There is a low-point in everyone’s High School career and mine was Algebra 2 with Sister Evangeline. I went to an all-girls High School at a Catholic convent despite being a life-long Mormon. About half of our teachers were nuns (who, I was disappointed to find out, did not wear habits–only skirts and very frumpy shoes.) Sister Evangeline was one of those people who had a perfectly mathematical mind and simply couldn’t understand that not everybody else had the same. She would explain a new mathematical concept the same way over and over again. If you didn’t get it, she would just give you the exact same explanation but in a meaner tone of voice.
Every day a few unlucky girls were chosen to put their homework problems up on the board. Not being the kind of person who believes in homework, I never did mine. Ever. Instead I would copy the homework of Carla who sat behind me. She was too sweet and softspoken to ever refuse, even though I could tell she hated to do it. But I figured that if Carla didn’t have the gumption to say no, then I would continue to copy. It never struck me that this was cheating (it’s only cheating if it’s a test, you know. And I never cheated on tests. I failed miserably every time and couldn’t have cared less); copying Carla’s work was merely a more expeditious way of getting things done.
Algebra was my first period class and one particular morning Sister Vange came in with a giant blob of dirt on her forehead. Nobody took any notice. Nobody said a word. I looked around the room; the other girls looked bored as ever. No one was snickering or pointing. What in the world was going on? How did Sister Vange get a huge smudge on her forehead at 8:00 in the morning and how could she not have noticed? Well, if nobody was paying it any attention, then I supposed I wouldn’t either.
On the way to my next class I noticed a classmate with a smudge of dirt on her forehead. Only it wasn’t just a blob, it was in the shape of a plus sign. Hmmmm. The plot continued to thicken. I finally pulled one of my Catholic friends aside. “What is going on?” I demanded. She gave me a bored look, “it’s Ash Wedensday, Dummy.”
Aha! That holiday I’d seen every year in my little square Hallmark datebook! That wasn’t mud on their foreheads, it was ashes! And it wasn’t a plus sign, it was a cross! I’m sure we had a special liturgy at school for Ash Wednesday, but like most everything about Catholicism, I never quite figured out the idea behind it.
We Mormons don’t observe the little religious holidays. Things like Epiphany and Palm Sunday just pass us right by. I guess they’re too “Catholic” or something. Or maybe the idea is that it shouldn’t take a special day to make us think of the Lord. I don’t know. But I had never come across someone observing Ash Wednesday before that day at school.
Every year on Ash Wednesday I think about Sister Evangeline, my inability to do math, and how much I enjoyed going to school at a convent despite the fact that I have never been, and have no desire to ever be, a Catholic.
So Happy Ash Wednesday, everyone, even though I still don’t know what it’s about!