[Today it is our delight to welcome the legend that is RJXP. R.John Xerxes Piche is founder of Love Bunni Press, author of The Diane Files and Uncertain Nervous Systems, watcher of spaghetti westerns and publisher of Blister Packs.]
Do Nuns Dream of Sterile Sheep?
The first two months of any new school year are always physically uncomfortable. Aside from the scratchiness of the new school clothes – the cardboard-stiff collars of brand-new oxford shirts or razor-creased husky-sized slacks. There was a clumsiness to those new, not-yet-broken-in, dress shoes that made a clippity- clop noise, when we were made to march down the hallway. Not to mention the way these clothes hindered the parking lot playground antics that defined recess and lunchtimes.
Besides the wardrobe, there were those fits of false starting enthusiasm and the furtive oaths made in the school supply aisle, tiny hands gripping the crisp, pristine notebook, that this will be an academic watermark, where procrastinations are finally eradicated, and homework is consistently done and done on time. Oaths that would fail within the first month as homework assignments lost out to playing with friends, afterschool, in an attempt to extend summer vacation one evening at a time.
There are also the unforgiving heat waves and the blistering sun that crept along the length of the classroom, its punishment inescapable.
Uncomfortable, too, because, invariably, your summertime friends and last year’s alliances are all shifted out across the arbitrary classroom assignments. The pains of having to resize the socio-academic hierarchy, (which included the selection of “small group partners,” that would determine so much of your in-class success or failure), traumatic at best.
Finally, those first few months were made all the more uncomfortable because the rumor mill still levied dangerous sway over molding of the raw materials that came to shape one’s fears, expectations, and perceptions that would ominate your entire school year. The gossip cycle was powered by the fuel of an older sibling’s teasing or neighborhood rivalries. It spun previously benign unknowns into the black bile stain of nightmarish apprehensions and a bullying meanness. Nervous stomach cramps spread like a virus.
It was among these prickling thorns that Sister Mary Patrice, a bitter midget Bride of Christ, became the dreaded Sergeant Mary Police. She was renowned as a hardened kid-tossing disciplinarian, who’s merciless classroom was more torture chamber than nurturing environment of supportive curiosity. The old-school-beat-the-lesson-in-through-your-ruler-cracked-knuckles was her greatest pedagogical method. Not above bouncing unfinished homework assignments against the foreheads of the lazy student, exposing the humiliation of the unstudied surrender of the slacking child. Nor was she one to shy away from ruling over a fearful kingdom kept in check by the iron fist grasp of the pop quiz.
So it happened one afternoon, just after lunch, that I was sitting at my desk in the back of the classroom. I was impatiently distracted all through lunch by the book I could not wait to get back to reading. The thought of reading during lunch never even occurred to my tiny fourth grade sense of the possible.
The book, I was devouring, was Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, which had just been made into a movie starring Han Solo. Blade Runner was splashed across my imagination for several reasons – the first being, the fact that Harrison Ford was in it and he was so amazingly cool; the second was all those movie stills that featured Harrison Ford pointing a terrible hand cannon, drenched in the noir rain; and finally, the almost nonstop hype that Starlog Magazine poured across its slick full color glossy page, pure fanboy pornography eliciting gasps, ooohs, and aaahs.
I dug the sleek black paperback out from inside my metal tub, lift top desk and thumbed to where my Garfield bookmark stuck out. Not far into the novel at all, I was only at the scene where Deckard is riding up the elevator with the other cop who is bringing Deckard back in to talk to the chief. The two are discussing whether screwing an android is, technically, cheating, as those artificial humans are just a clockwork of animated parts.
I am not sure if my easily flushing cheeks had lit up like a Christmas Tree ornament or whether that little four foot nun’s Notre Dame Morality Radar blew up like a mob hit car bomb; but before I knew what was happening, a small mannish claw shot out from over my shoulder to snatch the book cleanly out of my hands. I sat in awe, staring at the empty space where the book had just been, then I heard the slice of the cut, that clipped voice, ”Just what do you think you are reading?”
I felt the burning hot rush of blood splotching my face with the rosy display of guilt. The immediate and indiscriminate blaze that colored my starched dough complexion relegated my inclination to a life of smart-alecky bad boy mischief to happenstance and accident.
I was mortified, embarrassed and alive with a prickling rage. I could feel the stomach cramp and stress sweat beginning, as the full effect of the obviousness of the singled-out example, I was about to become settled in the quiet of the hush of the classroom. My classmates’ faces turned back in shock and sneer.
The Sergeant growled through clenched teeth, “Tell me what is going in this book!”
I looked up at her frowning accusation. All I could muster was a meek stammer of, “…I dunno.”
“ Do you not understand my question, young man?”
“Then maybe you do not understand what it is you are reading!”
At that point the conversation had become a pivotal scene in the larger childhood-crushing, imagination-decimating, morality play that passed as pedagogy in the frigid halls of any and all Catholic grade schools.
She continued in the coy and well-rehearsed authority of a well-practiced stage whisper, “These men, if you want to call them that, are discussing a woman. Do you understand what they are discussing doing to her?”
“She’s not really a woman…er, she’s…”
“OH, I see, she isn’t,” the snap of the curt interruption blistered the room. A frown curled downward, sternly punctuating the sharpness of the judgmental lines burrowed into the sides of her mouth. “This is totally inappropriate for you to be reading. You may not have this filth back until your mother comes to retrieve it.”
She briskly turned on her heel and then walked back to her desk, dramatically dropped the book into a bottom drawer before disgustedly slamming it shut.
On the parking lot, at recess, I suddenly found myself very popular with my classmates. As they crowded around to find out what I was reading and why it was so offensive, I stammered and blushed, completely mortified by all the attention. The dismissals of my classmates, once they found out, that I was reading a nerdy science fiction novel, instead of something more provocative or racier, were welcomed for it meant that the crowd scattered back into normal packs and cliques.
Still in shock from the day’s events, I told no one about my inappropriate reading material. Nor did it occur to my tiny, fourth grade brain to go to the public library and get another copy of the book to read at home. At the end of the school year, Sergeant Mary Police returned the book to me without a word figuring I had learned my lesson in the corrupting power of the written word.