Why I’m going to Hell…(for the first Sunday of Advent)

Being part Irish and part Italian doesn’t bode well for someone who doesn’t identify as Catholic. I’ve been through the sacraments and all that jazz, and even, on occasion, stop by to say a quick prayer at the church on 37th and Broadway on my walk to work. Yes, I have a deep faith in something greater than myself, call it “God” or whatever, but I still don’t consider myself a Catholic. Despite that, being raised going to church, and even Catholic school for a few years, there’s an indelible sense of Heaven and Hell; and something tells me I’m on my way to the latter.

I joke about why I’m going to Hell, and my husband always rolls his eyes. My mom says she’ll just say an extra prayer for me. My Nonna agrees that I am. Who should I believe?

Well, I think I’m going to Hell for a variety of reasons, least of which is being born in the 6th month of the year, in a town whose zip code ends in 666, and having 666 in my social security number. No, I’m pretty sure I’m going to Hell because in the 9th grade, I robbed a nun.

For the record, it was NOT my idea, but something tells me that St. Peter isn’t going to take that as an excuse as he hits the down button on my afterlife elevator.

It all started with Sister Elizabeth (not her real name). Up until that point in my life, I hadn’t had TOO many bad experiences with nuns. Sister Antonia (not her real name, either) was always pretty cool, and there was another nun who was always nice to me. But it was the killer combination of Sister Elizabeth’s iron underpants/no nonsense way of doing things, my budding puberty, and the suggestion of someone we’ll call Simon (not his real name) that 7th Sealed my fate to the Underworld.

See, the public school kids went to something called CCD (Continuing Catholic Development, or something like that). It was basically Sunday school…but on Wednesday nights. It worked out that I was a freshman in high school (the bottom of the totem pole), but like a senior at CCD (WOOHOO! QUEEN OF THE SCHOOLYARD!), as it was my last year to make Confirmation.

The routine at CCD went like this: Parents would drop their kids off and, if it was warm enough, we’d hang out in the parking lot/school yard of the Catholic school until Sister Elizabeth decided we were having fun and that just had to stop. She would stand just outside the door to the school cafeteria and ring this loud as Hell brass bell she had. It was her way of telling us to come inside and start our education (and you thought elementary school math was useless later in life…).

Not actual bell.

Not the actual bell but a pretty close approximation.

Now we hated that bell for many reasons, but first and foremost, because Sister Elizabeth would continue to ring it even after we were all in. Our fragile ears could take the loud sounds of Metallica and Pearl Jam blaring, but NOT the clang clang clang of Sister Elizabeth’s bell.

(Quick side note: The year before, several of us had gone on a field trip to Princeton University and heard about a tradition there that obviously informed our decision…)

So one fateful Wednesday, after we had filed into the cafeteria for role call before we were sent to the classrooms to learn about Jesus and stuff, Simon (again, not his real name) leaned in and stage whispered to our table of 9th graders, “You know what would be awesome? If we did that Princeton thing and stole the clapper from Sister Elizabeth’s bell. Then she could never ring it again and CCD wouldn’t have to start!” Of course it’s a ridiculous notion that the ringing of a bell somehow controls time and whether or not we have class. I’m sure Robert Reading had different ideas, but who am I to judge?

Alas, our pubescent brains thought about it, and I (stupidly) piped up and said, “That’d be an AWESOME idea!” And this is where the trouble began (as if I wasn’t already trouble before that). Simon was so pleased that I had agreed with him that he volunteered me to be the one to steal the clapper. “What, like now?!” “No…But next week, maybe. You could TOTALLY do it.” “Um…yeah? (I thought about the cool factor) Yeah! I can TOTALLY do that!” Famous. Last. Words.

We decided that the following week, we would do recon, and we reconned it up. Everyone wanted to be a part of the operation, but only Simon and I were willing to get our hands dirty. We synchronized our Swatches and it was a total Oceans 11/The Sting type caper, complete with the Mission Impossible theme song running through our heads. We watched Sister Elizabeth and her movements in the cafeteria carefully. She was kind of heavy and moved a bit like Mad Madame Mim, but she had the Lord on her side, so we had to be extra careful. After classes, while waiting for our parents to pick us up, we quickly conferred on her movements and compared notes. Next week would be a dry run.

The next week came and we got dropped off, as usual, but something was different. I peeked in the window to the cafeteria and Sister Elizabeth wasn’t there…but the bell was. The mission was still on, so I told the other teacher in the parking lot that I was going inside to use the bathroom. She waved me along without a care. I was, after all, in the 9th grade. It wasn’t like I needed her to hold my hand.

So I went into the cafeteria and scanned the room. Empty. I held my breath and listened for the low thump thump of Sister Elizabeth’s orthopedic shoes. Nothing. I thought for a second, and said in my head, “THIS IS NOT A DRILL!” I seized the moment. I gently lifted the bell from the table, but quickly put my hand under the dome to avoid the clapper hitting the sides. SMOOTH! I gently turned the bell over and was surprised at what I saw. The clapper was being held by a thin piece of metal, almost like a paper clip. I bent it to one side and the clapper just dropped. With Spidey reflexes, I caught it.

The clapper was small, but heavy…and it looked like a Hershey’s kiss. It reminded me of when we made lead musket balls on a school field trip to Fort Lee back in the 4th grade, and Roston Fyle and I were chosen to lead the battalion, but that’s a whole other story for another time.

Before I could examine my prize more, I heard the familiar thump thump of Sister Elizabeth and I panicked! I gently put the bell back down on the table, dropped the clapper in my training bra, and slipped out the door, back onto the playground/parking lot.

I caught Simon’s gaze and waved him over to the corner of the schoolyard with my eyebrows. “How’d it go? What’d you find out?” “I got it.” Those three words got a better reaction than any “I love you” ever has. I thought he would kiss me right there. I wouldn’t have minded, but, no such luck.

Then something over my shoulder caught his eye and he looked past me toward the cafeteria door. It was Sister Elizabeth. She had just come outside with her faithful bell in hand. Simon looked at me, then back at Sister Elizabeth, and in slow motion, I turned just as she raised her hand like a pro tennis player before a serve. She cast her arm down with all her might and the bell let out a resounding tink.

She looked surprised. None of the children stopped playing tag, and even the other teacher didn’t react. Sister Elizabeth straightened herself up and tried it again, this time with FEELING. tink.

Simon and I stifled laughter. Sister Elizabeth turned the bell upside down to investigate the problem. Finding no clapper, but just a small piece of thin metal, she began looking on the ground around her. By this time, the rest of our crew had now begun to take notice. Their eyes darted to Sister Elizabeth struggling with the bell, to Simon and I, then back to Sister Elizabeth. They couldn’t believe it. “Did she do it? Did Erica ACTUALLY do it?!” was in their eyes. I smiled and nodded in their direction. It was the, “OH SHIT!” moment of the night.

Once Sister Elizabeth had enlisted the help of the other teacher, though, the fun had ended. The combined voices of the two ladies was as loud or louder than the bell to corral us inside.

We filed in and sat at our table. Sister Elizabeth was still obsessed with the missing clapper. She furiously shook the bell to no avail, only rendering the tiniest of tink noises from it, while our table tried not to laugh and draw attention to ourselves.

I deftly removed the clapper from its hiding spot and showed it to everyone. There were “ooohs” and “aahs.” At first they wondered it if was the real deal, but after the glare from me, they knew. Simon tried to claim it for his own, as the idea was his, but I put the kibosh on that right quick by threading it onto my keyring…and that’s where it’s remained…since 1990.

Actual keys.

My actual keys.

Actual clapper.

The actual clapper.

The following week at CCD, the fun was over, as Sister Elizabeth had replaced the clapper with a spark plug. I know this because I tried to steal it, again. Sometimes, once is enough.

So here I am with this unusual bit on my keyring. It makes a handy conversation piece. My husband says I’m like a serial killer with a trophy, and he has a point. He told me I should return it to Sister Elizabeth, but she was old back in 1990, and I’m sure she’s not still around. And, besides, would returning a bell clapper 25 years after the fact change my standing with the Big Guy? Dunno…Because this is only ONE of the reasons why I’m going to Hell.

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