Excerpt from Survival of the Fittest by Theresa Cartier
In first grade, the teacher marked me “Satisfactory” in everything, but oh how quickly that changes in second grade. Somehow I go from being a good student to a rotten one. Theresa’s attitude toward school is very poor. She seems as though she is in another world much of her day, writes my new teacher. Sister wants me to sit still, pay attention, and do my homework. She says I have poor work habits, and everything on my report card is marked “Needs Improvement.” But I’m not interested in improving. I’m happy just the way I am. So I don’t sit still, I don’t pay attention, and I don’t do my homework. I spend half the day in a dunce seat next to Sister’s desk, or standing in the corner. I’m singled out so much for being different that I start to feel different.
My mother tells Sister to stop punishing me, because it’s not helping. She tells Sister I’ll eventually come around on my own, when I’m ready.
But Sister wants to do things her way, so she keeps sticking me in the dunce chair and banishing me to the corner. The more she does it, the less I care about ever pleasing her.
In February my father loses his job. To help make ends meet, my mother has to go back to work even though my sister’s only three. She punishes Mama for not staying at home with us by throwing horrible tantrums, screaming until her face turns purple.
Now when we get home from school, instead of my mother waiting for us inside with a snack and questions about our day, we have to use a key to unlock the door and go into an empty house. I call Mama right away to let her know we’re home. She’s a keypunch operator, which means she spends all day poking holes into a piece of paper.
Before she went to work, she used to wake us up in the morning by singing to us. Now I wake to an alarm scraping at my ears before I clobber it silent. My mother enters the room and flicks on the overhead light, blinding me. I pull the covers over my head to block out the unwelcome blaze. I don’t remember when exactly it started happening, but I don’t want to get up in the morning anymore. Maybe because I’ve stopped liking school.
Before my mother worked, she would let my sister and me eat our breakfast on TV trays while we watched morning cartoons. She made us corn mush drenched in honey; sometimes waffles or French toast.
Now we have to get breakfast for ourselves. Instead of cartoons and TV trays and a hot meal, we sit at the kitchen table eating cereal. And with my mother working, us kids have to be responsible for each other. My brother makes his feelings about this clear by creating a wall of cereal boxes around himself at breakfast.
* * *
Skip ahead a few years to a summer afternoon in 1975. After a late breakfast, my brother has left his cereal fortress to go work at the local pizza parlor. I’m at the kitchen table eating dry Honeycomb out of the box while studying the free Archie record cut-out on the back. Archie is a comic book character who inhabits the squeaky-clean world of Riverdale, where all boys have letter jackets, all girls glossy hair. On the disc, Archie, Jughead, Betty, and Veronica grin at their breakfast-eating audience.
Now here I am, a big girl in fifth grade. On the first day of class, the teacher passes out a questionnaire and tells us to fill it out. She wants to get to know us better. One of the questions is, “What kind of teacher do you want?”
I think back to second grade. Little has changed since then. I still get bad marks in Promptness, Neatness, and Completeness. In other words, I am a lazy slob. My penmanship is bad, even though I have tried at times to write more neatly. I just don’t seem to have very good control of my hand. And my teachers still write mean things on my report card for my parents to read: Theresa must learn to complete her assignments before she just sits and reads at her desk. But I’m convinced that I would do my work if only the lessons were as exciting as my books.
On the questionnaire, I write that I want a teacher who understands me, meaning I want someone who will understand how much I love to read and won’t punish me for it. I want someone to understand that in life there are other things more important than being neat, like being interesting. Mostly, I just want someone who will let me be myself. The grownups are always telling us we’re Children of God, unique and precious, but the minute you act like your real self, they start yelling at you to shape up and act like everyone else.
My English teacher is an old nun who hates kids, especially girls, and most especially me. As usual, I spend all my time in class drawing horses and reading library books. When Sister calls on me and I don’t know the answer, she yells at me that I’m going to turn into a horse since that’s all I ever think about.
There are worse things that could happen.
Like what’s happening to my mother. Every night when she comes home from work, she says I’m so tired, I’m so tired. I ask what’s for dinner and she says I’m so tired. I tell her I need someone to drive me to my girlfriend’s house and she says I’m so tired. When she’s not saying I’m so tired she’s saying we have no money.
Sometimes she’s sits on the dining room floor in a corner, listening to sad music and crying. Other times I hear her yelling at my father. Where has he been? What has he been doing? He doesn’t answer.
She’s crabby and all she wants to do is sleep. We are not to disturb her, not even on Saturday morning when we’re supposed to be allowed to watch cartoons. I’ve learned to tip-toe out of bed and creep downstairs, pull my cereal dish out of the cupboard and close the door softer than a whisper. I bring my cereal into the living room and turn on the TV just loud enough for the muffled voices to make sense if I concentrate.
One day in November I come home from school and she’s gone. I barely catch a glimpse of her from the kitchen window before she gets in the car. My father puts a suitcase in the trunk and drives my mother away.
My sister walks up to the window and pulls back the curtain a little as she watches the car go down the street.
“Where’s Mama going?” I ask.
“To the hospital,” she says. Her voice chokes up and she runs upstairs to cry in our room.
I’m too stunned to feel anything. I walk into my parents’ bedroom, strangely empty without my sick mother in it. And what about my father? Won’t he be sad with her gone? A wave of loneliness sweeps over me, and I stay in my parents’ bedroom for a long time.
* * *
BOOK REPORT: The Horse and His Boy by C. S. Lewis
Shasta is a poor boy that lives in Calormene (a small country in Narnia). One day, a rich Larhkaan on a spotted horse comes to buy Shasta from his cruel master. While the two men are in conference, Shasta says miserably to the horse, “I wish you could talk!” The horse looks cautiously at the two men and then says softly, “But I can!” So the two make plans to run away together. Shasta finds out that the horse’s name is Bree-hooey-hooey-hee-hee-hee (shortened to Bree). He also learns that Bree is a Talking Horse from Narnia and has been kidnapped. When they finally reach Narnia, Shasta must fight in a battle and afterwards learns that he is a kidnapped prince and his name is Cor.
Sister will hate this, I think as I finish the report, but so what? I’ve read the Chronicles of Narnia so many times, I feel like I’ve actually been to Narnia! I’m scared of the wicked Queen of Winter, and completely in love with Aslan, Lord of Narnia. He’s a gentle, talking lion, big as a horse, and he has left his land at the End of the World to save Narnia from the Queen.
Aslan is a lot like Jesus because he allows himself to be humiliated and killed in order to save others, even though he is way more powerful than the evil Queen. In the end, he rises from the dead, more glorious than ever. I think in the Bible they should have made Jesus into a talking lion and made Heaven a lot more like Narnia.
The grownups say Jesus loves us and we should pray to Him but I don’t think Jesus understands me the way Aslan would. Aslan would sense right away how much I love animals; how, when I was little, I cried inconsolably over a baby bunny that died after our cat caught it; that my dream is to be a veterinarian when I grow up so I can always help animals and hold them close.
My mother, on the other hand, feels very close to Jesus. She told me a story once about something that happened when she was at the bus stop waiting to go home after work.
It was one of those dreary, overcast days when it feels like everything in the world is wet, cold, or dead. As she waited for the bus, she watched other people drive by in their cars, stepping back as they splashed through puddles along the curb. She opened her umbrella against the rain but it found her anyway, blowing sideways into her face and fogging her glasses. She felt so miserable she wanted to cry, except she was too tired to cry.
Then she noticed a man sitting on a large rock not far from where she was standing. He was hunched over, shivering as he pulled his robes protectively against himself. From the way his shoulders sagged, my mother could tell he was very depressed.
The man was Jesus.
At first my mother thought something was wrong with her glasses, but that couldn’t be, she realized, because she was actually seeing him from the back of her head.
Jesus looked so cold and forlorn on that rock; my mother’s heart went out to him. In that moment, she understood that Jesus had worse problems than her. The heaviness inside her vanished and she didn’t feel sad anymore.
The whole time my mother is in the hospital, I call her on the phone and ask when can I see her.
“When I come home,” she says.
“But why can’t I see you now?”
“Honey, hospitals are not very nice places. If you came here, it would just make you upset. But you can call me as much as you want.”
When my mother finally comes home, she recuperates for a week. Then she goes back to work. Still, when she comes home in the evenings she spends most of the time in her robe, dragging herself through the motions of cooking dinner, doing the dishes, and making our lunches. I remember how my mother used to smile and laugh and sing but she never does those things anymore. Now she just sighs all the time like she’s disgusted with everything.
One night I’m sitting at the kitchen table, eating my bedtime snack, while my mother is at the sink, washing an endless stack of dirty dishes. From the way she’s crashing the plates around, I can tell she’s mad about something. Suddenly, she picks up an iron skillet and heaves it across the kitchen. It hits the door about three feet to my left, splinters the wood and lands on the floor. My mother leaves the room without a word and I pick up the skillet, amazed to see it’s been cracked in half.
When I bring home my report card, I’m afraid to show it to my mother. There are a prinkling of C’s, B’s, and a few A’s, but I got a D- in Social Studies and an F in Health. Both my parents have to sign it so my teacher will know they looked at it.
I take the report card into the bedroom, where my mother is lying down.
“Mama? Are you sleeping?”
“No,” she whispers, “just resting my eyes.”
“Um, the teacher says you have to sign my report card.”
“Leave it on the dresser,” she says. “I’ll look at it later.”
The next morning the report card is sitting on the dining room table for me to take back to school. Both my parents have signed it. What they think about my D and F, I don’t know. They never bring it up.
One afternoon I overhear my mother talking on the phone, saying my father has lost his job. Actually, he was fired. He pretended to his boss that he sold things he didn’t really sell. Then he got involved with some bad men who were cheating insurance companies. My mother says he was trying to make quick money to get us out of debt. Now he has to go to court and he could be in very big trouble.
My mother doesn’t know what to do. She asks her friend to come over and pray with her. You see, my mother has made some new friends at church and all they ever talk about is God and Jesus, with their eyes lit up like it’s Christmas. They give me the creeps. Since meeting them, my mother has put up pictures of Jesus everywhere. In our dining room we have an oil painting that Carol and I call “Brown Jesus” because it’s done in various shades of brown and tan. It’s a gift from one of my mother’s church friends, so that our home will be filled with the Joy of Christ. Jesus is grinning like someone in a toothpaste commercial, and he looks like one of the long-haired guys on my mother’s Seals and Crofts album. My mother tells me that, in the picture, Jesus has just been baptized and that’s why he’s so happy.
My mother starts getting sick again. Day after day she crawls into the bathroom and lies on the floor, alternately retching and sobbing into a wadded up towel. She cries like she’s scared and that makes me scared too. I help her back into bed and put a cold washcloth on her forehead and a bucket on the floor. She says thank you and closes her eyes but I don’t think I’ve helped her feel any better.
She goes to the doctor and he gives her medicine. The medicine is supposed to help her stop collapsing on the floor and throwing up nothing for hours on end. It seems to help some, but now she’s acting funny. One day she sits me down on the edge of her bed and tells me don’t repeat this to anyone else, but she’s being persecuted by Satan. She has proof: just the other day she noticed two identical bruises on each leg, the same size, in the same place. Only Satan could do that. She pulls up her nightgown a little and points to each leg, but I don’t see anything.
“I’m telling you this so you can protect yourself,” says my mother. “Satan hates me because of my faith. He’s coming after me and he might come after you, too.”
In religion class we are learning the Apostles Creed. We’re supposed to memorize it and stand up in class and recite it. On the day we have to stand up and recite the whole Creed, I pray that I will go last, so that I can memorize it after hearing the other kids say it. But Mrs. Wilson starts with my row, and I’m seat number two.
I am doomed.
The girl in the seat in front of me recites:
…Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into hell…
Descended into hell, descended into hell. I keep forgetting that part. Descended into hell.
On the third day He rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father…
See, I always want to skip “ascended into heaven” and go right to “seated at the right hand of the Father.” During that part, I always picture Jesus sitting on a big throne with a shiny crown on his head. But what does God look like? Is he just a big blob of light? In that case, how could he have a right hand for Jesus to sit at? And how could—
“Theresa!” The teacher says my name in a sharp tone that implies this is her second or third time calling on me.
I stand up. Everyone is looking at me. I start reciting, but I can’t get past the first line. The teacher waits, the class waits, but as far as I’m concerned, I’m done.
That does it. The teacher is really ticked off. “You say you want a teacher who understands you,” she tells me. “Well, you need to understand me. I expect you to do your work like everyone else.”
I have a problem, and I need to fix it, she says. So, what am I going to do about it?
Is she just chewing me out, or does she expect me to answer the question? I can’t tell. There’s a dreadful silence. Oh God, she really does want me to answer. What am I supposed to say?
I don’t know how to fix myself. I don’t like school and because I don’t like school, I can’t make myself care about it. I don’t particularly see this as a personal failing.
“I want an answer,” says the teacher.
I don’t know what to tell her. I’ve been a non-homework-doer for years now, despite all the yelling and punishment meted out by my teachers. Frankly, I wonder why they still bother with me at all.
The teacher keeps saying answer me, answer me, and I get a sick, panicky feeling inside. The room goes sparkly and gray and the teacher’s voice floats away. I’m standing in my classroom, but I’m no longer here. I’ve turned myself invisible and she can’t hurt me anymore.
When I get home from school, my mother comes out of her bedroom and tells me she wants a priest to come to our house and give her the Sacrament of the Sick. Since the house is a mess, we should try to straighten up a little.
She gets out of her robe and puts on a pair of navy blue polyester pants and a cardigan. She combs her thinning hair and pulls it away from her face with two bobby pins. Then she puts on her glasses and surveys the house. She’s not really up to cleaning. We’ll just put away the clutter.
I go to my room and make my bed by pulling all the blankets over it at once. They’re lumpy and lopsided, but the mattress is covered and as far as I’m concerned that’s all that matters. I pick up my clothes and toys from the floor and stuff them under my bed. There. The room is clean. Now I can go down the basement and play.
I’m sitting on the floor having a tea party with my dolls, Sugar Plum and Sweetie Pie, when my mother comes down to do a load of laundry.
“Put away your coat,” she says, handing it to me.
I open the cabinet one of my father’s friends built into the wall and stuff my coat in with the others. There’s a pile of boots on the floor. How can only six people have so many coats and boots?
My mother loads the washer, steps out of the laundry room and straightens up the closet. As she arranges the boots, she notices something in the back corner of the closet. A cloth book bag.
Inside the bag is a wadded up winter jacket I’ve long since outgrown. My mother pulls it out and notices the jacket is wet. That’s not surprising; our basement floods so often, it’s practically a wading pool.
As my mother regards the jacket, she notices something else. She smells the jacket, and her eyes widen in horror.
The jacket is covered in mold.
“You did this!” she says, shoving the jacket under my nose.
“No, I didn’t,” I say. Granted, I’m capable of it, but I honestly don’t remember ever sticking a jacket into a book bag and shoving it into the closet.
My mother acts like she didn’t even hear me. “How could you do this?” she says wildly. “How could you? Your sister has to wear this!”
Clutching the jacket in one hand, she clenches the other into a fist and hits me on the shoulder. I hunch over but she keeps pounding my back and yelling, “Your sister has to wear this!”
This can’t be happening. My mother would never do this to me. Never. And yet, she keeps hitting me until I curl into a ball on the floor, protecting my stomach with my knees, my head with my arms.
My mother kicks me several times. Then she drops the jacket and throws herself at the paneled wall.
“I hate you!” she sobs, beating the wall with her fists. “I hate you, I hate you, I hate you!” She runs upstairs, still sobbing.
Slowly I get up from the floor. My back aches but I’m too numb inside to cry. What just happened? I don’t know who that person was but it was not my mother.
I creep up the basement stairs and peer around the corner into the kitchen, where she is on the phone arguing with the priest.
“What do you mean, you have a meeting?” she says. “You can go to your stupid meeting some other time!”
There’s a pause as the priest responds.
“Forget it,” says my mother. “As far as I’m concerned, you can go to Hell!” She slams down the receiver so hard, I fear the phone will explode.
She walks into the dining room and stands in front of Brown Jesus. At first, I think she is going to pray to him but instead she lunges at the picture, tears it from the wall, and punches her fist right through Jesus’s smiling face. Pow! She rips apart the canvas, drops the frame on the floor and jumps up and down on it until it’s smashed to smithereens.
That night when I go to bed, I tell my sister about Mama beating up Jesus. My sister says she’s glad, and that’s what He gets for not helping us.
It takes several days for me to work up the courage to apologize to my mother for ruining the jacket, even though I don’t think it was me. In the end it doesn’t matter because even though her forearms are bruised from wrist to elbow, she has no memory of what happened.
My sister and I have just put on our pajamas and are in the kitchen eating our bedtime snack when my mother walks in. She’s wearing a nightgown made of nylon. It used to be pale blue but it’s turned gray from being worn so much.
“Quick,” she says, “come with me!”
We follow her to her bedroom. My mother closes the door behind her and says, “Listen to me. Satan is in the house. He’s gotten to your father and he’s trying to take me but I won’t let him hurt you. If we just stay in here, we’ll be safe.”
She walks over to her bookcase and takes a worn brick we found on the shore of Lake Huron during vacation. The brick was being used as a bookend but now she puts it in front of the door as a barricade. She pushes a small chair in front of the door as well and tells my sister to sit down.
I hear voices in the living room: my father and brother. Someone tries to open the bedroom door. It moves an inch before being shoved all the way open. My sister and the brick simply slide along on the wood floor.
“No!” my mother screams. “Go away!” She grabs my wrist and holds on for dear life.
My father enlists my brother to help him drag my mother out of the room. They pull her out to the living room, and me along with her.
“Help me!” my mother screams. “Jesus, help!” She falls back onto the couch, gripping my arm with both hands. My brother grabs my other arm and tries to pull me away from her. For a few terrifying seconds, they both pull so hard, I think I’ll be torn in half.
My father pries my mother’s hands off me, my brother gives a final wrench, and I’m free. I watch as my mother is dragged out the front door in her flimsy gown, hands clawing the air as she begs Jesus to help her, please, please help.
My sister and I are sent to our room, where we huddle in our beds, too scared to talk. I’m saying all the prayers I know in my head, Hail Mary, Our Father, as charms to ward off Satan. If ever I needed Jesus, I need Him now. I imagine Jesus floating at the foot of my bed, all glowing in a white robe. I want to talk to Him but I don’t know what to say. So instead I listen for anything comforting Jesus might say to me.
He is silent.
I don’t want to feel this scared anymore. I pull the covers over my head and make myself go somewhere else. I’m the Magician’s Nephew and I’ve gone back in time to watch Aslan create Narnia and give the gift of speech to all the animals. I take the Apple of Youth home to my sick mother so she can eat it and be cured. Then I go outside and bury the seeds, which grow into the finest apple tree in Ohio. And someday…
Someday I will chop the tree down and make it into a magical wardrobe. Then I’ll step inside and find my way back to Narnia, where Aslan will sing to me, a talking horse will be my friend, and I’ll never be afraid again.