“But where are you going to bring me?”
“Don’t worry. I’m gonna bring you to your classroom. It’s on the first floor.”
He and Sal ran into the schoolyard with me lagging behind, then Michael pushed open the huge, double, wooden doors. Inside, Michael took the marble steps two at a time. My stomach was churning, heart pounding. I climbed the staircase up from the ground floor, following him, trying to keep up. I was in no hurry to go there, but I didn’t want to be left alone either. The first floor was one flight up from the street. The steps led us to a hallway of dark green walls and gray floors with a long row of closed wooden doors on both sides.
“Come on, Danny. Let’s go.” They were way ahead of me, now. Cold shivers shook me, as if I were standing in the snow without a jacket.
“We’re late,” he said. “That’s why the freaking hall is empty. Hurry!”
“How come it’s so dark in here?” I asked. Our shoes made sounds on the marble floor that echoed in my head.
“Who knows,” said Michael.
“’Cause all the classroom doors are closed. No windows,” said Sal.
“Come on,” said Michael. “Hurry up.”
Tears were rolling down my cheeks and into my mouth. I couldn’t help it. But I didn’t want Michael to get mad at me, so I stretched down the short sleeve of my yellow shirt and wiped them away.
“So, how do you like all these creepy statues of saints all over the place?” Sal said, sounding out of breath. “This place is loaded with them. It’s like they’re watching you all the time.” He kept moving fast, as he followed Michael down the hall.
The statues made things even worse. I had enough of them watching me at home, and at Our Lady of Sorrows school they were huge, even bigger than Michael. At the end of the hall, Michael stopped.
“K-3,” he said. “This is it.”
“Michael, please,” I cried. “I could go with you to your class. I could wait for you there. I’ll be real quiet. I promise. I’ll be good. I promise. Just, please, take me with you.”
The classroom door opened. A wrinkled old nun appeared all in black except for the white cardboard around her face, with glasses so thick her eyes looked gigantic as she looked us up and down.
“What’s going on out here?” she asked with a voice like a razor blade across metal.
I ran behind Michael and clutched his legs so tightly that he leaned backwards, almost toppling over.
“Uh, this is my little brother,” said Michael. “He’s supposed to be in this class. He’s just a little scared, that’s all.”
“Well, you’re very late,” she said. “My name is Sister Rosalind Basil. I’m the teacher of this class. Just come with me,” she said, and moved toward us.
“Very late?” said Michael. He looked at Sal who raised his eyebrows and shrugged.
“Yes,” the razor blade nun said. “Class started almost one-half hour ago.” Then she asked, “What did you say your sister’s name was?”
I clutched Michael more tightly, pulling him backwards across the marble floor. I looked up at him and saw his jawbone clench down the way it always did when he got mad. “Danny, stop that!” he bent down and gave me one of his looks, and I loosened my grip just slightly.
“Uh, he’s not my sister,” he said to The Razor. “I told you. He’s my little brother. His name is Danny. Um, Daniel Marino, and I thought it started at eight-thirty.” Michael pulled himself up tall, trying to free himself from my fingers. I could tell he had just run out of patience.
“Eight o’clock sharp,” she said, her eyes getting bigger.
Michael bent down again, squeezed my arm, and looked into my eyes.
“I’m already late, Danny,” he said. “Now go with the nun, and me and Sal will come and get you at lunchtime and bring you home. Okay? I promise. Now, be good and stay out of trouble, okay?”
“See you later, Danny,” said Sal. And they turned and headed back down the long green and gray hallway. Just like that. I watched Michael run farther and farther away with my tears running into my mouth. I licked the salt taste from my lips. My nose was running, too. Sister Rosalind Basil grabbed me by the arm and steered me into the big room, closing the big heavy door behind her.
I pulled hard and broke loose from her grip. There was a whole room full of kids looking at me, and nowhere to go. Sister Razor Blade blocked the giant door, her hand planted firmly on the doorknob. I backed into the wall until a sudden, sharp pain rang through my head. I had banged it into the wooden chalk tray at the bottom of a big blackboard with white chalk marks on it.
Next to the blackboard there was a giant brown wooden piano. Kids all over the room were painting pictures with big brushes, or coloring with fat crayons on big pieces of paper. Some of the girls pushed doll carriages, and some boys played with trucks, ramming them into each other.
“Come, Daniel,” said Sister Razor Blade, reaching her hand out to me.
“No!” I yelled. “I want Michael. I want my brother Michael. Let me go! I’m gonna run and catch up to him.”
She shook her head. The kids seemed to all be staring at me, even as they played, as if in a trance.
“I’ll come back tomorrow,” I said. “I promise.”
“No, Daniel, you stop it, now,” she said, her voice getting louder. Then, lowering her voice, she said, “Why can’t you be like these other children? See? They’re having fun.”
“I don’t want to be like them!” I yelled and ran for the door. I grabbed onto the brass doorknob with both hands and pulled at it with my whole body, but it didn’t budge. Sister Razor Blade grabbed my shoulders from behind with both her heavy hands.
“You’ll not act this way in my classroom!” she was yelling now. “I have had just about enough out of you. Now you’ll sit under the piano until you can behave yourself.”
She dragged me by my arm towards the gigantic piano. There was a little chair in the space underneath the black and white keys. She shoved me down into the chair and stood over me.
“The principal has a spanking machine in her office,” she said, her big eyes squinting, her face in a scowl. “If you don’t behave, I’m sending you to her. And believe me, you’ll be sorry you misbehaved in my classroom. Do you hear me, young man?” She stomped over to her desk, sat down in the chair in front of it, and started cutting some colored papers with a scissor.
A spanking machine? I didn’t know what that was, but I didn’t want to find out. I leaned back in the chair and watched the kids play. Some of them were still looking at me, but most of them had gone back to playing. I wondered why I was the only one who didn’t want to be there. I watched the doorknob, wishing it would turn and Michael’s face would appear. The sounds of Sister Razor Blade and the kids became muffled. I thought of Saint Michael the Archangel. He would come for me. I just had to wait.
A long time passed before The Razor Blade spoke to me again.
“We’re going to have cookies and milk now, Daniel. Why don’t you come and have some?”
I hated to give in, but my stomach could barely remember the cornflakes from what seemed like a very long time ago, now; and cookies and milk did sound good.
“Okay,” I mumbled, looking down so as not to see those eyes again. I let her take me by the hand to one of the tables, and sat down. Lined up on the table in front of each kid were a little carton of milk and two round, yellow cookies on a napkin. I couldn’t tell what kind of cookies they were, so I picked one up and smelled it.
“Daniel, put that down,” said The Blade. “We do not smell our food like dogs.” Some of the kids giggled. “All right, class,” she then said. “You may now eat your cookies and milk.”
She was old and ugly and I hated the sound of her voice. I knew I would hate her for as long as I lived. I reached for a cookie and started eating it. I still didn’t know what kind of cookie it was, but it tasted good.
“Want mine?” I heard a voice coming from the chair next to mine and turned around. There sat a girl with deep, dark eyes and long black hair, smiling at me, wearing a light blue dress with white polka dots and short, lacy sleeves. She looked like a princess from a storybook. She was the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen.
“Here,” she said, and handed me both her cookies one at a time. I took them without a word.
“Sister Basil,” said a boy sitting across the table. He was bald as if someone had shaved all his hair off. I wondered why. “That new kid took Alison’s cookies.”
“He did not,” called out the storybook girl. “I gave them to him.”
“And why did you do that?” Sister Razor Blade asked in her scratchy voice.
“Because I wanted to,” said the princess in blue.
“Now, now, Miss Alison. Don’t go starting trouble like you did earlier. You must eat your cookies. Take them back from Daniel.”
“But I don’t want them!” she said. “I want Daniel to have them.”
I picked up the cookies and placed them down in front of the dark-eyed girl, whose name I now knew was Alison.
“I don’t want them,” Alison said loudly.
I took them back, afraid she might get mad at me, too, though I liked hearing that she had caused some trouble earlier. I was glad Alison didn’t let The Razor Blade push her around.
“Now, that’s enough, Miss Alison. And Louis,” she pointed her finger at the boy with no hair, “I want you to mind your own business.”
That was the first thing Sister Rosalind Basil had said that made any sense. A little while later, she announced that it was time for everybody to throw away their milk cartons and napkins. I quickly opened my milk carton and drank it down.
“Table One,” she said. “Come up to the trash can first.”
“Do we have a number?” I asked Alison. I didn’t want any more surprises.
“Seven,” she said. “We’re last.” She must have seen the fear in my face and added, “Don’t worry, Daniel. Sister Basil told us what to do before you got here. Just watch me and do what I do.”
I watched as the kids from each table got up and shuffled to the front of the room, tossing their milk cartons and napkins into the brown metal garbage pail. Then, it was our turn. I stayed close behind Alison, watching everything she did and copying her exactly.
After everybody had sat back down at their table, The Razor Blade said, “Okay, class, it’s time for us to do our art project for the day.”
She went over to her desk and gathered up the colored papers I’d seen her cutting when I was under the piano keys. She walked to the tables and gave each kid gold clips and six cut-out pieces of colored paper, a round one, a square shape, a triangle, and four thin rectangles. She told us to make a man wearing a hat.
When Alison got hers, she seemed to know exactly what to do. I could tell she was really smart—the opposite of me. I kept watching her and tried to copy every move she made. First, she laid out the pieces of colored paper on the table in front of her. She used the red triangle for a hat, the yellow circle as a head, the blue square as the body, and the four green rectangles as arms and legs. Then, one by one, she pushed the gold clips through the papers and bent them backwards, so the gold, round button showed through on the front. When she was done connecting them all, she started to draw a face on the yellow circle with a fat brown crayon.
I did everything Alison did, but somehow my man didn’t come out the same as hers. She started to help me, but The Razor Blade was watching. Then, I looked up to see The Blade moving fast in our direction. Then she stopped and stood behind me. I could feel all that black material. She smelled like a room that had been closed for up a long time.
“Miss Alison, I don’t want you helping him. He needs to do that himself.”
“But my man’s head keeps coming off,” I said.
“That’s because you’re not doing it right,” said The Blade. “You’ve made too big a hole for the clip, and now the head won’t stay on.”
“I can help him, Sister Basil,” said Alison. “Really, I don’t mind at all.”
“No, Miss Alison, he has to do it himself or he’ll never learn. You just mind your own business.”
How dare she talk to my storybook princess that way! I took the man I had made, scrunched it up into a ball, and threw it over the table past Louis’s bald head and onto the floor. The room got quiet, and sharp fingers squeezed down into my arm. Sister Razor Blade yanked me up out of my chair and shook me in time with each word that squeezed out of her mouth.
“You-will-sit-back-un-der-that-pi-a-no-un-til-it-is-time-to-go-home-young-man. I don’t know who you think you are, but you’ll not act this way in my class.” Then, her teeth clamped together and her huge eyes behind her glasses grew even bigger than before, and she added through her teeth, “Or you will remember me in this world and the next! Do you hear me?”
But this time I wouldn’t cry. Alison had once already seen me cry like a baby. I couldn’t let that happen again. So I let Sister Razor Blade drag me back and plop me down into the chair under the piano again.
Then she turned as if none of it had happened and started to give out to the class boxes of crayons and told everybody to look at the name tags she had made for them, and copy their names onto the backs of their art projects. I didn’t have a name tag, and my art project was crumpled up on the floor under bald Louis’s feet next to the leg of his chair. I could see it from where I was sitting under the piano. I wanted to rescue my man that Alison had helped me make out from under Louis and his bald head, and try to put my man back together.