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.
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.