It was grandmother who encouraged me to leave school, just as it was, just where I was. “With your education,” she explained, “you’re practically sure.”
“Don’t be laggard.”
“Before I give up school I ought to know a few things.” I don’t say what. I have no prejudices. (Then.)
“That’s the trouble with all you Americans.”
“Of course you must be.”
“Against my will. Anyway.”
“I’m used to school,” I defend it.
“You didn’t like it, I thought.”
“I like the fifth grade.”
“Girls? I warned you, I warn you. They’re all little bitches. I’ve watched them playing their games. Bare all the way up to their pink little asses, that you can see without trying, they show them to every passerby under those high-up little dresses. An old woman like myself with no eyesight.”
“You don’t even wear glasses.”
“I don’t want to be forced to look at what God never in-tended that I witness.”
“There, they make atheists of you.”
“It’s a Catholic school.”
“You read books. And that newspaper.” The New York Times. (I confess it.)
“They won’t like my leaving in the fifth grade.”
“They will, when you’re a banker.”
“You want to make money, don’t you? Don’t you? Don’t you?”
“I guess it’s up to me, or somebody.”
“Money is made in banks. Bankers get it at a discount. A banker gets discounts on all the money made on the premises, and everybody else—the whole world—has to pay the regular rates. Well ?”
“Who told you? Where did you find that out?”
“Bankers live in homes with trees growing out of their front yards.” She rattled the newspaper at me. She has been reading the obituary. (It was she who gave me a taste for it.) This day it was about a banker living (dying) in a white Ohio home with a white fence rail around it, a hill, a veranda, a front yard and his family of a wife and three growing young Americans with pride of heritage.
“I doubt I can become a banker.”
“You’ve lost your faith. Pray.”
“You pray practically a hundred percent of the time in the fifth grade. And I’ve lost my faith. You said so.”
“Pray to get it back.”
“I’m just getting used to the fifth grade.”
“You’ll get used to money. Nothing easier.”
It never made that much difference to me, but I am supposed to be in the sixth grade. (You can’t tell the difference.) But I feel as though I am where I have practically always been. In the fifth. Sister Mary Rosemary was our fifth grade teacher. When we went into the sixth. Sister Mary Rosemary answered a call to come along with us. We learned everything she had just taught us in the fifth; she told the same stories she had told the previous class (us), prayed the same prayers at the same time; had the same favorite girls, handed out the same sweet threats, read to the class out of the same book, passed around the same divine pictures (Holy Mary, named after her), and fell asleep the same hours, mornings and afternoons. The sisterhood recognized this, of course. It sent in glasses of milk a couple of times a school day from the convent kitchen which you could hear and look down into from our windows. (There were rumors about it. It was supposed to be buttermilk, we heard. It looked like a strong chalky medicine. And when she had drunk it, Sister Mary Rosemary fell asleep.)
Sister Mary Rosemary would settle into her peace the way I settled into the fifth grade, accepting that I might never get out of it, if Sister Mary Rosemary stayed with our class right along until graduation. Beyond that there was nothing of interest to us anyway. People like bankers, women no more like girls than grasshoppers are like butterflies, men with their black-rimmed glasses and dark leather cases who were supposed to be fathers, no one I had ever exchanged talk with, or whose talk I needed to, or could, understand.
You could look down and watch them bake in the convent kitchen. In the middle of a dream the sounds of silverware, boilers, the oven opening and slamming shut, kettles and cups and saucers, the timing bell going off and the sister cook giving instructions to someone out of sight, crowded into my unconsciousness like summoning pangs. It was the only time I felt anything. Hunger. But I hungered for nothing. There was nothing I cared to eat. All I felt was hungry, like Pussy sitting up when she hears her dish being handled back in the kitchen alongside the garden.
Not that I didn’t like spring, which was all during the fifth grade. Spring turning to summer was like a warm sleep. Sister Mary Rosemary sitting over her milk (Pussy again) and peacefully going off. Below the window was a schoolyard of flagstone. I don’t know what flagstone is, I probably got it wrong, from grandmother, a countrywoman, who noticed paving more than other, different, Americans do. A handball, or tennis ball and sometimes a fresh baseball bounding for yards on the flagstone, or against the building blocks of the school. A sunny, peaceful, sleeping sound, though it would sometimes wake Sister Mary Rosemary out of her sleep, cutting it short, though at times it wouldn’t. The bread truck coming up the street every day exactly on time, like the glass of milk arriving from the convent kitchen. It was a sound to me because there was a bell, probably connected with each loaf of bread that was sold. Rnnggg. Like a cash register on rubber wheels, wheeling up the residential block where the sunshine thick as buttermilk spread between the school and the apartment buildings, filling space like a deep vessel containing something yellow, golden, something mysteriously magical in a place without shadows, like this place, where Sister Mary Rosemary, and all of us, all of us, the little girls, the little bitches, exposing their thighs and hiding nothing, could hide nothing under their weightless dresses, all, the sisterhood and the fatherhood, the priesthood, the music teacher thumping the piano every morning in the convent music room, the mothers in the fifth grade and the classless black girls who sometimes waited in the rain to claim us and dropped us off at home, everything exposed to the contagion of peace, lured to it by promise, contained in it, as I was, through weakness or ordination, shared it like the diseased their mortal symptoms.