Broken rules

In most other ways I looked like any other of those thirty girls confirmed one Sunday in 1966, despite being a whole year older. My fault, I realised too late. When my mother took me shopping for suitable shoes, she let me choose a turquoise pair, complete with pointy toes, foot strap and tiny heels.

Such sophistication. 

The shoes suited me perfectly in the shop but only when we lined up outside the church did I recognise a river of black patents on the girls in white dresses ahead of me.

I also wore the mandatory white dress and satin sash. In that I was no different. The virginal spectacle of a group of mostly twelve-year-old girls who walked up the aisle of the Church of Our Lady of Good Counsel in Deepdene one Sunday morning in spring, with one eyesore at the back, me in my turquoise shoes. 

I could not hide them however much I might have tried, and it taught me a lesson about standing out, and being different. The pain of it all. The way in which something that at one time can seem exhilarating and new, can in the next become a deep source of shame. A humiliation made worse when I saw my former grade six teacher, Mother Mary John, who looked me up and down, her eyes resting for longer than they should at my feet.

At that same moment, less than one full year since I had left the primary school of Our Lady of Good Counsel and gone off to the big girls’ convent, just shy of my thirteenth birthday, I realised how short she had become.

In the space of a year, she had shrunk and had no further power over me. She could look at my feet disapprovingly, but did not say a word. Not as she might have in the past. She had no authority over me anymore. 

This thrilled me with a pleasure greater than any shame I might have experienced at standing out in my turquoise shoes.

I have found throughout life that there are times when swamped with the pain of feeling belittled, there can follow a corresponding burst of pride and growth. As if the sudden shrinkage in my sense of myself is then accompanied by an expansion that runs along the lines: I have slipped as low as I can go in your esteem, but now you have shrunken in mine, too.

Now you can longer hurt me. 

Not that I ever held Mother Mary John in high regard. She was never a teacher who filled my heart with the joy of connection. She, who put boys into empty rubbish bins to stand for hours with a ribbon in their hair after they had misbehaved. And therefore, for some reason I never understood, deserved to be treated as if they were girls. The ribbon in the hair.

It was as if a switch in gender by that simple ribbon marker created an aura of inferiority and shame they would never forget.

Standing the boys in an empty rubbish bin, made sense to me. They could thereby be punished, reduced to rubbish, but the ribbon in their hair, what little hair most ten to twelve-year-old boys of my acquaintance had in those years, made no sense. 

For the most part, this nun’s harsh words of criticism were enough to send me down the tunnel of abjection, but other children might have needed more, even as she ran an orderly ship.

Hands on heads. Hands on desks. Hands visible always, rather as the police taking a person into custody insist their would-be prisoner put their hands into the air. It took me years to understand the police doing so to ensure the trapped person did not whip out a gun.

Such is the life of childhood. A time of mystery and confusion. A time when things make no sense. At the same time things can be so clear in our understanding.

As Maria Tumarkin reckons: kids are sniffer dogs for secrets. We know what’s going on. We know when things are amiss. We can detect a lie or falsehood from a few inches. From ten feet, from across a river.

Religion offers some element of understanding here. It creates a way of viewing the world that is different from the secular upbringings of those who miss out on the mysteries of God. Any god, any religion.

They miss out on the awe and majesty of Heaven. But the secularly raised children will no doubt still find awe in the landscape of plant and animal life and in the mysteries of their people. Their parents, siblings and those who surround them. 

But the comforts and harshness of religion, at least of the religion into which I was born, adds a layer of specialness, rather like my turquoise shoes.

Even as I have travelled through life and met others like me, lapsed Catholics with whom I share a bond of understanding that runs deep. They need to be lapsed though. Those who are still beliers continue to live in the world of mystery that I abandoned in my eighteenth year when I sinned most grievously, and the earth did not swallow me whole. By having sex with a man out of wedlock. The sky did not fall through. And even though I sensed my sin was written into the lines of my face, even my mother did not see how I had changed. 

Soon after, religion lost its thrall.

It’s an easy thing to do. But before you do it, before you break the rules, it feels almost impossible to imagine. Once broken all other, now seemingly arbitrary rules, fall away like so much confetti at a wedding. Only to be swept up and tossed into the bin of memory. New rules might take their place from institutions, for me from the world of psychoanalysis, at least for a time, but these rules are easier by far to break. 

These rules were not introduced to me in childhood. These rules I gleaned from books. These rules needed to make a deeper sense than mere obedience dictated. These rules needed to offer a purpose that I understood.

Until, rather like the rules of grammar of subject, verb and object, the accompanying clauses and phrases we like to chuck around, I learned to break rules to find security in the discordant and re-find the beauty of my twelve-year-old’s turquoise shoes.