by Michael Conlon
Through thick half-glasses that teeter at the end of his bulbous nose, Father Dunn reads the final lines of the stapled report, then squints up at Patrick who sits, shoulders back, lips pursed, staring straight ahead. Patrick’s red hair is cropped short and freckles spread across his short nose and cheeks. Father Dunn folds his hands on the desk pad atop the large mahogany desk, as if in prayer, then begins to twiddle his thumbs as he looks up above the door at a black and white photo Pope Paul VI.
Patrick sits on the middle of three wooden chairs against the side wall, fingering the tops of the engraved brass tacks at the end of the cloth armrests. After the rectory’s secretary, showed him in, he was surprised that she closed the door as she left. He assumed his parents would follow, but since he has reached the age of reason and could now both sin and receive the sacraments, he will have to first conduct this interview alone.
Patrick wonders what each of his parents will say when they come in and try to keep him enrolled in St. Stephen’s grammar school. He knows his father will partially blame Sister Joseph. He knows his mother will remain quiet.
Father Dunn’s chair scrapes the wooden floor.
“So tell me, Patrick O’Connell,” Father Dunn begins, “Sister Joseph reports that she’s only had problems with you twice. Otherwise you’ve been a very good student.”
Father waits for a reply, but Patrick sits silent, staring down at his cuffed, brown corduroy pants, white socks, and Converse sneakers. Father Dunn puts his glasses back on, and reopens the folder.
“It says here that in November, you wrote in your Catechism book, and you were punished for that.”
Patrick looks up at Father Dunn with cold brown eyes.
“I didn’t write in the Catechism.”
“Then why did Sister Joseph say you did?”
“I was erasing the pencil writing in the back of the book,” Patrick says.
“So there was writing in the book then?”
“Yes, but we don’t have our own books. Sister keeps them in the classroom.”
“So you’re saying the book that was passed back to you had writing in it, and it wasn’t yours?” asks Father Dunn.
“When you saw the writing, did you tell Sister Joseph?”
“Because she wouldn’t believe me.”
“Why do you think she wouldn’t believe you?” asks Father.
Patrick pauses for a second.
“I saw her punish Kathy Almada for putting gum under her desk. Her mother never lets her chew gum because it gets stuck in her hair.”
Patrick looks back down at his shoes as Father Dunn scratches his cheek for a second.
“So you chose to erase the writing instead?” asks Father.
“I tried to do it so she wouldn’t see me, but she did.”
“Did you tell her you didn’t do it?”
Patrick pauses again.
“Because I thought she knew I would never do that,” says Patrick.
Father Dunn looks over to detect any trace of hesitation. Patrick looks up and stares back at him.
“So what happened next,” asks Father.
“She told me to come up to her desk, then put my hands out, palms up.”
“She pulled out a ruler from her drawer, and slapped me five times on each hand,” says Patrick.
“I see,” Father Dunn says, then rests his chin in his right hand. He is stunned by how calmly Patrick tells his story. Some kids would be crying, some not offering a peep, and this is not the worst of it yet. Yet, there must be a lesson here.
“You know about the martyrs, don’t you, Patrick? Daniel and Sebastian and our own St. Stephen?” asks Father Dunn.
“Each of them was tortured, some put to death, and for nothing they had done. They were good people who suffered so that others would believe. So, although maybe you didn’t write in the book, someone did. And they and the rest of the class learned the consequences when you were punished for them,” Father Dunn says.
Patrick above Father Dunn at the large crucifix, and starts counting to himself the number of blood drops beneath each of the five wounds–Two, three, five, six….
“But this second incident is much more serious, Patrick,” says Father Dunn.
Patrick slips his hands into his pockets.
“On Monday, Sister Joseph said you came into class with a bald spot on your head. Is this true?” asks Father.
Patrick turns his gaze back at Father Dunn.
“Why did you have a bald spot on your head?”
“I wanted to be a monk, like Saint Francis of Assisi.”
“I see,” says Father. “And why is that?”
“I was reading The Lives of the Saints with my mother. I was reading about Saint Francis and how he liked animals and how the birds would land on his arms.”
He looks up at the crucifix and pictures birds landing on the outstretched arms of Jesus.
“And the picture showed him and his monks in a garden with animals, and all the monks had bald spots on their heads,” says Patrick.
“I see,” said Father, with a touch of a grin. “And where did you cut your hair?”
“In my bathroom after I brushed my teeth.”
“And did your parents see this?”
“And what did they say?”
“My father wanted me to stay home and go the barber to cut all my hair short.”
“And your mother?”
“She told my dad to drive me to school. She said if God wanted me to cut my hair, then God wanted everyone to see it.”
“I see. And when you arrived at school, did they see it?”
“And what did they say?”
“My friends liked it when I told them why. I brought the scissors with me and told them I could cut their hair at recess in the bathroom. Peter didn’t’ want his hair cut so he said he would be Robin Hood and the rest of us would all be Friar Tuck and roam around the playground,” says Patrick.
“But I see here that Sister Joseph says she saw you sitting in your desk in the back with your hand covering up your bald spot.”
“When I was walking by in our line to class, Mr. Poncino, the P.E. teacher laughed at me so I put my hand on my head so no one else would notice.”
“So you sat down at your desk with your hand on top of your head?”
“And what did Sister do when she noticed?”
“She asked me to take my hand down.”
“And did you?”
“I said I would, after recess.”
“And then what happened?”
“I stared down at my desk and heard her walking down the aisle until I saw her black shoes standing next to me. She reached down and grabbed my wrist, lifted it up, and started laughing.”
Patrick stares down at his sneakers and starts counting the silver eyelets—one, two, three, four….
“Go on,” says Father. Patrick stops counting.
“Then she said ‘Patrick, stand up,’ but I didn’t move. She grabbed my wrist more tightly and pulled me up, then made me bend over toward the class and she said ‘Look what Patrick has done to his hair!’”
“I don’t remember.”
“Sister Joseph said you took a pair of scissors out of your pocket and stabbed her in the back of her hand.”
“I don’t remember.”
“She said you kept trying to stab her.”
“She wouldn’t let go of my wrist,” Patrick says.
“And when she did?”
“I sat down. I put the scissors on the desk, then covered my head back up with my hand.” He begins to count the silver eyelets on the other shoe.
“Patrick. Before I call your parents in here and we discuss your punishment, I have one more question. Are you truly sorry for what you did?” Father asks.
Patrick remains silent for a moment, then mumbles.
“I’m sorry. I couldn’t hear you,” Father says.
“No,” says Patrick
Father Dunn watches Patrick staring down at his shoes.
You can still set him straight, Father Dunn thinks to himself. He moves out from behind his mahogany desk and sits down next to Patrick. Patrick looks over at his shoes.
“I think we need to figure this out before your parents come in,” said Father Dunn.
He looks down at the uneven halo of hair cropped into the back of his head, surprised to see a scar from where he must have cut too close. He puts his hand on Patrick’s shoulder.
Patrick tightens his grip on the scissors and begins to slip them out of his right pocket.