e-mail us

Starting Point

The day it all fell in on me


My kindergarten teacher was Miss Temple. I went to Jackson Street School, which, wonder of wonders, was on Jackson Street in Hempstead, Long Island, N.Y. My twin, Jimmy, and I walked there every school morning in the year 1953. I think that was the year. We were born in 1948. So does that seem right?

I remember many things about kindergarten. I remember putting green felt rabbits on a felt board. So I learned that felt stuck to felt. Or so it felt.

I picked up some social graces. The school was public -- since I was Catholic then and still am now, I was already inculturated to sense the presence of the Threatening Other, the presence of the potentially polluting non-Catholics. I was tossed into a seething sea of publicans. But I survived. I even liked a lot of the kids.

Until one day, when it all came crashing in on me.

There were these huge red foam blocks. We were told by Miss Temple to make a house. So we did. We did the sharing thing, the be-nice-children-thing and cooperated and built the house. It was not huge. But it did have a door and was high. Several of us were in the house and Miss Temple called for recess -- lemonade and lemon snaps. The other kids heard and raced out of the little door. The kid just ahead of me did not quite make it through and the last thing I remember seeing, before being enveloped in darkness and hearing the roar of laughter, was his rear end, which hit the wall as it exited and the house fell on me. I was sure he did it on purpose. I was embarrassed when the class started to laugh. I felt like a fool, sitting there groping my way through these big red blocks. Finally I emerged to the light of day and to the laughter of my “friends” and the towering figure of Miss Temple.

“Mr. Behrens, are you all right?” she asked.

“Yes,” I lied. Then I started to cry.

“No one meant that to happen,” she said.

“I know,” I said and lied again, thinking of that mean kid’s butt.

I could not stop crying.

Miss Temple leaned over and hugged me and then kissed me on the forehead. I felt a little better.

She rose and faced the class.

“Isn’t he brave, boys and girls?” she chirped and I knew she was lying because I was still crying.

“Yes, he is brave Miss Temple!” the class roared and I knew they were saying that just to agree with her and get back to their lemonade and lemon snaps. My day was ruined. I cannot remember the rest of it. But the memory of the house and the laughter was, for years, a crushing one.

But I survived. I not only survived but learned some lessons for future times, when other edifices would collapse. I admit I still fudge on the truth a bit if asked stupid questions. I still smile sometimes when I am dying on the inside.

But I did grow to like and even forgive the publicans.

I am still leery of foam houses and know that all laughter is not necessarily nice.

A kiss does not always make all the anguish go away, but it helps.

If what you build around yourself is flimsy enough to cave in with a thoughtless comment or wayward butt, it wasn’t worth much to begin with.

Make friends who laugh and cry with you. Keep them your whole life, from days of lemonade through nights of martinis and to evenings of tea, and you will have a house of gold that lasts.

I’m OK, Miss Temple, wherever you are.

Trappist Fr. James Stephen Behrens lives at Holy Spirit Monastery in Conyers, Ga. His new book, Memories of Grace: Portraits from the Monastery, has just been published by ACTA.

National Catholic Reporter, August 10, 2001