By Shannon Chartrand
Why hadn’t I told my mother? I guess I never liked to rock the boat. That was my twin’s role. She sank the boat. Like the time she told my mother that the teacher inspected our hair - only our hair - for lice. Mom flew over to the nun’s residence on her broom, so to speak. When Sister St. Frederick answered the door, Mom ripped off her headdress. This could not have been easy since Mom only reached Sister’s armpit.
Mom was the type who swung first and asked questions later. She would have been a good saloon fighter. As it turned out, my twin and I had missed school the previous day when the rest of the class had been checked for lice. Sister treated us with kid gloves after that. I wasn’t about to tell Mom anything about our new teacher.
My twin, Sheila, and I had joined the school late. This memory may be from our first day at the school. We were fresh from the country where seven grades had been in the same class. The three kids in grade seven got all the attention because they had to pass Provincial exams at the end of the year. Needless to say, we hadn’t learned much by the time we reached the City.
This new teacher, (I’ll call her Mrs. Maguire) stood at the front of the class, her girth blocking a large, French storyboard. A halo of tight curls crowned her head, making her look like an aged Orphan Annie. Her belt cut her into two equal-sized lumps.
We were lined up along the length of the classroom between the wall and our desks. Like a human conveyor belt, the first in line spelled the word given by Mrs. Maguire, then walked to the end of the line until her turn came again, and so on and so on. This concept of being tested individually in front of the class was foreign to me. I wasn’t nervous. Just curious about the whole process.
My twin, Sheila, misspelled her word. She went to the end of the line. I misspelled my word. As I reached the end of the line, I heard the teacher say quietly, “Twin dummies”, as though she were thinking out loud.
Mrs. Maguire might just as well have punched me in the back of the head. A physical sensation surged through me like a glass filling with tap water. I think it was anger, something alien to my sanguine nature. But the anger was mixed with an emotional tsunami of impotence, injustice, indignation and humiliation.
Calling us dummies would have been bad enough. But, Mrs. Maguire had added the adjective ‘twin’. It was as if she was incredulous that we could both be dummies. Like we were circus freaks. It was the first time I had heard the word ‘twin’ used pejoratively. Being a twin was integral to my identity. I was half of a whole. She had attacked my core.
I was bruised but not broken. The concept of ‘homework’ was unknown to me. I had never seen anyone doing homework. My mother had never suggested it. However, I knew that’s what I had to do.
That night, I curled up in bed with my spelling book and memorized the next day’s list of words by the street light streaming through our basement window. By the end of the year, I won the prize for ‘most improved’.
Mrs. Maguire’s epithet had not registered with Sheila. She didn’t join me in my newfound fervour for homework. Falling through the cracks, Sheila dropped out of school after grade seven. A good teacher might have found a way to motivate her.
As for Mrs. Maguire, may she rot in hell. In fairness, though, her cruel remark ignited a fire that served me well throughout my life.