Oct/Nov 2008  •   Fiction  •   Special Feature

Learning by Rote

by Jason Armitage

Sister Cowlishaw did not expect originality from her pupils, but she did insist on precision. After all, if the young mind is not informed by facts, how can it attain order? Too much nonsense had been made in recent years of the injunction Know Then Thyself. "Understanding comes later," she used to say. "What matters is the Book." And what better preparation for a child, what clearer way for the soul to be guided, than to learn the Bible, word for blessed word?

On her first day, the boys at the seminary looked on their new teacher with fear. Unsurprising, the good sister thought, for she was after all a woman. A fact to be much regretted, but as the first female teacher at the school, her uniqueness did bring advantages. For the boys, all orphans, she was the first woman they had sustained contact with. Every action, every utterance was followed with a pleasing attentiveness. She felt sure, given a year, she could take these unformed beings and have them reciting all four gospels without a slip.

There were only two weeks to go until the holidays. But Father Wilbur in his wisdom had suggested she begin immediately. Just to show her face, as he put it, but the sister had a quite different aim. It was an opportunity to make a strong first impression, set the ground rules for her mission.

In the first lesson, she instructed the class to turn to the first page of Genesis. The sister was blessed with a mind as sequential as it was trained.

"O'Neil," she shouted. The little devil almost jumped from his skin. "Start, if you will."

After he had regained his voice, the boy read the familiar opening words of the Bible. Other members of the class, risking a glance from their desks, could enjoy the spectacle of Sister Cowlishaw, sitting back in the stiff wooden chair, eyelids down, silently reciting the phrases. O' Neil stumbled through the six days of Creation, tripping up as he read on "vegetation," "firmament," and even shorter words. Proof for the sister's theory, only by committing the words to memory could they be fully understood.

"For the week coming, every boy will learn by heart the Creation. And the Garden of Eden. And the Fall."

The young faces looked at each other in disbelief. But Sister Cowlishaw snapped her Bible shut and, assured by the desperate whispers, left the class confident she had achieved her aim.

Two days later, there was a cautious knock on Sister Cowlishaw's cell. She was unsurprised to see its bearer was Father Wilbur. He had already struck the sister as a singularly insipid figure. She could almost guess from the soft fear in his smile the purpose of this visit.

"A number of first graders have told me they are having difficulties with their homework..."

"That doesn't surprise me," the sister answered. "They seem unused to real work."

"I wonder, with the holidays coming up, might we not ease them into Biblical Studies? A little more gently?"

"It is precisely the holidays that worry me. Am I right in understanding the boys will be sent to the west coast?"

"Yes, Oxley Farm. We do find the encounter with nature helps them to relax. Open up, as it were." Father Wilbur's voice petered out. "You don't believe in a recess for the children?"

"I wish I could believe in something beyond study and the truth of the Book."

On the Friday before term, Sister Cowlishaw entered the class to find a roomful of silent boys. Their little faces were reassuringly taut with concentration. The sister had always been confident of her ability to inspire students. The fear of God, she called it. She instructed Craig the opening to Genesis, and to her satisfaction, the boy managed to get all the way to the beasts and serpents. There were a few errors, which she instantly corrected, but precision would come with time.

"Let's move on to the Fall." Her gaze cast around the room. Among the shrinking figures, a boy at the back was trying to hide behind his Bible. When he finally looked up in the silence, he almost fainted on meeting the gaze of the sister.

"Doyle! Chapter 3, the story of the Fall, if you will."

The boy was unable to speak, so the sister started him off: "The serpent was the wisest of the field..."

"...and he told the woman..."

The boy looked round the classroom, searching every inch of space for the lost words. They were nowhere to be found. The silence and the sister's stare bared down on him. But he could not for the life of him recall the text.

"Doyle, have you studied the chapters?" The boy nodded.

"Apparently, not closely enough. For the first lesson on the first day of next term, you will honour us with a recitation of Genesis One to Three. Am I understood?"

The holidays passed in silent contemplation for Sister Cowlishaw. She had elected to stay at the school for the break. There was a wonderful plainness to the four walls of her cell. She could sit all day studying Latin scripture, the door firmly closed to the world and its distractions. The day before term resumed, she was surprised by a phone call. It was Father Wilbur, flustered as ever. Doyle had gone missing.

"His behaviour was most peculiar all holiday, as if he was experiencing a breakdown. Poor soul! And then he would come to ask me such strange questions. Why were we condemned to a life of labor? Was it true a woman had prompted God to cast us out of the Garden of Eden? This morning, his bed was found empty, and he has not been seen since."

Sister Cowlishaw assured Father Wilbur she would phone if Doyle appeared, and hung up. Well really, what did the father expect if discipline were not instilled into children properly?

That night she lay down early to sleep after a long session with Leviticus. It was always a good idea to be well-rested for the first day of term. With a smile, she looked ahead to getting properly to work on the pupils, and it wasn't long before she was enjoying a comforting sleep. But halfway through the night, she found herself stirring. After weeks of seclusion, the slightest wisp of light could wake her. And there, in the gloom, was the outline of a boy framed by the door, holding aloft a nail hammer. Sister Cowlishaw just had time to make out Doyle's troubled face, before the metal came down on her temple with gratifying precision.