In late August of 1960, I returned to Omaha. For the next nine months I taught a delightful class of fifth graders. Just thinking of that year with those eager fifth graders who soaked up learning makes me smile. How different from the seventh graders of the spring before. The only thing that marred those idyllic and carefree days were the recesses and the days I did the convent laundry.
Throughout the year, several fifth graders would always gather around me during recess. We’d talk and laugh. And daily the members of that seventh—now eighth—grade gang would intrude. “You won’t be smiling when we’re done with ya,” they’d taunt. “We’re goin’ rape ya ‘til your ears ring.”
Always the threat of rape.
Because of that, Sister Brendan told me I was never to walk back to the convent alone. Another nun always accompanied me.
The gang never raped me, but they did toilet-paper the trees and scrubs around the convent numerous times. Moreover one of my obediences was the weekly laundry. I’d pin a load on the line and go back inside the convent, only to return to the backyard and discover all the wet clothes trampled in the dirt, the clothespins littering the yard.
After this had happened a few times, another nun stood guard during the laundry days.
One playground scene imprinted itself on my mind. In mid-winter, I was talking with Eugene, a fifth grader who was all of four and a half feet tall, malnourished, his face thin, a shock of black hair over his forehead, a woeful look in his eyes.
Eugene was telling me about his dad’s drinking when one of the eighth graders—a member of the gang—strode up. He was tall, at last six feet, and burly. He smirked, put one of his muscled hands around the back of Eugene’s neck, squeezed, and lifted him off the ground. Eugene’s feet dangled; panic widened his eyes.
“You b___,” the eighth grader snarled. “We’ll get you tonight!”
“Let Eugene go!”
“I suppose he’s your pet. Probably likes you. Doesn’t know what a b ___ you are.” As he spoke, he squeezed tightly so that Eugene’s face turned blue; his eyes rolled back.
“Drop him,” I yelled from my five-foot-four height.
“Make me!” he shouted.
I slapped him.
The bully dropped Eugene, who crumpled to the ground, coughing.
Rubbing his left cheek, the eight-grader muttered some choice curses, debating whether to hit me.
Seeing the white line across his cheek left by my slap, I was appalled at what I’d done. But I had no time to apologize because Eugene was struggling to get up, still gasping for breath. I knelt on the asphalt and gathered him in my arms. Looking up, I saw the eighth grader looming over us, his fists clenched, his curses still bluing the air.
“I’m going to report you to Sister Brendan,” I said.
With that, he turned away, sullen, and rejoined his buddies who’d been watching. I don’t know what Sister Brendan said to him and his gang, but that ended their playground forays into fifth-grade territory.
The year passed. I enjoyed being with those young children whose curiosity made learning exciting. But I continued to feel guilty about the hatred I’d incited in those gang members. When I’d taught them, my intentions had been good, but the results echoed for many years so that it was only thirty years later that I could finally see that I did have a gift for teaching and that those first five months had little to do with me and much to do with those damaged boys.
And that, my friends, ends the saga of Omaha.
Note: I’m taking a vacation for a while, but will return to this on-line memoir in late November to share with you my next teaching assignment: Seneca, Kansas, in the fall of 1961.
All photographs from Wikipedia.
All photographs from Wikipedia.