Bayou-Picayune Podcast, S02 EP24: The Tattle Tail Priest
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Bleach. The smell of bleach and pine.
A lot of what I do in the classroom, when it’s not grammar, when it’s not composition, is intuitive. For instance, when it’s literature we’re covering, when it’s Shakespeare, I have a tendency to walk my students down unfamiliar paths, to explore roads that go into the forest in shadows of the mind.
I know what it’s like to wander in the shadows of valleys.
That was my childhood.
That was my neighborhood when I was growing up.
Like I said, that’s how I teach. And sometimes when were going down these unfamiliar paths, I can see things in the face of a student. Sometimes after class, or after school, I will take that student aside or the student will seek me out.
This happens a lot with me.
Usually I suppose it’s nothing. Usually I’m sure the things I sense are only in my imagination. But there are times when the thing I sense is real, and that’s the problem. I can’t tell which is which, and if I should or should not say something.
Recently, when I was standing at the door to my classroom, and the students had left for lunch, I caught the scent of bleach and pine which triggered something in my brain from many years ago.
I was teaching at a Catholic elementary school, and the students had headed to lunch, and there I was standing outside my open classroom door when Father Peter passed me in the hall. We exchanged hello’s and he continued on his way to the cafeteria. Then he stopped, and upon reflection, came back to me.
No one else was in the hall. All the other teachers had gone to the cafeteria or the teachers’ lounge and so is just the two of us in the corridor. “Mr. Pierson,” he said. “There’s something I want to share with you.”
I figured it was probably another story about Mickey Mantle since Father Peter knew I liked to talk baseball. He would from time to time share with me another tidbit about his beloved number 7, but I was wrong this time, it wasn’t the Mick he wanted to talk about.
“I want to tell you something that maybe I shouldn’t because,” he said,” it was told to me in confession.”
I reminded him, of course, what he already knew, that he couldn’t divulge something he had heard in confession.
“But I think you should hear it,” he said.
Then he came right out with it.
“I want you to know that one of your students, a girl, told me in confession that you stopped her from committing suicide.”
I stopped someone from committing suicide?
This was certainly news to me. Father Peter continued.
“She said she had pills. She said she had more than enough pills to kill herself and that was what she was going to do. She said she had already written a letter and after days of thinking it over had decided finally to go through with it. When school was over, she told me, she intended to go home, block herself in her room, and take the pills. By the time her mother would come home that night and check on her she said it would be too late and she would be dead.”
“She told me she had been carrying the pills in the pocket of her shorts under her skirt and that a number of times during the school day she felt them there because it reconfirmed for her what she was going to do when she got home. She told me you had no idea she was thinking about killing herself that you didn’t know anything about the pills in her pocket, but you said something to her that made her change her mind.”
The Tattle Tale Priest went on.
“She told me that after she decided not to kill herself, she thought about telling you that you had saved her life, but she was worried that maybe you’d have to tell her mother. So, she figured it was best not to tell you anything. And I agreed it was probably best not to tell you. That’s why I’m telling you. I want you to know what you did.”
“You saved that girl’s life.”
Then he said, “God bless you,” and he turned and walked down to the cafeteria.
I’m sure the priest meant well. I’m sure he wanted me to feel good about myself.
But it had the exact opposite effect on me.
I suppose it’s the way I’m wired. Whenever anyone shows me a silver lining, instinctively I look for the black cloud.
How could I feel good about a chance remark I had made that stopped a middle school girl from killing herself? If you think about it. If you really think about it. If it turns out something you said stopped someone from killing herself, doesn’t that also mean the opposite?
What if I hadn’t just so happened to have said anything? And what about the next time? What if the next time I don’t happen to say something.
And then there’s this. Maybe I didn’t really do anything at all. Maybe the middle school girl who said she was going to kill herself didn’t really plan to kill herself. Maybe it was just talk and she simply wanted someone to validate her feelings. Kids will do that.
So, despite what Father Peter believed, I don’t think he really knew, and the girl, whoever she was, more than likely she didn’t know herself.
And there you have it.
The more you know, the less you know.
Oh, why do memories thoughts like these haunt me?
Oh yes, I remember it was because of the smell of bleach and pine.