Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Terror incognito

Nuns taught me in primary school. Shapeless, clear-skinned, plainsong women whose pinched lips and crystal-clear eyes protruded beyond starched white face frames. Their heavy brown, ground-scraping habits sublimated anything hinting of personality.

Cattle-whip rosaries hung long, menacing and heavy and brooding from black buckled belts marking where waists should be. And severe black shoe-boots clipped along the ground and school floors.

All seemed stamped – some short, some tall, some slimmer than others – from the same Australian Josephite mould. And all with borrowed saintly names designed to resolutely close doors on any sense of the individual.

I realised early that nuns were orderded in Orders.

Even their smell was ordered. Sensible common soap and regulation toothpaste. With never a hint of fragrance.

Yet despite this regimented sameness, one stood out in brutal solitude. My fifth grade teacher, Sister Theopholis. Like so many before who’d made life-shattering mistakes, this one was determined to shatter all in her path, especially young, impressionable flesh.

Theopholis radiated perfected terror as her omnipresent identity.

Canes, long, flat wooden rulers, backs of hands, and a vicious, barbed tongue were her weapons of choice, often wielded in unison. With piercing liquid-blue eyes, she’d dart effortlessly into the lonliest recesses of young souls with practised precision . . . and start cutting.

Theopholis' world was pure Dark Ages discipline of-the-line. Of forcing us to learn slabs of irrelevant social studies text on equally irrelevant, long-dead souls I struggled to imagine clearly, or arcane mental arithmetic, or obtuse lists of spelling words.

And every morning, she’d parade slowly up and down between us, standing motionless next to our desks, drinking in every fear pheromone our 40 or so young bodies could exude.

There were group recitals, at the front of the classroom, of learnt-by-heart poetry and other works for no more seeming reason than to allow fear to hover just above our heads, beating time like evil black wings.

Even today, more than 40 years on, in another century, I can still taste the fear. And see Theopholis enjoying every second of her handiwork. Barking her staccato questions, pounding on booming desk lids. Flailing into stammering children who stumbled – no matter how briefly – in her withering line of fire.

Her favoured method was division. Culling the weaker from the pack. Then administering measured pain and humiliation with seasoned alacrity.

How any of us maintained a liking for school and learning after Theopholis remains one of my life’s enduring mysteries. And I’m still not convinced she’s dead.

I sense her still, drifting somewhere silently, precisely, wickedly between heaven and hell . . . even though 1965 seems so long ago . . .


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