My Perfect MessMy Perfect Mess

I had a rotten fifth grade. Although I made good grades, worked hard, was quiet and mostly obedient, Sister Saint Therese du Divine Coeur hated messy. And I was so messy.

Sister Saint Therese made us fasten our winter boots together with clothespins, line up our book bags neatly in a row under the windows, and cover our textbooks with brown paper. Plain, blank brown paper. Months into the school year, we still weren't supposed to have a single doodle on any cover. I was ten. I don't think I need to elaborate.

I also never remembered to bring a head scarf to wear on confession day. So once a month, I confessed with a Kleenex bobby-pinned to my head.

But in Sister Saint Therese's eyes, my penmanship was her purgatory. Her handwriting was like the Declaration of Independence. Mine was the way desperate people scrawl on bathroom mirrors when they've been kidnapped.

At Saint Anne's School, composition was the most important subject. That was fine with me. I was a wonderful storyteller, and I knew it. But in fifth grade, our monthly essays became ordeals. Because our stories didn't only need to be beautifully written, they had to be beautifully written.

Each student would write a first draft on "practice paper" -- cheap grayish sheets from the communal tablet. We would bring our essays one at a time to Sister. She'd look them over, correcting our spelling and grammar as she clicked her teeth. Then from her desk drawer, she would hand us our black-and-white-speckled composition book. The paper in the book was stapled to the center, so unlike spiral notebooks, if you tore out a sheet, the composition book tattled on you. Talk about leaving a paper trail.

Once we were handed our books, we were supposed to turn to the next blank page and copy our finished essay. With a fountain pen.

Giving me a fountain pen was like giving a toddler a bowl of spaghetti. No matter how careful I was -- how deliberately I formed every letter -- something would always go wrong. An a looked more like a d, an m always had one too many humps, the line that crossed through the t in "the" always crossed through the h, too. And don't get me started on the ink blots and the smears. (I challenge each of you with a ten-year-old to look at your child right now and picture him with an old-fashioned fountain pen in his hand.)

So I'd turn in my story riddled with smears, blobs, shaky letters, and mistakes, all of which I had tried to fix. Sister Saint Therese would be furious.

"Mother Mary would weep!" she'd cry, holding up my open book for all the class to see. Sister Saint Therese du Divine Coeur was a serious humiliator.

That's when I'd get a Black Ticket. These were small pieces of paper about the size of a Band-Aid, black felt on one side and white on the other. You wrote your name on the white side and deposited the ticket in the Black Box, which sat directly in front of the statue of the Blessed Virgin. I think we were supposed to be offering up our sins, but for the life of me I never understood why Mary would want our sins in the first place.

At the end of every month, Sister Therese would open the box and read the names one by one. How we dreaded hearing our names come out of that box. A ten-ticket count was very bad. Once you accumulated that many tickets, you had to write your name in the Black Book. This could be considered the hotel registry for Hell. And I got booked. Repeatedly.

The school year is an eternity when you're ten. And when most days include at least one moment of mortification, they crawl like Palm Sunday's high mass. But the Blessed Virgin must have known that no child should be a nervous wreck forever, because when I got to sixth grade, my teacher was Sister Regina Marie.

Like all the nuns at Saint Anne's, Sister Regina was strict. She looked to be six feet tall. Her habit stopped just short of her ankles, so you could see her thick black stockings and heavy-soled shoes. She had big hands with knuckles like my grandfather's.

In Sister Regina's class, we marched like West Point cadets. Slouching was lazy, and laziness was a mortal sin. She had little tolerance for fidgety boys and less for giggly girls. And she liked science way too much for my tastes. But all of this was okay with me, because with Sister Regina there were no Black Tickets, no Black Box, no Black Book -- and no black-and-white-speckled composition books.

For our essays, Sister Regina had snow-white paper with the palest of blue lines. And she sold us (at cost, I hope) special ballpoint pens.

"These pens are one hundred percent guaranteed never to leak," she said. "You will never get a glob of ink at the tip to mess up your papers." I bought one right away, and when my grandmother gave me 50 cents for running an errand, I bought a spare. I knew a bargain when I saw one. Still, the thought of putting that glob-proof pen to that immaculate sheet of paper was too much to bear.

When Sister Regina announced our first essay assignment of the school year, I was expecting it to be "How I Spent My Summer Vacation." Not so. Instead, we were told to "describe something beautiful."

On my walk to school each day, I passed a tree that looked like any other for most of the year -- except at autumn, when it turned the most brilliant red. So I wrote about the red tree and how it always caught me by surprise. Since I liked telling stories more than describing things, the story was about a tree that decided, quite deliberately, to stay green as long as possible, letting all the other trees go first, the better to startle everyone by turning every single leaf to crimson over the course of one night.

It was a pretty good story for an eleven-year-old, once you got past the thesaurus overload. (I had a tiny green book called Little Book of Synonyms, and I applied it liberally.) My tree was fiery, ruby, crimson, scarlet, vermillion, blood-drenched like a rose, a beet, an apple, a sunset. I was in vocabulary paradise and delighted with my essay.

But I had to write the finished version on that pristine paper. With a death grip on my special pen, I was overcome with fear. The tears came, and I cried all over my white paper.

Sister Regina came over to my desk. She leaned over me from her great height.

"What in the world is the matter with you?" she asked.

I looked away. I could hardly answer. 'Tm afraid I will make a mistake," I whispered.

"So what?" Sister Regina said.

So what?! So what if I made a mistake? I suddenly felt like I was the star of one of those catechism filmstrips, like the one where Saint Paul gets knocked off his horse. Because at that moment, angels began singing and the clouds parted and the sun shone down on my ruby tree. A teacher had actually said "So what!"

Sister Regina leaned in closer, her veil providing a small, private space for the two of us.

"Look," she said quietly, "we all want everything we do to be perfect, but sometimes it just doesn't turn out that way, because we aren't perfect. If you aren't satisfied when you're done, and you think you can do it better -- not perfect, just better -- well, then, just do it again. You can do it as many times as you like."

I've had many wonderful teachers who have guided and inspired me. But Sister Regina Marie's kind words at that moment have meant as much to me as anything I have heard before or since.

In those few words, I learned one of the most reassuring lessons of life: that you don't have to be perfect. You only have to satisfy yourself. And there is no limit to the number of chances you get.

I'm still messy. So what?

Copyright ? 2006 Marlo Thomas

by Marlo Thomas
References and Bibliography

Marlo Thomas graduated from the University of Southern California with a teaching degree. She is the author of four bestselling books, Free to Be . . . You and Me, Free to Be . . . a Family, The Right Words at the Right Time, and Thanks and Giving: All Year Long. Ms. Thomas has won four Emmy Awards, a Golden Globe, a Grammy, the Peabody Award, and has been inducted into the Broadcasting Hall of Fame for her work in television, including her starring role in the landmark series That Girl, which she also conceived and produced. She is the National Outreach Director for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. Ms. Thomas lives in New York with her husband, Phil Donahue.

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