A cracking good present

The seventh-graders stood around eagerly as their teacher unwrapped the box.

"To Sister, From All of Us."

The neatly printed card was attached to the red bow on the Christmas package. My class of seventh-graders surrounded my desk as one animated grin of expectation.

"How lovely!" I exclaimed, surprised at the great size of their gift. And then, knowing how they would react, "I'll unwrap it at the convent."

"No, Sister, no! Unwrap it now!"

In the wake of their concerted urging came one or two warnings, "Don't let Sister Heloise see it!"

So this was one of their famous class jokes. I wondered what they wanted to hide from the principal and teased them a bit longer.

"It's our rule that each gift must be approved by the principal first. Otherwise it goes to the old sisters in the hospital," I said with a bright smile.

The seventh-graders almost panicked. "We'd better take it back." "The old sisters wouldn't like it at all." "Sister, please open it here."

I relented. Coiled inside the gaily wrapped box was a 20-foot bullwhip. In the shouts of laughter that followed, I remembered the day when the germ of their inspiration was born.

It was a hot October afternoon. Ennui had settled on the class as I, in a manner that reminded me annoyingly of Groucho Marx, paced the aisles discovering, by my questions, vast areas of ignorance of material recently covered. Finally I had said in exasperation, "Some of you have asked me what I wanted for Christmas. Make it a bullwhip!" I had pictured myself cracking it over their slothful bodies.

I had forgotten the incident, but on that December morning, I learned that the previous months had been spent in a search for the right bullwhip. After finding their price out of range for a class collection, one boy volunteered his father's whip.

"You mean it's not mine to keep!" I exclaimed playfully.

"It's only a loan," Richard verified sadly. "Dad will need it again. He works on rodeos."

He went on apologetically, "You can keep it for a couple weeks. I'll teach you how to crack it."

The entire class, listening in, agreed enthusiastically that cracking the whip should be on the Christmas program.

Our class was held in the basement of the church. Separated from us by thick curtains was another seventh-grade class, taught by a lay teacher. Across the hall, a third-grade class had an enclosed room. All three classes were engaged in Christmas parties.

My students trooped out into the hall and noisily jostled for the best vantage behind the two star performers, Richard and me.

Richard cleared the area behind his throwing arm, then in a powerful heave sent the bullwhip flying down the hall. Its forward journey was interrupted as he jerked his arm back. The bullwhip leaped and crackled explosively. Cheers and shouts came from the boys and girls behind us.

The other seventh-grade class, attracted by our uproar, streamed from behind their side of the curtain. The mob scene swelled.

Again Richard raised his arm, and the rippling rawhide slithered and snapped. The cheers of the seventh-graders grew louder. The door of the third-grade room flew open and wide-eyed little ones pressed out cautiously to watch.

Richard displayed his skill a few more times, and then passed the whip to me. He showed me how to stand and hold the whip and gingerly guided my arm through a practice motion.

"You try it alone now, Sister."

I grasped the rough leather handle, pulled my arm back for a powerful throw, and paused.

There I was, a sister instructed to "edify all and give offense to none," and to be "ladylike, gracious, and womanly," putting on a show with a bullwhip in front of 120 squealing children, two dubious lay teachers, and six bewildered mothers. I lowered the whip quickly and abdicated as star of the show.

"Richard, I'd still like to learn how to crack the whip, but we're ruining the other children's Christmas parties. Could you show me after school?"

Richard, loath to let these minutes of triumph come to an end, finally mastered his disappointment and agreed.

He did not appear after school for my instruction, but Sister Samuel, the eighth-grade teacher, was delighted with my gift, and the two of us went to the backyard of the convent to practice. We both managed to crack ourselves in the face, but the whip snapped and crackled often enough to keep us interested. Sister Samuel was four cracks up on me when the prayer bell interrupted our recreation.

That evening the nine sisters of the convent gathered in the tiny chapel to practice hymns for the Christmas midnight mass. We had scarcely begun when the doorbell rang. The portress hurried to answer it and returned to have a whispered consultation with Sister Heloise, my superior, who beckoned me over and explained that Richard's parents were outside and wished to teach me how to crack the bullwhip. She gave me permission to spend half an hour with them.

I wrapped my woolen shawl around me and went out into the chilly night.

I have since completely forgotten the techniques of bullwhip-cracking, but I will never forget listening, with a smile, to the sacred strains of "Puer Natus Est" from the sisters' chapel as Richard's father gave a gruffly sincere lecture.

As the bullwhip popped obligingly for me down the alley, it was really, I thought, a very good beginning to Christmas.

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