An Essayby Marianne Boruch
One word. But it depends on the word, I suppose.
Chicago, circa 1962. At my parish school an army of boomer kids, about fifty of us, shuffled in from lunch and recess to find shit scribbled on the blackboard in Sister Mary Margaret’s seventh-grade class. Hastily written, just that word, no exclamation point, not embedded in some snarky phrase for personal assault, zip. It was a pure abstraction. If faced today, not much more than a shrug, an eye roll, or a nod of amused agreement would come of it. But in the early 1960s, that particular word in chalk was the first gauntlet thrown down in a battle of dire consequence, a flare in the night sky, an unthinkable instance of outrageous nerve, especially in Catholic school.
Our teacher rushed up to erase and, threatening Armageddon if we so much as cleared our throats, sped off to confer with her compatriots of wimple and full black habit. What happened then: a spelling test from nowhere and she read aloud what we were to eke out—chemistry, nasturtium, ridiculous, hieroglyphics. Next came shirt. Just shirt, clearly a “baby word,” we sneered later, getting the drift: a trap the nuns had set to bring down the culprit with a similar-sounding something that seemed written in a similar hand. (Though who knew, it having been wiped from the board so fast?)
In any case, and therefore: rock-bottom proof. Aha! they must have said and most certainly thought, that small gaggle of nuns riffling pointedly through our tests. See the way he makes his t, his s? Edward Caba! What a surprise, the infamous bad boy with his sharp tongue and vast indifference. Also: lockjawed, steely-eyed, gorgeous, austere, his posture ramrod straight. And was it really Edward who dashed off that word on the board? I think yes then no, but a lot of times, who cares. My husband likes to imagine the oldest nun there as school rebel, slipped into dementia, loosening the bonds of eighty-nine years of inhibition.