First Grade was pretty scary for Brenda. Sister John Mary was not nice. Last year’s teacher — Mrs. Kline — had been sweet, like a mommy. But Sister John Mary was scary. If you giggled in class, or if you didn’t pay attention, she would look at you like she was going to hurt you. For some reason, when she said, “do you want to be in trouble?” all the children shook their heads vigorously. Nobody wanted to be in trouble. Somehow Brenda knew — they all knew — that First Grade trouble was not like Kindergarten trouble. They didn’t know what it was but they knew it was very bad.
Except for this one boy named Harold. Harold looked old, even though he was only six like everybody else. Harold had white hair. He had a long, bony face like an old man. He even had smile wrinkles. Brenda looked down and saw that Harold was not practicing making “A”s, as they were told to do. He was drawing a picture of a man shooting a really big gun. Brenda was afraid of what would happen if Sister John Mary saw. She tried to tell Harold, but Harold didn’t care. She couldn’t tell if he even heard her.
Harold kept drawing. Brenda could see his eyes blazing with mischief. She was mesmerized by his defiance. She had never imagined such a thing possible. If Sister John Mary had looked at Brenda like that, Brenda would have melted into a puddle of sobs. Yet there was Harold,drawing a picture, calm as a rabbit eating clover, with Sister John Mary towering over him like a thunderhead.
“HAROLD!” the teacher shouted. I mean loud. So loud the windows rattled. At least it seemed like the windows rattled. Brenda’s brain certainly rattled. She could feel her pulse pounding in her face.
Harold looked up at the teacher, with a blank expression on his face.
Brenda thought Harold was about the most fantastic person anybody could ever hope to be near.
From then on, Brenda made a point of playing near Harold at recess whenever she could. School just didn’t seem so scary as long as she could see him out of the corner of her eye. Usually he was playing four-square, and she could get a game of double-dutch going nearby.
The playground had always been vaguely threatening before. There were so many places you weren’t allowed to go. Near the convent; behind the grotto; under the bushes. All those places where, if you got caught alone, Jesus would get you. Not to mention inside the convent, which everybody knew had a torture chamber in the basement. And sometimes you would bump into some old lady in nun’s clothes and look up and she would stare down at you in this way that would just send thrills of fear racing up your spine and your guts dropping to your feet. And some of the children were pretty scary, too, like this boy Marty who would sometimes come at you with his fists going like windmills and you would have to just run.
Then the door opened and she glided in. Sister Margaret Rose smiled at the children so lovingly. And she was shining. All the other nuns wore black. But Sister Margaret Rose's robe was gleaming white. And she had a fancier hat than the regular nuns, too. The whole room lit up when she came in. She placed her hand gently on Sister John Mary’s shoulder and smiled. Then she surveyed the room. She walked out among the children. She came right to Brenda and smiled down at her. “And what’s your name?” Brenda was so overwhelmed by the radiance of the Mother Superior she could barely speak, but managed to choke out “Brenda.”
“Brenda,” Sister Margaret Rose mused. “A lovely name for a lovely little girl. Did you know that Jesus loves you, Brenda?”
The next day, Harold stuffed a pencil in each ear and three pencils in each nostril and started squawking like a chicken, with his elbows flapping. And when Sister John Mary yanked him by the arm out of his chair, he kept flapping his arms — “Bawk! Bawk Bagawk!”
But she didn’t drag him to the cloakroom as usual. This time, she said, “Harold, you must go down the hall to the Mother Superior’s office.” She wrote on a slip of pink paper and handed it to Harold. “Give her this.”
A fleeting look of terror crossed Harold’s face, but he quickly recovered. He winked at Marty and swaggered out the door.
“What did she do to you? Did she paddle you?”
“Oh no. We just talked.”
“She didn’t yell or nothing?”
“No. Just talk.”
“Well, what did she say? You were in there long enough!”
“Good morning, Harold. I see that you have not eaten your spinach. Why is that, Harold?”
“I’m allergic.” Harold looked at Marty — who was sitting across from him — and grinned. Brenda could see that dazzle of mischief flare up in his eyes.
“Allergic,” Sister Margaret Rose said. “I see. Well, Harold, I’m afraid I don’t believe you. I’m afraid you’re going to have to eat that spinach. All of it. Now.” She smiled sweetly at him.
“But I’m allergic.”
But she needn’t have feared as it turned out. Not long after lunch he was back at his seat in class again, in a fresh shirt, looking fine. And at afternoon recess, she heard him telling Marty and the other boys, “I turned my head to make sure it got on her, too.” And they all laughed a huge, long, laugh, the ways big boys do who aren’t afraid of anything. It filled Brenda with relief, just knowing he was there.
Brenda decided she would make something for Harold. She wanted to give him a gift. Plus, if she had something for him, then it would be a way for her to speak to him.
She found a piece of blue glass on the playground. She thought it looked like water. That gave her an idea. It was a magical idea. It was so splendid, she could hardly stand it. She cleaned the piece of glass until it sparkled. She went way out on the playground, far away from the other children. She found a patch of bare earth next to a tuft of grass. She buried the glass so the top was flush with the ground. She searched until she found two dozen tiny pebbles — small enough for an ant to carry — which she carefully arranged around the edge of the glass. It was going to look just like a tiny swimming pool under the shade of a palm tree. You could almost see the fresh, cool water shimmering in the blazing sun.
They marched into the courtyard behind the school. All the children in the school, from Kindergarten to Eighth Grade, were arranged in a square, facing in.
It got really quiet. Brenda could see the little white statue of baby Jesus on his mother’s knee in the grotto among the bushes.
Then the children opposite Brenda moved aside, and Sister Margaret Rose entered, leading Harold by the arm.
At first Brenda automatically warmed at the sight of Sister Margaret Rose, her white habit blazing in the sun. But something was wrong.
Harold was completely naked.
To Brenda it felt like an earthquake. Her hero was being murdered right in front of her eyes. And the killer was Sister Margaret Rose, who was so close to God that you could almost hear the angels singing when she was near. It was all wrong. It was a nightmare, where everything was upside-down and backwards, and she was rooted to the ground, unable to move or scream. The waves of revulsion and fear cascaded through Brenda’s whole body, right down to her feet. She almost fell over.
She saw Harold’s hard little fist open, and some crumbs of the sticky white communion bread fell to the ground, unnoticed by anyone else.
Then Brenda saw the lights go out in Harold’s eyes. And she knew it was forever.
by Jack Armstrong:
“Harold!” she whispered. “What if she sees you?”
“Whoop-de-do,” he finally said, without looking up.
“She’s coming over!”
Then Brenda looked up again and her eyes met Sister John Mary’s. The teacher had seen her talking. She started towards Brenda’s table. Brenda had gotten Harold in trouble! Maybe herself as well! Brenda looked straight down and concentrated as hard as she could on her paper. She could hear the heavy click click of the teacher’s heels coming towards them, louder and louder. Brenda made an “A” but it was shaky because her hand was shaking. She could feel Sister John Mary coming closer and closer. It made Brenda all prickly. She made another “A,” trying her very hardest to hold her hand steady. But it was even worse. She could feel the eyes of the rest of the class on her — could feel the heat of their eyes on the back of her neck. She glanced at Harold’s paper. He was still drawing!
Finally the spotless black folds of Sister John Mary’s robe came into view beside the table. And the square ends of her heavy black leather shoes.
“Harold,” Sister John Mary’s voice came down like a karate chop.
“What do you think you’re doing?” she asked.
“Don’t you dare sass me, young man. I said, what do you think you’re doing?”
“I’m making a army man. He’s going to kill a Gerry.”
“That’s it.” She grabbed his arm and yanked him out of his chair. She dragged him across the room, his feet scrambling to keep under him. She dragged him into the cloak room and slammed the door.
The rest of the class just sat, staring at the cloakroom door, waiting. Brenda was too frightened to entertain any concrete images of what might be going on, but she knew it was awful. It was dark in there, she knew that much.
Finally the door opened. Harold emerged. His face was red. His eyes were red and wet. He marched like a soldier back to his seat. He didn’t say anything. Brenda didn’t say anything.
But he wasn’t allowed to sit down. With a last sinister glare at Brenda, Sister John Mary moved Harold to another table.
On the playground later, Brenda saw Harold standing under the eave of the building surrounded by a group of boys. She left her jumprope and sneaked over to listen. Harold was showing them his hands.
“Like that!” he said, chopping his knuckles with his other hand. “With the metal edge!” He showed them the welts on his knuckles. The boys all crowded in as close as they could, memorizing those welts.
Harold beamed and threw back his head. “I didn’t care if she hit me with that stupid ruler a hundred times,” he said. “Besides,” and he lowered his voice, “she has a boy’s name.” Everybody giggled, looking around to make sure there was no teacher near.
But Harold wasn’t afraid of anything. Once, on a dare, she saw him walk right past that creepy basement door of the convent building, alone! And he didn’t even walk fast!
Almost every day Harold did something amazing. One time, when the oldest, scariest nun was walking to the convent, Harold whistled right past her, bowlegged, with his arms away from his sides like a cowboy gunslinger, and said, “Howdy, Partner!” Then, when she was past, he turned around and threw an indian needle, which stuck in her robe just over her bottom. Everybody could see that little shoot of grass bouncing along behind her like a tail. Brenda looked around and saw children all around her with their fists stuffed into their mouths, laughing silently.
Brenda worshipped Harold. School was a completely different place now that Harold was there. Before Harold, Brenda had dreaded school. Every morning started with a little dark pang of fear welling up in her stomach. But now that was gone. Now she even looked forward to school. She couldn’t wait to see what Harold would do next.
One morning, Sister John Mary announced that the class was to be honored with a very special guest. It would be Sister Margaret Rose, the Mother Superior. Brenda knew who the Mother Superior was, of course. But she had never seen her. Brenda wondered what a mother superior would look like. She tried to picture a woman who resembled Brenda’s own mother, only bigger.
“He loves you so much, he gave his life for you.” Brenda nodded again. Sister Margaret Rose knew Jesus personally. She was that holy. Brenda wasn’t exactly sure what it meant that Jesus had given his life for her, but she was overcome with gratitude, anyway. She knew she was very, very lucky. She was pretty sure she saw the faint outline of a halo around the Mother Superior’s head. Brenda would have done anything in the world for her.
Then Sister Margaret Rose went around, speaking to some of the other children in the same vein.
Then she came to Harold. She smiled at him. “And this must be Harold.”
“I have heard about you, my young friend.”
Harold grinned, nervously.
“I think you and I are going to become great friends.”
“We are?” Harold asked, not even trying to hide his astonishment.
“Oh yes. I think so. Because Jesus loves you, too, Harold. He loves you just as much as all of his children. And he knows that some of his children need a little extra help.”
After Sister Margaret Rose left, the room was silent for a long time. The children just sat, marveling at the door. It was as though she had left behind a residuum of glittering angel dust, which took several minutes to fade.
Twenty minutes later, Harold returned He was not swaggering. He didn’t try any tricks. He just went to his seat, looking very thoughtful. Brenda wondered what the Mother Superior had said. She deeply envied Harold the privilege of seeing her private office. Brenda didn’t waste much time trying to understand how his acting up had won him that honor. The idea “this doesn’t make sense,” is not really in the six-year-old vocabulary. Six-year-olds have a special genius for accepting the world exactly as it is.
Harold was quiet and reserved for days after that. But the next week, Harold came in from recess with bare, muddy feet. Two minutes later, he was on his way to the Mother Superior.
After that, Harold lasted two more weeks. But then one day the children came in from lunch, and there was a picture of a naked lady drawn on the chalkboard. Sister John Mary didn’t even ask who drew it. She just sent Harold straight down the hall with another pink slip.
Brenda fantasized intensely about committing her own atrocity, to earn a trip to Sister Margaret Rose’s office. It gave her thrills of fear to imagine herself pouring paint on the floor. Or tearing a page out of her spelling book. But she knew it was only fantasy. She could never dare. Only Harold had bravery like that.
Brenda wasn’t the only one who worshipped Harold. On the playground, half the boys in her class were circled around him.
“What was her office like?”
“I don’t know. Regular, I guess.”
“What do you mean, regular? Does she have a ruler?”
“No. But she does have a closet with extra clothes in it. And a great big Jesus on the wall.”
“Nothing. I don’t remember. Hey, want to hear a song I learned from a seventh grader?”
Harold sang (to the tune of “From the Halls of Montezuma”):
“From the halls of the darkened convent
To the floors of OLV
We will fight for the students’ freedom
With sticks and mud and clay”
It went on in that vein, until the last two lines:
“We are proud to receive the title
Of Teacher’s Little PESTS!”
By the end, Harold had that look in his eyes again. When he got that look, he might do anything. It was a thrill just wondering what he would do next.
The next day in the lunchroom, Brenda found a chair near Harold. Not right next to him — she didn't have the courage for that — but two seats away. She had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, with the crusts cut off. Harold had a cafeteria lunch. She heard him say, “Spinach! Yuck!” He pushed his plate away from him, and started blowing bubbles in his milk with his straw.
Brenda had an idea: she would offer half her sandwich to Harold. She wondered, should she take it out of the baggie and offer it to him, or should she keep half and offer him the bag with half the sandwich in it? But would he take it? Did he even know who she was? Maybe he would laugh at her.
But before she could finish getting her courage together, Sister Margaret Rose arrived.
“No. You are not allergic. Did you forget that Jesus always hears everything you say? Jesus knows you are not allergic. Do you want to be in trouble, Harold? Serious trouble?”
“I’m going to count to ten. If your spinach is not finished by the time I reach ten, you will be in serious trouble. Do you understand?”
Harold’s eyes went red again. In fact, tears started coming out. He took a big forkful of spinach and stuffed it in his mouth. He started to chew but you could see it was horrible to him.
Harold forked in another big mouthful. His face was bright red now. Then he stopped chewing. He got this puzzled look on his face. His eyes opened really wide.
Then he opened his mouth and a deluge of spinachy vomit came soaring forth, splattering all over the table, all over Harold, Sister Margaret Rose, Marty, the plates, the milk cartons, everything. Even Sister Margaret Rose’s big white rosary got a few wet chunks of soggy spinach on it. A great cloud of sour smell washed in every direction. The other children screamed and ran away. Brenda ran away too, not so much because she was afraid of vomit, but because she was afraid of what was going to happen to Harold.
But before it was finished, the bell rang. She decided to finish the pool the next day, then show Harold.
The next day, it rained. Brenda went and worked on her pool anyway. It didn’t rain hard enough to ruin it. She finished the edge, then she found a piece of a popsickle stick which made a perfect diving board. Then she made some other little sticks into people. She even made a lounge chair with a foxtail cushion. Finally it was ready to show Harold. If he liked it, maybe later he would join her for her favorite activity, when they were allowed to sit on the step at the end of recess and scrape the mud off their shoes with a stick.
But where was he? He had been in class, but she hadn’t seen him on the playground. The last she saw, he had been whispering something to the boys about the communion bread. She knew he was joking. Even Harold wasn’t crazy enough to violate the communion bread. Brenda searched the whole playground for him — at least all the parts they were allowed to enter — but couldn’t find him. She had to scrape her shoes alone.
The First Grade lined up and marched back into class. Still no Harold.
Not long afterwards, when Brenda was at her desk doing a math paper, the bell rang. At first she thought school was over, then she realized it was still ringing. It was a fire drill!
The First Graders jumped up and ran to their places in line at the door. Brenda could see the Second Graders filing past outside the door. Then the Fifth Graders. Then the First Grade was allowed out.
It was all wrong. This could not possibly be happening. But somehow it was. Brenda could see Harold’s little dinkle bouncing along, even though she tried not to look. It was right out there in front of Jesus and everybody. She heard a few giggles from some of the other children, but she knew this was not funny.
She couldn’t help staring in disbelief. She took in everything, to the minutest detail. Harold was surprisingly white. She was surprised how skinny he was. His skin was thin and white as paper. You could see faint traces of blue veins in the taut skin over his ribs. He was staring at the ground, his face a blank. There were a few little pieces of grass stuck to his bare feet. Sister Margaret Rose marched him to the very center of the whole school. Then she raised her arm way up in the air and slapped his bony little bottom as hard as she could. Harold screamed. Then she did it again. And again. The world went silent, except for that steady slap slap slap.
Harold tried to escape. He wriggled, squirmed, kicked and tried to bite her, like a wolverine in a leg-trap, but he couldn’t budge his arm from her steely grip. He flailed and thrashed, screaming and screaming. Whenever he got out of position, she would just sort of swing him back into line and keep spanking. His feet were going up and down like some kind of frantic Indian dance. His face went red. Then purple. Then little white spots started growing among the purple. Sister Margaret Rose kept spanking and spanking, faster and faster, until Brenda was sort of hypnotized by the blur of that great arm going wap wap wap wap wap wap wap wap wap! The purple spread down Harold’s throat, down his neck, across his shoulders, almost down to his little orange nipples, bright purple against the white of the rest of his skinny little stick-figure body. Brenda could see all the muscles of Harold’s neck sticking out with strain, all the veins on his neck and forehead pulsing and writhing like snakes as he screamed.
Then she noticed a butterfly on the juniper bush by the grotto. Brenda decided that the butterfly was Harold’s soul, set free.
Finally it was over and Sister Margaret Rose led Harold away. Or, she led away the body that had once contained the soul of Harold. It was silent again.
Brenda heard Marty whispering that Harold had been caught in a garbage can, jumping up and down. She didn’t bother to correct him. Marty tried to laugh. But she could see his heart wasn’t in it. Even Marty knew this was not really a time for laughing. It would have been good if she could have believed it was funny. But she knew that was not right. She was standing there learning what forever feels like in your stomach.
While the others were filing back into the school building, Brenda went looking for the butterfly, but it was gone. She knew she would never see Harold again. And she never did.
The kids did not speak of Harold again. None of the teachers ever mentioned him either. And it never occurred to Brenda to mention the incident to her parents. Harold was just gone.
At recess she returned to her swimming pool. She wove a tiny lounge chair out of a grass stalk, made a tiny boy out of a stick, and carefully placed him where he could relax in royal comfort in the shade by the pool. She also brought some bread crumbs from lunch, in the hope of enticing the butterfly there to see the pool. But the butterfly never came back.
Murder in the First Grade
A Short Story by Jack Armstrong