A new class period was starting but we could all tell from the look on Sister Mary Helen Louise’s face that something was seriously wrong.
That face meant business. It was an angry face. It was the kind of face one makes when you walk into a public restroom and none of the toilets have been flushed.
She stood in front of our class and drew herself up to her full height which wasn’t much, but for fourth graders, was pretty imposing.
Without a word, she produced a paper clip and held it aloft like the body of Christ. After what seemed like an eternity, she finally spoke.
“I want to know,” her voice shaking, “who is responsible for this!”
The paper clip looked like this:
We all sat frozen to our seats. The thought crossed my mind: ‘Is she kidding?’
I knew better. This paper clip had suffered a gross insult. And someone was going to fess up to it or else.
“This is a useful piece of property that someone has bent and left on the floor,” sister said. “I want to know right now, who bent this paperclip and left it on the floor,”
In the silence you could have heard a . . . paperclip drop.
“It is a SIN,” sister went on, “to destroy property like this. We do not do this at Notre Dame. This is disrespect not only to bend this paperclip but to leave it on the floor.”
I couldn’t have been the only kid in the room to have two thoughts on the matter. One, just bend the stupid thing back and voila! The paperclip can be used again. Any idiot could see that. Two, in 1973, the cost of one paperclip was some small fraction of a cent. Perhaps it was a mil, I don’t know, but you could probably get a gross of them for 39 cents. Plus tax.
But I guess she was using this lowly paperclip to make some grand point and neither the simple solution, nor the infinitesimally small price of a bent piece of metal, was going to make a difference.
No one spoke. No one even looked at another classmate.
“Well,” sister said. “We are just going to wait here until someone confesses to this.
“We are not going to start class and all of you will be the lesser for it, but I will not start class until the person responsible for this steps up and claims responsibility!”
Really? You promise?
This went on for almost 15 minutes before Sister Mary Helen Louise conceded we were of the devil this day.
“Well,” she said. “The person responsible for this knows who they are and the sin they have committed and they will have to live with this sin.”
“But make no mistake, if I ever see anyone doing this to a paperclip in my class, I will be taking you down to the Principal’s office and calling your parents.”
The Inquisition was over. For now.
I remember while we were sweating bullets in silence I was thinking the one thing I could not say: it may have been me. But I didn’t remember.
I was a young Catholic boy having a crisis of conscience.
I remember having bent paperclips in this way before and bent them back. I found this particular shape interesting, like a Mobius loop (OK, I didn’t know what that was in the fourth grade but work with me here – it just looked interesting). It also reminded me of the TV antennas many home still sported. VHF, not UHF.
A child’s mystery toy.
But I wasn’t entirely sure this was my paperclip. I certainly don’t remember leaving it on the floor but it could have fallen off my desk. I thought to myself – has any of the other 26 kids ever thought how fascinating a paperclip looks when you bend it this way? I wasn’t sure. It was a possibility.
I didn’t know what to do but I knew Jesus was watching. I talked to him right there in the middle of class — in my mind, of course.
“Jesus, sister sure is sore about this paperclip and I may have done it, but I’m not sure,” I said in my head. “What if I confess and I didn’t do it? Would it be right to be punished for something I didn’t do? Or should I sacrifice myself, as you did on the cross, and take the punishment for the sins of another?”
“Please give me guidance, Lord,” I went on, feeling the sweat trickle down my brow (would sister see this? And would it be a sure sign of guilt?). “You see everything Jesus, you know – please let me know if it was me.”
And, as has happened so many times, my plea was met with silence. So I kept my mouth shut. Damn if I was going to give this nun and her ridiculous crusade for office supplies my scalp. I had already taken enough crap from the nuns for a lifetime and I had four more years to serve before parole.
So 43 years later, I think it was probably (but not beyond a shadow of a doubt) me. So, forgive me Lord for I have sinned – I have deformed one of your creations – a lowly paperclip (and, I might add, compounded my sin by doing it again for this story, but I couldn’t find a similar photo on Google) and I am heartily sorry for offending thee and pissing off the nun.
Since I know I deserve to make penance but have not been to confession since 1977, I will listen and wait for your instructions.
(15 minutes later)
OK, I guess it wasn’t me after all. Whew, carrying that guilt for 43 years was quite a load! Or maybe He let me off with time served.
Now I have to bend this paperclip back. It is, after all, government property.
There. Almost good as new.