Michail Mulvey’s feckless character attends an interview to teach English at a religious school, but worries about his capacity for redemption.
Once again I sat in the principal’s office. But not for disciplinary reasons, at least not this time. This time I was interviewing for a job. And in a parochial school of all places. Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrows High School. If Sister Constance, my elementary school principal, could see me now, surely she would see the irony and exclaim, “God does indeed work in mysterious ways.”
Mrs. Noonan, the school secretary – an abundant middle-aged woman with red hair and green eyes – sat behind a large gray desk piled high with manila folders and white forms, typing.
“Sister Patricia should be here any minute now,” she said, offering a reassuring smile. “She’s in a meeting with Father Dolan.”
As I patiently waited – and tried to smooth out the coat hanger-inflicted wrinkles in my khakis – I noticed that Our Lady’s main office wasn’t large by public school standards. In fact, the desks of the principal and the school secretary sat just a few feet from each other. The walls, painted a color I had long ago named Parochial School Puke, held the requisite portraits of assorted saints and martyrs: Saint Peter, crucified upside down; Saint Christopher, beheaded; Saint James, beaten to death. A picture of the Holy Father hung on the wall behind Mrs. Noonan. A tall, life-like statue of the Virgin Mary stood on a pedestal in a corner by the window, behind Sister Pat’s desk. A higher authority, Jesus H. Christ himself, nailed firmly to a dark wooden cross, hung on the wall between two windows and the desks of Sister Pat and Mrs. Noonan.
Having spent my formative years in the arms of Mother Church – as a student at Saint John’s Parochial School – I should have felt right at home. But sitting in the main office, surrounded by all those dead saints, the Pope, Mary, and the CEO, once again I felt like that kid who spent more time in the office than in class.
While I nervously picked at imaginary lint and glanced at the clock on the wall for a third time in so many minutes, I reluctantly confessed to myself that I had no one to blame for my failure to land a teaching job after commencement but myself. While just about all my college classmates had landed teaching jobs, all I managed was part-time work tutoring for minimum wage at the local junior high by day and clerking at a convenience store by night. Neither required my BS in Education.
But after three years in the Army, I saw college as a place to make up for lost time. In partial compensation for giving up the best years of my life, the government sent me a check every month to go to school. Not much, but enough to pay for tuition, books and… well, let’s just say that Arlene, owner of Discount Liquors on White Street, and I were on a first-name basis.
There was always a hint of suspicion in her voice as Arlene eyed me and the two six-packs of beer, the pint of blackberry brandy, quart of Vodka, half-gallon of cheap Burgundy, fifth of Four Roses, and the two bottles of Schnapps sitting on her counter by the register.
“Is all this for you?” she’d ask rhetorically, a slight, almost Mona Lisa-like smile on her pale and wrinkled face.
“Of course,” I’d reply, smiling back, batting my blue eyes and dredging up what little was left of my youthful innocence. “Would I lie to you, Arlene?” Her knowing silence was my only answer.
I was twenty-one and everybody’s best friend on a Friday night when they needed a bottle of cheap wine to fight off a bout of homesickness, drown painful memories of a relationship gone bad, or expunge visions of a rotund Dr. Bailey reciting passages from Moby Dick.
For four years I partied by night and slept in class by day – if I bothered to go to class at all. The price I paid for this hedonistic approach to college and life was a 2.597 GPA, far short of my friends’ and the expectations of most, if not all, public school systems.
In desperation – it was the last week of October, I still hadn’t landed a full-time teaching job, my fridge was empty, and the rent was due – I turned to a placement agency, a last resort for desperate job-seeking college graduates with a 2.597 GPA and desperate school systems trying to fill their less-than desirable teaching positions.
When I sat up to answer the phone, a ray from the midmorning sun poked through the parted curtain into my bloodshot eyes like a sharp stick, a painful reminder that while everyone else was at work, I was still in bed. A queen-sized bed that had seen better days… and nights.
“Hi, this is Peter at the Teacher Placement Agency. I… uh… didn’t wake you, did I? What time is it… ten-thirty?”
“Noooo, I was already up,” I lied. I didn’t have any kids to tutor until 2:30. In my mind I pictured a disappointed, schoolmaster-like frown on Peter’s disapproving brow.
“I have a position for you, but it’s in a parochial school. Are you Catholic?”
I’d have told Peter I was a tree-hugging Druid if it would get me an interview at the Rochester School of Forestry.
“Sure. Well, sort of. An occasional Catholic. A recovering Catholic.” Maybe I shouldn’t be such a smart-ass. “How much does it pay?”
“Remember, this is a parochial school,” said Peter, “so it’s about a third less than public school pay, but it’s better than tutoring for minimum wage.”
“Right. Any benefits? Health plan? Retirement? Front row seats at ten o’clock Mass?” I’d pay for this irreverent jocularity, but I couldn’t help it. Maybe that’s another reason why I lay in bed while my classmates were hard at work molding minds.
“Uh, no,” replied Peter.
Great. Can’t even afford to get sick.
“Next Thursday, 11:00 am. Will you be up by then?”
“I should be.” Now who’s the smartass, Pete? “Next Tuesday sounds good. I’ll clear my calendar. I’ll even brush my teeth.”
“Next Thursday… write it down.” I could hear Peter sigh. “The interview is at Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrows High School for a position teaching Ninth Grade English.”
In college I majored in Education and only minored in English to be near Erica. She minored in French. I tried one semester of college French, but bailed when I got tired of conjugating French verbs. And I hated writing all those useless research papers in my literature courses. Erica helped… OK, she wrote most of them for me… but I still couldn’t make heads or tails of The Waste Land or Paradise Lost. Thanks to Dr. Bailey, though, I knew Moby Dick had something to do with whales.
“Yeah, looking through your file here… you didn’t list English as one of your subject preferences even though it was your minor… and glancing at your transcript, English wasn’t one of your favorite subjects.”
“Why the sudden opening? It’s the last week of October,” I asked, trying to change the subject.
“They just had a teacher leave because of an unexpected pregnancy.”
“One of the nuns?” If there’s a god, I’m gonna burn.
“No! One of the lay teachers… leave it alone.” Now Peter sounded annoyed.
“They’re desperate and need someone right away.”
“Desperate. So you called me.” Thanks Pete. Remind me to pay your placement fee in pennies… or empties.
“See Sister Patricia, the principal. You have a good chance of landing this job, so leave the irreverent humor at home… and don’t forget to wear socks.”
At my interview with the placement agency, I’d forgotten to wear socks with my sandals, which, of course, Peter noticed. I did, however, wear a tie, the clean one. If Erica had been there, she wouldn’t have let me walk out of our apartment sockless… or wearing sandals.
“You always see the cup half empty,” she said, just before she drove away to Vermont and a teaching position at some snooty private school.
“Okay, promise. Socks, no irreverent humor.”
“Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrows High School is in Waterbury. Do you need directions? Remember what happened when I sent you to Rocky Hill?”
“Yeah. I went to Rockville instead. I knew the name of the town had a ‘rock’ in it, though. I was tired. I’d worked the four to midnight shift at the convenience store the night before.” Another lie. I’d been out late drinking with college buddies.
“Okay… Before I go, sure you don’t want directions… to Waterbury?”
“No. I’ll find it. I’ve been there before… It’s just off I-84… right?”
“Sure you can teach English?”
“Piece o’ cake, Pete.”
“Alright. Call me back and let me know how it goes. Good luck… the interview is next Thursday. And remember, it’s Waterbury, not Watertown… or Waterford… or…” Peter’s voice trailed off as he tried to think of other cities or towns that had ‘water’ in them. But I also detected an air of uncertainty in Peter’s usually upbeat voice. Uncertain as to whether the agency should have taken me on as a client? Or whether I would get lost on my way to Waterbury?
“Right. Waterbury. Don’t worry, I’ll find it. Thanks, Pete. God loves ya!”
English. And in a parochial school of all places.
Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrows High School, I would soon discover, was a poor parish located in the east end of town, on the divide between a working-class neighborhood of triple-deckers and an area of run-down and half-empty mills that lined the south bank of a polluted river.
“I think I hear Sister Patricia coming now,” said the genial Mrs. Noonan.
“Thanks.” I pulled at the collar of my shirt again. Was the office too warm? Or was I coming down with the flu? Beads of sweat began to gather on my forehead and upper lip. But I was desperate, so when Sister Patricia finally walked in, smiled, introduced herself, shook my hand, sat down, and asked, “Can you teach English?” I lied.
“Yes, Sister,” I replied, smiling with all the mock sincerity I could muster. I turned on that Irish charm that had stood me so well all through college and had kept me from being thrown out on my ass. If I went to confession this lie would cost me at least three Hail Marys, maybe four.
Sister Patricia seemed pleasant enough. Around forty, she reminded me of my grandmother in an old picture that sat on a table by the window in my Uncle Ray’s living room. For some reason, I found the fact that Sister Patricia wore civvies, not the forbidding black nun’s habit, comforting. If she’d looked like one of those Grim Reaper-types that hovered over us at Saint John’s, I might have frozen up. The only clue that Sister Pat belonged to a religious order was the oversized crucifix that hung from around her neck and nestled in her ample bosom. By the conservative cut and gray color of her clothes, she could be mistaken for a clerk at the DMV.
“Do you go to church every Sunday?” asked Sister Pat. Behind her, on a pedestal in the corner, stood Mother Mary, watching.
“Yes, Sister,” I replied, hoping Mary was preoccupied with other, more pressing church matters.
Another lie. Another three Hail Marys.
“How often do you go to confession?”
Never, was the God’s honest truth. It would take too long to recite all my transgressions, and besides, I had better things to do with my Saturday nights. Sweat worked its way through my T-shirt and into the pits and back of my dress shirt. I hoped it wouldn’t soak through to my new gray tweed herringbone sports jacket, bought just for this interview. Would she notice? Would she think I was lying or just nervous? Or nervous from all the lying? Maybe it was too hot in here. Maybe I was coming down with the flu. For some reason Sister Pat seemed more interested in my soul than my academic credentials.
I glanced over Sister Pat’s shoulder. Mary was still there. I took a chance and lied once more.
“Only when I need to Sister, which isn’t very often.”
Another three Hail Marys. Maybe a half-dozen Our Fathers. I hadn’t been to confession since… Should I tell her I was once an altar boy? Or, truth be told, I was an altar boy once… in the Army… and I was drunk at the time. To be fair, we were in a forward area and our platoon had just returned from a patrol where we’d suffered three WIA. My buddies and I were working on a pint of vodka when our platoon sergeant ordered me to help Father Donnelly set up his field altar.
As I fumbled with a folding table, Father Donnelly asked if I would help him serve Mass.
“I’ve never been an altar boy before, Father, I’ll probably just fuck it up.”
“It’s easy. After you pass out the missals, just watch me,” he said smiling.
He told me he’d give me the high sign when he wanted me to ring that bell… I forget what he called it… and help with Communion.
I wondered if I should tell Sister Pat but omit the details. I let it go.
After what seemed like an eternity looking into my eyes, looking into my heart and deep into my soul, trying to decide whether I was an abject liar and sinner – which I was – Sister Patricia smiled. She must have bought it. Or she was really desperate for a replacement.
She stood up, shook my hand warmly and said, “Welcome to Our Lady. School starts at 7:15 sharp.”
“Thank you, Sister. Seven-fifteen, sharp.” I smiled.
English. Of all subjects.
But anything was better than tutoring a bunch of morons by day and working the night shift at that convenience store with an asshole for a boss who was always checking to see if I’d helped myself to a twenty from the register. But all I took was an occasional bottle of Coke from the cooler late at night when business was slow and I was nodding off. Maybe a small bag of chips or a slice of cheese now and then when I was running late and had missed dinner. And that’s no lie. I was a lapsed Catholic and a sinner, but no thief.
“I’ll leave you with Mrs. Noonan, then,” said Sister Pat as she came from around her desk and headed for the door. “She’ll have you fill out some forms and give you your schedule.” Sister Patricia smiled and left.
After an interview that had lasted maybe three minutes at most, I had a teaching job. I saw my application, my C and D-laden transcripts, and three lukewarm letters of reference sitting on Sister Patricia’s desk – With time he might make a competent teacher – and wondered why she’d offered me, of all people, the position. They had to be desperate. But at what they were paying, they couldn’t be too choosy. Glancing at Sister Pat’s desk again, I noticed only one application file lying there. Mine.
“Congratulations and welcome to Our Lady,” said a smiling Mrs. Noonan, holding out a file folder. “Here are your class lists, teaching schedule, school handbook, and tax forms. Over there,” she said, pointing to a pile of books sitting on a folding table by the wall, “you’ll find the teacher’s editions of your text books.”
Thumbing through the tall stack, I found a teacher’s edition for Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition.
“Jesus, is this still in print?” I mumbled to myself.
“What?” asked a slightly startled Mrs. Noonan, looking up from her typewriter.
“This is still in print,” I said, smiling. “Great!”
“Oh.” The furrows in her brow said she wasn’t buying it.
I also found the teacher’s editions, workbooks, and supplemental materials for my other courses. And at the bottom of the pile, a Catechism.
“Are all these mine?” I asked uneasily, turning to Mrs. Noonan.
“Yes. You’ll be teaching two sections of Freshman English, two sections of Developmental Reading and Writing, one section of American literature, one of Study Skills, and one class of religious instruction.”
“Holy Christ,” I said under my breath. Again Mrs. Noonan looked up from her typewriter. “I was looking at the cover of the Catechism. Nice picture of Jesus.” I could tell by the look on her face that, once again, she wasn’t buying it.
Keep it up, numbnuts. You’ll be out of a job before you even start.
Five different subjects. Seven classes a day. Now I understood why my interview had taken less than three minutes. I was beginning to wonder if that lay teacher was really pregnant. Maybe she lied.
“Why did that other teacher leave?” I asked, thumbing through the Warriner’s, wondering how in the name of sweet Jesus I was going to bullshit my way through this class.
“Oh, she got pregnant. At least that’s what she told us. Too bad. She seemed nice. A little nervous, though.”
Nervous? She was probably exhausted and on the verge of a breakdown from teaching all these subjects. I’d get pregnant too, just for a freakin’ breather.
My growling stomach reminded me that I’d missed breakfast. With my new sports jacket, I hadn’t dared chance the drive-through window at Burger King this morning. I was hoping Sister Patricia hadn’t noticed the faint outline of an old mustard stain on my blue tie. How had I missed it this morning? Erica would have caught it.
“Yes?’ she answered without looking up from her desk.
“Where’s the cafeteria?”
“Oh, we have no cafeteria. Students eat lunch in their classrooms with their teachers,” said Mrs. Noonan almost apologetically.
Not only was there no cafeteria, I learned, there was no library, no gymnasium or PE teacher, and no art or music program either. I’d be with my students all day. No break except for lunch and twice-a-week recess on the blacktop playground behind the school. My students and I would get to know each other very well. Well enough for them to discover my ignorance and ineptitude?
Was the cup half-empty or half-full? I had a real job, but I’d be teaching from 7:30 till 3:15 with only a half-hour lunch break… and I’d be eating with my students. Still beat the hell out of working at that convenience store, waiting to be shot by some whacked-out drug addict looking for ready cash late at night.
But there was no cooler full of packaged cheese and cold cuts to snack from here at Our Lady, just a coffee urn on the counter of the school office… but I didn’t drink coffee. No flipping through the magazine rack at midnight – somebody say hello to Miss October for me – when only the drunk and the stoned are out, looking for snacks, another six-pack, or trouble.
But, I have a job. I have a job. I have a job. Repetez après moi. J’ai un travail.
The cup is half-full, Erica.
Merci, Mere Marie.