Sister Collette Smacks the Spirit of Love: My Second Attempt at Theater

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My sister Susan was always a More Fully Well Rounded Person than I was; she actually paid attention in school, volunteered at a camp for disabled children, competed in Debate and Speech events, and participated in school theater. She could not sing, but she always snagged the largest non-singing part in plays. I was her adoring and devoted audience; whereas my parents went to one performance of each play and forced my brothers to do the same, I found a way (tricky, since I was much too young to drive) to attend every performance. I was the Adoring Audience. And really, once you’ve snagged a stage, a company, a set and a script, what is more important than an Adoring Audience? I knew my part, and I played it well.

Watching Susan on stage over the years and seeing how much fun she was having, I started to recall my own triumphant turn as a gypsy in my second grade ballet recital (here)That memory inspired me to put my disastrous Drama Class Adventure behind me (here)and audition for the seventh grade Christmas Play at Christ King School.

I was cast, and in a major role. This was well before the days of “participation ribbons” and the philosophy of “everybody wins,” so being cast as one of the leads was a real coup. All of the girls and even many of the boys tried out, so there were quite a few disappointed seventh graders. For once, I was not one of them. I have no idea what the title of that Christmas play was, nor who wrote it. I do know that it was not a very good play, so it is possible that Sr. Collette wrote it herself. Sr. Collette loved to engage in creative activities, but her efforts often fell short of whatever mark she was aiming at. Earlier that year, for example, she had decided to create a filmstrip about “The Joy of Reading,” starring the entire class. In this film, each of us wore a giant board with a letter on it and walked around forming words with our bodies accompanied by the song “Celebrate.” (For those who missed the 1960’s, the lyrics were “Celebrate! Celebrate! Dance to the Music!”) I am unclear as to what Sister’s vision was for this project, but I could tell when we watched the completed film that we had not achieved it.

Wherever it came from, the seventh grade contribution to the Christmas Pageant was a one act play with a short running time; there were eight other acts to get through in one afternoon, after all. I was the Spirit of Love. I do not remember who played the other two parts; in fact, I don’t know what the other two parts even were, although I assume they were the Spirit of Hope and the Spirit of Faith. My part consisted in gliding onto the stage at some point, dressed in an ethereal white robe, and giving a misty speech about love to a little boy lying in a bed. I don’t remember why he was in the bed, but I assume that the action was taking place on Christmas Eve a la A Christmas Carol, and the little fellow was going to learn some important life lessons from his Spirit Visitors.

In order to achieve the “ethereal” effect, Sr. Collette arranged with Mr. Keeley, the Christ King Choir Director (and a very intimidating man) to borrow three long white choir robes from the Christ King Choir. Mr. Keeley agreed reluctantly to let Sr. Collette use the robes, but he pounded into her the warning that nothing must happen to these robes. On the day of the dress rehearsal for the play, we three Spirits of Something got to put on our robes, and—even more exciting—we rehearsed in full makeup. The little boy in the bed didn’t get any makeup, but then he didn’t have any lines, either. We three Spirits, however, were decked out in vivid pink cheeks and red lipstick.

I don’t remember the rehearsal itself, but it must have gone just fine, because whenever anything didn’t go well in our seventh grade classroom, Sr. Collete would become memorably angry. She had an Artistic Temperament. After rehearsal, we three Spirits ducked into the cloakroom to disrobe and rejoin the dull world of People Who Aren’t in Theater. As I was taking the Very Expensive Choir Robe off over my head, I caught the front of it with my fully lipsticked lips, leaving a sizable smear right on the front of the robe. It looked like the Spirit of Love had been attacked by a knife-wielding maniac.

Seeing the impressive red slash on Mr. Keeley’s Choir Robe, my two Spirit castmates gasped and ran out of the room as fast as they could. One of them (who in that moment was definitely channeling the Spirit of Tattling) yelled out to Sr. Collette that “Maloney messed up Mr. Keeley’s Robe!” I stood there in stunned disbelief, looking down at my sorry choir robe and coming to grips with what had just happened, dreading the moment that Sister found out what I did. Sure enough, Sr. Collette swooped into the room, a black and white blur of rage.

No doubt Sister herself was terrified of Mr. Keeley; we all were, but I was also terrified of Sr. Collette, and never more than in that moment. When she saw the red lipstick smear on the robe, she hauled off and slapped me right across the face, as hard as she could, and she was not a frail woman. I never questioned her response; I knew that I had—accidentally, but still—committed a dark deed, and no doubt betrayed any trust she had in my ability to For Once Not Screw Up.

I never told anyone that Sr. Collette hit me. I was relieved that we were in the cloakroom and no one else saw it; I was at least spared a public humiliation. Also, I really didn’t blame her. I knew that she was now in deep trouble with Mr. Keeley, and it was my doing. Sister tried the best she could to get the lipstick stain out with cold water, and after her ministrations it was reduced to a faint pink blur. Surely (we hoped) the mark would be invisible to the audience while I was on stage. Neither of us held out any hope that the same would be true of Mr. Keeley.

The Christmas Program took place during the afternoon; in those days, evening events were unheard of, since our teachers thought that our parents deserved relaxing evenings at home after their day’s work rather than having to haul themselves up to school to watch their children do things badly on stage. Those parents who were at home during the day were welcome to come and stand in the back of the gymnasium, but very few parents did so.  My mother had told me that she would try to get there to witness my triumphant stage debut, and my sister Susan was planning to come as well. (She must have had the day off from high school, as she would never have been allowed to miss school for a grade school pageant.) The Program started at 1 p.m., and as soon as the curtain went up, I started looking for my mother and Susan to appear. As the moments ticked by and there was no sign of them, I got more and more anxious.

As the program marched inexorably onward, the time came for the seventh grade to take the stage. No sign of my mother; no sign of my sister. Still, I knew that the Show Must Go On. I stepped out onto the stage when my cue came and spoke my lines with confidence, as if to say to my audience, “Ignore that pink smear on the Spirit of Love’s ethereal white robe. Attend only to the profound words issuing forth from the Spirit of Love.”

Susan and my mother missed my star turn, and they felt terrible about it. My mother was taking care of my other sister Marbeth’s baby that day, and Marbeth was caught in traffic and late to pick her up.  My mother had four other children and several grandchildren, and I knew she was juggling a lot of balls. I comforted myself with the knowledge that I had, at the moment I needed to, stepped up and given my performance. I was also very glad that it was Sr. Collette and not I who had to bring those robes back to the formidable Mr. Keeley.

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