It felt like a sucker punch, right to the gut as the card floated into my line of sight, the ghostly green shade of card stock that looked at once both foreign and familiar. It was like seeing an old photo of oneself; you recognize shapes and colors at first, but not the details of what you are viewing. The familiar is as assuring as it is disquieting when at a family function recentlyI spotted what turned out to be my Second Grade report card from St. Anne’s in Garden City, Long Island, where I grew up.
I could almost hear the neurons in my head firing, remembering. I imagined the dust flying off in all directions and mice scattering to the deeper recesses of my brain. I envisioned my memory as a musty old museum replete with a deep maroon velvet rope to cordon off areas to be preserved for posterity and never accessed.
My sister had been clearing out her garage and found this unlikely fossil in a box. On the top was the serious and official looking logo of the Diocese of Rockville Centre (and yes, “centre” was spelled that way – the English form, perhaps to give it even more of “headiness” to it.)
My reaction was both visceral and uncontrollable, the color, the shape, even the faded ink from the fountain pens that we wrote with in those days that appeared on these report cards all caused me to jerk just momentarily.
I read the teacher’s name: Sister Du Bon Conseil – RSHM
– the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary. As a second grader I had bastardized her name, as second graders will do from time to time with adults’ names, to something like “Sister Dubon Secord” and for the longest time I thought that was her name. It never concerned me what the name meant or if it even had a meaning at all. I did not consider religious life or who these nuns were who gave up their worldly lives for this teaching life. They were like a club, in my head. They wore uniforms, the way I wore uniforms. In second grade, you do not consider your place in any world larger than what you experience day to day.
I was shocked to see my grades, and that they were numeric grades for things like Math and Science and it struck me as harsh. I mean, having raised my children in the era of soft grading where “check plusses and check minuses” were all the feedback we received on how my kids were doing in school, this threw me for a loop. I mean, how could an adult give a second grader a 75 in Science? Worse was the fact that I got a “C” in Art and it hit me now where some of my phobias about trying to paint, or draw or sculpt originated. How do you give a second grader a “C” in Art?
Sr. Du Bon Conseil – whose name means Sister of Good Counsel in French – was of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary, a teaching order founded by the French priest Jean Gailhac in 1802 and Mother St. Jean in 1849. They had a special mission in education and to this day are even linked to such prestigious colleges as Loyola Marymount and Marymount College in NY.
Our good sisters wore the navy blue habit of the day with long pleated skirts that hung like drapery. They had pockets that seemed to go on forever, like Mary Poppins’ magical carpet bag, there was nothing that I didn’t believe one of the sisters would not pull out of there. They wore a top that was almost cape-like, midsection firmly bound tightly by a navy blue cloth. The veil was a starched white arch that rose from one ear, over the crown of the head to the other. The navy blue veil was somehow attached to this device that kept the veil on their heads, though I also recall them fussing with it often. On the few occasions when you could actually see their legs, say, if they needed to tie a shoe, you saw the thick opaque navy blue nylons and I wondered if their skin below what was covered was actually navy blue. Many of us wondered exactly what was under those thick skirts, and this was nothing at all sexual. Of course at our age we wondered if they had feet or if they had some sort of flippers. To us, these were not women, they were forces of power in our lives. They controlled our immediate happiness or sadness on any given day; they had complete control, where our parents’ control ended at home, theirs resumed once at school, so complete and intact was the sense of authority they imbued.
Sr. Du Bon Conseil was the teacher who told my mother in front of me that I was an “overachiever” which means, I suppose that I really had little innate intelligence, but I worked like hell to compensate. This is fine with me. I always much prefer being labeled a “worker” over someone who was just smart. Thinking of Sr. Du Bon Conseil reminded me of some of the other nuns I had whose name I can still recall:
Sr. Antonoio Marie – a tall, stern looking woman with a reddish face and who had a penchant for picking her nose when she thought none of us was watching. There was Sr. Bernadette who was this tiny, fearful looking woman who was the principal of our school. She scared the sin right out of us, but I can’t recall why. I do remember her extra thick glasses and a very round face. Perhaps she looked alien to me, I can’t exactly recall. Sr. Andre Marie was a small fireplug of a woman, young, who would often play “keep away” with us. She could outrun most of the boys, and we noticed the small mustache beneath her nose. Looking back on it now, I am sure she might have been a lesbian, but we had no knowledge of these things back then.
One of the things the sisters used to make us do was to start every composition by indenting two-finger’s width for paragraphs. I recall lining my fingers up against the faint blue line of the looseleaf paper. At the top, they would have us write the phrase: “ALL FOR JESUS THROUGH MARY”. I had no idea what this meant, and in fact, even today, I would be hard pressed to explain it. Except that as Marian nuns, they honored the presence of Mary in the life of Jesus. You could think of it as honoring the feminine presence in all things. To this day, whenever I am at a Staples, looking to test one of those pens they leave out for customers to purchase, that is the phrase I invariably write.
As I looked now at my report card I noticed how I had thirteen days absent in the second quarter and I remembered how I’d had my tonsils removed in that school year. This was also the year the Beatles played at Shea Stadium because I remember not being able to talk after the procedure so I could ask my older cousin Chuck just what “the Beatles” were, that night that he came over to ask my teenage sister if she wanted to go to the concert.
I noticed now how profoundly “Catholic” the card was designed. It was clear someone put some thought into the design. It was broken into subject areas by sections: there was the first section at the top labeled: “GOD” and under that was only one thing – Religion. Then came the section labeled: “MY FELLOW MAN” under which fell the subjects Social Studies, Geography and English. After that came “NATURE” under which Math and Science fell. At the very bottom of the card was the last section labeled “SELF” under which only the subjects of Handwriting and Art appeared.
I laughed at this. I presume this was how I was to live my life as a Catholic, and they took even the opportunity of an evaluation to indoctrinate. I was to love God first, then my fellow man, then nature and at the very bottom, only then, could I consider my self.
On the back and at the bottom of the card when I turned it over there were no comments from Sr. Du Bon Conseil. I was hoping there would be; maybe some nugget from the past I could use to help me understand myself just a little more, who I really was and how I came to be this way. Nothing.
At the very bottom though was where my parents had to sign the card to show they had seen them and there was the signature of my Dad: Richard L. Biegner. It took the wind out of me just for a second because to be honest, my Dad has been gone 34 years to the day that I am writing this and really recall nothing personal about him. Mostly I can’t remember his voice and it bothers me a lot.
Pictures don’t capture the essence of a person, but a voice does. And a signature does too. Seeing his signature, I touched the long ago dried out ink hoping for some sort of communion. The slanted “R” in Richard with that big oversized loopy “L” for Louis, his middle name. Then the braggadocio of the inflated “B” in Biegner – these letters were all written by his hands, hands I once remember admiring and writing about, hands that were capable of anything to me as a second grader.
Here before me was the accretion of his past as a child in a possibly alcoholic, dysfunctional family – what had he seen growing up and what events in his life made his handwriting look the way it did? Suddenly I recovered a link that I thought I had lost so many years ago: this report card, with his signature on it was just like a fossil. This signature reunited me if only for a moment with a man I had only known as a child and then in the tumultuous years as a teenager.
The magic of ink on paper cannot ever be overstated. It is as flesh and bone and as tactile a ghost as one will ever find. These things surround us every day if we are only open to them.
I am not a “thing” person. In fact, I am forever telling my family that we are just not “thing” people, we are “people” people. Things will come and things will go. It is the people we carry with us. But that night, I tucked the report card into my rucksack like it was a relic, a precious bone of some holy saint, knowing that for me, I had found my most precious possession.