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Thursday, Feb. 9, 2006 10:02 pm

The duck, the shtick, and the best valentine ever

Sister Serene was magic — and my first valentine

The note on Tommie “Snorts” Sullivan’s Christmas card, saying that Sister Mary Serene had recently passed to her reward, surprised me only in that she decided to call it quits after 101 years. She could have lived forever, if so inclined — she was magic. Most of my early memories have blurred centers and chipped corners now. I can’t remember detail, so I paint in early memories with exaggeration and sand the corners down to smooth fancy. But I remember the detail of Sister Serene; her corners will always be sharp. In 1954, Sister Mary Serene (“Sister Serious,” behind her back), taught seventh grade at St. Anne’s School — where she expelled me on Fridays. It worked this way: I would accumulate a great pile of “serious” violations during the week — glance at girl, snowball sixth-grader, glance lingeringly at girl, put squirrel in Billy O’Malley’s desk, glance double-lingeringly at girl — until the pile grew to the “expel mark,” meaning, “Go see Father Troy and tell him why you were kicked out!” After a while, Father and I just cut to the chase. Father Troy: “You again!” Me: “Girl-glancing.” Father Troy: “See Knobs” (Karl Hanks, the janitor). I’d janitor with Knobs on Friday afternoon and Monday morning, then Father Troy would talk to Sister Serene and I’d be a student again — until Friday. All in all, a comfortable routine, especially comfortable because Monday morning was “replace morning recess time with eyes-closed private reflection time” in Sister Serene’s seventh grade. Until the duck changed everything. I’d slipped a dead duck in Snorts’ lunch bucket, or at least I thought it was dead. Snorts opened his bucket in search of a prelunch apple, saw the mallard, also thought it was dead, waited for a Sister-turned-away opening, grabbed the feathered beast and chucked it at me-across-the-room. The faking fowl revived midtoss, took angry flight, attacked Serene, then banked into the Nativity Scene That Stays Up Until February — and cracked the head clean off a holy ceramic camel. Big trouble. Maybe even a Mortal Sin of Sacrilege for desecrating the holy camel. For you non-Catholics, a mortal sin of sacrilege (in the ’50s) meant “commit one and you burn in Hell forever, no escape, can’t atone for it here on Earth.” Roasting on a hook for eternity — not good! Father Troy wanted the specifics on “this one,” and I did my best because, as you might guess, I had a head full of worry about the “roasting on a hook for eternity” deal. I’d scribbled out some quick excuses. Point one: Putting animals and snakes and birds into places is my “thing.” Every guy’s gotta have a thing — you know, a stick. Snorts has a gap in his front teeth, and he can spit a stream a water maybe a mile and hit me directly in the eyeball. And Mole Franklin can roll his eyeballs clear back into his head, so Snorts’ discharge missiles don’t cause Mole no harm — so Snorts is always spittin’ at me instead a’ Mole. Point two: Since third grade, Snorts and me been arguin’ over who’d win a Bugs Bunny-vs.-Daffy Duck fight. Naturally, I favor Bugs and . . . The good priest cut me off and said something that must have been in high Latin because it sounded like swearing, and I knew that couldn’t be, him being a priest and all. Then he sent me right off to Knobs, without first talkin’ baseball a few minutes, which was our usual way. Knobs, who attended Mass every day even if he had a hangover and was therefore knowledgeable in the ways of religion, gave me an “out” on the “mortal sin of sacrilege” business. He told me that if you die a martyr’s death, you go straight to heaven, even if you were a filthy piece of pure sacrilegious evil like me. A plan. I’d wait until I was real old, maybe 40, then go to a heathen country like Russia and have someone kill me — in the name of the Lord. A painful end, but anything was better than roasting on a hook for eternity. I was condemned to Knobs for two weeks for this one. It was Valentine’s Day before I was allowed back in school, just in time to get Sister Serene’s traditional Valentine card showing a saint (fellow martyr) with maybe 200 arrows sticking out his chest, which was the card the other 25 students got. Only my card was not a card at all, but a note. It read: “It’s ‘shtick,’ not ‘stick’ — camels can’t be holy, or unholy, for that matter — and the mighty Bugs beats Daffy hands down, every time!” And when I sneaked a peek during reflection time, her “serious” was gone, replaced by a hint of smile. Sister Serene, my first valentine. She left us much too soon at 101.
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