The Conduct Slip

by

09/15/2005

Southwest Detroit, MI

Neighborhood: Uncategorized

“Kneel. Sit. Stand. Kneel. Sit. Stand. Kneel. Sit. Stand!”

Sister Mary Angelina bellows these words to a congregation of frightened eighth graders at St. Cecilia’s Catholic Church in southwest Detroit sometime in the mid-1980’s. Almost twenty years later, those angry commands from the most powerful nun known to the class of 1985 have not been forgotten. They are engraved into my mind and soul like a first love’s name on a silver-plated I.D. bracelet.

“I said, SING LOUDER!” Sister’s voice echoes out into the half-filled, enormous church. “God can’t HEAR YOU!” she shouts at us above the groaning keys of the organ. Mrs. Clawson, school secretary and organist extradonaire, squeezes her fingers into the instrument, as she were trying to drown out Sister’s voice’s with the music.

An Ozzy Osbourne concert couldn’t hold back the sounds coming out of Sister’s mouth.

We are all very frightened by Sister Mary Angelina, especially when she decides to punish the entire class for not singing loud enough in church. Our cruel and unnecessary punishment consists of kneeling on the prayer benches, sitting on the hard wooden pews, and standing straight up. In one continuous motion. Repeatedly, as Sister commands it. She is a sadistic, militant drill sergeant in a nun’s habit. Down, sit, and up. Down, sit, and up. Down, sit, and up. Over and over and over again. For about thirty minutes—nonstop. And for what? This was going to help us realize that we should sing louder in church—for God, and for her. Especially for her. In Sister’s eyes, we are nothing but sinners. Sinners, not singers.

My knees begin to ache and moan with pain after the first thirty or forty “KneelSitStand,” repetitions. Sister Mary Angelina instills fear in her students with ridiculous intimidation tactics. Is she actually trying to exhaust us into singing? I would like to tell the old hag where she can stick her stuffy hymns, but none of us ever dare cross Sister. She is not only the principal of St. Cecilia’s Catholic School, but its supreme ruler. Big, loud, and scary.

Scary enough to send any kid running to the nearest public school. Short gray hair, beady little black eyes, and a block of ice for a soul. The woman is large and stout with long, yellowed teeth. She stalks up and down the church aisles in her soft-soled, angelic white oxfords and slaps her long, flat yard stick hard against the back of the oak pew benches where we sit. Sister is trying to snap us to attention. She scowls at us with red-rimmed eyes. She hates us. We can smell the hostility and taste its bitterness in our mouths, as sure as Sister savors the sweetness of our fear. The scent of scared children gives her power. She breathes in the enchanted odor deeply, her saggy chest heaving, and exhales through flared nostrils.

One time, Sister “accidentally” slaps her stick a little too hard and unsteadily and cracks Nathan Yorbino in the back of the head. I heard most nuns would smack kids with a ruler, but not Sister Mary Angelina. For her, a little ruler is not sufficient. She needs an entire yardstick to get her point across.

We don’t like her punishments, but for sure if we don’t comply—we will burn in hell. Sister would see to that. We’re all sure of that.

Going to church is a once a week outing for us St. Cecilia Catholic School students. Instead of attending our daily Religion class, we walk next door to the church every Wednesday for mass. All the students in the school have to go and are required to sit with their grade. All the fourth graders together, fifth graders, all the way up to the biggest and baddest eighth graders who have the best seats in the church. The last rows of pews. The most sacred pews. In the back pews you can pretend a lot better that you are actually listening and paying attention. Plus, it is easier to goof off with your friends back there, unless Sister is looking at you. She has this way of staring at a kid, with a look so full of hate and ugliness, it makes you shake from head to toe, reeling with guilt, even if you did nothing wrong.

On this particular day Sister was in a very foul mood. Unusually crabby, even for her. She has a way of spitting at you when she talks, and when she shouts the spit appears to be thicker and more pronounced. So thick in fact, that in her “KneelSitStand” ranting, a big gloppy, wet slop of spit landed right on my chin.

“Ewww gross, Sister just spit on you,” my friend Sarah whispers. “Get it off me!” I shriek. I frantically wipe at my chin, removing the glue-like, slimy substance from my face. I wipe my hand clean on my uniform skirt.

“I hope you don’t get her cooties,” Sarah whispers in my ear.

“By the time she’s done with us, the entire eighth grade class will have her cooties,” I whisper back.

Sarah stifles a giggle. Giggling, laughing, smirking, and smiling are not allowed in Sister’s church. You can try to get away with it, but she sure doesn’t tolerate it. If we ever looked like we were having too much fun during a mass we would probably be issued a conduct slip. A conduct slip is a disciplinary form stating a student’s misbehavior and sent home with the student to be signed by a parent. Designed to get the kid in trouble, naturally.

I luck out in church that day because Sister must have been deaf to my giggles. I never, ever receive a conduct slip during my first seven years at St. Cecilia’s, not until I refuse to take my make-up off. I have survived almost eight years at parochial school without getting that dreaded little white slip of paper. I was so close to graduating with a squeaky clean record. However, in the eighth grade, my last year at St. Cecilia’s, I receive my very first and last conduct slip.

Make-up. I love make-up. From purple eyeliner and electric blue mascara to plum passion blush and liquid lilac lipstick. I have been experimenting with make-up for at least three years prior to this conduct slip incident. The girls at St. Cecilia’s were always allowed to wear make-up. All my friends at school wear make-up. We are teenage girls, for heaven’s sake. We live and breathe all the Maybelline and Cover Girl we can get our hands on. Now all of a sudden, Sister Mary Angelina decides that this year, my last year, wearing make-up is a sin.

God forbid if using cosmetics will send every St. Cecilia girl into a frenzy of wild, premarital sex. It’s bad enough all the girls look the same in their red, green, and black plaid uniform skirts, topped off with the most hideous green polyester vest complete with large, round, brass buttons. I even try to cover up the unattractive vest with “Disco Sucks” pins and shorten my uniform skirt into a micro-mini. But nothing helps. I stick safety pins along the hemline of my private school-issued monstrosity of a skirt to try to punk it out a little bit, but the nuns make me remove the pins because they’re not regulation.

And now, we aren’t allowed to feel pretty or good about ourselves with a little bit of make-up. Sister is taking that away from us too. God, I despise that woman. God probably hates her too. Maybe He has been wanting to fire her for years. But couldn’t because He is too nice and feels sorry for her. After all, Sister did dedicate her entire life to serving Him. Married to Jesus. That’s what Sister always tells us students. We always wondered why Jesus didn’t just divorce Sister.

Besides, that’s what my mom ends up doing with my dad.

My homeroom teacher Miss Boogen, better known to St. Cecilia kids as Miss Booger, asks me after a spelling test one day if I am wearing make-up. I damn well am, but will never admit this to her.

“Are you wearing eye make-up, Miss Bernowski?” Miss Boogen peers down at me with steely periwinkle blue eyes.

“No Miss Boogen,” I stammer up into the cold, blue eyes.

“So if I splashed water all over your face, no make-up would smear off?” Miss Boogen asks.

“Um, I don’t know, but my mom lets me wear make-up.” My gaze falls to my shoes.

I hate confrontations. I long to melt right into the mint green cinder block walls and disappear. She doesn’t back down, but towers right over me. Eyes widening with fear, I am consumed by the dark shadow looming above. Her blonde bob hairdo does not move. It never moves. It lies flat and stiff, like a freshly frosted cake at the bakery. The only things moving are her blurry blue eyes, blinking and drilling a hole straight through me.

“Well, I’m not your mom, and you’re not at home. I’m sorry, Miss Bernowski, but you have broken the school rules, so I will have to send home a conduct slip.”

“But Miss Boogen, all the other girls are wearing make-up too.”

“Sorry, young lady, but you are the one I noticed. Go to the lavatory and wash it off. Right now.” She points her long, bony finger towards the door.

I grab the plastic hall pass hanging on the bulletin board and slowly walk to the restroom, struggling to hold back the tears and sobs. My mouth and throat begin to ache from fighting the salty water back into my eyeballs where they belong. The last thing I want is for some kid to laugh at me crying like a baby. It’s not fair. So not fair. Why does she pick on me? Sarah has a ton more make-up on than I do. Now all the girls will look prettier than me, with their sneakily applied forbidden cosmetics, and I will be the ugly girl with the scrubbed pale face, puffy eyes, and bad home perm. I’ll be called a dumb polock again. “Go to hell, Miss Boogen, straight to hell,” I say as I watch the sparkly blue eye shadow and clumpy mascara wash down the drain.

I peer at my naked face in the mirror. Feel so ugly, less than female. Make-up gives me confidence, and now my confidence is down the drain mingling with gunk and bacteria and germs. At least I still have my perfectly feathered hair. I pull my Supercomb out of my red knee sock and re-feather my hair. I manage a tough girl smile at the reflection in the mirror. I do look like Leather Tuscadaro on Happy Days.

Miss Boogen is my favorite teacher. Well, not anymore. Not after this incident. She is the funnest teacher in the school. Everyone’s favorite. All the kids love her, even though we joke around about her sex change operation. Miss Boogen is an amazon, not very feminine. She’s built like a defensive lineman for the Detroit Lions. She looks so much like a man that all the kids wonder if maybe she was once a male. I don’t recall who started that sex change rumor, but maybe I will get it going again.

I decide I won’t love Miss Boogen anymore. Never again will I laugh at her corny jokes. I feel betrayed. So betrayed by Miss Boogen. How could she do this to me? I thought I was her favorite student. She gave me an A+ on my poetry project and now turns her back on me! How could she? What was she thinking? Has she lost her mind? Has Sister cast an evil spell on her and suddenly made her mean? If a kid gets straight A’s, who gives a shit if she wears a little make-up? Does Miss Boogen even realize she has just caused irreparable damage to my self-esteem? I am so beyond pissed off. Slouching out of the restroom, I scurry back to class, pushing my hair down across my face so no one can see how homely I actually am.

I take the conduct slip home to get it signed and am so scared to give it to my mom. I have never been a bad girl. It was obvious that receiving this conduct slip makes me a bad girl. But it’s not like I killed someone, I just wore a little make-up, surely my mother could understand that. She wears make-up. Every other fourteen-year-old girl in the United States wears make-up, so why should I be singled out and punished? God, my life sucks right now.

As I walk home from school by myself, I work on the plan on how to tell my mother. Usually she is at work when I get home from school, but I know she has the day off today. Will she kill me? I take a key out of my jacket pocket and open the back door. I push on it hard and squeeze in. Piles of dirty shoes and boots try to block my way. My cat, Horshack, comes prancing up to me, meowing and smelling strangely like cotton candy. I pick her up and nuzzle her warm fur next to my chin. She stays for a brief second, then squirms out of my grasp and runs and hides. I feel like doing the same thing right about now. But the sooner I get this over with the better. If I wait until late tonight, it will look like I purposely put off giving the conduct slip to my mother out of sheer guilt, like I am actually at fault. If I give it to her right away, it will appear that I think it is no big deal, therefore, I am in fact, innocent.

“Mom! Hey Mom!”

“Valerie? I’m down here, in the basement.”

I begin to change my mind, and consider chickening out. I don’t want to get into trouble. I don’t even want my mother to get angry with me. She has been through enough in her life. The last thing she needs is for me to upset her. Then again, I did nothing wrong, so telling her right now will prove that.

“Mom, you will never believe what happened in school today.”

“What. Honey?” She asks, putting dirty laundry into the washing machine.

“You are going to laugh—it’s so funny. Unbelievable really.” “What happened Val?”

“Well, I guess Sister all of a sudden has her boobs tied in a knot and decides that she’s banning cosmetics from the dress code, so Miss Boogen saw my mascara I had on today, made me wash it all off—-even though Sarah and every other girl in class had on make-up too and so she gave me a conduct slip.” Heart pumping, my face burning hot, I stare down at the basement floor, avoiding the dead giveaway eye contact with my mother.

“What? You’ve never gotten one of those slips. Are you telling me everything I need to know? This is just about wearing make-up and breaking a new rule at St. Cecilia?” My mother’s eyes narrow with suspicion. “And you shouldn’t talk about Sister that way. She’s a woman of God.”

“Yeah, well… I need you to sign it. You know it’s really not fair because all the girls are wearing make-up, even the sixth graders and no one else got in trouble but me. I can’t go to school without make-up, I’ll look hideous.”

“No, you won’t. I didn’t bother with cosmetics when I was your age. Rules are rules, Valerie. They need to be followed.” Mom cocks her head to one side and says thoughtfully, “You want to graduate this year, don’t you?”

“Yeah, but I want to look pretty too! Can you sign the slip and attach a note saying that if the other girls are wearing make-up I should be allowed to wear make-up too? After all, I am an A student, so these stupid rules shouldn’t even apply to me.”

“I don’t know Valerie. Even if you don’t like the rules, you still need to follow them.”

“Come on, Mom. Please?” I look up at my mother with tears in my eyes. She looks unsure of what to say but then gives me a soft smile.

“Well, I’ll definitely write Miss Boogen a note saying that it doesn’t seem right to change the rules when the school year is half way over, but I’ll also tell her that I’ll personally make sure that you don’t wear any make-up to school anymore.”

“What? You don’t need to do that.”

“But I will,” she says firmly.

When I get to school the next day, I sit down at my desk and open up the sealed envelope my mother gave me which contains the conduct slip and note. I quickly read the note while keeping one eye on Miss Boogen up at her desk so she can’t see what I am doing.

“Dear Miss Boogen,

Valerie has informed me about the new school rule of no make-up. I think this rule is unfair to teenage girls and also came abruptly halfway through the school year. However, I’m very disappointed that my daughter has disobeyed the school’s rules.

I can assure you that Valerie will not wear any more cosmetic products to school. Please call me if you have any concerns.”

I carefully take my scissors out of my school supply box inside of my desk and cut off the last paragraph of the note. Besides, Miss Boogen doesn’t need any assurance from my mother. I slip it into the side pocket of my uniform skirt, and give Miss Boogen the envelope with the signed slip and half note. I’m wearing a little make-up, but she doesn’t seem to notice. I let out a sigh of relief and sit down at my desk. I take the cut paper out of my pocket and show it to Sarah.

“I can’t believe you did that,” she says.

“I know,” I said smiling, feeling pretty smart.

The next time I see that little slip of note that I had cut off, it comes in the mail anonymously. I must have lost it, or it fell out of my pocket. When my mom opens the envelope she finds the photocopy of her handwritten letter and a memo simply stating, “I found this on the classroom floor.”

I get the wooden spoon. Ever since I can remember, instead of getting the traditional spanking, my mother hits me on the backside with a wooden spoon. The slap of that cooking utensil on my bottom would sting like fire for many hours. My mom misses a lot, so she ends up hitting me on my tailbone, which turns black and blue and aches for days. I hate that spoon. I am too old for that spoon. Overcome by sudden rage, I grab the wooden spoon out of my mother’s hand and throw it across the room. My hand is around her throat as I push her against the wall.

“Don’t you ever use that spoon on me again!” I hiss through clenched teeth.

Bewildered, my mother asks in a small voice, “Valerie, what’s gotten into you?”

My anger subsides as quickly as it had come. “I’m sorry Mom,” I say, letting go of her and walking to my bedroom.

“God’s going to punish you,” she says. She says this a lot when she’s trying to scare me.

I am grounded for a month and have to apologize to Miss Boogen. I am too embarrassed to look her in the eye and say those words, “I’m sorry.” I write her a note instead and press it into her large, rough hand as I walk out of her classroom. She looks surprised and then smiles. I don’t wait for her to open and read the note, I am too disconcerted and hurry out the door. Never again do I receive a conduct slip or the dreaded wooden spoon.

God finds other punishments for me.

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