Crime and Punishment in the Second Grade
By Michael Calvert
September 1, 2014
When we filed into Classroom 103 at St. Leo’s after lunch, Donnie McDermott stood knee deep in trash in the metal waste basket. He was sobbing, his head bowed, and his black curls matted on his forehead. His face was inches from the corner of the classroom.
Sister Ignatius said from across the room, “You’re right where you belong Donnie McDermott. Wait until your parents get my note. I should tell Mr. Scoggins to take you out to the dumpster when he empties the waste baskets after school.”
The blackboard was filled with repetitions of Donnie’s promise, I WILL NOT HARM MY NEIGHBOR. His large lines of print began from as high as he could reach down to the chalk tray.
Blackboards were black, chalk was white, and ink pens did not have ink, at least not until the metal nibs attached to wood holders were dipped into ink wells. Green blackboards, yellow chalk, and ballpoint pens were still years in the future in 1950 when I was in the second grade.
Desk tops, curved seats and backrests of varnished oak were supported by cast iron sides replete with curlicues. Desk tops were connected to the backrests of the seat in front. Students from prior decades had memorialized themselves by scratching their initials into the desks. Their gouges made it difficult to copy the flowing cursive letters that marched across the front of the room above the blackboard. The floors reflected light from the tall windows and the smell of wax permeated the school, a High Victorian structure built in 1903.
On that morning, we were practicing our letters. We dipped our nibs in the open ink bottles set into circular inkwells in the corner of our desks, and Sister Ignatius told us repeatedly to move our entire arms to make circles, capital A’s and O’s on our lined paper. She demonstrated with a sweeping arm movement and covered the blackboard with large circles and letters.
Donnie, seated between Pete Bauman and me in the back of the room, was not moving his arm. He was deftly holding one of Elga Kramer’s long blonde braids, unbeknownst to her. He looked at each of us with a conspiratorial grin spread across his freckled face. He suspended the end of the braid over his inkwell, and looked at each of us. Pete and I both frowned, shook our heads and mouthed “No,” but Donnie nodded slowly and dipped the blonde braid into the black ink. When it stopped dripping, he gently placed it on the back of Elga’s blue uniform jumper beside the back of her seat. Pete and I raised our eyebrows and unsuccessfully tried to stifle laughter. Fortunately the bell announced lunch time, drowned out our snickering, and rescued us from Sister Ignatius’ wrath.
When Elga took her seat the next day, Pete and I noticed that that both of her braids were shorter. Donnie walked in and Sister pointed to the seat right in front of her desk, and said “Right here, Mr. McDermott. I hope your dad took his belt to you last night.”
“Yes, Sister. Can I please stand this morning?” asked Donnie.
“I’m sure you can stand, but you may not. I certainly hope you’ve learned a lesson. Take your seat.”
Donnie turned around slowly, looked at Pete and me, and and grinned mischievously.
“Put on your thinking caps, children,” said Sister. “Now we’ll see who practiced the sums assigned for homework last night.” She held up a beige flash card with two numbers, one above the other, and a plus sign. Mike O’Brien repeatedly thrust his raised hand forward. Sister called his name, and he leapt to his feet and shouted out the answer.
“Correct,” Sister affirmed as she flipped the card and revealed the answer. “Here’s another one,” as she held up another flashcard.
“Sister. Sister,” John Bauman said insistently waving his hand high. Sister pointed at him and he stood and delivered the right sum.
This continued until Sister said, “OK. Now I want to hear from the turtles and turned toward the rows by the windows.” The best students, the rabbits, sat near the hallway. When she flashed the next card, Donnie’s hand shot up. Although she seemed a bit surprised, Sister nodded to him.
“Can I be excused?”
“Oh, Donnie, I thought you had studied your sums last night. Well, as I have told you children many times before, I can excuse you, but what you should ask is ‘May I be excused.’ Anyway, go on to the boys room.”
Donnie bolted toward the hallway with apparent urgency. I suspected that he just wanted to escape the pain of sitting and roam the halls. The turtles’ mostly incorrect guesses and unknowing shrugs confirmed Sister’s expectation that most of the them had not done their homework.
Sister moved on to the next subject, spelling. After a flurry of activity to locate our spelling books and open them on our desks, we reviewed last week’s new words, spelling each one aloud following Sister’s exaggerated pronunciation of each syllable.
“Now, children, one of our new words is ‘receive‘ and there’s a rule for it and words like it.” She wrote the word and the rule on the blackboard. “receive, i before e, except after c.” She underlined the two letters. “Let’s say that over and over.” Our singsong recitation was devoid of enthusiasm, but Sister seemed pleased with the lesson.
Mike O’Brien’s hand flagged Sister until she asked, “What is it, Mike?”
“What about science? It has i before e after c.”
“Oh, Mike, every rule has an exception. Just remember the rule. OK?”
“Yes, Sister. Can I erase the board for you?” She nodded and managed a tight smile.
Donnie strolled in the back door. As he walked past me, he deftly slipped a note on my desk as he looked forward and smiled broadly.
Sister Ignatius scowled at him. He had been gone a long time. Maybe Sister was irritated because she had forgotten about him. Then she rose up to her full height, pointed to my desk, and said “I saw that note, Donnie McDermott. Michael, please share Donnie’s note with the class.”
“Do I have to? I really don’t want to. Please?” I implored.
“Just read it, Michael. Now!”
“ Well, OK. I didn’t write this. It says, “Sister Ignatius has an ugly horse face.”
“You’ve done it now, Mr. McDermott. So disrespectful! You’re getting the ruler. Get up here.”
She grabbed the thick pine ruler from her desk drawer. Donnie turned to face us and stood next to Sister. He was smirking. We were all paying attention for once.
“Hold out you hands, knuckles up. I don’t want to hear a whimper out of you. Do you understand?”
Sister brought the edge of the ruler down on his knuckles in a flashing movement, repositioned her instrument, aimed and again the ruler flashed three times. We gasped with each blow. Donnie silently winced and jerked each time the ruler fell, but he managed a slight smirk for us as he rubbed his red knuckles walking to his seat.
At recess, Pete said his dad told him that boys like Donnie would end up in the penitentiary. I agreed. My grandmother often spoke about parents spoiling children. I thought Donnie was surely one of them.