SISTER MAURA AND THE SEVEN DWARFS: A True Story

by Keith Hoffman

There were a lot of secrets in my family.

Most conversations of my childhood started with phrases like, “Now don’t tell your brother this …” or “Grandma doesn’t need to know what just happened…”

In fact we had an entire range of secrets: little secrets like when my mom slipped me an extra $20 in my pocket when I went to the movies; medium secrets usually involving funny smelling smoke that would inevitably waft through the vents into my lonely bedroom from our family room below where my mom and older siblings hung out late at night (was that extra $20 some sort of guilt payoff?); and then the very big secrets like ….well…at least two of them are so big I am not supposed to reveal them while certain parties are still alive. Let’s just say if I can outlive  a couple more relatives there is a whopper of a blog to come.

After I grew up, my boyfriend Steve referred to my family as The Landmines, since he could never keep track of all the things he wasn’t allowed to say in front of whom which inevitably led to family drama every time he opened his mouth.

By that point I was a pro at artfully concealing the truth but in fifth grade I was still learning the ropes.

Luckily I dodged a lot of awkward conversations at school because I was so unpopular no one had the slightest curiosity to ask me any personal questions.

No one except for Miss Axe.

Miss Axe was my sixth-grade teacher. She was a stout woman with very short hair who had never married and most likely had a few secrets of her own.   She had taught my older siblings and often asked about them.  But as my family moved farther away from our Father Knows Best phase and closer to our Mother Smokes Pot period my responses to her queries became increasingly vague.

Yet the family secrets kept piling up and the chasm between me and what I perceived as the “normal” world felt like it was growing impossibly wide. A tiny hope began to grow inside my heart that Miss Axe could somehow build a bridge.

Although I already had a secret crush on her, I discovered just how incredibly kind Miss Axe  was after the “Sister Maura and the Seven Dwarfs” incident.

Of all the bitter and angry nuns who taught me throughout my Catholic school years, Sister Maura—a round, buck-toothed, bespeckled woman—was the bitterest and angriest. Her one redeeming quality was that, on most days, she preferred reminiscing about her childhood to teaching. She seemed to have loved her life before the convent, and I couldn’t understand why she had given it all up. I’m not sure she understood either, but she seemed to work through her confusion with frequent and energetic outbursts of uncontrolled rage aimed squarely at her students.

The only passion that made Sister Maura forget her miserable chaste life was her music.

Each spring, sixth graders from several schools participated in a citywide music concert that was the highlight of Sister Maura’s school year. Somehow I was one of the students that had been selected by the angry old nun to sing in the choir of an operatic version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

DebbieSingingNunNothing like Sister Maura

I was thrilled.

Those of us fortunate enough to be among The Chosen were excused from our regular classes three times a week to practice. I couldn’t help feeling special as part of the elite group that Sister Maura had handpicked to represent St. Jude Elementary School at a big downtown event.

I was hardly a singer but this was another secret that I seemed to be able to keep under wraps. Perhaps as a way of saying “I’m sorry for striking down your father with a heart attack at one of the most crucial periods in your childhood development,” God had miraculously helped me get through my singing audition on key. For once I wasn’t the last to be chosen for a team, and I strongly sensed that this was going to be a major turning point in my life.

A week before the concert, Sister Maura, obsessed with the perfection of her young choir, pretty much yanked us out of every class so she could have us all to herself. She was focused, driven, and perhaps even a wee bit demented.

As we valiantly sang through final rehearsals, I imagined the thrill of being up on stage in front of hundreds of people in the new white shirt and black tie my proud mother had bought for me.

We were in the middle of singing a particularly intricate part of the opera when, without warning, Sister Maura slammed both hands down. “WHO IS SINGING OFF-KEY?” she bellowed.

We sat in bewildered silence, wondering whether or not this question was rhetorical.

Meanwhile, Sister Maura seethed with homicidal rage.

She insisted we individually sing the line from the opera that had so affronted her sensitive ears.

One by one, we went down the row starting with Cindy Wilson.

Who is coming through the dark night now?”

Cindy looked at Sister Maura anxiously.

“Next!”

Who is coming through the dark night now?” Mindy Hofzinger belted out confidently.

“Next!”

Who is coming through the dark night now?”

As my turn came closer, I began sweating profusely and forgetting everything I had never known about singing.

Who is coming through the dark night now?”

There were only two kids left before me.

“Please, God let one of them sing off-key so we can end this torture. Please, God … ruin their lives instead of mine this time.”

It was around this point that I seemed to completely lose my hearing. As if viewing an eerie silent movie, I watched two classmates mouth the words to the song before they sat down, smiling in relief.

Now it was my turn.

Sister Maura narrowed her eyes and focused on me.

All heads turned expectantly.

Where were my spontaneous vomiting skills when I needed them?

I took a deep breath. “Don’t fail me God. Please?”

Who is coming through the dark night now?”

I looked at Sister Maura.

She looked at me.

I looked at her.

She looked at me.

More silence.

“Get out.”

Those were the first words I could hear again even though she had said them in a whispered hiss.

“Get out of this room. Get out of this choir. GET OUT OF MY SIGHT NOW!”

I wanted to say to that if she gave me another chance … that maybe if she worked with me a little after rehearsal …

She stood with her arm stretched out and her pudgy index finger pointing at the door.

“OUT! NOW!”

Attempting to appear dignified, I quietly placed my music book on my seat, held my chin up high, and began to walk out.

Although God had been kind enough to restore my hearing, He now seemed to have removed my ability to walk. I put one foot shakily in front of the other and tentatively made my way to the outside hall as if walking on narrow plank made of quicksand. I focused all my concentration on trying to remain upright until I began to wonder if I could speed up this painful process by getting on my hands and knees and crawling to the door.

Finally I made it to the hallway.

The metal door slammed behind me as I heard the muffled sounds of the piano starting up again.

Who is coming through the dark night now?”

********

I arrived at the classroom full of noisy non-singing losers and slunk back to my desk. As I sat silently among my happily chattering classmates, I thought about the moment when poor Sister Maura would find out that I had taken my own life by swallowing barbiturates, booze, and absinthe.

I knew I could rummage up the barbiturates and booze from my house but where exactly did one obtain absinthe?

Before I had a chance to map out my tragic plan in my head, the nun at the front of my classroom loudly declared she was sick and tired of all the talking and that perhaps if we wrote SILENCE IS GOLDEN five hundred times on a sheet of paper with No. 2 lead pencils we’d learn to keep our mouths shut.

As I wearily rummaged through my book bag and pulled out a chewed-up pencil, I decided then and there that I hated nuns and I definitely detested dwarves.

barsanti-streep-doubt-splsh

I mean really…what’s to love?

********

When Miss Axe heard about my unfortunate misadventures in choir, she offered to take me to the concert as her guest.

I was conflicted. I wanted to move on with my life and put Snow White and those creepy little people behind me, but no teacher had ever shown any interest in getting to know me outside the classroom. I was starved for attention and willing to attend the stupid opera to get it.

On the day of the concert, Miss Axe asked for my address and informed me she would pick me up at my house. After school, I impatiently waited for her on the front steps of my porch feeling excited and scared.

I was excited because a real-life teacher was actually coming to my home.

I was scared because a real-life teacher was actually coming to my home.

My first hurdle of the evening was to keep her from actually walking through the front door. No matter what, I told myself, she was to get no further than my driveway. If she wanted to use the bathroom, I would inform her we had lost it in the tornado a few years back.

Secrets were hard to keep if you let somebody in.

I sat on those front porch steps diligently keeping watch.

When she finally pulled into the driveway, I urgently screamed a goodbye through the screen door from over my shoulder, raced down the stairs, and nimbly leapt into her front seat.

Miss Axe seemed surprised at first but recovered with a friendly “Well, you look all dressed up!”

Drive! Drive!” I wanted to scream. I already knew my new clip-on tie looked dashing and had no time for pleasantries.

“We have some time. I thought I’d say …”

“Nobody’s home” I firmly explained cutting her off at the pass.

Miss Axe peered up at my front windows where the sounds of Neil Young blared out. Someone started singing along to “Southern Man.”

“Oh for God’s sake, woman! Step on the accelerator!”

I couldn’t actually say that so instead I muttered something about hoping we’d get a good seat at the concert. Miss Axe finally took the hint and reluctantly backed out of the driveway.

As we drove further from my family, I began to relax. Miss Axe and I talked about movies,  TV shows,  animals and my favorite subjects at school and she and actually seemed interested in what I had to say. A grownup that was not too wrapped up in grief, guilt, a pot fog, or a nun’s habit had finally found time to notice me. I felt interesting and important.

At the concert, I tried not to cringe—or heave—when I heard the curious dwarves operatically wonder, Who is coming through the dark night now? I wanted to heckle, “It’s Snow White, you goddamned morons!” but demonstrated maturity and restraint since I wasn’t sure if one could go to jail for heckling 5th graders.

 

800px-Snow_White_and_the_Seven_Dwarfs_1

If you think about it, the whole story is just creepy

On the way home, we stopped at White Castle and I could barely cease talking long enough to swallow down my five cheeseburgers. I had so many opinions about life that no one had heard since my preschool days when I shadowed my mother around as she did housework, and I was not going to let Miss Axe slip away without subjecting her to each and every one of them.

As we walked back to the car in the White Castle parking lot, Miss Axe placed her arm around my shoulder.

I wanted so desperately to hold her hand but feared that I was too old for such a childish action.

We headed toward home and I fell into an easy, exhausted quiet while listening to the hum of car engine. I had made it through the concert debacle and had come out with something much better than Sister’s Maura’s approval.

I was about to doze off when Miss Axe jarred my serenity with a seemingly innocent question.

“So, how are things at home?

I shifted into high alert. Up until this point I had kept things at surface level but now she was trying to slip past the perimeter.

“Great. Everything’s great!!” I said a little too enthusiastically.

“Has your family  been doing okay since your dad died?”

“I think so,” I replied lamely.

Had this woman learned her questioning techniques from the Spanish Inquisitors?

“Well, if you ever want to talk …”

I wanted to talk. I wanted blab everything. I wanted to ask her how to keep up with everything changing around me too  fast for me to keep up with. I wanted to know if she could help me know to not be an outsider in my own home. I wanted to tell Miss Axe about my feelings. More than anything, I wanted to ask her how I should feel. I’d had so many mixed-up emotions jumbled inside me pounding at my chest and stomach desperate to finally get out….

But I couldn’t.

I would be betraying my family.

And they were all I had.

“Okay,” I finally mumbled as I focused intently out the window.

We rode for the rest of the trip in a new kind of silence.

All my secrets were wrapped up tightly and safe.

And I felt more alone than I ever had in my entire.

 

NEXT: A secret revealed.

 

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