Stairway to Heaven

“Tell us a about yourself,” Sister Matthew said as she walked down the aisle to within a few feet of my desk. She was dressed in a white habit and held chalk in one hand and an eraser in the other. I could see in her eyes that she was sizing me up.

I had just transferred from a public school named Vandalia to a private Catholic school named Our Lady of Mercy. To say this caused a little friction in my family is an understatement. Everyone on my father’s side of the family is Catholic and apparently his side had won the battle of how I was to be educated. Everyone on my mother’s side of the family is a Southern Baptist however, and no Southern Baptist in their right mind sends their child to a Catholic school. Fire and brimstone have fallen from the heavens for lesser offenses. My grandmother said that if a second flood came that none of us would be allowed on the next Ark, and my great-grandmother was even less optimistic. She fully expected locusts to swarm the earth. The child of a Baptist family was about to be educated by nuns who worked for some guy in Rome. Every night I could hear both of them praying to the Lord to have mercy on us all.

So there I was sitting in a room wearing a white dress shirt, clip-on tie and navy blue pants being asked by nun for my life story. I was nervous so I blurted out the first thing that came to my mind. “I… I… I have a Schwinn bicycle and I kiss girls under the lunch table.” The words escaped my lips before I could stop them. Sister Matthew’s mouth dropped open and the chalk in her hand fell to the floor. You would have thought I had just told her I was Jewish. The audible gasp from the room was deafening. And then all of a sudden everyone started to laugh. Everyone except Sister Matthew, that is. I was about to learn that she was a no-nonsense kind of gal who had absolutely no sense of humor.

“You kiss girls under the lunch table? I see,” she said as she began to move the chalkboard eraser from one hand to the other. She knew right then that the Lord had sent her a public school hooligan that needed to be set straight in his evil ways and led to a path of righteousness.

“Yes, but, I, uh…” She then quickly interrupted me.

“That’s enough, young man. Apparently you have decided that portraying yourself as some sort of lawless scalawag is the best way to relieve the stress of being a new student here. This is not Vandalia, and you will certainly not be carrying on like it is. Look to your left and you will see what happens to the scalawags in my room.”

“Yes, Sister Matthew,” I stammered. “I didn’t… I didn’t mean that…” “Look to your left, young man,” she interrupted again.

I looked over to the corner of the room and there sat a forlorn kid on a wooden stool with a yellow chalkboard eraser print on his white dress shirt. That chalk print was a clear testament to the fact that nuns were skilled in the art of throwing an eraser. I wasn’t lying to Sister Matthew. I did kiss girls under the lunch table at Vandalia. Well, one girl anyway. Her name was Shelby and we used to kiss underneath the lunch table right under my Scooby Doo lunchbox. Kissing Shelby is about the only memory I can recall from my time at Vandalia. A guy always remembers his first kiss.

I managed to survive second grade and my fair share of hits from the eraser. Sister Matthew wasted no time in showing me who was in charge of her room. And her aim was impeccable. On many a night I had to explain to my mother why there was a yellow chalkboard eraser print on my uniform shirt.

My third grade nun was a short, round woman who went by the name of Sister Thomas. But I wasn’t afraid of her. This was the early Seventies, around the time The Six Million Dollar Man show was on TV, and I had somehow convinced myself that I had the same bionic powers as Steve Austin. I knew if Sister Thomas tried to throw a chalkboard eraser at me that I would simply deflect it with my quick bionic reflexes. I entered her class every day with no fear in my heart.

Sister Paul was my fourth grade nun. Talk about corporal punishment… Sister Paul would storm down the aisle in her black patent leather shoes and grab an offending student by the upper arm, lift him about six inches off the seat of his chair and then start slapping him on his shoulder blade in a fit of rage until his eyes filled with tears. Nobody wanted to cross Sister Paul. Her class was the most disciplined and well behaved class at Our Lady of Mercy. Most of us simply knew better than to run our Communion holes in her class. And only the boys got smacked. Sister Paul, or any of the nuns for that matter, never wanted to send the message that it was okay for anyone, even a nun, to hit a girl. And besides, the girls were smarter than the boys. They could learn their lesson by just watching a boy take it on the shoulder.

Sister Paul was also skilled in the art of throwing the eraser just like Sister Matthew. They must have all learned how to do that in nun school. She once hit me in the forehead with her eraser from a distance of over twenty feet and then made me wear the chalk print for the rest of the day, telling me I was not allowed to wipe it off. It was my own little badge of honor that served as an example to the class of what happened to a student who couldn’t keep his mouth shut. And since my bionic powers had left me by the time I got to fourth grade, I feared Sister Paul as much as the rest of the students did.

But Sister Paul also had a cool side to her. She gave guitar lessons after school and taught me how to play Stairway to Heaven on my acoustic guitar, or at least a little part of it. So not only could Sister Paul whip ass, she could also play Zeppelin on a guitar. I’m telling you, you haven’t seen anything until you see a nun play Stairway to Heaven on a guitar.

To this day I can still remember Sister Paul sitting there with her guitar on her knee singing and playing that song. She was a fine woman, and when her time came I’m sure she was rewarded with her own private stairway to Heaven.

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