I’m about four feet tall . The pants that I am wearing are called salt-and-pepper corduroy . My shirt , too , is salt-and-pepper . It’s a pull-over polo-type shirt . On my small feet are Buster Brown black oxford shoes . I am in Catholic school uniform .
My little hands are outstetched , palms up. My classmates are lined up beside me with their hands outstretched , too. Palms up , and then palms down . Are your hands clean ? Are your nails clean ?
The ruler is there , waiting . The ruler is the weapon ready to strike the dirty-nailed little girl or boy who couldn’t get the grit out from under a fingernail . The ruler waits for the little beast who didn’t bother to wash his or her hands after recess , or who was distracted by childish things and who , as a tragic result , forgot to prepare for inspection .
There is a rumor floating around about the boy whose hand was sliced open when the metal edge of the ruler came down like a sword onto the dirty-handed boy’s skin . Done maliciously on purpose ? Or not ? No one wanted to take the chance that the metal edge treatment wasn’t the routine .
The Sisters of Saint Louis ( pronounced like a rhyme with phooey ) wore long black gowns to the floor . They cinched them up with massive rosaries , the black wooden beads clinging to a chain like huge swollen beetles . Flat across the nuns’ foreheads and rising inches above them were white cardboards that made their black veils sit squarely on their heads . All their veiled heads had the same square Frankenstein – head shape , all their bodies looked alike draped in similarly loose black shrouds , all their white cardboard foreheads glistened .
These nuns spoke Gaelic. Irish girls from Cork and Limerick or other southern Ireland spots , from towns and farms they had come to America to Christianize the natives . Pacific Palisades was their mission and they were going to fulfill it . Teach the little savages that cleanliness is next to godliness .
Get your hands out , children! That’s grand , now . I want to see the fingernails ! I hope you washed them before coming to class !
But I’m four feet tall and have led a sheltered life . Even in English these creatures sounded strange . They spoke their odd lingo in front of us so we couldn’t know what secrets they were telling one another . They wore clothes that no one else wore . They had names no one else had : Sister Colum , Sister Visitatio , Sister Mary Saint John Vianney . They looked a little like women but some of them had men’s names or made-up names .
In the voluminous sleeves of their black gowns they kept kleenex tissues . And stores of other things . When they reached into the sleeve out might come marshmallows to reward some of us with , or out might come a ruler to hit our grubby little hands with . I imagined small baseball bats in there and , possibly , live bats lurking . I was afraid to use my imagination any further . I wondered at times if they all wore white long john underwear and the top of it was visible on their foreheads .
Mother Colum was Principal when I started serving my school sentence . That was another thing : They weren’t my sisters but they were Sister This or Sister that . But the Principal was Mother This or Mother That . This was confusing to me . None of them seemed to be anybody’s mother . Anyway , Mother Colum spoke to my first grade class . Apparently there had been a problem with some of the little savages tripping others in the isles . Mother Colum told us that she had some medicine that she would inject into our legs that would stiffen the legs forever . If we tripped anyone then she would come back and begin the injections .
I don’t claim to be the sharpest tack in the box . I believed her for about three or four years or until I temporarily forgot the terrible threat . I was a four-foot sucker for their psychological warfare . The Sisters of Saint Louis scared me right down to my core . Overall , as I look back on it now , they seemed to be generally kind and dedicated young Irish Catholic missionary girls , and although dressing a few hundred years out of fashion , doing their best to teach me reading , writing , and arithmetic . And , of course , catechism .
In seventh grade we got to wear green corduroys and a white dress shirts . The girls’ uniform changed , too . They no longer had to wear the beenies or something . The change in uniform in seventh grade was a rite-of-passage . We didn’t have to hold our hands out any more for inspection . That ruler with the sharp psychological edge could be permanently stored away forever up a nun’s sleeve because that special style of socializing had been effectively imposed and completed , in my case , in first grade .