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Several years ago I read a story by Robert Fulghum in "All I Ever Needed To Know I Learned in Kindergarten." It was a story that haunted me until I told it. However, I only told it after the story took root in my own story.
So, I'd like to tell you "The Mermaid Story" – a story adapted from Robert Fulghum.One rainy Sunday afternoon I found myself in charge of 70 or so school age children. We were in a gymnasium, and I knew that if I didn't come up with an idea before long - pure chaos would ensue. At that very moment I remembered a game - an old roll playing game called Wizards, Giants and Goblins. So I got my charges to calm down (no easy feat, thank you very much), and I explained the rules of the game:"Now," I proclaimed, "if you wish to be a Giant, stand at the front of the room. If you wish to be a Wizard, stand in the middle. And those who wish to be Goblins stand toward the back. All right, let the play begin." I allowed the children several minutes to confer in huddled masses until the action resumed.As I was standing there I felt I tug on my coat. When I looked down, there was a little girl with blue, questioning eyes." 'Scuse me.""Yes, what is it?""Scuse me, but where do the mermaids stand?""Mermaids? Mermaids?" I sputtered. "There are no mermaids.""Oh, yes there are. For you see, I'm a mermaid, and I wish to know where to stand."Now here was a little girl who knew exactly what she was - a mermaid, pure and simple and she wanted to know where to stand. And, she wouldn't be satisfied standing on the sidelines watching the others play. She had her place, and she wanted to know where to stand.But, where do the mermaids stand? - all those children we try to mold and form to fit into our boxes.Sometimes, I have moments of inspiration. I looked down at that child, and I held her hand -"Why the mermaid shall stand next to The King of the Sea." (Yeah, King of the Fools would be more likely.)So, we stood together - the mermaid and the King of the Sea - as the Wizards, Giants and Goblins roiled by in grand procession. It isn't true, by the way, what they say about mermaids not existing. I know they do for I've held one's hand.
As Robert Fulghum said, "Giants, Wizards and Goblins was the name of the game," and all through my eight years at St. Albert the Great, I felt that I didn't belong to any of them.
The Giants - oh, you know the type. They are the ones who can spike a volleyball, skip double-dutch, do a double back flip, and sock a ball to the backfield fence. They were the ones who were captains of the teams or, at least, were chosen first. I, on the other hand, was always chosen last. And, after I was finally chosen, there were rolling eyes and audible moans amongst my teammates. It did nothing to bolster my athletic prowess or team spirit.
You always knew who the Giants were. Their dressers were filled with rows of trophies. On field day they would walk away with a whole mess of colored ribbons. The only ribbon I ever got was white that said "Participant."
At least I wasn't a Goblin - the little troublemakers. Every classroom has them. They are the bane of every teacher's existence. They are the one who can make noises so the teacher can't detect even which side of the room it’s coming from. They are the ones who clog up the johns with Scot towels and throw enough spit wads up in the air to cover the girl's ceiling in the bathroom. They are the ones who can make fun of anybody they please and somehow get by with it.
You always knew the Goblins. They wore their detention slips like red badges of courage. At least I never received a detention. But the Goblins just sneered at me and whispered, "Chicken!"
And, I certainly was not a Wizard - those little genius IQs who would make Mensa proud. They always had their papers on the bulletin board, so we intelligence-deprived could see what a really good paper looked like. They were the ones who got to read their brilliant essays to the class, and they were the ones who were left standing at the end of the spelling bees.
When I went to St. Albert the Great School,1953 - 1961, one of Monsignor Schindler's duties was to hand out report cards. He smiled broadly as he opened a Wizard's card and saw all the A's and B's. Then he picked up my report card and a look of consternation came across his face, as he looked over the right hand side of my report card. That's where the teacher put checkmarks, if you didn't live up to certain standards. Things like "keeps desk and materials neat and clean " (check); "finishes assignments in a timely manner " (check); and always, forever and day "practices self-control" (check, check, check!!!). Then, Monsignor always cleared his throat, "ahem," and looked over at the grades. With furrowed brow he looked down and said, "I think you could do better." Mortified, I slunk back to my seat.
You could always tell the Wizards of the class by looking at their St. Joseph's Missal.
For those of you who didn't go Catholic Schools I must tell you that the St. Joseph's Missal was a huge prayer book that held the prayers for the daily mass - every daily mass for the entire year. It was one's blueprint to what was going during mass, because back in the Pre-Vatican Two days everything was said in Latin.
Now, if you were a Wizard, your St. Joseph's Missal was thicker than usual because of all the holy cards inside. For every good paper, for every spelling bee, for every math contest, for every everything... the Wizards amassed another holy card to add to their stash.
For those of you who did not go to Catholic Schools I must tell you that holy cards were small 2 by 3 cards with a prayer on the back and a beautiful religious picture on the front. Oh, it might be of the Sacred Heart of Jesus or one of the many saints:
St. Cecilia playing the organ surrounded by a myriad of cherubim and seraphim heads.
St. Joan of Arc valiantly holding the flag of France,
St. Teresa, the Little Flower her arms filled with roses
But the premier of all holy cards were those of the Queen of Saints - the Blessed Virgin Mary. Artists outdid themselves with splashes of cerulean blue and gold trim. One’s holy card collection was not complete without a BVM in one's collection.
Sad to say, but in my twelve years of Catholic education I never got one holy card - except in the fourth grade:
That was my favorite year of school at St. Albert. Not only because we moved from the old dairy barn to our brand new school, but because of my fourth grade teacher - Sister Mary Arthur. What can I say? She was beautiful. Even in her black robes and long black veil, even with her hair and neck completely covered by a white collar and stiff headpiece - she was beautiful. I remember drawing pictures of her in my assignment book and sheepishly handing them to her. She always thought my drawings were special. Sometimes, when things weren't going right (which was almost every day), she was always be there to hold my hand through the troubled spots.
She was always there - even though she had 41 other students to contend with. I can't imagine trying to control 42 students every day. But somehow she managed. Then, around February of that year, even Sister Mary Arthur started to lose it. So, she came up with an ingenious way to get us to behave. First, she was going to give us a new seating assignment. Then, she would begin a contest amongst the six rows. She would keep points for a whole month, and whichever row had the most points won. Each student in that model row would receive a holy card. Well, she mixed up the seating chart and we all moved to our newly assigned seats. When we settled down, I couldn't believe my luck. My row had Mary Beth Baricevic, Janie Friesz, Joan Becherer, Patty Armour, Dave Tissier and Ronnie Hindman - all the Wizards...and me!
I didn't need to be a rocket scientist to figure out that I had a really good chance at getting a holy card. All I had to do was keep my desk neat for Friday inspections, do my homework, study for the spelling tests, and keep my big mouth shut and maybe, just maybe, I'd have an outside chance at a holy card.
Sister spread the holy cards across her desk so we could look at them. Oh, there were some beauties to be sure. But, there was only one for me. It was the most beautiful picture of the Blessed Virgin I'd ever seen. I had to have it.
So I tried - I tried really, really hard. At the end of the month, she tallied the points and...Hallelujah!… our row won!
I sat in the back of the row, so I was last as we marched forward to pick out our card. One by one they disappeared, but the card I had my eye on was still there. I had Sister Mary Arthur sign it. She smiled as she handed it back to me. She didn't say a word. But her eyes said it all, "I knew you could do it."
I immediately put it my St. Joseph's Missal where it stayed - by itself - for the remainder of my Catholic education.
Looking back at the fourth grade, I've often wondered what made it so special. Then, in 1995, I was asked to tell stories at the Precious Blood Motherhouse. Sister Mary Arthur - Sister Elizabeth, now, was there. She still looked beautiful. She really seemed to enjoy the stories and afterwards we had lunch together. She said something to me that day that I'll never forget. She said, "You know Marilyn, I knew there was something special about you. I felt that you never fit in with the others. I wanted to do something, but with 42 students, I didn't know how."
“But, you did,” I said as I reached for the box that I brought along with me. Inside was the holy card. “You gave me this holy card, and I have saved it for all these years.”
Now, I know why she was so special. It was because she understood. She was a woman of wisdom and inspiration who never had to say a word. It was just in a hundred tiny ways that she let me know that it was okay to be who I was. Sometimes, she took my hand as we entered that classroom full of Wizards, Giants and Goblins for she knew that Mermaids needed a place to stand.
It's not true, by the way, what they say about there being no heroines existing today. I know they do, for I've known one personally, I've held her hand.
Marilyn's note: About two years after I wrote this story, I went to a party given by my friend, January Kiefer. She asked me to tell a story about a female heroine. I wanted to tell this story, but I also wanted Sister Elizabeth to be there. She came...looking radiant, as always. She beamed while I told the story. At the end of the story, I said, "I was truly blessed to have Sr. Mary Arthur in my life. She only taught at St. Albert that one year. I remember, when our principal came in and said that our teacher was selected to go to St. Louis University to work on her masters degree. Of course, I had no idea what that meant...only that I'd never see her again. But, I was able to track her down. She indeed got her masters...and her doctorate. She's currently the chair of American Studies at St. Louis University, and she's here with me tonight." I don't know what I expected, but suddenly, Sr. Elizabeth jumped up and held her arms out to me to thunderous applause from the audience. What a special moment that was!
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