The Sacred Heart School in Sittingbourne, a market town in southeast England, was mainly a girls’ high school, but boys -- though heavily outnumbered -- were allowed there until the age of eight. I was five, and the place seemed to be a huge sprawling castle, entirely hidden from the town by high flintstone walls. Its centerpiece was its chapel, a miniature cathedral with gray stone buttresses and a lofty spire like a sharpened pencil pointing into the sky. Inside, the air was heavy with incense and the smoke from burning votive candles, and there was a pervasive and, yes, fearful sense that a grave, gray bearded God did indeed loom in its shadowy nave.
There was an echoing gymnasium with slippery polished floors, seemingly unvaultable vaulting horses, and unclimbable climbing ropes that reached way up into the rafters. This was where, with the hall filled with folding chairs, we’d gather later to rehearse and sing Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture to welcome visiting bishops, archbishops, and, from time to time, beaming missionaries from Africa.
And then there were the gardens, with dense beds of vegetables and flower borders as far as the eye could see, tended by some lower rank of nuns than our black-veiled teachers. In blue working habits tied at the waist with string, and ungainly wooden clogs, they waded waist-high among the lupines and delphiniums, and stooped over the cabbages and carrots with their rakes and hoes. Here and there in quiet corners were little stone grottoes, with gaudy statues of the Sacred Heart, the Virgin Mary, St. Teresa, St. Francis -- with a stone bird in his outstretched hand -- and poor Saint Sebastian, pierced by arrows.
Quarry-tiled corridors threaded through the school buildings, and around the kitchens and dining hall hung the permanent, sharp smell of boiling bones and cabbage soup. Up the uncarpeted stairs above lay a linoleum-floored reception room with hard, upright wooden chairs, massive sacred pictures and ceiling-high cases of holy books. Beyond this cold, forbidding place, behind a thick hopsack curtain hanging on wooden rings, was the no-go area of the nuns’ cells and the boarders’ bedrooms.
Our classroom was mostly brown. The walls were brown, and so were the bare wood floors and ceiling. The gnarled oak desks with their little holes cut out for inkwells were brown, and the cracked varnish on the ancient wall maps had long turned golden. But the atlas of the world was predominantly red, covering Canada, most of Africa and Asia, Australia, New Zealand and countless islands in the Pacific and South Atlantic oceans. Red was the color of the British Empire, on which we were so often told that, literally, the sun never set.
I can remember the names and faces of several of my classmates, but none more vividly than Michael Cummings, a frail, pop-eyed, redheaded boy with freckles. Even though I never knew him well, Michael’s vulnerable face, and a three-word sentence he uttered one day in class, has haunted me ever since. Michael, we were told in whispers, had a weak heart, and because of this he always sat in the front row of the class in a wheelchair. Instead of a desk, there was a board across the chair’s arms, on which Michael could do his work.
Michael made his indelible mark on my life at one of our early arithmetic lessons. The air in the stuffy room was heavy with concentration, and the only sound was the scraping of our slate pencils as we labored over the addition of single figures. Madame Ambrose, our only teacher, passed from desk to desk, looking down at our efforts over her gold-framed half-moon spectacles.
When Madame Ambrose reached Michael’s chair, the little boy looked up into her severe face and let out a choked, anguished wail that I have never forgotten. It embodied desperation, fear and hopelessness.
“I can’t do this!”
The boy burst into tears and no one could stop him. Madame Ambrose wheeled him out of the room and we heard his unhappy voice trailing far away down the corridors into the garden.
He came back next day, his eyes solemn and reproachful, but only a few months later he was gone. They told us he had died.
Ever since, Michael’s cri de coeur has come back to me on occasions when life has threatened to become too burdensome. It returned during two long and temporarily crippling depressive illnesses decades ago, again with a wrenching divorce, and other crises of confidence that we all endure.
Little Michael was dealt a rotten hand from birth, and had an inadequate frame with which to defend himself. I was hugely more fortunate. Even though, later, I might have said – not aloud but only in my head – “I can’t do this” during some of life’s most testing moments, I knew I’d had a fairer deal, and lucky enough to have the physical and emotional strength to face such challenges and overcome them.
But I do sometimes wonder how different my life might have been, and how I’d have coped with its problems, without that brief, involuntary lesson in life from Michael Cummings.