This is the true story behind how I started writing ghost stories [with headings brought to you by Florence + the Machine as performed by the Capital Children’s Choir].
Regrets Collect Like Old Friends
Picture it: Williamsville, NY, 1991.
I was in fifth grade at a small Catholic school with the same dozen-and-a-half classmates I’d been with since kindergarten.
We were more like indifferent siblings than anything but we were a decent group. Quiet. Silly at times. Competitive to a fault.
And then, there was our teacher. Let’s call her: Sister Mary Noheart.
Every Demon Wants His Pound of Flesh
Sister Mary Noheart was a nightmare.
I’m talking bad. Here’s a few choice memories of my interactions with Sister Mary Noheart:
- Projectile classroom supplies
- Body shaming
- Public humiliation
- Passive/aggressive student-teacher conferences
- Syrupy sweet parent-teacher conferences
But none of us complained. How could we? We didn’t know any better.
But I Like to Keep Some Things to Myself
Our school prided itself on how it molded obedient students.
Students who Listened To Their Elders.
Even if said elders were child-haters.
To that end, here’s a list of everyone who–according to Sister Mary Noheart–mattered in our fifth grade classroom:
- Sister Mary Noheart
End of list. We were voiceless in her classroom.
I Like to Keep My Issues Drawn
Even now, my heart breaks for my 10 year-old-self and her classmates.
And, oh, how my skin crawls just thinking of all the things I COULD have, WOULD have, SHOULD have said to, at, or about Sister Mary Noheart.
It’s Always Darkest Before the Dawn
Lord help us, we tried that year. We tried not to upset her. We tried to stay out of her crosshairs. We tried to be the best, most obedient students in the universe. But nothing any of us did or said could melt her iciness. From what any of us could tell, we were just beasts of burden disrupting her feeding time. And I wish I was exaggerating.
I mean, of course I am embellishing somewhat. But sweet lord, that’s what it felt like. My kingdom for any. Other. Teacher. Even Miss Trunchbull.
I Can Never Leave the Past Behind
The worst was how hard we all tried to get Sister Mary Noheart to like us. Or at least hate us a little less. Sometimes it was a hushed group effort. Other times it was a personal attempt.
And my personal chance came on the end of a Tuesday in January.
Sister Mary Noheart said: “Your homework is to write a story. Any story. It’s due in one week. And it better be typed.”
This was it. This was my chance. While I neither cared nor knew anything about writing or typing, she could bet her cloistered ass I could make up a story. Remember my last post?
I’m Always Dragging That Horse Around
‘Heck yes,’ I thought. ‘You want a story? I can give you a story Sister Mary Noheart’.
And then, please sweet baby Cheezits, maybe she’d be so impressed and she’d stop putting us down in front of each other. And the Principal. And the lunch ladies. And the bishop. And the custodians…
One whole week to get the best story we could on paper?
I didn’t need a week. I needed an hour. I knew my story by heart.
All I needed was someone who knew how to type.
All of His Questions, Such a Mournful Sound
When I got home, I told my mother about the assignment and God love her, she agreed to type my story for me. So, after dinner, I dictated it to that beautiful woman. Her fingers were a blur of magic and my words appeared on the screen as if from nowhere.
I dictated over Mom’s shoulder, giggling, correcting, and self-editing as she typed. It had to be perfect.
Mom didn’t question me. Or my story. She of all people in my small world knew what my imagination was like. She knew I made up horrible things about our graveyard and the woods for my classmates. But I don’t believe she knew just how much was riding on this very story.
Tonight I’m Gonna Bury That Horse in the Ground
My story was complete. And it was brilliant, if you ask my 10 year old self. It was a one-page single-spaced ghost story about a kid who goes missing during a game of Hide and Go Seek. I called it HIDE AND NO SEEK.
And here it is:
It took me about half an hour to tear the perforated edges, I was so cautious with it. I even asked Dad to give me a file folder for it, so it wouldn’t get creased in my TrapperKeeper.
Shake it Out, Shake it Out, Shake it Out
Until that day, THE day I would hand in my story, I had never been more proud of anything I’d ever done, for school, or otherwise, in my entire life. And if you didn’t read HIDE AND NO SEEK (wise choice), all humble bragging aside: it isn’t the worst thing a fifth grader could have written. It’s kind of dark, actually. Cheesy? Sure. Clipped? Of course.
But it was mine. My own. My precious. And Sister Mary Noheart was going to love it. Or at least, not stab my feelings with a fire-knife anymore.
It’s Hard to Dance With a Devil on Your Back
The very next day, I handed in HIDE AND NO SEEK. Two and a half excruciatingly-forever-long weeks passed. And then, on a Friday…Finally, finally, finally!… Sister Mary Noheart greeted us with a tidy stack of our graded stories.
This was it.
This is where she would tell me I shined. I convinced myself my story was a perfect. A perfect A+. I wondered if she’d ever given a perfect A+? I wondered if she’d gone out and bought special stickers, maybe the puffy ones? Oh! Or scratch-and-sniff! How many stickers were on it?
She passed back the stories to their writers. One. At. A. Time. Face down. Though you could kind of see pencil marks through the back with the percent grade circled in the corner. She “whispered” comments to some of my classmates as she passed their stories back. Things like: “SOMEONE needs to review his spelling book.” And “Did I or did I NOT say to type it?” and “What part of STORY didn’t you understand?”
Though she did deal out two or three silent nods of approval.
Then, at long last…Sister Mary Noheart was at my side. I stared at the chalk bored. My face was red hot, trying not to smile as I braced for the first-time-ever praise. She put my story facedown on my desk. Then cleared her throat.
I looked at her.
Her mouth was tight and I knew something was wrong. That’s when fire-knife cut me:
“Who wrote this?”
I must have heard her wrong. I looked down at my paper. Flipped it. Circled in the corner was a 51.
So Shake Him Off
“Tell me. Now.” Sister Mary Noheart said. “Who wrote this for you? It’s only going to get worse if you keep lying.”
But she wouldn’t believe me. She didn’t believe that I wrote it.
How could she believe me, she said.
Why would she?
After all, she’d never seen me show much more than vague interest or light comprehension in any other assignment before.
All of the Ghouls Come Out to Play
There was an explosion of protests. One girl stood up so hard her chair dented the wall.
Another girl left her seat and sat on the floor next to my chair, took my hand, squeezed it in hers. One boy slammed his head on his desk.
Another boy stood, called Sister Mary Noheart a witch-with-a-B, then walked himself to the principal’s office.
My parents were called.
And I Am Done With My Graceless Heart
The F remained.
Much to my relief, my unfathomably patient parents believed me, but convinced me to re-submit a new story. A different story. Any story. One Sister Mary Noheart would believe I’d written.
So I did. A few days later, I handed in a scribbled paragraph about a girl rescuing a cat from a tree.
When she returned it: Silent nod. B-.
So Tonight I’m Gonna Cut It Out
On the last day of fifth grade, I wished my classmate-siblings goodbye. My parents transferred me to public school. And I wasn’t the only one. Most of us ended up coming clean to our parents and guardians about how we were treated in that classroom. As a result, one third of us left.
Administration made a note in Sister Mary Noheart’s file.
And Then Restart
In sixth grade at public school, I joined the literary club and helped designed the cover of the yearbook.
In seventh grade, I made an Adirondack chair and received the first A+ in the history of that teacher’s career.
In eighth grade, I co-founded the school-wide radio station and graduated as student council vice-president.
I Like to Keep My Issues Drawn
In hindsight, maybe it was a complement; an accusation of plagiarism at a mere 10 years. Maybe that is high praise if you just think about it.
But I don’t just think about it. I breath it and bleed it and feel it every time I write. And every story I have written since that horrible day is for anyone who has ever been a voiceless ghost in their own classroom.
It’s Always Darkest Before the Dawn
The pain caused by Sister Mary Noheart’s accusation went so deep into my core. So deep, that every goddamn story I will ever write will have her demon claw marks on it.
Well guess what Sister Mary Noheart?
I’ve got my own claws now. And with them I scrape the dregs of whatever Catholic-ness is left in me to bless you. Because if I don’t forgive you and have mercy on your dark soul, I don’t know what will.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be right here, getting my pound of flesh back.