watched fights in the yard and learned from them too. It was over a month before a fight of his own was thrust upon him. Terry McGovern of the fourth grade decided it was time for Eddie to have another licking. Once he had started the fight, Terry couldn’t very well back out, but he soon wished he could. The boys crowded around, screaming encouragement to Eddie when they saw the smaller boy putting up a real fight. Sister Joe had listened for a fight every day. She peeped from behind the ferns in the music room to see if it were Eddie this time. When saw it was, she rolled up her sleeves and watched excitedly.
Eddie took a lot of punishment, but he put Terry onto his knees and beat him properly. He looked at the music room window and caught a glimpse of a bobbing white coif, and a plump face encircled with white and black. His heart beat wildly. She had seen him. He hated to stop. He couldn’t hit Terry now that he had said “nuff” and was down. He looked around threateningly. He saw Rick Mulhall in the ring and pushed aside the boys near him. His thin little arm shot out in one clean, hard blow that brought the blood running out of Rick’s nose. The big boy was so surprised and the blow had stung him so that he didn’t even put up his hands to strike back.
Eddie waited until it was plain that Rick had no fight in him and then ran headlong to the door of the convent. Sister Joe met him in the corridor from the music room. She snatched him up to her and his forehead felt the cool, hard, immaculately white coif, his cheek felt the rough, heavy black habit and beneath the soft sweet bosom.
He held tight and ached with love.
Image copyright Rainbow Productions