The first time Sister Hilda saw The Girl, she knew that one was going to be trouble. The Girl was an obscene shade of blue sticking out from the navy sea of newcomers in the registration queue; an eyesore begging for attention in her periphery vision. The other eleven year-old girls wore regulation navy blue pinafores, while The Girl was in an electric blue pinafore with a hem above the knee.
Why do some girls cry out for attention and turn a school uniform into a mini dress? Sister Hilda could imagine what The Girl was going to be like: loud, opinionated, disruptive, self-absorbed, spoiled by her parents into thinking she was a little princess who could do no wrong and most of all trying to attract boys with a short and bright uniform. She was an ugly child, the Sister noticed. Everything about The Girl looked offensive and against God’s idea of perfection.
As Sister Hilda concentrated on ignoring The Girl and registering the ones at the front of the queue, a burst of raucous laughter reached her ears. The Girl was laughing at some joke she made to the other girls. The Sister had met that type before. They all fell into line, sooner or later. She frowned hard, as if she could transfer her disapproval telepathically to The Girl.
A little cough in front of Sister Hilda disrupted her train of thought. A gentle child with chocolate brown hair, parted in the middle in plats was giving a melting smile at her through long eyelashes. Sister Hilda found herself dissolving into the dark saucer-like eyes and unusually for the stern Sister, responding with a smile.
“And what is your name dear?” she asked the girl.
The girl lowered her head, still smiling and looked at the Sister from under her eyelashes, “Mary O’Brien, Sister”.
Mary, of course she was the epitome of Mary. What else could she have been called? A nice, well brought up Catholic girl. Sister Hilda just knew she was going to get on well with little Mary.
She looked down the registration list and found Mary O’Brien’s name and a put a big tick next to it.
“Go to class 1b dear. It’s the first door on your right when you go down the corridor”, she said still smiling and nodding with encouragement at Mary and pointing her in the right direction.
Mary, the dear sweet girl, smiled back and said “Thank you Sister”. What a nice child she was thought Sister Hilda.
With a gladdened heart after the pleasant encounter, the Sister went through the next four registrations in a good mood.
Before she knew it, the electric shade of blue was in front of her assaulting her senses and demanding immediate and rapt attention. The Sister’s expression froze. She took her time adjusting her spectacles, and counted the number of girls already registered. She knew it was unnecessary to do a mid-way count as she had kept track of numbers all along. But she couldn’t bear to look at the madly grinning creature in front of her, with its buck teeth and blue plastic bow hairclips in the offensive skimpy uniform, a child clearly suffering from the disease of optimism.
Sister Hilda sighed and looked up when she could procrastinate no longer. She hoped her face was showing her sternest disapproval.
“Name?” she snapped at The Girl.
The Girl’s grin faltered for a second before she recovered and announced her name brightly.
“Gloria Knight, miss”.
The Sister felt as if someone had slapped her and she choked, “Glorious Night? Your parents called you Glorious Night?” She knew it; The Girl’s parents were not decent Catholics and advertised their copulating nights by naming their children after them! They probably thought the craze for giving children stupid names to be ashamed of was a good thing. The Girl didn’t stand a chance from birth. Not with parents like that.
“What kind of name is that? Are your parents even Catholic?” the Sister asked recovering from her shock.
The electrocuted grin wavered, “That’s my name Miss. My parents are called Michael and Valentina Knight and they are both Catholic. We go to Sunday mass and everything!” She said, the eager words spilling out of the mouth full of oversized teeth and an alien accent.
Sister Hilda frowned. Valentina sounded like a prostitute’s name to her ears. She felt bile come up to the back of her throat and she wanted to spit it at The Girl. Instead, she dismissed The Girl, “you are in Class 1b” and she didn’t bother to give The Girl directions. She didn’t deserve it, not with that irritating grin, overconfidence and sacrilegious name.
As The Girl was about to follow her predecessors to the classroom, the Sister remembered that she’d forgotten to mention the dress in all the distraction about The Girl’s name.
“You are meant to wear navy blue, not the bright colour you are wearing Missy. The uniform finishes below the knee, not above the knees. Your parents were informed in the summer what colour St Stephen’s uniforms are. They should have known better than to send you in the wrong colour!” she vented at The Girl and felt instantly better.
“Miss my mother is a designer and she had spare cloth left over from one of her client’s jobs Miss, so she made me the uniform from the off-cuts. She said as its dark blue, it should be fine as I’ll grow out of it in a year anyway”, The Girl retorted, her horrible voice, strangling the words and making them sound wrong.
“It’s the wrong blue and you will tell your mother that tonight. If you persist in wearing what you are wearing, you will be given detention. After three detentions, you will have a formal letter sent to your parents and you will thereafter be expelled. Do you understand that?” Sister Hilda glared at her. It’s important that boundaries are made clear from the start with girls like that, especially as the other girls were staring at the open defiance of The Girl. Sister Hilda had to nip the insubordination in the bud and show the girls who had the power here.
“Yes Miss” she said meekly.
“Yes Sister is what you should be replying”
“Yes Sister”, The Girl echoed insolently and went towards the classroom.
I will break her, Sister Hilda thought. Hadn’t she after all dealt with some stubborn girls over the years? The Girl will find her salvation in the conservative environment of God and this school rather than her avant-garde parents. Sister Hilda shuddered when she thought about the name the parents had given The Girl. She’ll never call The Girl by that name, that’s for certain. She decided to continue to think of her as The Girl and smoothed her habit, composing herself to deal with the registrations of the remaining girls.
After registration was over, Sister Hilda went to Class 1b, her allocated class and sighed as she caught sight of a flash of vibrant blue in the corner. At least little Mary O’Brien was sitting at the front of the class smiling. Thank heavens for small decencies thought Sister Hilda.
“Good morning children and welcome to your very first term at St Stephens school. Your first lesson of the day will be English. To see how much you learnt from your primary schools, I am setting a spelling and grammar test for you to complete in half an hour. If you finish the test sooner than that, put your hand up and I will come by and collect your paper. I’ll be marking the papers straight away so you will know your score.” The Sister said as she put test papers on each desk.
“Your time starts now”, she informed them looking at the classroom clock. She went back to the teacher’s desk and looked over the student’s bent heads. Some were finding the test easy and scribbling away, she was pleased to see. Others were chewing the ends of their pencils thinking, including The Girl.
Little Mary was the first to finish and put her hand up. Sister Hilda smiled and started to read through the answers. They were a hundred percent correct. She knew her instinct was right that Mary was going to be no trouble at all. The next five students after that also had very high scores and so on it went with the scores getting worse the longer the test took.
When half an hour was up, only three students were still doing the test. Sister Hilda grimaced. They represented the bottom of the class; the problem children. She picked up the three papers and studied them. One girl scraped fifty percent, the other forty percent, but The Girl was bottom with thirty percent. Her spelling was atrocious, as was her grammar.
Sister Hilda called The Girl up to her desk and showed her the score she received.
“Please Miss, my last school was an American school and we were taught English with American spelling.”
“Well that explains something at least. You have a lot to do to catch up with the other girls. Your marks are dreadful! I cannot have you holding up the rest of the class. Pick up your chair and follow me” said Sister Hilda getting a thought of divine inspiration into her head and picking up The Girl’s desk. “The rest of you girls start the first reading comprehension exercise in your class books, I will be back shortly.”
Sister Hilda marched out of the classroom with the desk and The Girl trotted behind with her chair. The other girls watched in total silence till they got through the classroom door before the gossiping erupted.
They walked down the long sterile corridors till they came out near the church car park, which they crossed and turned left down some stairs. Sister Hilda noticed that The Girl was looking at the bright finger and hand paintings on the windows of this block. When they entered the building, Sister Hilda turned to the class with the hand paintings in the windows and spoke to Sister Beatrice who taught that class. After some discussion, Sister Beatrice looked behind Sister Hilda’s shoulder at The Girl, nodding her head. The other Sister smiled at The Girl sympathetically and asked her to take her chair to the last row of the classroom. Sister Hilda followed behind with The Girl’s desk. The Girl’s chair and desk were noticeably bigger than the other children’s in the class, but then they were eight year olds and The Girl was eleven.
The Girl now had glistening trails going down from her eyes to her chin. She sat down in her chair in silence. Sister Hilda waited for an outburst, but it seemed The Girl wasn’t going to oblige her. Perhaps she had learned to be obedient after all. It was about time The Girl gained some humility, thought Sister Hilda.
The Sister returned to her classroom and called the noisy class to order. One girl put her hand up and asked the Sister where Gloria was. The Sister replied, “She’s in the primary school to catch up to the standard of the rest of you”. The class burst into sensational chatter and Sister Hilda smiled indulgently before calling for silence.
At the lunch break, it was Sister Hilda’s turn to patrol the school playground with Sister Beatrice.
“Did The Girl fit in the class?” Sister Hilda asked her as she spotted The Girl standing by herself at the corner of the playground.
“Gloria was distraught as you can imagine Sister. She had a shock when she realised she was being demoted down to primary school. The poor thing couldn’t stop crying all morning.”
“That is only till she catches up enough to be able to be in my class as you know Sister. Children are hardy; The Girl will get over it and knuckle down. You mustn’t be too soft on her”, Sister Hilda replied.
“Perhaps you are right. The other girls were curious about her and she’s already a favourite among them”, said Sister Beatrice smiling.
Sister Hilda wasn’t pleased.
In the afternoon as Sister Hilda walked across the cloister to take her last class of the day, the mixed-age singing class, she heard the most beautiful voice circulating around the trees singing “Once in Royal David City”, one of her favourite hymns. She looked up at the clear blue sky and everywhere around for the source of the voice. It seemed to be surrounding her. She quickened her steps towards the church and opened the door. The singing stopped abruptly as soon as she stepped inside. Some of her first years and some others who had opted into singing class were gathered around in a group.
“Who was singing?” she demanded as soon as she reached them.
No one answered, though a few of the girls looked down at the floor.
“Well, who was it?” she asked again, her chest heaving to catch her breath.
“It was me Miss”, said a quiet voice.
Slowly a girl came forward. It was her, The Girl! Sister Hilda couldn’t believe her eyes. How could a sound so pure and angelic come out of something that impure and imperfect?
“Was it her?” She asked the other girls to make sure.
“Yes Sister”, said little Mary O’Brien, stepping forwards and giving her the melting smile.
Sister Hilda smiled at Mary and then turned towards the offender. “You are not authorised to sing solo and without my presence and proper instruction. I give you detention for your insolence and disruption. You are to come to my office after this lesson and serve your detention till 6pm. You will be cleaning the pigeon excrement from the cloister walls.” The words rushed out of the Sister like bullets aimed towards The Girl.
The Girl looked shocked and angry. Good, thought Sister Hilda. Who does she think she is, showing off and misleading the other girls?
Mary was smiling at The Girl. The Girl looked back at Mary furiously.
“Organise yourselves into two rows, the taller girls at the back and the shorter ones in front.” Sister Hilda swiftly moved on, it is better not to give The Girl too much attention.
Mary and The Girl were in the front row.
After testing each girl’s voice, Sister Hilda commanded, “right here are the hymn books. I’m sure you know the words to ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’. Mary come and stand here. As the best singer in this group, you will do the solo part while the others sing the chorus. Altos to the left, bases to the right.”
The girls reorganised themselves again.
“Mary, sing the solo for me so I can cue in the others.”
Mary, that sweet child, smiled back at The Girl and started to sing in her hesitant soprano.
The Girl was in the back row now singing the chorus with the other girls and seemed sullen thought Sister Hilda. The good Sister smiled. Discipline was what The Girl needed and she was prepared to use it with toughness.
After the lesson, she dismissed the class for the day and walked back down the aisle. A few minutes after she closed the church door, she heard the voice start singing again. It almost broke Sister Hilda’s heart to turn away from a voice that engaged her emotions so strongly and spoke of hope and purity. It hurt her even more to know that her beloved St Stephens School wouldn’t be winning the inter-school singing championship again this year.
© Tania Dias