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by Ken Goldman

Sister Mary Agnes checks every paper to see that we don’t write outside the lines, and she sure gets mad fast if any of her students forgets that. She won’t let us use pencils, neither, none of us in the sixth grade anyway. “Pencils are for the careless, and only the careless make mistakes,” she says, then usually adds something like “Of course, no one here at St. Michael’s is likely to show that kind of carelessness. Isn’t that so?”

I got the sore knuckles to prove that it’s so. Last week when my new ballpoint ran out of ink, I guess I was in a hurry. See, Wednesday’s the night the trash goes out, plus Mom kept telling me how Sidney, my dog, needed a longer walk ’cause of his recent accident on our new carpet. And I guess one thing kind of led to another, and I didn’t pay much thought to keeping between those lines on the paper like I should’ve.

So I scribbled a few sentences about our Savior being kind and merciful to all sorts of people you’d never think anybody’d want to be nice to, making sure to use some of the new words the Sister had taught us during the week so my Jesus story would sound like I’d put some time into it. Anyway, I didn’t think she would mind that much if only this once my homework wasn’t in ink.

But Sister Mary Agnes minded, all right. She minded plenty. “Alex Trenton!” she called out first thing Friday morning in class. “Would you stand up please?” The nuns always start off real polite like that, just before they go racing their motor at you.

The Sister walked up to my desk with that yardstick she always carries behind her back and never shows, except of course when she brings it down on one of us. Whenever she whips out that stick, Sister Mary Agnes always connects her reason for it to our Holy Father, and she said “Alex, I believe this homework paper you submitted yesterday has incurred the wrath of God. Would you place both your hands on the desk, where He may see them?” And when I did, she whammed away at my knuckles again and again until they dripped red.

It took the Sister maybe a minute or two, because she had to figure how much punishing would properly please God. But just to be safe she finished with “God be praised!” which is what she always says after she wallops one of us.

Then she marched to the front of the class without missing a beat and went right into her lesson about the Pilgrims landing in Plymouth. No one in class laughed, neither, else the Sister might’ve turned some of that wrath of God on one of them next.

So you won’t catch me writing outside those lines with no pencil anymore. Sister Mary Agnes taught me that rules are rules, and it don’t matter whether those rules are the Lord’s rules, or my parents’ rules, or hers. And that’s why I’m being real careful with tonight’s homework assignment, you bet. You never break them rules. None of them. Not unless you’re itching to feel some of that wrath of God across your knuckles. But I’m not likely to make any more mistakes like that, no sir.

* * *

“That man over there?” Mrs. Chapel asked Caroline, the new day nurse who had just completed her first hour at St. Bartholomew’s Home for the Aged.

“Yes, the one who is writing so diligently at that table in the corner,” the young woman replied, after having peeked over the old man’s shoulder to see what he might be writing. She had noticed him pushing his pen for the entire hour without once looking up from the page, and she thought the Home’s director might shed some light on what the old man was doing.

“Why, that’s Alexander Trenton,” Mrs. Chapel answered. “He’s the best resident we’ve got here. Always does exactly what he’s told. That man’s been here almost ten years and he never bothers a soul. He just sits at that table writing the same two sentences about God every day, all day long. It seems to keep him happy, and it’s amazing when you think about it, because the man is practically blind.”

They approached him, and Mrs. Chapel held out her hand to show her what the old man had written. “Thank you, Alexander,” she said, and handed Caroline the papers.

I will not incur the wrath of God. God be praised.

The word “wrath” had been heavily underlined in each sentence, and the two sentences had been written hundreds of times.

“I see what you mean,” Caroline replied. “It certainly is amazing. You say he’s practically blind? Why, there isn’t a single word he’s written on these pages that’s outside the lines.”

Copyright © 2013 by Ken Goldman

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