The Cold War

By Michelle Frost

It was a stand off. Two equally opposed enemies facing each other across the vastness of a darkened classroom. I stared her down, unflinching from my position on top of a desk. She stared back; eyes narrowing against the glare of the school film screen behind me. I knew this was a battle to the death. When you take on a nun, there will be no survivors.

I was in trouble again. Not because I'd been reading a book instead of watching the movie, but because I'd spoken back when she'd told me to stop reading. I hadn't been reading the stupid book; I actually liked the movie better. The injustice of being reprimanded for something I wasn't guilty of had led me to reaching this lofty and somewhat wobbly position. The nuns polished everything. Standing on a desktop was like standing on ice. My punishment was to stand there for the entire movie, my rebellion was to turn my back on the screen and stand watching her the entire duration of that movie.

An eleven year old girl standing on a desk glaring at a teacher was probably more comical than creepy, but at that moment I felt EPIC. I was an owl in the darkness, looming over this black and white Dominican mouse with her little pink rodent hands working the old projector. I was a panther in short socks, teeth clenched and eyes fixed on my prey.

It was only one of many battles between us that year. I was raised to respect adults, but not to take abuse from them. I was always polite when I spoke back in self-defence. Sister B was the kind of teacher Dickens may have written of. She had various forms of punishments, from throwing a tennis ball or chalk at your head if she thought you weren't listening, to making you stand on your desk, often holding a pencil above your head, for half an hour for more serious offences.

My very existence was a serious offence. I was left-handed. Sinister. Devil-pawed from the start. I'd spent the first four years of junior school at a modern school that saw nothing wrong with that. I had been taught a modern form of writing. Now, thanks to my parents moving countries, I was in a Catholic school where the writing style was as old-fashioned as their ideas. As I struggled to adapt, my writing degenerated, fuelling Sister B's righteous belief that being left-handed was utterly wrong.

Our relationship became a Cold War. The unspoken rules written on our own invisible iron curtain. She would nag and pick on me – I would ignore her. I would try to best her – she would ignore me. When she took it too far I'd speak out... and get punished again. I was the only child she ever sent out of the classroom.

I hated her with a pure, clear intent.

One day, she lost it completely. Raging about my "spider scrawl" as she threw my book across the room. She yelled, "I can't mark what I cannot read!" My book slid across the floor and stopped, with perfect irony, in front of my desk. I sat by the door, so the book was now in the doorway. I could feel her waiting for me to go pick it up. I could feel the class watching me. I left the book where it was. All through that day, I left it there. When I went out for lunch, I stepped over it. When I came back, I stepped over it again. The whole class whispered, "Pick it up." NEVER! This was a COLD WAR. There could be no showing weakness to the enemy.

At the end of the day, I packed my bag, stepped over my book, and went home. The next morning, it was on my desk. I have no idea who put it there. We never spoke about it. Those are the rules of a Cold War.

Sister B had one soft side to her ferocious personality. Every time a child had a birthday, she would call them to the front of the class and give them a gift: one little keepsake and one sweet. When my birthday arrived, I entered the classroom wondering how this would go down. Would she lose face and give me a gift? Would she keep up the war and ignore my birthday in front of every other child?

That was exactly what she did. No mention. No calling me up. The others in the class were appalled but I was not surprised. This was a war, after all. At the end of the day, I went passed her with my head held high, feeling the smug superiority of the martyred. The next morning, I was the first in class. I opened my desk to put something away and there in the corner was a single sweet and a tiny, ancient folded paper holding sewing needles.

I never forgot that gift. I used those needles for decades. I still have them.

After I finished that school year, she managed to stun me again by writing in my final report that I was her favourite student and that she would miss me. Who was this doppelgänger? Surely this wasn't written by Sister B! It took me years to realise that she had respected the fact I met her fire with equal fire. That she'd admired me for never backing down. I was in my twenties when I saw her again. She was on holiday with a group of nuns. Even though she was older, I knew her instantly. I stopped the car and ran back, calling out her name. She yelled mine back with genuine delight, "FROSTY!" She took my hand and we stood there smiling. Equal adversaries finally acknowledging that we had always been kindred spirits.

childhood rebellion, respect, cold war