We sat there in a circle, nervously swinging our legs, all dressed alike in white shirts tucked into plaid skirts or black pants, depending of course, upon whether you were a boy or girl. I hadn’t quite been ready to head into second grade, and having never experienced Catholicism, I was having a rough time adjusting to the regiment at Our Lady of Lords. My family had just moved to Helena, MT. We lived within four blocks of the beautiful Capitol Building. Most of my days were spent simply trying to grasp the biblical stories that I had never been taught, struggling to adjust to a new town, a new school, and a completely foreign religion that every lesson I listened to was based off of. Now that I am a parent, I really wonder what my mother thought would come of that situation. It was bad. The nuns really didn’t like me very much. I fell asleep all the time. They thought I was lazy and would grab me by the shoulders and shake me awake. What no one cared to find out was that my nights were spent consoling my little brother while my parents battled each other deep into the night. At the time, it was normal to me, I thought I WAS bad when I was violently jolted into consciousness, everyone staring at me, an angry nun face glaring down into my sleepy world. The price I paid in humility was great.
The other children thought I was a freak. On the second day of school I had been so scared to talk to the ladies in black that I became paralyzed at my desk, unable to ask about going to the bathroom. I remember when I lost control of my bladder, the warm liquid making a path down my legs onto the floor. I just closed my eyes and prayed that somehow, no one would notice. It was the sound that gave me away. One of the nuns came running over and grabbed me out of the seat. I couldn’t stop peeing and she became angry at me, yanking my arm and throwing me back into the chair. Kids started pointing and laughing. That was when I put the first brick in the wall. I closed my eyes and set my jaw. I don’t remember much of the rest of the day. I got dragged into the head nun’s office, mom got called. I went home, none too eager to ever return. But of course, I had to.
This day, though, the day of the duck, the day all of us in our seven year old innocence were gathered together as a group, was one of those points in my life that has molded itself into my brain. Some of the details of that day are foggy, like what time it was exactly, or why we were grouped they way we were. We had a book, so it must have been that we were supposed to try to read the book. I remember that there were three boys and four girls, our desks pulled into a circle. The book had a picture of a yellow duck on the cover. One of the boys put his finger on the image of the duck’s bill, and immediately jerked back, exclaiming, “Ouch! The duck bit me!” He then passed the book to the girl next to him and said, “Try it, I bet he bites you too!”
“Oh, owie!” The girl’s pigtails bounced as she felt the duck bite her, she recoiled in horror and pushed the book to the boy next to her.
“Ouch! He DOES bite!”
And so it went until the book came to me. I was kind of scared, I didn’t want to be bitten, but I had to try it, what if it did?! Wouldn’t that be cool? I could tell everyone that at Our Lady of Lords, the books are REAL. I put my finger on the duck’s bill and was immediately disappointed.
“It didn’t bite me.” I said, crossing my arms over my chest and leaning back in my chair.
The little boy who had first felt the duck leaned across our desks and put his face in mine.
“That’s cause it doesn’t bite niggers.” He spit the words out like they made his mouth taste bad. He snatched the book and slammed himself into his chair, all the while, his chin thrusting forward, head tilted back so he could peer down his nose at me. Now, I should take this moment to explain that I am dark skinned because I am Native American. The majority of my ancestors came from the plains in Montana, North Dakota and Canada. The people in my family ARE the “tragic minority” of the American West, and I had never heard that word before. Truth be told, most of the people I knew were too busy struggling against discrimination and bigotry to actually participate in it themselves. I point this out because it is significant to me in that it was my first example of the blindness of racism. Here was this little boy, too young to even realize that he was insulting me based on an incorrect assumption of my ethnicity, but still adhering to what he had been taught- that darkies were bad.
I was blind because of the people that surrounded me, and so was he. Something in the way that boy delivered that word, though, made me suddenly and very acutely aware that the very skin on my bones set me apart from all the other kids in that circle. To this day, I struggle to understand how I made that connection.
“What did you say?” I stood up, I was indignant. I didn’t know what he was calling me but I sure as hell knew it wasn’t good.
“I said the duck doesn’t bite niggers!”
He jumped up and put his hands squarely on my shoulders. I turned my head and bit the shit out of his hand. I could feel his tendons and bones under my teeth as he dug his fingers into the soft flesh near my collar bone. I grabbed his arm above the elbow and twisted, began to push into the awkward angle of his shoulder, and then the nuns were there and he was screaming and they were yelling. Then it was time to go the head nun, each of us dragged by our collars down the cathedral like hallway and through the big wooden doors.
I, at this time, had crawled into silence. I was terrified. I was angry. We had to sit next to each other in the room, tiny little bodies in front of huge oak desk.
“I heard that you each used very foul words in class today.” The head nun stood up and crossed her arms.
We were silent. He kicked at the rug. I stared at the nun’s shoes. All of them had the same horrible nursing home shoes. She stared down at the two of us, flicking her eyes over us.
“You” She said, pointing to me, “Out to the hallway.”
I obeyed, nearly falling over myself as I beat feet to the safety of the empty hallway. I sat on a bench after she closed the doors behind me. There were muffled voices, a conversation filtered through the massive door that conveyed fear in muted tones. Suddenly, there was a rush of footsteps in the room, reminiscent of an ambush. Then the sounds of slapping. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten. Rythmic and sharp, each one ringing in my ears and increasing my heartbeat, each one followed by a high pitched shriek. After a moment, the door opened and the boy wandered towards the bench, his body racked with silent sobs. He clutched his hands at his chest and sat down, tears splashing against the backs of his hands, which he then cradled to his mouth.
Head nun stood in the doorway. She pointed at me. “You” She said, “Come in here.” And she shut the door behind me.
“Sit down.” I was once again in front of the oak desk.
“Did you say a bad word in class today?’
“No, I didn’t!” I didn’t remember saying a bad word.
“Sister Isabelle told me you said a bad word. Are you suggesting to me that Sister Isabelle is lying?”
“Um, no. I don’t know.” I started to cry. “He called me a name.”
Head nun peered down at me. “At Our Lady of Lords we don’t lie.”
“He called me a nigger!”
Head nun’s face turned into a whirlpool of disgust.
“Children don’t speak like that here.”
I was dumbfounded and lost. Head nun explained to me that children who follow the ways of the Lord do not speak that way, that the words of our mouths should be clean and of good intent. Then she took my hands and placed them on the top of her desk. She stretched my fingers wide and reached into her drawer and pulled out a ruler. And then she did something that stunned me. She racked the backs of my hands ten times. Ten strikes delivered to a bewildered child that sometimes still burn my memory. I felt wronged and betrayed. I bit my lip and refused to cry anymore. She kept looking at me, her eyes searching for an indication that I had learned my lesson. I gave her nothing, not one tear, not one cry, not one ounce of validation that what she had just done to me would turn me into a God-fearing and obedient child.
She called my dad to come and pick me up. He arrived in all his Native glory, and, upon learning of the situation, stormed out of the school with me in his arms declaring that Catholic school had always been an abomination to Natives and he didn’t know why the hell I was there in the first place. Kind of heroic and kind of passing the buck at the same time.
The fight that night was worse than ever, of course, I blamed myself. And I blamed the little boy. As I lay there that night, I wasn’t able to resolve anything about what had happened that day. I wasn’t able to pat my own head and tell myself that I was just a kid, and an innocent one at that. I couldn’t whisper in my own ear about the importance of forgiveness and hope. I didn’t hold my own hand and say, “There are going to be a lot of really hard times and utterly confusing situations that you will encounter in your life, you are going to make some terrible decisions and face literally dragging yourself out of the gutter, but you CAN do it. You can be strong and graceful. And hopeful. You will find people to love you, and you will love beyond what you thought was possible.”
I couldn’t say those things then. But I can now.