You know, children, I look at these report cards Sister prepared so carefully for you, and the very first thing I look at is what? Can you guess? Deportment. Oh, you might do fine work in math and music, but what the Lord is watching for is deportment, how you conduct yourself as a son or daughter of Christ.
Here, there is a long pause while Father Foley rifles through the report cards looking for a bad seed. Father then hands us our report cards on by one. We stand for his blessing. We curtsy or bow. Father glides out. Sister lets out a sigh she does not know we can hear. Is it gratitude he is gone, or gratitude he graced our presence? Sister deferred to Father Foley. She was coy. She was reverential. She fanned the flame of the little priest’s power. It was embarrassing. My role model, the one woman who made the world make sense–how I hated seeing her upstaged.
I like to imagine it this way: Father turns to Sister, asks if the class has been on its best behavior, demonstrating deportment worthy of the seraphim? Sister turns to the little priest and says,
With all due respect, Father, get a clue! They’re kids, so their hygiene is irredeemable, their attention spans naught, their budding libidos tiresome. Mine is no job for the faint of heart. I attempt no less than to bring civilization to these little people each day. First there is math, then science, then the catechism, then literature, then penmanship. After that, I pop back a sandwich while I watch this same brood eat their lunches. Then I spend 45 minutes walking around the playground. Kids hang on my habit. I break up fights. I get ice for loose teeth and sprained ankles. Then, when the school day is done and the angels are on the buses, I clean my classroom, attempt some grading, rush back to the convent to prepare dinner for 20 nuns, half of whom are geriatric, all before evening Mass. Did I mention, Father, that I do not get paid? As in money. I get none. I get a room in the convent with a single bed and a crucifix on the wall. I get my food. I get my habits and shoes. No money.
You get money, Father, don’t you? You live in that Victorian across the yard. And, Father, correct me if I am wrong, but isn’t that a new Fairlane 500 you are driving? After our little meeting here, Father, you can toddle back to the rectory for the fine lunch your housekeeper prepared–damn, one housekeeper per priest. For the love of God, Father, can you begin to imagine how angry I am? Wonder with me for a moment now, Father: If the good Lord were to visit our parish today and give it a report card, what would the deportment grade be? And that’s the most important grade, as you said–as you say every single bloody year. What would Jesus do with our deportment, how we deport ourselves in relation to each other? Father, it’s no secret: He’d have a bird. Let the truth be told: Jesus would have a bird.
No such speech would have occurred to me as a girl growing up in St. Charles, but the seeds were there. Witnessing Sister, and the other women who taught me about dignity and honesty and goodness, reduced to handmaidens to men like Father Foley, felt confusing at best, yucky at worst. I looked away, read my Nancy Drew under my desk until it was over. And something inside bloomed.