No matter how bad my other grades were at Christ King School, I was always an excellent reader. In the third grade, my ability to read “with expression” helped me to nail the starring role in the Third Grade Play. I am not sure why there was a Third Grade Play, especially since the Play we performed had only three roles, four if you counted the Virgin Mary, which we certainly did. Even before Vatican II showed up at Christ King School, there seemed to be quite an emphasis on connecting religion class with drama class. In the first grade, we regularly acted out various Bible stories, and this Third Grade Play was a re-enactment of the Miracle at Fatima, which was a Very Big Deal in Catholic circles during the 1960’s.
According to the story of Fatima, in 1917, the Virgin Mary appeared to three children in Portugal with an important message about the twentieth century. Apparently it was going to be a very rough time, with terrible wars and godless governments. The three children—Lucia, Francesco, and Jacinta—were told to inform the world that much prayer was needed in the dark times to come. There were purportedly “Three Secrets of Fatima,” and the First and Second Secrets had already been revealed; the first was a vision of Hell and the second was the Virgin’s claim that another terrible world war would follow World War One. No one knew what the Third Secret of Fatima was, but it was a source of endless speculation and fascination for many Catholic children, not to mention Catholic adults.
For many years, Catholics believed that the Third Secret would be revealed in 1960, and speculation as to its contents was rampant, ranging from the prediction of the end of the world to the death of all the popes and bishops of the Church. To the disappointment of many, the Vatican did not reveal the Third Secret of Fatima as expected in 1960, which merely fanned the flames of Marian gossip. Whatever one makes of the Fatima Story, in 1967 it was a great way to get the attention of children like me, who were fascinated to hear of the Virgin Mary trusting children my own age to carry on some Very Important Business between her, the Pope and some world leaders.
There were to be auditions for this play; it was going to be An Event, performed in the evening with parents invited. Encouraged by Mrs. Lane, I tried out and I was the best reader. Some of the other auditioners did fine, but I was really feeling the lines and putting an appropriate amount of pathos and gusto into each word. I also knew how to pronounce all the words, and when I pretended to speak to “Our Lady,” who was going to be voiced off-stage behind a dazzling white light, I was apparently very convincing. I was awarded the plum part, which was Jacinta. (I have no idea why Jacinta was considered the best part; she did have the most lines, but historical accuracy would have demanded that Lucia be the star, since she was the oldest, the main interlocutor with Mary, and wrote six memoirs about the experience. She became a Carmelite nun and lived to the ripe old age of ninety-seven, whereas Jacinta and Francisco both died the following year in the influenza epidemic.)
I don’t remember who was cast as Francisco, but Susan Flannery—a petite blond cherub
of a girl with sparkling blue eyes and a winning smile—was cast as Lucia. Apparently whoever was in charge of this production did not approve of Mrs. Lane’s casting decisions and told her that I was too fat to be Jacinta. Having made this casting decision, Whoever This Was didn’t make the natural move, which would have been to cast me as the stodgier looking Lucia and let Susan Flannery be Jacinta. Someone else from our class was brought forward to play Lucia and Susan Flannery was now Jacinta. I found this out when Mrs. Lane called Susan Flannery and me out into the hallway one afternoon. She said that Susan Flannery was going to be Jacinta, because she “had the right look.” I was no longer Jacinta, but she had written a whole new role for me of Narrator. Mrs. Lane enthused about this new role of Narrator, telling me that I could wear my first
communion dress (she was dreaming; I had gained much too much weight in the year after my first communion to fit into that dress) and read from a script with a special gold cover. Even at the age of eight, I could tell when someone was trying to push something questionable past me, and this “Narrator” deal smelled like a fix to me. Thinking I actually had the right to retain my fairly-won role as Jacinta, I politely declined Mrs. Lane’s Narrator Plan, and told her that I was happy to remain as Jacinta. That is when I came to understand that Jacinta was no longer my role, whatever decision I made about being the Narrator. I accepted the role of Narrator but I felt deeply wronged.
When I told my mother what had happened, she took it philosophically, pointing out that I really didn’t look much like Jacinta, and looking the role is just part of life in theater. She encouraged me to embrace my role as Narrator, and said I could wear my new pink silk dress for the performance. I wasn’t happy, but I knew it was over. I was not going to be Jacinta. The night of the performance, I stood on my Narrator’s Chair and glowered at the audience, still stewing about the basic unfairness of the world, and read my lines from my special gold script, which was actually just the same script that everyone else had, except with gold wrapping paper covering it.
Looking back, I can see that Mrs. Lane did the best she could, and she probably fought hard for that Narrator role. As for me, I learned the harsh lesson that Reading With Expression doesn’t count for much in this world if you can’t make weight. I am pretty sure this wasn’t the lesson we were supposed to be learning from our study of religion, but my experience did have at least one good result: every year May 13, the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima, I say a rosary for all the overlooked fat girls in the world. I think Jacinta would approve.
 The Third Secret of Fatima was purportedly revealed by Pope John Paul II in 2000, and it turned out to be an apocalyptic vision of a Pope’s death; John Paul II had been shot and very nearly killed by an assassin on May 13–the date of Mary’s original appearance to the three children in Portugal) in 1981. After he survived the assassination attempt, the Pope travelled to Fatima and placed the bullet that came within centimeters of killing him in the crown of Mary’s statue there.