The scariest person I have ever known in my life stood four feet nine inches, wore olive skin, and peered at us with oval eyes the color of maple syrup. She also wore a habit so tight we never knew the color of her hair. Sr. Giovannia, my fourth grade teacher, hailed from Malta, a small Mediterranean island off the coast of Italy and she spoke with a thick Maltesian accent. She uttered her favorite phrase daily, “I am at the point of aggravation with you!” And it was usually in the direction of someone who incorrectly filled out a worksheet or wore their required jumper just a little too short. When class rolls were posted on the doors of teachers at the beginning of the year, children would stand at her door, pray not to see their names, and wept uncontrollably when they did.
I saw Sr. Giovannia smile twice in my life: once, when she allowed the girls in the class to bring their Cabbage Patch dolls to school and line them in rows of empty desks throughout the classroom and again, when I thought I saw a faint smirk swim across her thin lips before delivering a ruler smack on Timothy Anderson’s hand for breaking a pen in class. Otherwise, the woman was all business, doing the Lord’s work by saving us all from certain hell.
Frankie Phillips was the recipient of Sr. Giovannia’s most cruel work. He committed the mortal sin of using an Xacto knife to cut a square out of his plaid phonics workbook. Sr. Giovannia noticed this infraction as she walked up and down, patrolling the rows for other sinners. She stopped at Frankie’s desk and, with her thin, bony finger, traced the outline of the square. Frankie, frozen, looked down and started whispering a Hail Mary.
“Vhat ees this?!!!” Sister Giovannia inquired in her diabolical accent.
Frankie squinted. His prayer picked up steam.
“Ewe theenk ewe are mester smarty-pants, do ewe?”
“Fine. Ewe vill wear this all day!”
The cut-out square was big enough for Frankie to fit his head through and the workbook hung around his neck like a shackle from medieval times. For the rest of the day, Frankie wore the workbook—even at recess as he ran the soccer field. After a while, we got used to seeing his chunky necklace; it started to blend into his uniform. It was the albatross he wore around his neck.
Later that day, at dismissal, I looked over at Frankie and he was still wearing his workbook along with a look of exhausted resignation. His workbook looked a little different, though. I noticed some silver duct tape around the edge. At some point, his workbook ripped and fell off his neck. But Sr. Giovannia, never deterred, found a solution. Frankie was not going to leave school that day without doing his penance.
The cruelest woman I’ve ever known weighed less than 90 lbs, stood shorter than I was in fourth grade, and prayed the rosary religiously after morning announcements. She was a throwback to the nuns who scared my parents—the ones who framed posters of Jesus in glass and mounted them to the front-of-the-classroom chalkboards so they could look into the reflection and see the sins being committed behind their backs—to make children believe they had eyes in the back of their heads. Sr. Giovannia was quiet, unexpressive, and sinister.
Fourth grade was the only year in school I did not go to the principal’s office for my bad behavior. It wasn’t because I was scared of going to hell. It was because I was scared to face the wrath of a tiny nun from a tiny island off the coast of Italy.
Brothers Versus Sharks
I became a strong enough swimmer by age eight to venture deeper into the ocean without my parents as long as my twelve-year old brother accompanied me. We swam far enough past the first set of crashing waves to tread water out in the “in between”—close enough to shore to still see our parents, but deep enough that our toes no longer touched. We spent hours in this space, letting the sun freckle our faces and the waves bob our bodies up-and-down. Over time, the undertow swept us left. We knew we were too far away when our mother’s arm rose, and waved dramatically from left to right indicating it was time to reposition. We swam into shore, and ran down the beach so we were ten houses past Grandma’s house. Then we headed back out—hoping not to step on a crab or a jagged shell on the way back past the breakers.
My brother and I spent most of our time in the water talking about one solitary topic: sharks. If a fish hopped out of the water my brother yelled, “Oh shit. I bet it was trying to escape a shark!” If my brother’s foot accidentally brushed mine I screamed, “Oh shit! A shark just brushed by me!” We spent an obscene amount of time debating whether a choppy wave was water or a shark. And, often, we submerged ourselves underwater and violently grabbed each other’s legs hoping the other would believe they were the next victim.
Our fears were not unfounded. Our grandparents lived in New Smyrna Beach, Florida which, over time, earned the moniker “Shark Capital of the World.” For many years, New Smyrna Beach had more shark attacks than anywhere in the country. I even had a friend in high school who was attacked by a shark and lived to get all the local attention on the 6 o’clock news. So, we felt genuine fear out in the ocean, and exhilaration at the risk we took.
I survived my youth without a single bite from a shark—not even a sighting. I suppose the thrill of risk provided enough adrenaline to sustain our desire to continue swimming. But, I think something deeper kept us swimming time and again. It was the bond of two brothers, bobbing up-and-down in an ocean all alone—scaring, screaming, and laughing our ways through childhood.
Homegoing #SOL17 (Post 3)
Tomorrow I drive home to Florida.
Well, not home, home.
But I’ll be back in the state where I spent the majority of my life.
The palm trees will welcome me as they always do
when I cross the big green sign on I-95.
And the sun will be brighter there than it is anywhere else.
Because it always is—there are no hills or mountains to block the shine.
When I get out of my car, the salt will hit me first.
Initially, it will invade my nostrils
Eventually I’ll taste it on my lips.
It will work its way onto my skin
And creep into my pores.
And then I’ll know I’m home.
I’ll be home tomorrow, but I won’t be home.
It changed when I left 25 years ago.
It’s a slightly duller color.
It’s just a little quieter.
And it’s tinged in shades of black and white memories of a childhood long left behind.
I’m driving home tomorrow, but I’ll be alone.
My family will stay behind in North Carolina
And I will walk the beach alone.
I will search for shark’s teeth, I will hop over beached jellyfish
I will avoid getting tangled in the seaweed
And I will sit and stare and let the rhythmic sounds of waves calm me back down.
From the tsunami of my last two years.
The Challenger Accident
As a child growing up in Orlando, I never owned a jacket. Rarely did it dip below the 70s. So, on the morning of January 28, 1986, I had to wear two sweaters over my school uniform because the temperatures dipped to 18 degrees—one of the coldest mornings of my youth. When I stepped outside to wait on carpool, my brother and I used the cool, crisp air to blow smoke rings—like they did on those Porky Pig cartoons.
An excited buzz hung in the air at school. For the first time ever, teachers wheeled TVs into the classroom. Usually, this only happened on the few occasions we watched movies. But, today we would be witnesses to a monumental event. A teacher was heading into space to teach us daily lessons about the world beyond Earth. We were her students—sitting in classrooms miles below her as she orbited around us traveling thousands of miles an hour.
One of the most magical parts of an Orlando childhood was watching space shuttles launch from the Kennedy Space Center and hearing them return with a sonic boom. When shuttles launched at night, we stepped onto our front yards and watched the sky illuminate like a giant birthday candle. And when shuttles launched during the day, teachers would bring radios out to the playground, listen to the countdown, and, when it liftoff approached, we walked outside to watch the rockets glide into space. On that cold January morning, just before lunch time, we layered our clothing and headed to the field.
Each class lined up along the track that surrounded the soccer field and hopped from foot to foot seeking warmth. Shuttle launches were like homecoming events. Each class took turns shouting out cheers—trying to pass the time while looking east. Our teachers, holding their hand-held radios, listened to the countdown. When it approached 10 seconds, they began counting backwards. Then, the entire school population joined.
At 11:38, we watched as the Space Shuttle Challenger rose above the bank of pine trees. It continued to rise into the cloudless, crystal blue atmosphere. A small triangle climbing, climbing, climbing trailed by a billowing pile of rocket smoke falling, falling, falling behind it. The students jumped and cheered. Our eyes stayed on the rising rocket. We knew the routine: first it rises, then it dispatches the booster rockets, and keeps climbing until we no longer see the small orange flame. It’s only then that we know the shuttle is safely in orbit, halfway towards the moon.
So we watch and watch. And then something unusual happens. Suddenly, the cloudless explodes into a huge puff of smoke. And, from the large puff, cascading tentacles fall down towards the ocean. At first we thought these were the booster rockets falling to Earth. But they weren’t falling. They continued to rise—crossing the midline—and zigzagging their way away from the big cloud. And the little orange triangle disappeared quicker than usual. We stopped cheering when we saw the crying, anguished looks on our teacher’s faces. They hurriedly got us back in line and marched us back to the classrooms.
When we arrived back into our heated rooms, we sat in our desks while our teachers conferring in the breezeway. Something was amiss, but we were uniformed. Then, Ms. Koch, my fifth grade teacher came back in the classroom and made the announcement. Her voice quivered: “Class, the space shuttle exploded. All the astronauts were killed.” Then, through tears, she said, “Let’s pray.”
The class recited the Our Father and the Hail Mary and then we sat in silence. We read books or finished worksheet pages while the teachers huddled outside talking, comforting, and crying together. Three hours later, during dismissal, we went back outside to await our carpools.
When we looked east, the trail of smoke was still present in the sky. The puff was more expansive across the crystal blue horizon, the tentacles longer, and the sadness still lingered. Dismissal, typically noisy, was silent on January 28, 1986. There was a silent hum—like the long last note of a sad tune. At age 11, I saw seven people die before my eyes. And, sadly, a little part of my innocent childhood died alongside them.
March 01st, 2017
Dad and Daughter
My daughter turned seven last month.
And I already miss six and five and four and three and two and one.
And even before one--like on the day before we knew she existed--
Her mom, washing dishes,
looked radiant and shiny from the sun hitting her face through the window.
I knew. She knew.
And 13 months after the twins were born, a third would follow behind.
My daughter turned seven last month.
And I mourn six and five and four and three and two and one.
I miss when her hair was too short for ponytails,
her hands too small to hold my palm,
her feet so tiny she could dance on my shoes and waltz with me around the room.
My daughter turned seven last month.
And even though eight and nine and ten and eleven and twelve are ahead
I hold on to six and five and four and three and two and one.
Memories seared into my heart as sepia-toned photographs,
Images fading year after year like a single cirrus floating past the horizon.
My daughter turned seven last month.
And I'm holding tight
Hoping my hold slows her grow.
Hoping that seven feels longer than
six, five, four, three, two, one....
About the Author
Brian Kissel is an Associate Professor of education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His focus is writing instruction. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, Hattie and three kiddos: Charlie, Ben, and Harriet.