In the Sunday School

By the time Dalton D’Amico arrived, Miss Nugent already had the other children at their little tables coloring pictures of Jesus delivering the Sermon on the Mount. She tried to keep their hands busy; you know what they said about idle hands. The devil in cartoon form, complete with horns, trident, and maroon bodysuit, appeared unbidden, and although she dismissed the vision with a shake of her head, a filmy unease remained inside her. Satan’s reach extended to even the purest of souls. Saint and sinner, Pastor Conn was fond of saying, we are simultaneously saint and sinner.

“Patty, how are you feeling?” Dalton’s mother asked as she hung up her son’s coat. She didn’t wait for an answer. “I’m sorry if Dalton’s a bit wound up. He had a doughnut and two glasses of grape juice for breakfast.”

“My husband’s on call this weekend,” she added, as if that explained everything—the tardiness, the “challenges” Dalton’s behavior always presented, the self-importance that each of the D’Amicos wore like a family crest. The woman flashed Miss Nugent a photo-ready smile, kissed Dalton, and hurried out.

Parents who were too busy during the week usually ran errands, and a few chatted outside the classrooms, but the majority of the moms and dads spent the hour at the Waffle House across the street. To them, Sunday school was just another kids’ activity, like T-ball or pre-ballet. Early in the year, Miss Nugent had overheard complaints that one hour wasn’t even enough time to read the Sunday paper. She confided to her sister, who worked at a Measuring Up daycare center in Connecticut, how some of the parents grated on her. “Patty,” her sister declared, “the children are never the problem.”

At the boys’ table, Dalton looked comfortable and relaxed in his blazer, button-down shirt, and paisley tie—a smartly dressed young man rather than a six-year-old playing a grownup. He reminded Miss Nugent of his father when she’d first met with the man at the hospital.

In that pre-op meeting, Dr. D’Amico had seemed pleasant and reassuring. “We’ll nip this thing in the bud,” he said with such finality that she almost believed the threat already neutralized, the cancer excised and disposed of. (She couldn’t help but note, too, the way he’d included her in the nipping, as if they were partners in the endeavor.) He predicted six weeks of steadily diminishing postoperative pain and joked that she would be ready to return to the singles scene in no time at all.

After the surgery, Dr. D’Amico had visited her room in high spirits, friendlier than ever. “We’re golden,” he said, rapping his knuckles against her bedside table. “No sign of spread beyond the ovary, and the path report came back with Stage 1A.” Of course, to be on the safe side, he’d had to take out the whole kit and caboodle, as he called it, but they’d discussed that beforehand, and he was pleased, so pleased with the outcome. As he headed for the door, he’d beamed as if she’d won him a prize. “See you around, gorgeous,” he called.

Miss Nugent tried to shift her focus back to the children. As usual, Dalton had distracted everybody. He was rocking back in his chair and sticking his tongue out at Joey N. while the other children tried to keep from laughing.

“Sit up straight, Dalton. Feet on the floor.” Miss Nugent nudged the boy toward a more proper position. “And don’t disturb the others. Let’s be nice.”

She placed a coloring sheet in front of the boy, taking care not to lean too close. The last time she’d seen Dalton in class, weeks ago, he’d crinkled up his face as she stapled together his Lost Sheep lift-the-flap page. “Miss Nugent,” he said, his voice nasally and his eyes squinting nearly shut. “Miss Nugent, why do you smell like fish sticks? I don’t like fish sticks.” There were snickers and scattered announcements of “I don’t like fish sticks either.”

That day after worship, Miss Nugent had gone straight home and laundered her entire wardrobe. Following a tip she read in the newspaper, she set a tray of charcoal briquettes in her closet to trap any residual odors. She began showering in the morning rather than at night, using the Plumeria-scented body wash that Clarissa’s parents had given her as a Christmas/thank you gift. (Had Clarissa also detected an odor?) She brought in cinnamon sachets for her cubicle at work.

During the week, Miss Nugent audited employee expense reports for TerraOne Financial, for which she earned fifteen dollars an hour plus health and dental. Her most exciting moment in thirteen years at TOF had come last year, when she rejected a report from the vice president of business operations, who’d requested reimbursement for dry cleaning, greens fees, and cover and gratuities at a gentlemen’s club. As she positioned her mouse cursor over the DENY button, her fingertips had trembled with the stirrings of power, a kind of vigilante justice, a feeling both thrilling and terrifying that had revisited her when the man resigned at the end of the year.

Brenda Glidden, the children’s ministry director, beckoned Miss Nugent out to the hall. Brenda was teaching the First Communion class that morning, and she handed over the key to her office. “I’ve informed the other teachers you’re in charge,” Brenda said and smiled. “If anyone wants supplies, they’ll have to go through you.” Miss Nugent blushed at the pride she felt for being entrusted with this responsibility.

Returning to her class, Miss Nugent beheld a small miracle: the children, every one of them, were seated and quiet. Clarissa was decorating a frame she’d drawn around her masterpiece. Joey B. had sketched in a background with birds and trees and a happy-face sun. All were passing the markers without fuss. It was at moments such as this that Miss Nugent felt most acutely the longing to have, or have had (before the hysterectomy, of course) children of her own.

There would have been the matter of a father, though. The boys had always treated her differently than the girls did. The girls loved to tease her, for her height, her weight, her dyslexia, her packing lunch every day, her inability to turn the rope, much less jump double Dutch. The boys, however, simply ignored Plain Patty Nugent, and they kept right on ignoring her long after the girls’ taunting stopped. A faithful and practical person, Patty eventually accepted her spinsterhood and sought to discern in what other ways God was calling her to serve. Last summer, when Pastor Conn and Brenda Glidden had asked the congregation for someone to instruct the kindergarten class, she’d scarcely hesitated before volunteering.

Though she hated to disturb the tranquility in her classroom, there was a lesson to teach. “Two more minutes,” she said, circling the tables. “You can finish your artwork at home.”

As she passed the boys, Dalton blew a raspberry.

“Who tooted?” demanded Joey N. The boys laughed.

“Let’s not make impolite noises,” Miss Nugent said, as Dalton lunged over the table and scribbled across Joey N.’s paper. The two began dueling with their markers.

At the elementary school, kindergartners were subject to an array of incentives and punishments. There were extra recesses, a prize chest, Peacemaker parties. Pink slips, the safe chair, the principal’s office. In Sunday school, on the other hand, there were neither carrots nor sticks. At the beginning of the year, when the need for encouraging appropriate behavior was already clear, Miss Nugent had asked Brenda Glidden if she could reward the good children with cookies or candy. “Patty,” Brenda said with a look of genuine astonishment, “you know the Lord doesn’t see them as good or bad.”

Miss Nugent was always making mistakes like this. Grace, Pastor Conn would say. We can’t do a blessed thing about it. God gives us grace no matter what.

Miss Nugent clapped her hands and called the children to circle time. They claimed their carpet squares from the stack in the corner and filed into place. Dalton sprawled between Jimmy and Joey B. instead of taking his assigned spot beside Miss Nugent.

“If you can’t behave,” she warned, “I’ll have to separate you.”

She sent the offering plate around the circle. Dalton shook his head when Jimmy tried to hand him the plate. “I’m exempt,” he said, upending the collection and scattering the envelopes. “I’m exempt,” Dalton said again.

Frowning, Miss Nugent gathered the envelopes and replaced them. She passed the plate to Joey B.

The offering was put away, and Miss Nugent settled into her reading chair to begin the lesson. She watched as Dalton inched his foot toward Jimmy’s carpet square. Jimmy lifted Dalton’s leg and heaved it away with sufficient force to permit Dalton to spin around on his bottom and drop his other foot onto Joey B.’s lap, to which Joey B. responded with a shove.

“Crisscross, Dalton.” Miss Nugent told herself it wasn’t the boy’s fault. The gray-haired set in the congregation was forever noting how parents these days didn’t know how to be the boss, didn’t set limits, didn’t discipline their children. Although she was still some years away from the gray-haired set, Miss Nugent tended to agree with their sentiment.

The lesson was from the tenth chapter of Mark, in which Jesus compared a camel passing through the eye of a needle to a rich man entering the kingdom of heaven. She distributed the story leaflets, reminding the class to treat the papers with respect; the church didn’t have the funds to buy new sheets every year. (Clearly, the wealthy members of First Mercy didn’t tithe.) Not that the children would have done the at-home activities with their parents if they kept the papers—the leaflets would probably have gone straight into the recycling bin. Miss Nugent suspected that the same families who read together for twenty minutes every night didn’t pray together more than once a week.

After reading the story, she quizzed the pupils. “What did the man call Jesus?” She glanced around. “Clarissa?”

“He called him teacher,” Clarissa said.

Miss Nugent flushed with pride. She felt an allegiance to educators of all kinds. With Joey N.’s mother, who taught math at the high school, and Mason’s parents (home ec. and middle school guidance), she was more than congenial, and she adored Clarissa’s parents, who were professors at the university. They all shared a common mission as stewards of the future.

“What did Jesus tell the man to do?” she asked. Clarissa raised her hand again. “Clarissa, honey, what did Jesus tell the man to do?”

“To sell what he owns and give the money to the poor,” Clarissa said. Miss Nugent, in her weakest moments, considered Clarissa her favorite, the child she would most like to have had.

“What does poor mean?” asked Joey B., whose family had moved to Woodview Estates in the fall. He’d missed three Sundays in a row, including the lesson on the widow’s mite.

“Poor means you have no money!” Dalton said. “What are you, stupid?”

“Dalton, please raise your hand,” Miss Nugent said. “And let’s use kind words.”

“Kind words,” Dalton mocked. He bounced on his carpet square.

She sighed. Was it the boy’s fault that he had no manners? That he was selfish and inconsiderate? That he couldn’t sit still for one minute? Whether poor conduct sprang from nature or nurture or both, the parents were to blame. Mrs. D’Amico. And Dr. D’Amico.

“Let’s pray,” Miss Nugent said. She asked the children to join hands.

“Ow!” Joey B. was yanking his hand away from Dalton. “He’s squeezing too tight!”

As Dalton grinned, a knot of frustration rose through Miss Nugent. Unable to work it loose, she forced it down again. She prodded Dalton outside the circle and sat him in a chair in the corner.

She finished the prayer and moved on to the song. Jesus loves the little ones like me, me, me. The melody and finger play were as simple as the words, and the children all participated. Jesus loves the little ones like me, me, me. They were smiling and sitting nicely at their places. Little ones like me . . . sat upon his knee . . .  Jesus loves the little ones like me, me, me. After going through the song once, Miss Nugent allowed Dalton to creep back into the group. She asked the class to sing the song again.

But now the boys turned silly. The girls looked bored. Me, me, me. As the children pointed to themselves, Dalton poked his chest and collapsed. “I’ve been stabbed,” he moaned, and the class giggled.

“Dalton, get up.” The knot inside Miss Nugent rose again and tightened. She stood, looking down at the boy lying on the floor. He grinned at her again, ignorant of his effect on the others, how he was keeping them from God’s word, obstructing God’s work.

She took his hand and pulled him up. “We’re going to have a talk.”

Still smirking, Dalton at once lurched forward, tugging her along. His strength surprised her, and she couldn’t undo his grip. When they reached the far edge of the circle, Dalton teetered out away from her and then pretended to stumble.

“Stop, Dalton!” cried Miss Nugent, bracing for a fall.

The boy abruptly reversed direction, swinging out to her left side and then veering back again toward her right. Unable to halt her momentum as he crossed in front of her, Miss Nugent lost her balance. She sprawled to the floor, the back of her hand striking Clarissa’s cheek as she fell.

Miss Nugent sat for a moment in the center of the circle. The children stared at her. Clarissa was crying.

Dalton pointed at Clarissa. “That wasn’t a nice thing to do, Miss Nugent! You hurt her! Keep your body to yourself!”

At this, some of the boys began to chuckle, and even a few of the girls were smiling. The frustration inside Miss Nugent broke free. She stood, seized Dalton’s arm, and jerked him up.

“That’s it.” The children stopped as she said this, but she didn’t look at them. “Stay in the circle, class,” she muttered.

She dragged Dalton out into the hallway and steered him toward Brenda Glidden’s office. She took the key from her pocket and unlocked the door.

The office, an old storage room, had never been remodeled. It was cheerless and cramped. She recalled the spacious office that Dalton’s father occupied at the hospital, the walls decorated with paintings of tall ships and sunrises, diplomas the size of small posters, gleaming windows that overlooked the courtyard.

Miss Nugent closed the door. She kept her eye on Dalton as she banged open the supply cabinets and the drawers of the desk, furniture inherited from the minister before the minister before Pastor Conn.

Sifting through the items at the bottom of the arts and crafts rack, her hand closed on a two-foot-long wooden board, the horizontal piece for the cross used in one of the Easter displays. As her fingers ran across its glossy surface, they caught on the three bolts that attached the board to the vertical beam. She slid the bolts out one at a time and set them on the desk.

Dalton looked calm, if slightly puzzled. Maybe he was calculating how to wheedle his way out of this situation. “Miss Nugent—”

“You know how to behave, Dalton.” Of course he knew. He was sharp as nails, already excelled at reading, writing, and arithmetic. Although he didn’t understand the first thing about feelings, or kindness, or love.

“Miss Nugent, I have to—”

“Stand still, Dalton.” His fidgeting was yet another sign of his lack of discipline, how his parents were failing him. “Put your hands on the desk.”

Instead of obeying—already he was more accustomed to leading than to following—Dalton continued to stare at her. He certainly was his father’s child: full lips and cheeks, a mane of rich blond curls, brown eyes big as quarters. He would do well in school, college, medical school. He would be wealthy and successful. An attractive wife. Gorgeous, truly gorgeous children. The world belonged to people like the D’Amicos.

“Hands on the desk, Dalton,” she said again. “Bend over.”

Miss Nugent had last seen Dr. D’Amico the week after she left the hospital, as she was walking through Market Square. (Where else could she have encountered that man, aside from the hospital or at Sunday school pickup, except among shops and restaurants she could never patronize?) She started to approach him, but another man hailed him first. She hovered under the awning of the Once Upon a Toddler boutique while the man asked Dr. D’Amico how business was.

“A lot of cutting lately,” Dr. D’Amico replied, making a scissoring motion with his fingers. “I did my hundredth hyst for the hospital a couple of weeks ago.”

She hung back on the sidewalk. She hadn’t meant to eavesdrop; she just wanted to thank him again. The pain had seemed to be waning.

“They should give you a watch or a plate or something,” the other man said. He laughed. “I hope the clientele’s keeping it interesting at least?”

Dr. D’Amico made a face. “It’s like the Westminster Dog Show in my O.R.”

The man woofed and then laughed again. “Look at it this way,” he had said. “You’re keeping the world beautiful.” The men shook hands. “Stay strong, D’Amico.”

Dalton was leaning against the desk now, on tiptoes, his legs jiggling. He turned toward Miss Nugent once more.

“Turn around, Dalton.” Yes, the D’Amicos owned this beautiful world; they had their reward. The first would be last, and the last first.

“Dalton, it’s for your own good.” The board felt heavy in her hands. She tapped it on the desk, as she imagined a policeman might when interrogating a criminal.

“When you’re unkind to others, you make God unhappy.” She put a hand on his shoulder. “God’s like your father, Dalton. Do you understand? You don’t want to make your father unhappy.”

Out in the hallway, footsteps and muted murmurs. Shadows fluttered across the slit beneath the door. She waited until the noises faded and then raised the board with her right hand.

“Lord helps us both,” she murmured. She clenched her jaw, concentrating the entire force of her being midway down her skull, and she didn’t feel the exertion in her arm when she swung the paddle down and smacked it against Dalton’s backside.

There was silence afterward—no cry, no plea, no apology—only silence, as teacher and student waited. And then Miss Nugent heard a trickle, like water flowing over an infant at the baptismal font. Dalton turned, his face contorted and red. Wetness streamed down the inseam of his trousers, urine drizzling onto a growing pool between his loafers while the tears spilled from his eyes. She softened, loosening her grip. The board fell to the floor. He’s just a boy, she thought. He’s just a little boy.

She scooped Dalton up—awkwardly, she’d never carried so heavy a burden. Ignoring the smell and the dampness that spread over her arms and onto the front of her dress, she held him close and hurried out toward the bathrooms. The boy shuddered with quiet sobs.

When she reached the ladies’ room, she looked up and stopped. Her gaze focused down the hallway, and for a moment she was drawn by a temptation to flee, to rush outside with Dalton, wondering where in the world they could go to hide one another, save one another, because there in front of her classroom door, all of the parents were gathered with Dr. D’Amico standing at the head of the line. And then Brenda Glidden arrived, and she and the parents turned as one to face Miss Nugent.

Miss Nugent approached the crowd. Dr. D’Amico stepped forward, and their eyes leveled at one another. She released Dalton.

“I’m sorry,” she said as Dalton scrambled to his father. “We had an accident. He needs to be cleaned up.”

Dr. D’Amico lifted Dalton up. The man’s expression was placid and matter-of-fact, a match to his dull green scrubs.

“That’s okay.” Dr. D’Amico set Dalton down and raised the boy’s chin with a finger. “Everybody makes mistakes. Right, D.?”

Dalton sniffled and rubbed his face against his father’s legs. Dr. D’Amico pried away and squatted before his son. He put a gentle fist to Dalton’s cheek. “No tears, D. Ready for the world.”

Dalton sniffled again, but he was no longer crying. Slowly, a smile appeared. He didn’t look at Miss Nugent as he closed his own fingers and put his fist to his father’s chest, just a soft beat at first, and then another, and again and again with increasing tempo and intensity, a pounding that would echo within Miss Nugent long after she had talked to Brenda Glidden and explained everything and left the church that morning, her final morning in the Sunday school.

“Ready for the world!” the boy shouted. “Ready for the world!”

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