The Sleeping Baby

Mary Lou Edwards

It made no sense.

Girls didn’t get kicked out of school.

Even boys didn’t get kicked out of school unless they were totally incorrigible, and incorrigible was loosely defined.

Bean the Fiend practically killed someone with a baseball bat, and he didn’t even get suspended. They said it was because the guy he almost murdered was colored, and colored people were not supposed to come into Bridgeport so he was really asking for it. But my dad said no human being deserved such treatment, and the incident was a dirty shame. Nothing happened to Bean and he should have been history.

Joey the Nut torched someone’s garage: he wasn’t expelled either. The grapevine had it that graduation was only a couple of weeks away so the nuns didn’t want to bother, but I suspected they were worried the convent would go up in flames if they dared get rid of him.

Two criminals skated, and the nuns wanted to throw me out?

The day before, Sister Margaret Anne, my six foot, seventh grade teacher, who sported more than a bit of a mustache, had clomped over to my desk in her huge black wing-tips and handed me an envelope. “Give this to your parents,” she barked. “I want to see them as soon as possible.”

In the days before teacher conferences were routine, when dads worked double shifts, when moms made tri-colored Jell-O molds and baked cookies from scratch, having your mother, never mind both parents, called to school was equivalent to an executioner’s drum roll.

I sat at the kitchen table preparing myself for something awful, but this?

“You finally did it,” my father announced as he hung up his jacket and pulled out a chair at the table. He and my mother had just returned from the dreaded meeting. “You got yourself thrown out.” Lowering his voice so as not to wake my sister, he continued, “Yes, the nuns have finally had enough of your big mouth. They want you gone—out of there—by the end of the school year. Shaking his head and raising his eyebrows with a you-just-never-learn look, he added, “I’ve told you a million times to watch your step.”

“Jim, stop it,” my mother said as she put away cooking utensils. I could not believe mom was fooling around putting away the dinner dishes at a time like this. Apparently she’d yet to realize my disgrace would instantly qualify her for The Mothers Who Failed Hall of Shame.

My heart was thumping; I thought my pajama top would fly up in my face. I knew my father was not joking because he had almost no sense of humor plus he had warned me, “Your smart mouth will get you in trouble one day. Mark my words.” It was clear that a girl who spoke out had a major disability. Sooner or later, she was guaranteed her Waterloo.

But it seemed so drastic.

True, I had gotten more than my share of checkmarks in kindergarten, but, for the most part, I had cleaned up my act. Gone was the girl who would not put her head down on her desk and rest quietly, wait her turn patiently at lavatory time or play well with others. I still had a few flaws, but not enough to warrant capital punishment. My grades were excellent. I’d read my brother’s copy of All Quiet on the Western Front by the time I was ten. I wasn’t perfect, but, unlike a lot of the troublemakers in my room, I never had to put money in the Mission Box for The Pagan Babies in China.

OK, so I finished my assignments lickety-split and spent time whispering and passing notes until the slow-pokes were done with their work. But I was also the one who helped other kids diagram sentences and drilled them on the state capitals. This was my thank-you for grading all of Sister’s spelling tests every week, for putting all the arithmetic problems on the blackboard every morning? This was my reward for spending my daily recess down in first grade dressing the brats who couldn’t even tell their right boot from their left? Would they really dump their star funeral mass singer who chanted countless dirges whenever another parishioner kicked the bucket?

My mother, noting the shock waves of disbelief and anger roll across my face, intervened.
“Jim, stop this nonsense,” she insisted, “tell her the truth.” My mom was trying to pull me in off the ledge my father was greasing.

As she stood at the sink filling Skippy's water bowl, she said, “You are being double promoted because of some test your class took. Your scores were very high.”

“You don’t really believe that, do you, Mary?” my dad interrupted. “She’s a giant pain and they want her out of their hair.”

Just before the meeting, my mother had taken a cake out of the oven and now she put it on the table. She believed food always made things better.

“Yes, they’re sick of putting up with her,” he said, while I sat there totally bewildered. “Sister didn’t want to be blunt, but I could read between the lines. She was trying to be nice.”

“No, that’s not true,” my mother shot back, cutting an extra big piece of chocolate cake for me. “Daddy’s just saying that because he doesn’t want you to think “who you are.” He doesn’t want you to get a big head,” my mom whispered, as though this all made perfect sense.

Was my father practicing his version of that old Italian adage about only kissing sleeping babies? If you kissed a baby when she was awake she might think she was really special, really important, and, God forbid, think “who she was.”

Sensing my confusion and getting impatient with this mind-game, my mother picked up the empty plates and put them in the sink. “Listen to me. Sister Benedict said you need to be challenged. On Monday, you’ll go to 8th grade for two months and then graduate. Now get to bed. It’s late.”

The drama was over, just like that. No one asked if this was something I’d like to do or what did I think. No discussion, just get to bed.

The thumping of my heart subsided, but the spinning in my head had only just begun. The master of mixed messages had added another chapter, Planting the Seeds of Self-Doubt, to his best-seller How to Destroy Your Kid’s Confidence.

For graduation I was given a stunning Art Deco wristwatch with a tiny diamond on each corner of its beautiful hinged platinum case. The square white-gold face had small, swirly Arabic numerals at 12, 3, 6 and 9. My mother confided that she’d objected to the expense, but my dad told her my present had to be really special to show me how pleased they were of my achievement. Why couldn’t he have told me that? Why couldn’t he just say, “Your mother and I are really proud of you.”

And then it occurred to me that, maybe as a baby, he'd only been kissed when he was sleeping.

MLSE 01/09

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