I attended second grade in an authentic nineteenth century red brick school house. It had two stories built on a basement that was only half in the ground. The first floor had a large vestibule with a “cloak room” that everybody used, three classrooms, and the bathrooms. Upstairs were three more classrooms. The one in which the principal taught had a trapdoor to the belfry, the rope for the bell hanging down beside her desk. Two classrooms, musty and with peeling oilcloth floors instead of wood, were in the basement. The students in those grades had to go outside and then up the steps into the first floor in order to use the bathroom. In 1954 at Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament School, all the pupils in a given grade were taught all their lessons in a single room by one teacher. My class numbered more than fifty.
Through the windows, so tall that the sashes had to be operated with something that looked like a broomstick with a claw on the end, we could see the long low new school being built across the street. We sat at traditional wooden desks bolted together in rows. The tops had holes for a bottle of ink and were deeply pitted from the academic efforts of four generations of schoolchildren. Sometimes we practiced for air raids by scrambling out of our desks and crouching underneath, our backs to the windows and our arms covering our heads.
I was new to OLBS School that year. My parents had bought their first home and moved us (mother, father, sister, grandmother, and me) from what had surely been a cramped two-bedroom apartment to a solid three-bedroom semi-detached brick structure a block and a half from the school. Although I can understand now that this was an improvement in our status and living conditions, I experienced the move as a profound loss. I had to change schools and say goodbye to my best friend Barbie. Shy by nature and forbidden to join the new parish school’s Brownie troop because my mother didn’t approve of cookie selling, I felt isolated and lonely and had trouble making friends.
I remember very little about the actual academic work I did that year, but it must have been chiefly drill and practice. I know we learned cursive writing and arithmetic, covering worksheets with practice letters and sums. I was always quick to complete these tasks, motivated by the fact that while I waited for my classmates to finish I was allowed to choose a book from the big cupboard that my teacher, Sister Bride (for “Bridget”) called a “press.”
My favorite was an illustrated edition of the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales. It was a large hard bound book, its edges worn dull from years of use. There were pen and ink line drawings on perhaps every other page, and a dozen or so full color paintings on thick cream-colcored paper here and there among the stories. These were the authentic folk tales, not the sanitized Disney versions. In this Cinderella, for example, the wicked stepsisters cut off parts of their feet so that they’ll fit the glass slipper, and the prince (who seemed quite dense to me even then) takes first one girl and then the other as a bride until a raven in a cemetery shows him the trail of blood. The stories were full of motherless children, cruel punishments, and beauty disguised as ugliness until transformed by love.
I could not get enough of this book. I brought it home on weekends, pored over the illustrations and tried to copy them, acted out the stories and tried writing my own. As the school year drew to a close, I began to fret that I would never see the book again. We started helping Sister Bride pack things for the move to the new school. Afraid to ask her if I could borrow the book, at least for the summer, (she was vigilant and miserly about our use of the art supplies stored in the press), on the last day of school I plucked it off the shelf and tucked it into my bookbag.
I knew that I was committing a sin, but my desire to possess this magical book overrode any piety I had acquired through the instruction attached to my First Confession and my First Holy Communion. I compounded the error by adding lying to stealing. When my mother asked about the book, I told her that Sister said I could have it because it was too shabby to take to the new school. She seemed skeptical, but didn’t follow up.
I felt guilty, but I continued to delight in the book. When we moved again eight years later, I took it with me, although I was no longer reading from it every day. Some time during my third year of college, which was ironically during my atheist/agnostic period, I became consumed with remorse, and sought to make restitution. During spring break I made a visit* to my former parish church. I knelt in the semi-darkness, asked God to forgive me, and then slipped the book into a confessional on my way out. It did not occur to me that a check for $10 might have been more appropriate, and more useful.
About ten years ago I acquired a Bantam Books version of The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, in a new translation by Jack Zipes. This volume uses black and white illustrations by John Gruelle which were used in the 1914 translation of Margaret Hunt. I can’t say if they are the same ones used in the purloined book, but they are similar enough, and when I open this new edition I feel at home.
What I’ve learned over the years is that a small theft like this is not uncommon in children and not a cause for alarm unless it becomes habitual. Children steal things not because they need them, but because the coveted objects will fill a need that the child feels unable to fill through conventional means. I was willing to put my immortal soul on the line not for candy or cosmetics or a hot new hit record, but for fiction. I think about that when I feel on the verge of quitting the effort to create my own.
* “Making a visit” here means an intentional undertaking. Catholic churches were open all the time then, and we were encouraged to stop in if we passed one on our daily travels, say a short prayer, perhaps drop a coin in the poor box. If actually visiting was impractical, one should stop and bow one’s head for a moment when passing a church.