Nobody said

Nobody said
Photo by Annie Spratt / Unsplash

“The wasp makes a lovely nest ...”

Sister Elizabeth's voice came from the back of the room. There was a slight rustle and the jingle of the big rosary beads which hung from her belt as she turned into the next aisle of desks.

“...which it lines with a sort of paper...”

She was coming closer. Janey printed each word neatly on its line, taking care to bring the stalks of each “p” just halfway down the line below so there would be room for the words that go there.

“... which it makes from the bark of trees.”

The second “which' looked as though it was trying to trick her but she knew it should look the same as the first one. The “h” had got a bit tall but they weren't allowed to rub out.

Sister Lawrence was sitting at Sister Elizabeth's desk looking very stern. There was a leather strap lined up neatly in front of her. Janey knew what it was because last year Sister Lawrence had strapped the whole class, Janey included, but no one really knew why. It hadn't stung as much as she expected, not even as badly as Mum's slaps, but she cried anyway because she hadn't done anything wrong and it wasn't fair.

It wasn't clear who was in trouble today but it seemed to be something to do with the wasp because they had done this dictation last week. Janey had got a star for it, drawn in Sister Elizabeth's red pen.

When she finished, Janey put her pencil into the groove on her desk, sat up straight and folded her arms without being told to. Maree-Frances sitting next to her was still writing with her elbow on the desk and her tongue sticking out a little. Janey could tell she was worried by the way her asthma made her whistle a bit as she breathed, but she knew better than to try and help her with Sister Lawrence watching.

One by one the children put down their pencils and folded their arms. For once they could see that she knew what to do and they were copying her instead of teasing her. Even Kevin O'Connor who had thrown her beret up into the tree and run away with her glasses when the bus was coming and he knew she couldn't run fast enough to catch him, was sitting up like a very good boy, which he wasn't.

“Collect the books, Sister,” said Sister Lawrence and Sister Elizabeth walked round the room picking up each book. It was strange to see her doing the job that Christopher O'Regan was listed to do. The circle of red on each cheek showed that she knew she wasn't the book monitor.

Sister Lawrence took the books and began marking them while the children sat still, being good. Sister Elizabeth stood a little to one side and gave the class a small encouraging smile. It took a long time. There were thirty books and it was hard to sit so still and quiet.

Janey loved Sister Elizabeth. Moving up into her Standard Two class was the best thing so far about school. She was never cross and, until today, didn't even have a strap let alone use one to hit children. Best of all she would play rounders with them at playtime, hitting the ball as hard as the big boys and throwing down the bat so that her hands were free. Grabbing up her skirts in one hand and her rosary beads in the other, she ran – really, ran! - for the other end and never got out.

Sister Elizabeth had written a little book of rhymes to help with spelling and reading. Janey knew them all by heart. They made it so clear, she had started reading big books. Sometimes she checked by saying the rhyme in her mind: “Oo, oo said the moon, I'll shine again soon.” “Oa, oa said the boat, I can float.” She thought sister Elizabeth was the cleverest teacher she knew, even cleverer than Sister Lawrence who was sitting there now acting as if she were the teacher and Sister Elizabeth one of the kids, one who didn't even have a desk but had to stand at the front like the dunce.

Sister Lawrence snapped the last book shut and looked at the class over her glasses.

“You  have not been paying attention to Sister. I am very disappointed in this work. You do not come to school to play and have fun, you are here to learn.” She turned to Sister Elizabeth and in the same stern voice said, “Sister, I am leaving this strap here for you to use. Bold children who are not paying attention must be punished. I will collect the books next week and I hope to see an improvement.”

Sister Lawrence stood suddenly and Sister Elizabeth jumped a little. Her cheeks were even redder and Janey thought there were tears in her eyes. She bounced her palms upwards so that the class knew to stand and chorus, “Good afternoon, Sister Lawrence”. The door shut with a sharp click before they even finished.

Sister Elizabeth bounced her hands downwards and the children sat with a relieved clatter, but they looked on, worried and quiet, as their teacher sat at her desk and put her head in her hands. After a few moments, she looked up and smiled, though her cheeks were wet.

“I just said a little prayer for all of us to do well this week,” she said. “Now, who would like to hear a story? No calling out, just put up your hands.”

The bold boys who had started to shout, “Me, me!” closed their mouths and puffed out their cheeks as though they would burst, while waving their arms wildly above their heads. Everyone else put up their hands in the normal way.

“Come and sit on the mat and I'll begin.”

It felt good to get out of the stiff desk and sit cross-legged on the piece of carpet at the front of the room. Legs seemed to fold more comfortably than arms and Janey felt happy sitting in the middle of the crowd of children as if she really belonged among them.

Nothing more happened the next week. Janey wondered whether Sister Lawrence really did look at their books again because surely Kevin O'Connor was as bold as ever and hadn't learned to spell in a week.

The leather strap lived on top of the bookcase in a box which was decorated in flowers. Mum had one like it full of little scented soaps which perfumed her cardigan drawer. When the boys got a bit loud, Sister Elizabeth would clap her hands and say, “Quiet boys, I think Mr Snake can hear you,” and she would open the end of the box so that the strap could peep out at the class. For the rest of the year Mr Snake never got out of his box.

From time to time Janey wondered about the whole strange business, remembering how her beloved teacher was made to be the book monitor and the dunce. Nobody ever told her who did what wrong that day, so, she tried her very best every day because she never again wanted to see Sister Elizabeth with tears on her red cheeks.