Sister Avellino, my third grade teacher, was 130 years old.
When she became a nun sometime before the Civil War she had taken the name of St. Andrew Avellino, a 16thCentury Sicilian priest whose most notable earthly accomplishment was in disciplining a group of Naples nuns who were performing singular acts of mercy, mostly for money and mostly for local men.
He is also the patron saint for preventing sudden death. So if it’s a long, agonizing death you want, St. Avellino is the saint for you.
It was late September 1963 at St. Mary’s Grammar School, and already I was bored — frustrated by the sluggish pace as we plodded through the yellowed reading textbooks.
So while the rest of the class was still back there at page 15 reading about John and Mary — the Catholic counterparts of Dick and Jane — I was already plowing through the book’s latter, more advanced narratives.
At this moment I was immersed in the story of the first Mass on a zeppelin. Yes, Boeing 707s were roaring over St. Mary’s on final approach to Idlewild Airport, but within these walls it was still 1938, and on a transatlantic dirigible voyage the passengers had suddenly realized it was Sunday, they were missing Mass, and they were all going straight to Hell.
To everyone’s relief, someone spotted a man in a Roman collar staring at the ocean below. “A priest!” they shouted. “We are saved!” But the priest looked at them sadly. “I can not say Mass,” he said. “I do not have an altar boy!”
Oh, there was great wailing and gnashing of teeth on that airship — but then a small voice piped above the sobs, “Iam an altar boy!”
So enthralled was I by this thrilling tale of altar boy heroics that I did not notice the black-robed form of Sister Avellino looming above me, like the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.
“Are you a playboy?” she squeaked. Instantly my reverie went down in flames, Hindenburg-like.
“Are you a playboy?” she repeated, raising her pitch to near dog-whistle frequency. “Do you like to play?”
I nervously tipped my head upward. In those days the Sisters of Charity wore habits that completely framed their faces, causing them to resemble very tight close-ups on tiny black-and-white TVs. “You have a bad TV habit,” my mother once told me. “Well, you should see Sister Avellino’s,” I responded.
“So, are you a playboy?” Now, in 1963 every kid knew a playboy wore a smoking jacket, had a lot of lady friends and read a magazine we weren’t allowed to see.
“N…noooo?” I answered hopefully.
“Don’t be bold with me,” Sister Avellino hissed. She pushed her face into mine. She had hair growing out of her lip. Not above her lip, like the other nuns, but right out of her upper lip. I could taste my morning Rice Crispies.
“Are you a bold boy? Do you know what bold means?”
I grappled for an answer. I had to say something.
“Bold is when you don’t have any hair,” I said.
Sister Avellino’s eyes usually resembled those of a half-sleeping marmoset, but they flew open.
“I will drag you out of that desk by your short hairs!” she announced. Short hairs? She reached around to the back of my neck and angrily tried to get a handful of hair, but with my Butch haircut it was like trying to braid a peach. Finally she pinched a few nubby strands between her thumb and forefinger.
So, Sister Avellino pulled me up by my short hairs and made me stand in a corner, the place where they put little boys who look ahead in the reader. I learned two valuable lessons that day: Never exceed expectations and never, ever try to define a word you don’t know.
Forty years later I sat in my editor’s office at National Geographic Magazine, reviewing a story I’d written about America’s heartland.
“I like it,” said the editor. “But I have a problem with this sentence: ‘For miles the rolling road becomes nearly hypnotic — until an unexpected sight grabs you by the shorthairs and demands your attention.’
He peered over his glasses.
“Now, in what alternate universe do you think National Geographic Magazine would run a sentence about grabbing people by their pubic hair?”
I stared at him.
“What are you talking about?” I said. “These are your short hairs.” I tugged at the back of my neck.
“Who told you that?”
“Sister Avellino,” I blurted.
He leaned back in his chair.
“Rewrite it,” he said. “This isn’t Playboy.”