Unlike some of the horror stories I’ve heard about Catholic school teachers, ours were pretty much harmless. For the most part. Actually, at S.S.P.P. the teachers suffered way more than the students. We made sure of that.
You see, by the time I was in grade school, corporal punishment had become politically incorrect. The old wooden paddles had been hung up for good, and teachers had to resort to other less physical ways to frighten us into submission. One of these was to send us out into the hallway whenever we misbehaved. I know this doesn’t sound like much of a punishment, but believe me it was. That’s because you never knew when Sr. Peggy would turn the corner and find you standing there, alone and defenseless.
As looks go, there was nothing particularly frightening about Sr. Peggy. In fact, her appearance was rather unremarkable. I don’t mean that in a negative way. She was average height, had a short, practical hairstyle, and she wore conservative, contemporary outfits rather than a traditional nun’s habit. There was nothing about her appearance that should have stirred up feelings of terror at the mere sight of her. But that’s exactly what would happen.
This one time I had been sent out into the hall for talking in class. As I stood there, leaning against the wall, I heard the sound of the swinging door at the end of the corridor. Then Sr. Peggy appeared, menacingly, like a lion emerging from the savannah grass. As she slowly approached me, her dark eyes fixed on me like a hunter closing in on its prey, I thought I might wet myself. Maybe I did? I don’t remember. In fact, I don’t remember anything about what happened next. My brain must have wiped it from my memory for my own good.
Usually, if Sr. Peggy caught you out in the hallway or found you fooling around in the cafeteria, she’d grab you by your ear and drag you off to her office, where unspeakable horrors awaited. At least that’s what we imagined. I think that’s what made her so frightening—the unknown. She was quiet and mysterious. The only time you heard her speak was when she was making an announcement over the P.A. or when she was yelling at us in the cafeteria with her thunderous voice. No one really knew for sure what happened once she dragged you off to her office. We were too afraid to ask those lucky enough to have survived the ordeal. I know of several students who went in, never to be seen again.
The only one of our teachers who came close to frightening us as much as Sr. Peggy was Sr. Rita, who taught 5th-grade music and math. Sr. Rita was imposingly tall, around 120 years old, and always seemed angry. She had a short fuse, and when she blew up—look out! No one dared fool around in Sr. Rita’s class. She’d toss you out into the hall for the slightest of infractions, and her daily lessons were so demanding, you couldn’t afford to miss a thing.
One time Sr. Rita caught me giggling while we were singing the musical favorite “Oklahoma,” and she abruptly stopped playing the piano.
“Something funny, Mr. Brkich?” she asked, through her clenched yellow teeth.
Stunned, I foolishly thought that honesty was the best policy. “Oh…sorry, Sr. Rita,” I said. “I was just laughing at the part where it says ‘the old weepin’ willer is laughing at me!’ It’s funny…you know…a tree, laughing at you?”
But Sr. Rita failed to see anything humorous in the lyrics. Honestly, I don’t think she even had a sense of humor. The only thing she cared about was that we emphasized our T’s and S’s while we sang and that we hummed through our teeth and never, ever through our closed lips.
Seconds later I was out in the hallway, nervously awaiting the bell and praying that Sr. Peggy was off torturing some other kid in her office.