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5 LSDD

On Tuesday morning at 7:30, half an hour before school, Myrtle’s eyes swung like angry pendulums between her mother, Ms. Strepp, and Dr. Twigg as they sat in the psychologist’s trailer. Ms. Strepp cleared her throat and forced a smile onto her face. “Thank you again for coming, Mrs. Madison. I’m sure after what we discuss today our parent-teacher conferences will become much less frequent.” Her nostrils flared with impatience as she glared at Myrtle. “Mrs. Madison,” Dr. Twigg began, “Myrtle and I have been meeting for three weeks now, and she still refuses to talk to me. Ms. Strepp says that her classroom behavior has become increasingly worse. The toy rabbit she brings to school is a constant distraction. She refuses to interact with her classmates at all anymore. And Myrtle has stopped completing the majority of her assignments altogether.” Myrtle sighed loudly to express her disagreement on the issue. Her mother gave her a warning look. Ms.
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Strepp clenched her teeth. Dr. Twigg took a deep breath and continued. “What we are trying to say, Mrs. Madison, is that in Myrtle’s best interest and in the best interest of her classmates and Ms. Strepp, we think it best to start her on a program of medication.” “Medication!” Myrtle thought. Mrs. Madison’s eyebrows rose two feet on her forehead at the mention of the word. “You see, Myrtle easily displays all of the symptoms of a condition called LSDD, Learning and Social Deficit Disorder. But don’t worry, an LSDD diagnosis is common among children these days. LSDD students generally display an equal inability to process information, complete assignments, and connect with their peers and teachers. Her anti-social behavior is easily treatable. There is nothing to be ashamed of or embarrassed about. The medication will help Myrtle get on track, stay focused at school and allow her to function more like the other students.” “Function more like the other students! The other students are idiots!” Myrtle thought. She preferred not to function at all rather than take those pills! Everyone at St. Bonaventure knew who the LSDD students were. They roamed the hallways like the living dead on their medication, their emotionless faces like young stones. Myrtle was fully aware that she was the topic of conversation, but it seemed they were discussing some other child, not her. “We have no other choice, Mrs. Madison,” barked Ms. Strepp. “Myrtle is performing far below fourth grade standard. We have many success stories at St. Bonaventure from other LSDD students who have begun the
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medication. Myrtle has run out of time and chances. We will be observing her for two weeks. If she does not show a marked improvement in her classroom performance within the next week, then we will refer her for further tests and medication.” Myrtle and her mother sighed.

Later in the morning, fourth grade joined the rest of the school for Mass in St. Bonaventure Cathedral. As the fourth grade filed out of the classroom, Myrtle took Earl Grey out of her desk and wrapped him up in her red sweater. She safely concealed him by carrying the rolled sweater under her arm. She still seethed with anger from the morning conference. It was not a good time to be without her Earl Grey. No one noticed it. Fourth grade pushed noisily into the cathedral. In her quietest and most reverent church voice, Ms. Strepp threatened the students with cruel and unusual punishment if they were caught horsing around or talking during the Mass. Ms. Strepp was one of the most pious and dedicated members of St. Bonaventure parish. She helped raise money for the cathedral whenever she could and attended Mass and sang in the choir every Sunday. And every Sunday night, she considered it her Christian duty to telephone everyone she knew to spew the latest church gossip and spread the juiciest rumors she had heard concerning the congregation. The students genuflected in the aisle in front of the crucifix above the altar and filed into the pews behind third grade. Myrtle sat at the end of the pew just behind Taylor and Erin who were whispering furiously in conversation. She stuffed the sweater with Earl Grey in the
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corner of the pew and covered him with her arm. Myrtle was so quiet that Taylor and Erin didn’t realize she was there. “So my mom said I can have my party at a hotel downtown or at the country club. And I can invite anybody I want, even fifth grade boys!” Erin whispered. Myrtle flipped absent-mindedly through the hymnal, wishing she couldn’t hear them. “But she says I at least have to give invitations to everybody in our class. Even the dorks. Even Myrtle!” Taylor and Erin exploded into giggles. A feeling like lead crashed to the bottom of Myrtle’s stomach. She had laughed plenty of times when others were the butt of the joke, but it crushed her spirit to hear someone make fun of her. Taylor had to cover her mouth to keep from laughing out loud. “I’m sure she’d be loads of fun at a party with boys,” Erin went on. “She’d probably bring her stuffed animals!” They roared with silent laughter. “But I’m not going to worry about it. She probably won’t come anyway.” Myrtle’s face ran hot. Tears flooded her eyes. Her heart pounded. Erin finally turned her head and was surprised to see Myrtle sitting behind her. She stopped laughing and nudged Taylor with her elbow. They both turned around to look at Myrtle, and then cracked up laughing in her face. Myrtle bit her trembling lip until the bitter saltiness of blood formed on its surface. She clutched the soft lump on her side that was Earl Grey. Chiming bells signaled the beginning of the Mass. Father O’Sneerley and Father Gabriel suddenly appeared at the cathedral entrance with four altar boys and girls behind them. They began to process in, followed by the principal, Sister June
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Claire. The students and teachers stood to sing a hymn as the fragrant smoke of incense enveloped the cathedral. Myrtle could neither hear nor concentrate on what was going on around her. She felt numb and as stiff as a corpse. A silent stream of tears escaped her eyes and flowed down her cheeks. She stared angrily at Father O’Sneerley on his way down the aisle while everyone else sang. She hated the priest. And Father O’Sneerley particularly hated children. Myrtle figured people who worked for God were supposed to be friendly, but she wondered if God even liked him. He was a grumpy old man with a hard face that looked as capable of compassion as a rock and dead eyes that lacked sparkle. Father O’Sneerley had little sympathy for young people and far less patience. Over his twenty years as parish priest, the students of St. Bonaventure had slowly turned his hair a ghostly white with disorder and misbehavior in the cathedral. Myrtle’s eyes continued over to the principal. She scowled at the sight of the nun in her navy blue habit. Myrtle couldn’t stand her either. Sister June Claire, known affectionately to students as Sister Bruce Lee, was a tiny but mean nun who had earned a black belt in karate in her free time at the convent. She was barely five feet tall, but she did not tolerate nonsense from any St. Bonaventure’s student or teacher. And she did not believe in fun. It was easier to make a brick wall laugh than it was to get a chuckle out of Sister Bruce Lee. She gave such brutal verbal lashings in her office that the students and faculty members who’d lived to retell their stories reported that the sharpness of her voice alone was comparable to being karate chopped in half.

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But then there was Father Gabriel. When Myrtle looked at him, she cocked up an eyebrow in curiosity. He was a young priest who had only begun working at St. Bonaventure that year and was only twenty-four yearsold, some student had found out. In fact, Father O’Sneerley had been the parish priest of St. Bonaventure almost as long as Father Gabriel had been alive. He was a mysterious fellow with dark hair and large dark brown eyes that seemed able to focus in on things invisible. Something about him struck Myrtle as offbeat, something oddly angelic or magical. But the biggest deal about Father Gabriel was that he married. And he had a small child. He had been an Episcopalian vicar for several years when he and his wife had decided to convert to the Catholic Church, and he then took his vows as a Roman Catholic priest. It caused an uproar in the local diocese. But the uproar Father Gabriel was used to, and he was used to being a rebel. He was nothing at all like Father O’Sneerley, precisely the thing about him that Father O’Sneerley did not like, and precisely what the students loved the most. Father Gabriel excited the students whenever he visited the classrooms to speak to them or to teach their religion lesson. They thought him down-to-earth and street smart and felt he could really understand them. He told them stories of how he and his wife had traveled around the world doing missionary work and impressed them with examples of the several languages he had learned to speak. But a student (who had heard Ms. Strepp gossiping in the hallway with the second grade teacher Mrs. Snide who had overheard from Father O’Sneerley while he was once having a private conversation with Sister Bruce Lee) had reported that everybody in the St. Bonaventure administration thought Father Gabriel was
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too much of a free-spirit and a troublemaker. He had been summoned to see the archbishop several times for challenging his Church superiors and “stirring up controversy,” as it was put. Then after two years of missionary travel, he and his wife converted, and then he was appointed to the post at St. Bonaventure as the associate priest. “He is nothing but a young rebel against the Church and we must get him out of here!” Father O’Sneerley was reported to have said shortly after meeting Father Gabriel, whom he viewed as competition for his position as head priest rather than his assistant. And the rest of the teachers and faculty, swept up in the tide of hatred of him led by Father O’Sneerley, decided too that Father Gabriel was a troublemaker and that he simply had to go. By the end of the school year. Father O’Sneerley lifted his hands and began to pray the Mass. By the time various students had gone up to the podium to read the Old and New Testament readings and Father Gabriel had read the day’s selection of the Gospel and Father O’Sneerley had droned on hypocritically in his homily about the Golden Rule and Myrtle had counted and recounted every individual panel of stained glass in the cathedral, her ears perked up at the part of Mass that signaled the time for Holy Communion and the end. Myrtle panicked when she realized she couldn’t leave Earl Grey on the pew during Communion. Someone might pick up her sweater and discover him! She quickly stuffed him up her skirt between her legs when no one was looking. When it was time for her pew to go up, she put on her sweater and followed her classmates into the aisle, keeping Earl Grey in place with tiny, awkward steps.

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“The Body of Christ,” she could hear Father O’Sneerley repeat at the front of the line in his voice that was as hard and as flat as the Communion wafers he distributed. “The Blood of Christ,” said Father Gabriel, standing next to Father O’Sneerley with a goblet of mingled wine and water. His voice, on the contrary, was mingled with warmth and kindness. Myrtle struggled to walk with Earl Grey between her legs as she neared Father O’Sneerley. She was almost there, only one student away from the priest when Earl Grey slipped from her skirt. Myrtle gasped in horror at the sight of him out on the marble cathedral floor for all to see. In her effort to keep from stepping on him, she stumbled and tripped into Father O’Sneerley, knocking him in the stomach and clear off his feet to the floor. The Communion wafers danced high into the air like large, white confetti and landed miraculously in Father Gabriel’s cup as he rushed to catch them. The empty gold plate that Father O’Sneerley had been holding hit the floor with a hideous clang. The pipe organ player stopped. A shocked silence muffled the cathedral. The laughter began like the far-off rumble of thunder before a torrential storm. It spread like a violent brush fire and quickly exploded into mayhem. Kindergarteners to eighth graders and “A” students to “F” students convulsed with laughter. Sister Bruce Lee sprinted up to the altar from the first row pew to assist Father O’Sneerley. Teachers panicked. Father Gabriel kept calm. Larry Whiney, who was one of the altar boys, hollered uncontrollably with delight. Father O’Sneerley cursed from the floor.

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Myrtle jumped up as fast as she could to grab Earl Grey as Ms. Strepp’s heels fired up the aisle to the altar like blasts of machine gun rounds. Father O’Sneerley glared at Myrtle revengefully while Sister Bruce Lee and Larry Whiney helped him back to his feet and handed him the Communion dish. Ms. Strepp snatched Earl Grey from Myrtle’s arms and shoved her back down the aisle and into her pew. “Get on your knees and pray!” Ms. Strepp scolded her quietly to respect the solemnity of the cathedral. “How disgraceful to the Lord and to the church! You’ve really blown it this time! You can kiss this rabbit good-bye! It belongs to me now!” Myrtle’s heart shattered. She fell onto the kneeler and rested her head on the back of the pew in front of her and cried. She didn’t even care that Taylor and Erin saw. Tears soaked through her sweater sleeve, down through her blouse, and to her arm. When she calmed down, she folded her hands and began to pray with all of her heart: “Dear Lord. Sorry about the Holy Communion. I didn’t mean to do it. I hate this day. I hate my life. I hate St. Bonaventure. I hate everything. I hate Victoria, Taylor, Erin, Ms. Strepp, Dr. Twigg, Sister Bruce Lee, and Father O’Sneerley. I hate myself. I am so miserable. Please make it so I don’t have to take those pills. Please get me Earl Grey back. Please change everything. Please. I can’t take anymore. I need a miracle. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.” She made the sign of the cross. Then she opened her eyes and looked up when she felt a shadow fall over her. It was Father Gabriel. “Psst! You forgot something,” he said. “The Body and Blood of Christ.” He stooped down with the gold
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plate and goblet and served her the Communion wafer and the sip of wine she hadn’t had a chance to receive before Ms. Strepp sent her back to her pew. “God is with you, isn’t he!” he whispered, and then cracked up laughing, which seemed rather inappropriate during a Mass. Ms. Strepp gave him a dirty look from where she was standing in the aisle. He looked at her and looked back at Myrtle and then laughed again. Then he dashed back up to the altar. Myrtle put her head back down on her wet sleeve to pray. “Weird!” she exclaimed to no one in particular.

The sound of the ringing church bell filled the schoolyard as the students exited the cathedral grade by grade. Laughter and conversations about “Myrtle the Turtle” were the talk of the entire student body. Fourth grade exited last through the great wooden doors as the high pitch of Ms. Strepp’s angry, screaming voice cut across the schoolyard. Myrtle came out of the cathedral last, following several feet behind the end of the line. Her head hung heavy with embarrassment and shame. As the class turned ahead to enter the school for lunch, Myrtle’s heart began to race. She stopped. The idea first occurred to her as a tiny, blue flame, but it burst quickly into an all-consuming blaze. As if she no longer possessed any idea of whom or where she was, Myrtle ducked behind the nearest tree until her class disappeared entirely inside the school. From there she bolted quickly across the quiet schoolyard with the swift and invisible speed of a blast of wind. No one noticed the bright red uniform darting away from the school anymore than they
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noticed the red cardinals hopping from leafless tree to leafless tree. No one called after her. Straight ahead to Mr. Tigerhill’s shop Myrtle ran with neither thinking ahead nor looking behind. (And next door to the cathedral inside the priests’ rectory, Father Gabriel just happened to look out of the window of his office as Myrtle sprinted down the street. He laughed out loud at the sight. Father O’Sneerley sneered in his office down the hallway, wondering what the young troublemaker priest was finding so funny. Father Gabriel grabbed his jacket. He suddenly felt like a cup of tea.)

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