Peter Smith’s Lesser Horrors: Here’s what happens when you don’t listen to Sister.

MPR’s Peter Smith’s series of “Lesser Horrors” will run on Mondays for the next month on this blog. Missed the first one? You can catch it here.


Lesser Horror: Any glimmer, thought, or memory from one’s personal past that for whatever reason causes a small, brief but recurring episode of psychic pain.

Author and MPR contributor

Sooner or later we all venture out into the world for the first time. Equipped with little more than the values our parents have begun to instill, we turn and find ourselves out there alone, and for this the world rewards us with a glimpse of the brutal reality to come—with a free jolt—a “Yikes” moment all our own. Free, just for being us.

Mine came swift and silent as death up the creaky aisle of an old classroom, wearing a nun’s habit somewhere in those first few weeks of first grade at Saint Joseph’s School in Libertyville, Illinois.

The Baby Boom was booming. There were nearly fifty kids in the class. Sister assigned a child to every desk and when she ran out of desks, she started doubling us up.

She doubled up the goody-goody girls first. She could count on them to behave well and share nicely. Smaller children went next. Only a few larger-than-the-rest boys were left solo when she finished. I was one of them. So was a kid named Charlie.

I was five, and not an especially bright five at that. Reading was not coming easily, and Sister had assigned Charlie and me to one of her lower reading groups—The Bluebirds.

In order to teach reading groups, she assigned us what she called “seat work.” Once we were occupied, she could focus on her groups—Orioles, Robins, what have you—one at a time.

The seat work was mindless stuff, even for Bluebirds—and no one except the most diligent dullards stayed busy for long.

Some people use modeling clay to make fun, childlike works of art.
Some use it to ruffle a teacher’s feathers. Often, the two groups
are one and the same.

The rule was that once you’d completed your seat work, you could go to the art closet, get a wad of modeling clay, bring it back to your desk, and play quietly.

The clay was grubby old stuff. God knows how many generations of unwashed schoolboy hands had kneaded it or what microbes it harbored. The original colors had melded and whorled into a malignant, carbuncular brown-blue-red.

So Sister had a second rule governing clay: No putting clay on your body or in your mouth.

That far off and drowsy autumn afternoon, I looked up and saw Charlie, seatwork complete, wearing a pair of clay motorcycle goggles and clenching a deftly-rolled clay cigar between his teeth.

Lord, he was proud of himself. He wore a look of absolute self satisfaction. I tried to warn him, but I was too late. Sister looked up from her session with the Robins and, never mind Dick or Jane, it was, “See Sister run.”

She was up the aisle in a shot, trailing a dry, chalk dust breeze in her wake. She snatched away Charlie’s goggles and cigar and she smacked the back of his head. Hard. Charlie’s eyes watered, but he didn’t cry. Charlie never cried.

It was the smack heard round the class, a shot across the spiritual bow of every boy in the class. Less than two weeks into our Catholic education, she’d delivered a clear, hard message. One I took home that day and have carried with me ever since.

“Listen to Sister, Bluebird,” it says. “The world is a blunt and brutal place. Listen to Sister or you’re going to get smacked.”


Peter Smith is a thirty-year veteran of Twin Cities advertising and a regular contributor to Morning Edition on Minnesota Public Radio. He is author of A Porch Sofa Almanac and, more recently, A Cavalcade of Lesser Horrors. He blogs at Peter Smith Writes and tweets at @petersmithwrite.

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