Mr. Elser’s fourth grade class in the little town school included the four of us, a band of orphanage misfits. In addition to me, the three other eleven-year-olds were boys: Emil, Roman, and, Albert. When the sun touched Emil’s hair it looked like he had shiny golden reddish stripes in his thick curls. Emil—a sweet boy who never could do anything right— was an easy target for Mr. Elser’s attention almost every day. In addition to the daily trouble from Mr. Elser, the other boys in the school regularly chased Emil until he stumbled and fell down or was overtaken.
Each time Emil was in trouble in school, he received punishment in the orphanage when Sister Ariana hit him. I knew that Emil didn’t make the boys chase him. Sister Ariana announced in the dining hall a few times that Emil was a really bad boy as she looked at him with serious concern. Maybe she did not know about the boys. I wished I could tell Sister Ariana about the boys chasing, or Mr. Elser. Yes, Emil was not a fast runner and he did cry quickly—he seemed mostly scared. If I tried to tell her, she would be very angry. If I were a boy she would hit me all the time, too.
Once Emil was running so hard to escape the boys that he unsuccessfully threw himself over a high spiked iron fence. The blood dripped down one of the spikes. The other boys disappeared. I climbed way up there to help get Emil’s leg off the spike so he could get down. His red dirty face was full of tears. The ripped brown fabric of his pants exposed the open wound in his flesh. Emil left a bloody trail as I helped him walk back to the orphanage. After a while he couldn’t walk anymore, so I carried him. His face grew paler and paler. When we finally arrived, I sat on the staircase with Emil in my arms and waited. Sister Ariana appeared and yelled at him, and then she quickly sent me away.
Roman was the shy one who tried hard and almost never got into trouble. To identify Roman all you needed to do was to locate the boy who was behind the thick glasses that seemed of so little value. He still could not see much. We hardly ever talked to each other, but I liked Roman. He had eight siblings. Every now and then one disappeared from the orphanage. Grownups took them away. I bet the nuns do not realize that grownups were either dangerous or boring. To be with two grownups in a family and only one or two or three children, that was not good! I felt so bad for the children who were taken away by grownups especially to small villages. Where could they hide? It was so much safer to have lots of children around, and to have someone always to play with.
Albert, on the other hand, was new in the orphanage, the loud and bossy one who rolled around in a wheelchair after being paralyzed from Polio, his muscles shrinking away from his body. He explained once that Polio made the muscles shrink like a wool sweater in hot water. I thought that was why he was so small and round, like balls put together on top of each other with no transitions. Though Albert was an expert at muscling himself into the forefront of everyone’s attention. Albert was a talker, and also played a drum with his crooked, curled-up hands. Often he insisted to the nuns that he had to be rolled into the little town so he could play a drum concert and people would give him money—actually, a lot of money. I did not like Albert’s arrogance, especially when he bossed the other children around and barked, “bring me this” or “bring me that” with his loud high-pitched voice. Like a little prince without an elevator, the other boys always had to carry Albert, in his wheelchair, up the stairs to the boys floor. I did not like the fact that none of the rules seemed to apply to Albert, who announced to anyone and everyone, regardless of their interest, that, after all, he was going to die soon.
But, wait a minute. I too was going to die soon! Whether I knew exactly how the angels would arrange it, I knew for certain that I wanted to be a holy child. To be a holy child, I had to die before growing up. So, I had some questions. If Albert were to die as a child, would he necessarily be a holy child, regardless of his attitude? And even if Albert could be a holy child regardless of his attitude, I was sure that I had put my request to be holy to Jesus before Albert. I hoped Jesus had a good memory. In the chapel in the evening, when we prayed for the sick and the injured I had to think about Albert—if I wanted to or not—and I did not like it. The other children deserved much more of my attention.
And me? Because of fever attacks I stayed often in bed for weeks and was behind in school. Whenever I was well enough, Mr Elser, a tall dark-skinned man with a chin that stuck out, said I was a lazy duck. Either I had to draw a picture of myself on the black board as a duck in front of the class or Mr. Elser would yell with his clipped and loud voice: “Stanzi, get up!” I stood there scared. “Draw yourself on the board. What are you?”
“A zero, I’m a zero!” I said.
“Say it loud!” he yelled, “What are you?”
“A zero!” I said louder. This was my last chance to be loud if I did not want to be hit by the ruler on the fingers. That hurt so much and we, the orphans, had so much experience with that—except for Albert.
“Stanzi! What are you drawing on the board?” he asked sharply.
“A colorful Zero.”
Everybody giggled. I got a few colors and I patiently drew a zero on the black board with white chalk but added more and more colors to my zero, circle by circle. I was ashamed, but I did like my zero with all its colors. I tried to draw it perfectly. I am a colorful, beautiful Zero, I thought. Mr. Elser sent me back to my wooden bench which was in the last row. He told us that we orphans were dumb and dirty. Mr. Elser prepared and prioritized his class list, the four orphans, assigned to the final four places—with the colorful Zero filling in the very last place.
From time to time without any warning, Mr. Elser suddenly threw a chalk or an eraser towards me or others who did not pay enough attention. Sometimes he missed but often it hit my head. It stung. Then I walked around with this big red spot on my face.
In summer Mr. Elser loved to spend his time with us at the public swimming pool. “All children have to be able to swim by the end of the season,” he explained. He sent us in the water until we figured out how to swim while he was trying to become more tan, even though he was already tan, in his dark sunglasses, lying on his towel in the grass, a cool drink sweating beside him. In those glasses, we could never tell where he was looking. He looked like he was just reading or sleeping, but sometimes he jumped up so quickly and hit the boys who were fighting. Then, in seconds, he was back reading his newspaper as if nothing had happened.
I was afraid of water and tried to hide for the whole season, but one day Mr. Elser just pushed me in the water and said, “Don’t come out until you can get across that pool!” In the end I did cross the pool, and then I could get out. That was all he wanted and so afterwards, he lay back down in the grass.
During the winter, Mr. Elser decided to take the entire class on a ski trip. First we took the red train up to Stoos. That trip posed an immediate problem for orphan misfits, especially the ones who either were too disabled to ski or who didn’t really know how. For example, Albert and his wheelchair automatically was disqualified. Then Roman, whose glasses did not work very well, was picked up by the ambulance after he lost control of his skis and hit a tree, head first. He was in bed for a long time with head bandages and a broken leg up in the air.
The rest of us didn’t do much better. Emil was mostly shivering in the snow and crying. He was so cold that an ambulance took him away as well. I never skied before, but I tried to be brave on my skis. I did stand on them, but I fell a few times. I got up again and again from the deep snow. Mr. Elser yelled in the distance. Finally I was skiing down the hill. Actually the skis were flying me down the hill while I tried to keep standing on them. The skis hit the tree and I fell deep into the snow, my skis looking in the wrong direction. Something had cracked in my ankle and tears jumped out of my eyes. It was so hard, but I fought with the snow to climb out. It took a long time before finally Mr. Elser arrived. He yelled, “You stupid orphans! You spoil everything!” For many weeks, the nuns had to open the bandages around my elephant foot and put cream on it.
None of the other thirty-six school children had a problem on the ski trip that day. They were all pretty good skiers already.
I think, a few years later Mr. Elser had to go to jail for something.