Our Lady of Mount Carmel. I knew enough about the “our lady” part to be a bit concerned (credit: a Catholic grandma). But the carmel part sounded, well, delicious and intriguing.

I was 6 and knew I wasn’t going back to public school for first grade; I overheard my teacher tell my mother not to send me there. This was fine by me; I had assumed I’d go to the Adventist school my mom was to teach at. But after eavesdropping on my parents’ closed-door discussion, I realized this caramel lady and I might instead get acquainted.

I had spent the first six years of life glued to my mom’s side, and now my parents were ready to cut their little girl loose—for a year with the caramel ladies.

Poor April
A fine September morning saw me standing hand in hand with my mom at the bus stop. I barely noticed the other kids around us. I did notice that my hands and underarms were sweating, and that my stomach flipped and swirled every time I thought the bus was rounding the corner. I noticed that my head felt thick, and that my breath was going in and coming out in little puffs. And then it was here. The bus.

I dutifully climbed tall, dark steps in my green-plaid skirt, white cotton blouse, and sturdy black Mary Janes. I sat down and gulped. As I attempted to be one with the green bench seat I prayed for safety from a laundry list of things—mean children, mean teachers, scary teachers, bad people, embarrassment, unwanted attention—and wondered why my parents had done this to me.

Last off the bus, I followed kids into the school, found my desk, and got ready for prayer and the pledge. I watched one girl in particular, April, who was two rows in front of me. She had pretty, straight black hair, and golden yellow skin. And she was even more afraid than me, it seemed. She didn’t talk to anyone.

As we finished up with “and justice for all” I noticed a puddle had formed around April’s feet. Sister Mary and the other kids noticed too. April left with the sister, never to return that day.

The next morning the same thing happened, except April left with Sister Mary and a bag of clothes. She came back a few minutes later. Poor April, I thought, as this ritual was repeated day after day. She’s way more scared than I am. I added April to my prayers, and remembered to smile at her as often as I could.

Seats, Please!
Lunch was an adventure. I’d carefully and slowly eat, trying to blend into the sea of uniformed children. We were not allowed to talk much, but I’d whisper with other kids about important things such as games to play at recess, how many times classmate Abraham got in trouble, the latest Muppets show, and who had what for lunch. I’d cast furtive glances at Lea, a petite and popular brown-haired girl who had a perfect Dorothy Hamill cut. I was friends with her, but not best friends. Yet. I was pals with Melissa, who was a BFF of Lea, so things were possible.

I was not petite. I did not have perfect auburn hair—mine was frizzy and “dirty blond.” So I had to work hard to be like Lea. I begged my mom for the exact same pencil case as Lea. And I tore it in the same place hers was torn. I was committed.

One day Sister Anita was making announcements from the front of the lunchroom. About lent, or something. A priest was up there too. He talked about stuff, above the low din of eaters and whisperers.

Everyone was focused on the special guests. Melissa and Lea decided to sneak out to the bathroom. They crouched down between the rows of students and darted away. Deciding I had to go too, I followed them. They had a 50-foot lead on me and were just turning the last corner around tables before the exit door when Sister Anita stopped talking, then shouted, “Lea! Melissa! You get back to your seats right now! You have not been dismissed!” They froze in fear. I froze in fear. I dropped lower and scurried back to my seat, praying Sister Anita would not call me out—I knew those twin ice-blue lasers had seen me. Ninja-like, I slid into my seat. Melissa and Lea inched back and took their seats, mortified and red-faced. After that, I wasn’t as keen on being just like Lea.

Easter was a big deal at Our Lady of Mount Carmel. In addition to daily recitation of the Hail Mary and Our Father prayers, we listened to and spoke the Act of Contrition. We went to a special mass in the church, where the priest sang-spoke a lot.

I didn’t retain much of what transpired—all I could think about was the mark burning into my forehead.

Upon entering the sanctuary, I thought I knew what would happen—I’d been to Mass with my grandma. Obligatory kneel by pew followed by sign of the cross. Then we’d sit down, and stand up, and sit down, kneel, stand up, sit down, repeat “Lord, hear our prayer” and a few other key phrases . . . I was not prepared for what did occur.

Once the signal was given, our entire class walked up to the front of the church, single file, where the priest plunged his index finger into black powder and drew on the children’s foreheads. My anxiety ratcheted up about 20 notches. Faint, hot, worried—this was it, I thought, the mark of the beast. I knew just enough about the mark and the role of the Catholic Church in prophecy to be dangerous. I imagined refusing and running away, but I was an obedient child—and I was terrified of embarrassment. I was stuck.

Trying not to hyperventilate, I reasoned with God. I don’t think I can avoid this, I told Him. I’m sorry. Please don’t let this stop me from going to heaven. I’m on Your side. Please don’t let this be a permanent mark against me. I’ll wash it off as soon as I can. It does wash off, right?

I was next. I closed my eyes and felt the warm, dry finger brush an X across my brow. Branded, I sat down and went through the motions until we journeyed back to class. I do not like Ash Wednesday, I declared silently. I dared not rub or smear the cross, as we children were told to leave it untouched.

As I walked down the aisle on the bus after school I licked my index finger and proceeded to smear, wipe, erase the mark. The remains of ash likely just looked like a bit of dust, but I still felt . . . compromised. I ran into our bathroom at home and emerged a few minutes later with a clean face and relieved spirit.

More to It
I survived Catholic school. And as an adult I realize the value of that year. Not only did I gain some independence, and learn to worry (a little) less, I grew spiritually.

As brisk as Sister Anita was, I knew she was devoted to the students. Sister Mary was a kind and gentle woman. As different as their faith was from mine, I still learned dedication and compassion from them. And with all the praying I did for others—and myself!—I discovered that fragile little 6-year-olds can have their own fearful, precious, heartfelt faith too. That year was more than terror, bus rides, rosaries, and ashes.

Kimberly Luste Maran, an assistant editor of Adventist Review, is glad there won’t be Ash Wednesday in heaven. This article was published Jue 13, 2013.


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