Arithmetic

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Mother Margaret Mary stood in front of the class and handed
back our papers.  One after the other we stepped
forward onto the raised platform where she stood in front of her desk and reached
out from her pile
I knew it would take an age to come to my name.  Mother Margaret Mary went
alphabetically. 
Some kids smiled as they walked back to their desks; others
frowned. 
When she finally called for me, I scraped out from behind my
desk, one where the top was attached to the base and you slid in and out sideways. 
‘I knew you weren’t any good at mental,’ Mother Margaret Mary
said as I reached out to take my test. 
‘But not this bad.’
I had not known I was this bad either. 
I’d tried hard to figure out those numbers, those additions
and subtractions, multiplications and divisions, but my head went fuzzy and it
took me ages to get out one sum after the next.
‘Two out of ten,’ Mother Margaret Mary said. 
She said it in a way that made me feel small.  She said it in away that made me wonder
whether she enjoyed my bad mark.
This was not unusual. 
Mother Margaret had a way of triumphing over our childhood mistakes.
When one of the boys talked to his friend during class when
he should have been silent, she called him out to the front and then took a
ribbon from her desk.  She kept a
collection of ribbons there, ribbons that had fallen from the hair of some careless
girls and been lost.
She took the ribbon and lifted a piece of loose hair from the
boy’s head then tied the ribbon round it in a bow.
Then she ordered the boy to
stand outside of the classroom in the middle of an empty rubbish bin that stood
near the door.  She kept him there for hours.
‘If you act like a girl, you’ll be treated like one.’  That presumably was a reference to Mother
Margaret Mary’s choice of ribbon for his hair, but I never understood the
reference to girl’s behaviour nor the purpose of the rubbish bin, other than to
tell the boy he was nothing more than rubbish.
I didn’t know about humiliation in those days. 
I didn’t know then that some people took pleasure in making
other people who were already vulnerable by virtue of their size or some other
difficulty, feel even more vulnerable.
Years later, when I was at senior school and had grown taller
and begun to realise that maybe I could be good at other things and, although I
was still no good at arithmetic, I could at least count and measure size.
I met Mother Margaret Mary one day at my new school.  She had come with other nuns to visit when
they appointed a new reverend mother.  I saw
her at the back of the chapel.  I swear
she had shrunk.
She looked so much older that I remembered her.  And for the first time in my life it occurred
to me that people can change, and those who wield power over you one day, can
the next, become like the emperor of no clothes.
‘The queen wipes her bum, too,’ my husband once said to me
when I was approaching a meeting that terrified me.
He was trying to give me courage.  And in a strange way it helped. 
Not the sight of the queen on the toilet, but the idea that
Mother Margaret Mary might also have used the toilet and that she, too, had a
body. 
When I was a small child who failed her mental arithmetic test
I had imagined Mother Margaret Mary had no body. 
I had imagined she did not eat, or sleep, or use the toilet
like the rest of us, and that outside of the classroom and staff room she spent
her days in church. 
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