“Boys Who Wear Crosses” by CC Molaison

Hooded Nun by Jennifer Kircher Herman

Late September, my first year teaching, Father Paul pulled two of my fourth graders by their necks out of the boys’ bathroom. His face was sagging and furious. The students were Xavier and Johnny, a pair known for boyish mischief. Breaking into snack machines, bothering the girls, cheating. Xavier on his own wasn’t a problem, but other teachers warned me about Johnny. The first day of class an overgrown boy walked into class with his shirt opened down to his chest revealing a fist-sized golden cross, and I thought to myself: this must be Johnny. 

Father Paul held the boys up like junky potato sacks. Their feet skimmed the ground. Johnny’s shirt was buttoned back up, but his chain spilled out. This always happened. I never told Johnny to close his shirt during homeroom, but by lunchtime his shirt was buttoned up by Sister Therese. I never really pushed anything onto the students other than the lesson. Part of my method was to see what the kids would do if not told to do anything. Sister Therese’s method was to slap students with a ruler.

“Father Paul,” I said, “what did they do?”

“What did they do?” he replied in disbelief, shaking the boys with each word. “What did they do? Well, Ms. Fontenot, why don’t you go look for yourself?”

Father Paul obnoxiously checked my school ID to say my name; this was only the third time we’d spoken to each other. He finished his last question by shoving the boys in the direction of the bathroom, the way my father used to shove my dog’s snout in his shit when he had an accident in the living room.   

Sharpied penises and money signs coated the faded blue walls of the boys’ bathroom. At first I thought it excessive that Father Paul should get so worked up over kids practicing premature graffiti, but then I saw a juice box straw and three and a half poorly cut lines of orange dust behind the faucet. I pressed the button on the hand dryer and sent the dust flying.

Outside the bathroom, kids skipped down the halls and teachers chattered as normal, the way thunder delays after lightning strikes. No one else seemed to know about the incident besides Mr. Todd, the janitor, who was putting up an “Out of Order” sign on the bathroom door. He looked at me and giggled. Nausea spread from my stomach to the back of my throat.

In my disoriented state, I stumbled into the girls’ bathroom. Krystal, Maria, and Claudia were using the stalls as an indoor playground. Claudia, the skinny double-jointed girl, climbing like a spider between the stall and the wall; Krystal, hanging upside down from the stall frame; Maria, holding the top of the second stall’s frame and swinging her body to reach the sink. I’d never gone into the student bathrooms before; it felt intrusive that I could see over the stall wall just by standing straight. 

The girls were all laughing, laughing the pressurized laughs that you have to wheeze to get out. Krystal in particular, whose braids swept the floor, was struggling not to choke on her laughs. When they saw me walk in, their laughter tumbled out of their throats louder.

“Girls, please come down. I don’t want you to fall and hurt yourselves.”

I had no intention of punishing, nor any backbone.

Guilt consumes me when I remember my earliest months teaching at St. Anthony the Great. I was right out of college. I felt too young. The excessive discipline practiced in the school by the faculty members brought my devotion into question. The nuns were strict, I anticipated that. My horrible grandfather used to say Southern crosses looked different. But even the other lay teachers beat the boys, cut the girls’ hair off, held bad children in solitary confinement for whole days. My determined style for my first year was primarily to learn from the children—understand their motivations and displeasures—and allow my method of teaching to flow from there. My last job at the Walmart on Tchoupitoulas Street, the graveyard shift after my college classes, we weren’t allowed to stop a customer from stealing. It was in the handbook: no intervention. We’d become a liability too quickly. 

The children would snub their little noses at a teacher behind their back, in front of me. And I would just freeze there, an empty-eyed fossil of a thing.

Johnny’s innocent schemes amused me. His methods were far more advanced than his schoolmates, a constant world-building going on behind his eyes. The time he collapsed the roof of the boys’ locker room. He stored bagged chips there, accessed by pushing a loose tile. He charged the other boys two quarters for the snacks after PE class. I assumed it was his mother who tucked away such furtive capitalist ambition in him. Though one day Johnny slipped while grabbing the tile, and the entire roof collapsed over his head. The school already was crumbling on its own—rotted floors caving in, cafeteria tables collapsing. Things constantly broke and nobody was at fault. But of course Johnny’s accident signaled the end of the world. His mother was billed $1500 for damages, but she never replied to Father Paul’s letter. 

Before the bathroom incident, I believed Johnny was a genius. His perverse devilry, to my mind, was due to his accelerated learning capacity, like Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I considered teaching Shakespeare’s play, so Johnny could find a character to relate to. Many of my teaching decisions were molded by my desire to satisfy him. I’ve since heard that first-year teachers often do this—imprint. I tried instead Of Mice and Men but, failing to move the students past the third chapter, switched to The Outsiders. I don’t think the children understood the dead mouse. 

The Friday after Johnny was caught cutting up his Adderall, the AC unit in the teachers’ lounge broke. The September heat was merciless. I and the other teachers not assigned to recess duty instead ate our lunch in Mrs. McGhee’s classroom. Her classroom theme was elephants, and as a result the artwork and decorations were much more dull than the teachers who had selected cheetahs or parrots or butterflies as their theme. I sat in the back corner, near a student’s large drawing of an elephant with outrageously pink ears. It was the most colorful fragment of the room. 

I was quietly grateful for the room change; in the teachers’ lounge there was only the large center table and some loveseats lining the walls. I usually found myself sitting awkwardly between teacher friend groups or else politely laughing on cue when the conversation was large enough for the entire room. Mrs. McGhee’s room, at least, was awkward for everyone. I fit into a desk uncomfortably and constantly changed which leg I crossed over the other, but the teachers too big for the desks sat on top of them, and the teachers too large to sit on the desks leaned against the wall holding their microwave meals in their hands. The chatter didn’t take long.

“I’m not even surprised,” Mr. Emory announced to the room, jabbing his plastic fork into the air. “Xavier, maybe. But of course he follows in Johnny’s footsteps. Even if Johnny was to jump off a bridge, Xavier would make the second splash.”

“I blame these kids getting over-diagnosed. I don’t even think Johnny has ADHD. And even so, drugs are the last thing he needs,” Mrs. Roberts said with a raised eyebrow. 

“Who knows what drugs he’s surrounded by at home,” Mrs. Mayer said sharply. Something about her voice made me want to burst out of my seat and scream. I often heard those three bad-mouth so-called welfare mothers, imagining living rooms they’d never been in. And yet, every Sunday Mrs. Mayer walked down the church aisles with a wicker basket and suggested donations. The disparity in her behavior confused and annoyed me. I clawed at the cage of my own self-imposed silence.

After a quiet moment, Mrs. Hightower spoke up, “It’s no good to threaten him with expulsion. If he were to transfer to one of the charter schools—”

“We need to do what’s right for the whole of the student body. For the school community,” Sister Therese jabbed in. “And Johnny is a bad influence on whoever finds themselves around him. Johnny is a snake of a boy.”

“On top of that,” Mr. Emory said, standing up from his position on top of a desk, “what does that communicate about our school if we don’t enforce the toughest repercussions?” 

After recess, Johnny walked in fifteen minutes late to the afternoon lesson. The other students quieted, waiting for me to punish, but I let him take his seat and continued on about Divine Revelation. God reveals himself to us through the sacred scripture. Sister Therese’s words echoed in my mind: a snake of a boy. I remembered, then, a story I had read once about a delinquent boy who wore a crucifix and scared the teachers. Stories follow me everywhere. I find cracks in the world that I wouldn’t have fallen into without them. For instance, the revelation that Johnny was not a delinquent.

I tried not to look at Johnny, instead keeping my eyes on the thick beige brick walls that seemed, in that moment, carceral. But when I made contact with his bored eyes, a scratchy announcement sounded on the intercom.

Classes cut short twenty minutes. Mandatory mass to follow. Apologies, teachers, for any inconveniences.

The students silently shouted yes and fist-bumped each other under their desks. I watched Johnny doodle in his notebook until I was distracted by a silver shiver reflecting off his black hair.

At Mass, the afternoon light streaming in from the stained glass windows caused the pulsing veins of Father Paul’s neck to look like red snakes crawling under his skin. He stood at the podium, fingers gripping the oak, spitting words at the students. I’m not sure, even, if it was truly a Mass. Right when the classes filed into the pews, he broke into his hoarse song. He called the students cursed dogs. His voice bellowed, echoing and folding over itself in the empty space left open by the silent choir. My back was glued to the pew, and I could hardly blink. The church seemed sharp, weak, like shattered glass. Father Paul locked eyes with me, and I saw the way he looked at Johnny earlier. If looks could strangle.

“The Apostle Paul at the church of Corinth said: For I am the least worthy of the apostles, I who am not fit or deserving to be called an apostle, because I once wronged and pursued and molested the church of God, oppressing it with cruelty and with violence.” Father Paul caught his breath and smoothed his hair. He paced behind the podium, like a frustrated husband. “You are who you are only by the grace of God. By the grace of God.”

Claudia quivered next to me, and I took hold of her hand. Behind me, two eighth grade girls with big hoops in their ears sat at the edge of their seats and smacked their gum and tapped their nails on the pew near the base of my neck. I knew they were scared. Grace, the unmerited favor of God. Mrs. Roberts had to take a second-grade girl to the quiet room; Father Paul had screamed her into a newborn panic attack. I made the sign of the cross. 

When I was a girl, I was in the habit of throwing tantrums. Wailing, vowel-laden, tear-drenched tantrums. Even up until I was the age of the tough-skinned girls behind me, though by that time the outbursts were less tantrums than ungoverned paroxysms. Another mother may have considered it a mental illness, or even an annoyance, but my mother considered it a calling. She was determined not to repress my feelings but instead to find a physical language I could whittle my explosive feelings down to. My mother was a very large lady, much taller than my father. She would arrive at my side and whisper, “Undo the room, Olivia. It’s going to be okay.”

The idea of the exercise was for me to scan the objects of the room and reconfigure them to their original state. The pews we stood over, restored to their towering oak woodland. Father Paul’s wool robe, knotted on the skin of a sheep. The candle, a scaly honeycomb.

Johnny, across the pews from me, rocked from one foot to the other. If you could pack everything your body had been before it had become you into this church room, it wouldn’t fit. Catholics can be very averse to decentering the present moment, the present body. I don’t fall into those young pits of passion anymore, nor do I try to figure out what they were. If nothing else, I consider them my first lesson in mysteries and an early understanding that not everything is in our control. 

Father Paul pounded his fist on the podium, and the children kept their eyes on him, whether they were really looking or not. 

The boys’ punishment had been to spend lunch and recess with a teacher for the rest of the semester. I volunteered. After eating, they were to pull out their homework and work in silence. Xavier always split his bologna sandwich with Johnny, who never brought lunch except one Friday when he had a hot dog sliced open with Kraft cheese melted down the middle. The boys devoured it; I nearly vomited. During those lunches, I played old movies on the projector. Casablanca, Vertigo. I taught them how to play solitaire, and we sat at the three desks in the front of the room, playing our cards, our faces glowing with the shifting black-and-white shades of the movie screen.

Johnny stayed at St. Anthony the Great two more months until his mother pulled him out. The day before Thanksgiving holiday—the last time I saw Johnny—he told me Father Paul was stuffing their mailbox with complaints and reminders and bills, and she was sick of the bullshit. With no more Johnny, the administration allowed Xavier freedom from our teacher lunches, though I’d just see him pacing the blacktop and every once and a while stooping down to tie his shoes.

My job felt aimless once Johnny was gone. I had relegated the other children to the background, and so I felt very invisible most days. I flung my lessons out my mouth and watched them fizzle in the ears of the schoolkids. Sometimes I didn’t remember the sentence I said before and would keep talking to make sure no one was listening. I went to confession at my church across town and prayed with my priest to fix my poor performance as a teacher. I could see his creased forehead behind the black lace screen dividing our faces inside the confessional. I always found it strange that we sat during the sacrament, hidden from each other, only to stand at the end to give each other a hug. It felt like a lazy formality, conceived when private manners became trendy. He said I acted as if Johnny was a child of mine, dead too early, and asked if I was on birth control.

In college, I took an introductory class on literary theory. The professor coughed a lot and taught sitting down, which I liked. He said words like ideology and machismo and phenomenological. Words absent in my life until then, and I loved it; look at me now.

Not to say I was good at it. I thought every paradox was an imitation of the Holy Trinity, but sometimes it is just not. That was the best thing I learned in college, that not everyone thinks like you do. That felt like grace. Though I eventually specialized in Southern Lit where the Holy Trinity did hide, more often than not. One of those theory classes, the professor lectured on schisms in Marxism. He told us to pretend we were standing on a cliff and that there was a rope dangling over the edge. One Marxist says if you think about the sturdiness of the rope a lot and trust the evidence that it would hold you, then you believe in the rope. The other Marxist disagrees and says that thinking about the rope and trusting the evidence for its strength isn’t enough to believe in the rope. The only way to prove that you believe in the rope is to grab onto it and step off the cliff.

The professor kicked his socked feet out onto his desk and said the rope represented ideology—though it looked more like prayer to me.

Regardless, I was thinking about the rope and my prayers when I drove to Father Paul’s house one night after my confession. Everyone from the school’s church knew where he lived—a block away from the campus in a brick rancher. He often invited the parishioners to walk with him to his home for donuts after mass. 

He came to the door drunk, with a goblet in his hand. “Ms. Fontenot! A pleasure! Come in. Come in.”

“Olivia,” I said, somewhat caught off guard. I was hoping to seem menacing and terrible, a chasm of surprise, for having just appeared at his house. But he, sauntering around his living room in a red velvet robe, was not awe-struck in the least.

“Would you like a drink? I’m having Russian Standard. I have, also, Stoli if that is something that you fancy.”

“I don’t drink.”

“Oh, that’s fine. I have plenty of friends that don’t drink.” He rubbed the bald spot on the crown of his head. I took a seat on the plastic-covered armchair, and he sat on the coffee table. 

“I came here to talk about Johnny.”

“The rat doesn’t even go to our school anymore, Olivia. What’s the matter?”

“I don’t like the way you treated him. He was neglected, and he is going to turn his back on the faith now.”

“He’ll come back to it years down the line. Be it because he raises a son of his own or because he ends up in prison and finds light there, I don’t know. He’ll come around to it though.”

“Prison! Father Paul, how dare you. He is a boy.”

“You act like you know everything, Fontenot. Sit down. Cops have brought that boy to my door thrice now. First time, he threw a brick through his little crush Charlotte’s window. Second time, I stopped asking. His mother doesn’t deal with him. Cops bring him to her, and she shuts the door in their face. Says, That’s not my son. I promise. The officers tell me these things.” He sipped from his goblet. “God knows he’ll end up somewhere.”

Why am I here? I asked myself. That feeling of grabbing onto a rope you trust. For me, that is prayer. Swinging in the air, without thinking that you might fall down. For Johnny, well, if there was a rope it silently unraveled in his hands.

“All the kids at the school and in the congregation are sons and daughters to me. The doors to my home are always open to him,” Father Paul said.

“School! Where will he go to school! Where will he learn!” I was standing again, taut and energized. Furious that he wanted to relegate all my blame to Johnny’s mother, a woman I didn’t even know. My angry eyes drifted to all the breakables in his living room. The vodka bottle. The glass cross. The brass urn, which wasn’t necessarily breakable, but would make a scene if I threw it.

“Maybe you should drink.”

“Father Paul!”

“Oh, shut up. I make that joke to the Sisters all the time.”

I picked up his goblet. It reminded me of the jeweled Fabergé eggs I saw once in a history museum. I listened to the headset’s audio guide explain through the static that the imperial eggs were given by the Russian tsars to their wives for Easter. The first egg of this tradition opened to reveal a golden yolk, which opened to a miniature hen, which opened to a diamond and ruby replica of the imperial crown. Russian nesting style. The hen and the crown are allegedly lost, though I am certain someone during some hidden history found them.

“Olivia, why are you religious?” Father Paul asked me. 

I considered telling him that I wasn’t, and rousing him to fire me, just to screw him. I considered, also, seeing what his drunkenness had to say about the rope or that lost Fabergé hen or Lenny’s dead mouse, but instead I just said, “It is everything that I know.”


CC Molaison is a writer from New Orleans. She has been awarded a residency at A Studio in the Woods, and her fiction has been published in Stranger’s Guides, a literary travel magazine.

Jennifer Kircher Herman is a writer and photographer. In her photography, she is drawn to statues, as they capture in stone the emotions of the human hands that carved them. She is widely published in literary journals, including North American Review, Prairie Schooner, Hobart, Alaska Quarterly, Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, The Rumpus, American Literary Review, and The Nebraska Review, where her work also won the Fiction Prize.  She holds an MFA from Emerson College, and has been selected to participate in numerous writing workshops including Bread Loaf, One Story, and Kasteel Well, where she won the fiction fellowship.  She is currently working on a novel and a collection of essays.