Based on the true story behind how I started writing ghost stories
[with headings brought to you by Florence + the Machine as performed by the Capital Children’s Choir].
Regrets Collect Like Old Friends
Picture it: Williamsville, NY, 1991. I was in fifth grade at a small Catholic school with the same dozen-and-a-half classmates I’d been with since kindergarten.
We were more like indifferent siblings than anything but we were a decent group. Quiet. Silly at times. Competitive to a fault. And then, there was our teacher. Let’s call her: Sister Mary Noheart.
Every Demon Wants His Pound of Flesh
Sister Mary Noheart was a nightmare. N-I-G-H-T-M-A-R-E. I’m talking bad. Here’s a few choice memories of my interactions with Sister Mary Noheart:
- Projectile classroom supplies
- Body shaming
- Public humiliation
- Passive/aggressive student-teacher conferences
- Syrupy sweet parent-teacher conferences
But none of us complained. How could we? We didn’t know any better.
But I Like to Keep Some Things to Myself
Our school prided itself on how it molded obedient students.
Students who Listened To Their Elders. To that end, here’s a list of everyone who–according to Sister Mary Noheart–mattered in our fifth grade classroom:
- Sister Mary Noheart
- End of list.
I Like to Keep My Issues Drawn
We were voiceless in that classroom. Even now, my heart breaks for my 10 year-old-self and her classmates. And, oh, how my skin crawls just thinking of all the things I COULD have, WOULD have, SHOULD have said to, at, or about Sister Mary Noheart.
It’s Always Darkest Before the Dawn
Lord help us, we tried that year. We tried not to upset her. We tried to stay out of her crosshairs. We tried to be the best, most obedient students in the universe. But nothing any of us did or said could melt her iciness. From what any of us could tell, we were just beasts of burden disrupting her feeding time. And I wish I was exaggerating.
I mean, of course I am embellishing somewhat. But sweet lord, that’s what it felt like. My kingdom for any. Other. Teacher.
I Can Never Leave the Past Behind
The worst? How hard we tried to get in the good graces of this teacher. Sometimes it was a hushed group effort. Other times it was a personal attempt. And my personal attempt came at the end of a Tuesday in January.
Sister Mary Noheart declared: “Your homework is to write a story. Any story. It’s due in one week. And it better be typed.”
This was it. Granted, I neither knew nor cared anything about writing, but she could bet her cloistered ass I could make up a story. Remember my last post?
I’m Always Dragging That Horse Around
‘Heck yes,’ I thought. You want a story? I’ll *give* you a story. And then maybe, Oh Sweet Baby Cheezits, maybe she’d be so impressed that she wouldn’t put us down in front of each other anymore. Or in front of the Principal. Or the lunch ladies. Or the bishop. Or the custodians…
A whole week to get a story on paper? I didn’t need a week. I needed an hour. I knew my story by heart. All I needed was someone to type it.
All of His Questions, Such a Mournful Sound
God love my mother, she agreed. Her fingers were a blur of magic as I dictated and self-edited as she typed. Mom didn’t question me. Or my story. She of all people in my small world knew what my imagination was like.
She knew I made up horrible stories about our graveyard and the woods for my classmates. But I don’t believe she knew just how much was riding on this very story. I’m not sure I did, either.
Tonight I’m Gonna Bury That Horse in the Ground
My story was complete and I knew it was brilliant. It was a one-page single-spaced ghost story about a kid who goes missing during a game of Hide and Go Seek. I called it…waitforit…HIDE AND NO SEEK. Get it?
If you’re interested, here it is:
It only took a half an hour to print, but when it was done I was so cautious with it. It took me another twenty minutes to tear the perforated edges. I even asked my father for a file folder. My story. My unholy grail.
Shake it Out, Shake it Out, Shake it Out
In all my life, I had never been more proud of anything I’d ever done, for school, or otherwise. And for those of you who were wise enough not to read it, HIDE AND NO SEEK it isn’t the *worst* thing a fifth grader could have written. Cheesy? Sure. Clipped? Of course. But it was dark and it was mine. My own. My precious.
And Sister Mary Noheart was going to love it. Or at least, not stab my feelings with a fire-knife anymore.
It’s Hard to Dance With a Devil on Your Back
I handed it in the next morning. And it only took two and a half eternities for her to grade it.
So finally, on a Friday morning…Finally, finally, finally!… Sister Mary Noheart greeted us with a tidy stack of our graded stories.
This was it.
This is where she would tell me I shined. I know it was a perfect A. I wondered if she’d ever given an A+? I wondered if she’d gone out and bought special stickers, maybe the puffy ones? Oh! Or scratch-and-sniff!
She passed back the stories. One. At. A. Time. Face down. As she did, she “whispered” comments to some of my classmates, things like: “SOMEONE needs to review his spelling book.” And “Did I or did I NOT say to type it?” and “What part of STORY didn’t you understand?”
Though she did deal out two or three silent nods of approval. Luckies.
Then, at long last…Sister Mary Noheart was at my desk. I stared straight ahead. My face was red hot, embarrassed in advance as I braced for glowing praise.
She put my story facedown on my desk. Then cleared her throat.
I looked at her.
Her mouth was tight.
Something was wrong. And then, her fire-knife cut me when she said, “Who wrote this?”
So Shake Him Off
I must have heard her wrong. I looked down at my paper. Flipped it. Circled in the corner was a 51.
“Well? Who wrote it? Tell me. Now. It’s only going to get worse if you keep lying.”
What do you say to that? Nothing apparently. I must have spent all my words on that story.
How could she believe me, she said. Why would she? After all, she’d never seen me show much more than vague interest or light comprehension in any other assignment before.
All of the Ghouls Come Out to Play
There was an explosion of protests. I don’t know how loud I sobbed but one girl stood up so hard her chair probably dented the wall.
Another came and sat on the floor next to my chair, squeezing my hand in hers.
One boy slammed his head on his desk.
Another stood, called Sister Mary Noheart a witch-with-a-“B”, then walked himself to the principal’s office.
My parents were called.
And I Am Done With My Graceless Heart
Much to my relief, my unfathomably patient parents believed me, but The F remained. Though Mom and Dad convinced me to re-submit a new story. Any story. One Sister Mary Noheart would believe I’d written. So I did.
A few days later, I handed in a scribbled paragraph about a girl rescuing a cat from a tree.
She returned it with a silent nod.
So Tonight I’m Gonna Cut It Out And Then Restart
On the last day of fifth grade, I wished my classmate-siblings goodbye. My parents transferred me to public school. And I wasn’t the only one. About one third of us left that year.
Administration made a note in Sister Mary Noheart’s file.
I Like to Keep My Issues Drawn
In hindsight, maybe it was a compliment: an accusation of plagiarism at a mere 10 years. Maybe that is high praise if you just think about it.
But I don’t just think about it.
I breath it and bleed it and feel it every time I write.
And every story I have written since that horrible day is for anyone who has ever been a voiceless ghost in their own classroom.
It’s Always Darkest Before the Dawn
The pain caused by Sister Mary Noheart’s accusation went so deep into my core that every goddamn story I will ever write will have her demon claw marks on it.
Well guess what Sister Mary Noheart? I’ve got my own claws now. And with them I scrape the dregs of whatever Catholic-ness is left in me to bless you because if I don’t have mercy on your dark soul, I don’t know what will.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be right here, getting my pound of flesh back.