A fine teacher's urination solution


Sad girl with her head in her handsThere was a girl named Linda in my first-grade class, at Saint John Vianney School in New York. She was shy and tall. She sat in front of me in the first row. We sat in alphabetical order, so that Accopardo was first seat first row and Wyzkyski was fifth row last seat. It was easiest that way for Sister Marie.

Sister Marie was also shy and tall. She was calm and tender and firm and maybe 20 years old. Most of us were six years old but four of us were five. Linda and I were among the fives. The sixes looked down on us as soon as they discovered we were five. They discovered this within the first week of school, and after that there were the sixes and then there were the fives. Why that should matter is a puzzle, but it did.

One day, after a particularly turbulent recess in the playground during which all four of the fives had suffered some indignity from the sixes, we trooped back into our classroom. In Sister Marie's class you were expected to carry the detritus of your lunch back to your desk, so she could be sure you had indeed taken sustenance; but this day Sister noticed that Linda's lunchbox was empty. No sandwich wrapper, no cookie crumbs, no apple core.

Sister inquired; Linda sat mute. Sister pressed, gently, leaning down to Linda at her tiny desk; Linda covered her face with her hands and wept. Sister realised that Linda had been robbed of her lunch by the sixes, and had not eaten at all, and had been humiliated by the theft, and was more humiliated now by public revelation.

Sister straightened up and stared at each of the sixes, her face unreadable, but just as she began to speak, Linda sobbed even harder, and a rill of urine trickled from the back of her seat and pooled on the floor between the first and second rows.

For a moment there was a ruckus as some children shouted and leapt away from the pool but then Sister said Silence! Seats! — not shouting, but so firmly that everyone sat down in silence — and then she appointed Meghan to lead Linda to the girls' room and then to the school nurse.

Meghan held out her arm just like a gentleman does in old movies and Linda took her arm and they stepped over the puddle and left the room. You could hear Linda sobbing all the way down the hall.

All teachers admit their students will remember very little, if anything, of the curriculum they were taught. But teachers offer context, manners of approach, and the subtle suggestion that a cheerful humility before all problems is the only way toward a useful solution. What teachers really teach is not a subject, but ways to be.

Sister Marie was a fine teacher. We sat silently for a long moment, after Linda left, and then Sister sent a boy to the men's room and a girl to the girls' room to get all the paper towels they could carry. They came back with one million paper towels. Sister gave each one of the sixes a handful of towel and they mopped up the puddle, one by one, in alphabetical order, by rows. They did this silently.

When they were finished Sister handed each of the remaining fives a handful of towel also, and we also knelt and scrubbed the brilliant floor. No one said a word. The sixes then collected our paper towels and put them in the trash. A little while later Linda and Meghan came back and sat down and we started into arithmetic.

I never forgot this lesson, and I bet that no one there that day ever did either, neither the sixes nor the fives. 

Brian Doyle headshotBrian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, and the author most recently of the essay collection Grace Notes

Topic tags: Brian Doyle, education, teachers



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Existing comments

Beautiful, as usual. What you didn't say was that it was a class of 50. Possibly more.

Frank | 30 January 2013  

Beautiful story, Brian. The silence is at the heart of the story.

Janet | 30 January 2013  

thank you. what a lesson.

Moira Rayner | 30 January 2013  

Quite eventful early school experiences, Brian - from first grade mopping-up to fourth grade Jesus envy. I would agree wholeheartedly with your assessment of Sister Marie's fine qualities. First-grade student politics is not an easy field to negotiate and Sister Marie did an impressive job of maintaining class equilibrium. I can only add that school nurses with a plentiful supply of clean underwear (no holes) are a godsend.

Pam | 30 January 2013  

As a teacher of 40 years I so understand this. When I meet with past students I am always heartened by the little things, or what seemed little things at the time, that they remember and have taken to their lives. It's what makes teaching such a powerful profession.

Phil van Brunschot | 30 January 2013  

"What teachers really teach is not a subject, but ways to be." This is so right. I have written at length about what I remember of my schooldays back a few decades ago now - and almost all of it is about the way I and other children were treated. Even when curriculum content comes to mind (e.g. the reading matter we were provided with) it was the way that teachers taught it that is clearest in my memory. The teachers I most vividly remember were either saints and sinners. Those who were neither - perhaps decent enough but taught as if the content was the essence of teaching - left not much imprinted on my memory.

Frank Golding | 30 January 2013  

The notion that teachers teach 'ways to be', has been all too evident through the anxiety disorders and depression that many adults I know have developed from Catholic Schools. These adults were left with low self-esteem, fear of failure and little confidence in their own qualities as a result of the over-authoritarian, personal derision dispensed at the hands of often emotionally sadistic Nuns and Priests. This is however a heartening story and I would like to think that this is indicative of a change in attitudes within Catholic Education. However punishing the group for the transgression of an individual was a classic divide and conquer technique, used to pit the culprit's peers against them.I'm sure in all her authority Sister Marie could have singled out the guilty party and made them clean the mess and serve as a lesson to others...that kids doing the right thing should suffer for those that aren't seems wrong.

JefBaker | 01 February 2013  

A fine piece, thank you. Poignant and humble and the more powerful for that. Cheers Rex

Rex Finch | 01 February 2013  

What you miss jefbaker is that the by-standers were also complicitin the bullying by not objecting to it. I am reminded of the class room exercise with the class divided into blue eyed 'bosses' and brown eyed 'slaves' to learn what it is like to be discriminated against. This was not a case of one miscreant but of a damaging social behavior

Maggie | 01 February 2013  

Humiliation. How we humans treat each other is unique

graham patison | 03 February 2013  

That title is bathetic. One might almost say 'piss-weak'. Why not that quote - "What teachers really teach" (.."is not a subject, but ways to be", Subbie ?? Whatever, I have shared the salutary tale with an ex=Schoolie, without the "urination solution".

Shoot the Sub-Editor | 06 October 2013  

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