by Winnie Kay
A child learns the meaning of an idiom.
As a child growing up in the throes of Catholic education, I heard idioms and clichés used daily by the nuns who ruled the classroom with iron fists.
The Sisters of St. Mary were dedicated to the task of forming good Christian ladies and gentlemen out of us little heathens. A crack on the knuckle with a wooden ruler usually took care of any improper acts or retorts that were forbidden in 1955 Parochial school regulations.
Sister Collette’s ruler seemed larger than the other weapons brandished by the nuns gracing the halls of Our Lady of Perpetual Help School. She stood four feet and five inches tall and was older than my grandmother, but we kids saw her as a Roman Warrior bent on our salvation.
Every morning, she greeted our fifth-grade class with a warm Irish brogue. “Top of the morning to ya, children. Let’s stand straight as an arrow and recite our morning prayers.”
In unison, with hands folded, we began, “Hail Mary, full of grace...”
“Alright, children, let’s be seated.” The miniature warrior walked through the rows of desks, inspecting our neatness and appearance as a drill sergeant inspected his troops.
Sister Collette was famous within her religious order of educators for her use of idioms. She seemed to be above the use of normal syntax in her oral lectureship. My classmates and I found this mode of speech amusing, and many of us braved the threat of the harsh ruler clutched in her tiny fist, and we dared to chuckle as she performed her strange teaching style.
I had a habit of twirling my long, blonde hair with my fingers and daydreaming about riding my new bicycle while Sister Collette droned on and on about the geographical layout of Portugal or some such country.
“Wilma!” A smack of Sister’s ruler met my desk, and my heart pounded in my ears. "You’re as fidgety as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. If I had my druthers, you’d be a hop, skip, and a jump away from the head honcho’s office.”
“Yes, Sister. I’m sorry.”
Then she proceeded with her daily tirade of idiom-filled education.
“I burnt the midnight oil reading your essay papers last night until I was blue in the face. You whippersnappers are still wet behind the ears when it comes to making heads or tails out of this assignment. Some of you bit off more than you could chew and are just making it by the skin of your teeth. Now, I don’t mean to make a mountain out of a mole hill, but this is the eleventh hour, and you are going to have to ace next week’s test by keeping your nose to the grindstone. If the good Lord’s willing and the creek don’t rise, you are going to know this stuff backwards and forwards. It costs your parents an arm and a leg to send you to these halls of learning, and your name is mud if you don’t pull yourselves up by the boot-straps and carry your own weight.”
Now, I always thought my grandpa knew everything (and so did he). Grandpa was a self-taught intellect who never made it past the sixth grade. Working for the Southern Pacific Railroad, he learned hard lessons, first hand, from men of all walks of life. So from time to time, I asked him the meaning of some of Sister Collette’s strange phrases. When I told him that Sister said my name would be mud if I didn’t pass next week’s test, he smiled and sat me down on his porch swing.
“Wilma, do you know where that saying came from?“
“No, Grandpa, I don’t understand most of what Sister Collette says.”
“Well, that particular phrase is very old and has an interesting story behind it. When John Wilkes Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln in April of 1865, he broke his leg jumping off a balcony in Ford’s Theater to escape capture. He made his way to a man he had met in Virginia. The man was a doctor, and this doctor splinted and bandaged Mr. Booth’s leg. Later, the doctor was accused of being part of the conspiracy to assassinate the President. He was found guilty and spent many years in prison. Most folks didn’t think the doctor had any knowledge of the assassination. He just helped someone with a broken leg. Nevertheless, the doctor’s name went down in history as someone you didn’t want to be.”
“What was the doctor’s name, Grandpa?” I asked, intrigued by the tale.
“His name was Dr. Samuel Alexander Mudd.”
“Oh. I get it. Dr. Mudd got into so much trouble that no one wanted to be called Mudd.”
“Very good, Wilma. Now you know what Sister Collette means when she says you’re name is mud if you don’t pass the test.”
The following week I took the test and didn’t do very well. As I walked from Sister Collette’s classroom, the principal, Sister Mary Vincent, met me in the hall. I liked this nun. She always had a kind word for us kids.
“Child, why do you look so down today?”
“I think I failed Sister Collette’s geography test just now, Sister.” I was close to tears.
“Well, maybe you can make it up in some way. Let’s go talk to Sister Collette. What is your name, child?”
“My name is Mudd, Sister.”