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Wednesday, June 06, 2007


Friends! I’m back after two days in Pennsylvania, during which I got to meet a few of you. That was fantastic.

Originally, I was going to write up a huge update today on all kinds of things, including giveaways, books, and Bartlesville. But I’ve been promising you another story for a while, and it’s kind of relevant. So those things will (really) come tomorrow.

Today, I want to talk about speaking. And running.

Tonight I’ll be at the Tompkins Square branch of the New York Public Library, reading with Claudia Gabel, Nico Medina, Sarah Mlynowski, 
Blake Nelson, Jenny Pollack, and Sara Shepard. On Saturday, I’ll be at Books of Wonder. Then on Monday, I fly to Georgia where I will be staying with Dr. Betty Vox, and signing in the Atlanta area.

Do you guys remember Betty Vox? My partner in the running of the prom? Featured in the story, “Why Betty Vox and I had to run from a nun with a three-pronged cane and why it is all my fault”?

I keep promising to tell you that story. The time has come!

As I’ve mentioned time and time again, I went to a Catholic girls school, where I was strapped into a polyester uniform and locked inside for four years. I wasn’t Catholic, which was an additional complication on top of the normal complication that is high school. So, on top of the assumed joys, I had the pleasure of knowing I was the Wrong Religion and that I was kind of doomed.

Also, I didn’t know the words or the rules. People who go to Catholic school all their lives carry around a wealth of information that they aren’t even aware of. They know tons of prayers, and all the words to mass, and all the little gestures and rules and steps that non-Catholics don’t have a clue about. In the beginning, it was kind of like being thrust into a play without a script.

Our school had thoughtfully implemented millions of ways for us to get in trouble. Some of these things they wrote down in a completely incomprehensible rulebook, which quite honestly contained instructions like:

There will be complete silence on the chapel stairs at all times. The chapel stairs can be used to go UP ONLY from the start of the day until the second bell at 8:17. At this time, girls can go both up and down between the 2nd and 3rd floors ONLY. After 7th period, girls may go down from the third floor to the first floor.

It went on and on like this, describing the sides of the halls we were allowed to walk on, when exactly we were allowed to go to our lockers, and the truly mystifying A-B-C-D-E-F schedule system, which changed all the times of the periods and sometimes required the changing of clothes. (We had to wear blazers to chapel, even if it was 110 degrees, but could wear our sweaters on certain variations.)

Imagine having to learn all of that, on top of learning the entire religion of Catholicism in both its liturgical and social aspects. And the school didn’t have a great deal of sympathy in this matter. When we arrived as confused and deeply startled freshmen, we were informed that we had THREE DAYS to master it all.

And we were locked inside a convent with no boys, in heat-trapping polyester.

While I am a generally sanguine person, this situation did wear at my nerves at times. I tried my best to master all the rules, along with observing Catholic behavior frantically. I never caused any real trouble.

One day, I was in the third floor bathroom with Betty, who was one of the two other non-Catholics. We were sitting around and talking. It was just after three o’clock. Classes had been over for a little while, so we weren’t doing anything wrong.

And then in came a nun I will call Sister Ann Oiance.

Pretty much every sister of the order had a job, or a series of jobs, and they worked quite hard. But Sister Ann Oiance was one of about three mysterious nuns who were kind of “without portfolio.” No one really knew what she did. She did have some kind of sketchy title, like “head of the media center” or something like that, but we didn’t have a media center, and even if we did, she didn’t seem like the kind of person who would be pushing the TV down to your classroom. One reason for this: Sister Ann Oiance walked with a three-pronged cane.

Sister Ann Oiance had taken it upon herself to do a different job entirely, and that job seemed to consist entirely of walking the halls in a never-ending state of anger. She had one favorite trick, which involved our lockers. Because we had crazy rules about when we could go to our lockers (never), and because we had tons of heavy books, we sometimes tried to sneak around and dump some of them off quickly between classes. We did this by leaving our locks undone, but carefully positioned to look locked.

Sister Ann Oiance would walk the halls when we were in class and pull on our locks to find these unlocked ones. Then she would flip them and lock them. I don’t know if you’ve ever had to unlock a flipped lock in a crowded hallway when you were in a rush, but take it from me, it’s not fun.

Anyway, Betty and I are in the bathroom, brushing our hair or something, and in comes Sister Ann Oiance. She immediately launched into us, which shocked us both.

“Girls!” she barked. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?”

We didn’t know the answer to that one. We were just, you know, in the bathroom. After school. It’s not something that can be explained in depth.

“This is CONVENT PROPERTY after 3 in the afternoon!” she went on! “I’m writing you both up!”

Now, I had never heard of this rule, and neither had Betty. We tried to protest and explain this, but she just got angrier and told us off more and more while she fumbled for her demerit pad, saying how we were invading the convent and generally ruining the world.

It was just not true. She was making it up. Or maybe it had been true in 1950, but it was no longer true, and she was simply hassling two girls who were just minding their own business for no reason at all.

I don’t really know what happened in my brain as I listened to this, but something in me had clearly had Enough. Enough insane rules and regulations and being told how I was doomed. Enough confusion.

In the short silence that followed, someone called Sister a b***h.

Just like that. The word just leaked into the air. Not meanly or angrily. Just firmly and matter-of-factly.


I was even more surprised to find this person was me. Apparently, my mouth had decided to act on its own. I was normally the meek one, the one who didn’t give anyone any trouble. I had apparently decided to break out of this in a big way.

This was really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really not okay.

You must realize that you could get written up at my school if your socks sloutched or if you were missing a button. So calling a nun a b***h was just slightly better than, oh, let’s say . . . setting the English Center on fire.

It was definitely grounds for expulsion.

Betty looked at me. There were no words for it. There was no expression for how bad this was, or how unexpected, or how utterly, utterly unrecoverable. Sister Ann Oiance was rendered speechless. I had overloaded her circuits temporarily. I was about to become one of those people who went down in school folklore as the Bathroom B***h Girl Who Was Never Heard From Again. Adrenaline started coursing through my body, making me feels strong and woozy at the same time. My brain started working very quickly, at that special speed that brains only work at when they think the body they ride around in is about to be killed.

In that moment, in a single look between Betty and I, we knew what had to be done. We all wore nametags. I would be identified as soon as sister recovered enough to look. Her eyes were already heading towards it.

We moved as one.

We started running. Really running. Not jogging. Not just going fast as a joke. This was an end-of-the-world, Godzilla is behind us, zombies are coming, Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible III kind of a run . . . which was something else you weren’t allowed to do in our school. The run alone could have gotten us in detention. But what was behind us was so much worse. Of course, what was behind us was a woman with a three-pronged cane, but I think I honestly believed at that moment that that cane would fire up like a rocket and sister would FLY DOWN THE STAIRS and consume us.

I had done the deed, but Betty was running because she knew that an explosion of that size takes down everyone in the vicinity. Running was the only viable solution—jumping out of the window might have been better, except that the inevitable immobility and hospitalization would have trapped us and identified us, and no, there would have been no pity.

We ran down three flight of stairs (the wrong way), shoved people out of the way in the lobby, ran down the front walk, down the stairs to the parking lot, through the parking lot, through the soccer field, and didn’t even slow down until we were in the alley that ran behind the school lot. And even then, we did not really stop. We jogged up the road, to the street, turned a corner, and lurked in some bushes at some random house.

“I don’t know why I just did that,” I said, as we collapsed to the ground. “I may never know.”

Betty knew. Betty and I have known each other since we were eight, and she knows that though I am often quiet, there is certainly something in me that will only take so much, and that I was capable of acting in very unexpected ways when I felt that something was Wrong.

The amazing thing about this is that it seems just as scary in retrospect as it did at the time. That could have been the end of my Catholic school career. I could have ended up booted. The only reason I can see that that didn’t happen was because, for once in my life, I listened to the wild yawlp of nature, and followed my deep biological instinct to RUN FROM THE SCARY THING.

I spent the next few weeks dodging and weaving away from Sister Ann Oiance. I was not above throwing myself to the ground, hiding behind doors, and ducking under tables.

“I understand,” I hear you say. “But how does this apply to me? What can I learn? I am sitting here studying for a final exam. I start my summer job in a week, and my boss is guaranteed to be insane and hate me. What can I take from your experience?”
I’ll tell you.

1. Those things that happen at school or you job that you think will ruin your life forever and you will never recover from? Not necessarily the case. And no, you are not an evil person. Both Betty and I have turned out just fine.

2. Always WATCH OUT FOR JELLYFISH. When it doubt, assume the object in question is a jellyfish. Sure, you may later find out it was a shell, or a wave, or a shoe, or your best friend’s foot poking out of the sand . . . but it MIGHT have been a jellyfish, and you should run from it. RUN! RUN NOW!

(There are other things to be scared of. If you require it, I will provide an entire list of MJ’s THINGS TO BE SCARED OF IN THE SUMMERTIME. My list is very thorough and will keep you alive longer. Let me know if I should put it up.)

Updates tomorrow. Now, I’m off to my reading. I promise not to call any of you any rude names if you show up, b****tes.

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Blogger Ian said...

Man, that was close!

12:24 AM  
Anonymous Jessica said...

I'm pretty sure I'm in desperate need for the MJ's THINGS TO BE SCARED OF IN THE SUMMERTIME. In case, you know, I run out of things to be scared of and run from on my own.

12:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ahaha that was halarious. As an ex-Catholic school girl myself (I started in kindergarden but by the time I reached high school decided I had enough and transferred to public) I can totally relate to the fear of nuns. And also jellyfish, though they are rarely found on the grounds of a Catholic school...

please put up MJ's things to be scared of in the summertime! It sounds both forewarning and humorous!

12:28 AM  
Anonymous kiersten said...

hahahahaha. so funny. i can totaly relate. we have scary nuns at our school who like to flip out and tell your friend's parents that she turned down tutoring from scary nun in math when scary nun told her not two days before that scary nun doesn't do tutoring getting said friend grounded for months. and i was one of those people you met. my friends couldn't get me to shut up about meeting you.

12:50 AM  
Anonymous emily said...

go maureen! you sure told that nun.

12:53 AM  
Anonymous julia c said...

ok i think that you should put up your list. very interesting story. and i don't mean that in a bad way.

12:56 AM  
Blogger Tobias said...

aah, that was fun.

I let a friend of mine cheat with a german test. if you passed the test you wouldn't have to do german anymore. and my teacher found out later that I let her cheat (she didn't have any actual prove so she couldn't do anything about it). since then I've been avoiding her (she hasn't talked to me about it). but I realize I'll have to face her some day.

and Maureen, weren't the Free-Monkey-World-Tour-People supposed to get an e-mail with instructions? or did my spam-filter eat it?

1:06 AM  
Anonymous kiersten said...

i'll email it to you tobias. i got all the free monkey mail. email me your address to philliephan03@msn.com and i'll forward you all the updates so far.

1:34 AM  
Anonymous kiersten said...

and maureen, was it just a coincidence that you put up this post AFTER the signing that your parents came to and you're now out of town?

1:35 AM  
Anonymous tess said...

Oh my god I am laughing so hard now. That was FUNNY!

But, ahem *puts on serious face* a very close call.

Oh, and I need that list. I don't like summer anyway, and if I have it, it will make me sound less crazy.

2:18 AM  
Anonymous Dawn said...

Thank goodness I didn't go to a Catholilc school. I'm going to a church sponsored university in the fall, and fortunately for me, I am a member of the chuch that sponsors the school. I would really hate to be the odd one out.(since I'm rather odd anyway.) I should listen to my "Run AWAY!!" instinct far more often than I do. For example: I should have never taken a job where my boss scares the living heck out of me...but here I am, 2 years later, and still an employee. I think it's because I'm too afraid to quit.

2:40 AM  
Anonymous Kelly R said...

That was possibly the greatest story I have ever heard. I am attending a Catholic school at the moment, so I feel your pain. Except that there are thankfully no nuns at my school. And we have boys. But I have gotten yelled at for the sloutching socks thing.

And one part of your entry really scared me. Because I am studying for a final exam right now. And I am starting my summer job in a few weeks. And my boss seems very scary. And most figures of authority hate me even though I am a very quiet person who just sits there. Quietly. I don't know why they hate me. They just do.

So, in short, I would greatly appreciate if you posted "MJ'S THINGS TO BE SCARED IN THE SUMMERTIME." It would help me out a lot.

I love Girl at Sea so far and I wish I could come to one of your book signings...but you are not coming to Connecticut. *Sigh*

...and that was possibly the longest comment...ever. In the history of comments.

-Kelly R

3:38 AM  
Blogger The Bibliophile said...

I would *really* like to see MJ's Things To Be Scared of in the Summertime. And in a few months, if you're up to it, feel free to follow up with MJ's Things to Be Scared of in the Fall.

3:51 AM  
Anonymous kiersten said...

hnkdrlknhn inh rgh eagaeo h
(that would be my head hitting the keyboard while studying for exams) i swear hese people are out to get me. biology and history on the same day! ahhhhhh. guess this is what i get for waiting till the last minute to study. but procrastinating hasn't failed me yet, so this is what i do. loved the story!

4:23 AM  
Anonymous Peggy B said...

Maureen, what a scary school! I can't imagine the low, deviant things you needed to do to survive behind those convent walls. ;-)

5:03 AM  
Anonymous sockmonster said...

I so need the the list of "MJ’s THINGS TO BE SCARED OF IN THE SUMMERTIME"! Cause my list of things to be scared of in the summertime is only about 100 items long and I might have missed some! Bear in mind, I live in a part of the country where summer lasts from April to early October... That leaves lots of room to be afraid of.

And I have a few scary nun stories too... Catholic primary school here....

5:27 AM  
Anonymous Ally said...

Is she where you got the nun with the tree pronged cane in Devilish? I think there was one anyway. I'm catholic and my aunt is a catholic school teacher so I know a bunch of nuns and they were all nice but then I wasn't a teenager when I knew them.
That story was HILARIOUS! See, if it was me I would've probably gotten caught b/c I don't do well with those sitiuations haha I also need that list..

6:33 AM  
Anonymous Cameron said...

Maureen, you're a joy.

I worked in catholic hospital for a while. They were always banging on about how they were a 'values based' organisation. The values of the people around me were much the same as those in other hospitals I worked in.

As far as I could see the main use of the values was to provide an unassailable way to b***h about someone else.

"That Fred Flintone tie is hardly in keeping with the values of the organisation", "about those red socks, this is a values based organisation..." (Small dark grey Freds on a dark grey background and ok, the red was a bit bright).

I made the mistake of giving my opinion of the values in a management meeting. Bang! The next day they moved the Nun in charge of the Ethics committee into the empty office next to mine. She didn't say much, but always seemed to be checking out my clothes, maybe she just liked my arse.

6:39 AM  
Anonymous Katty said...

Haha, this post cracked me up. I had a similar experience, being a little Methodist girl at a Jewish school. I did, however, ge alot of school off for the Jewish holidays, so it wasn't as bad as it could have been.

Also, almost all my cousins (seventeen of them) and most of my aunts and uncles (five of each) are Catholic. My sister and I get SO lost at family reunions... but we, too, are learning to fake along to the extra prayers. My baby cousins were shocked to hear that we didn't give anything up for Lent- our mother had us make things up just to put their minds at ease, and convince them that we weren't Doomed for all Eternity, etc.

I would LOVE to hear your list of Things To Be Afraid Of... if you haven't added it already, I would put in sand sharks. They look all cute and innocent, but one bit half of my cousin's toe off last summer. Yikes! (Though not quite as scary as a nun with a three-pronged cane!)

7:01 AM  
Anonymous Katty said...

Haha, this post cracked me up. I had a similar experience, being a little Methodist girl at a Jewish school. I did, however, ge alot of school off for the Jewish holidays, so it wasn't as bad as it could have been.

Also, almost all my cousins (seventeen of them) and most of my aunts and uncles (five of each) are Catholic. My sister and I get SO lost at family reunions... but we, too, are learning to fake along to the extra prayers. My baby cousins were shocked to hear that we didn't give anything up for Lent- our mother had us make things up just to put their minds at ease, and convince them that we weren't Doomed for all Eternity, etc.

I would LOVE to hear your list of Things To Be Afraid Of... if you haven't added it already, I would put in sand sharks. They look all cute and innocent, but one bit half of my cousin's toe off last summer. Yikes! (Though not quite as scary as a nun with a three-pronged cane!)

7:01 AM  
Blogger Becs said...

"I don’t know if you’ve ever had to unlock a flipped lock in a crowded hallway when you were in a rush"

YES!!!! Oh. My. God. It made me so mad. And I almost never left my locker unlocked, yet when I did, some teacher always managed to notice it and flip the lock!

Wow, I have so many stories from my Catholic high school. I never had to run from a nun (the ones at my school were all much too old to chase us), but I got a thrill out of breaking all the stupid rules, so, um, I did. All the time. We hung out in forbidden bathrooms, signed out when we weren't supposed to, STOLE SCHOOL PROPERTY (not like it sounds, promise), and violated the dress code in every manner possible. It was amazing. :D Overall though, I actually liked my high school. :P

I WANT MORE!! More stories about your high school escapades. And the summer list of things to run from sounds great too. :D :D :D :D

7:16 AM  
Anonymous Ally said...

haha We leave our lockers set all the time. we have the ones that are stuck in the door so they can't flip them. All you have to do is duck tape the place where the little lock comes out. I don't do that though. To many kids go around pulling doors open in my school. Some people just leave set after they open it but then you have to unlock it every other time :/

8:08 AM  
Blogger Jez said...

The list would be greatly appreciated :)

And I finally picked up Girl at Sea instead of just reading it in pieces at the bookstore (my dad finally paid me back!) and it's really good. I'm using my postcard as a bookmark :D
Too bad you're not coming to the Printer's Row Book Fair here in Chicago this weekend, I would have loved to meet you!

8:47 AM  
Anonymous kiersten said...

about the lock flipping, we never have that done by teachers. by other students is a different story. we also hve people steal your lock and put it on another locker so your locker is open for people to come dump stuff in and the other person can't get their locker open.

5:50 PM  
Anonymous Gabrielle said...

I went to a Catholic elementary school. It wasn't really very Catholic though. There weren't really nuns, or at least they weren't teachers. Maybe they were just staying there. Creepy.
I finished Girl at Sea at approx. 2 in the morning last night. It was amazing. I did, at some point where everything was wrong, want to smack you with the book (and it's hardcover) very badly, but it was amazing. I got... stung or burned or whatever by a jellyfish when I was little. It was just one jellyfish though, and it was far away, with really long tentacle thingies that burned me. Oh, this is just too good a story, I'm gonna go write about it on my blog.

7:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hahaha! That was so funny-encore encore!!

O n could you send out the free monkey emails again coz i didn't get one.

xx Hanna xx

7:18 PM  
Anonymous Michelle said...

I've never been to Catholic school, but that was still awesome. I would also like to see the MJ's Things to be Scared of in the Summertime.
You rock!

8:39 PM  
Anonymous Liz said...

I go to a Catholic high school and while we don't have removeable locks, we have severely demented and OLD lockers. At least three people a semester had their locks entirely removed for various amounts of time because they were so screwed up. While I've never had the joy of a flipped lock, I have had one of the suckiest combinations, 00-02-48, and the picky locker to match (so fun in the crowded and your-business-is-mine hallways).

9:14 PM  
Anonymous Jaimie said...

Hahahaha! I have always been scared of nuns for some reason.... Myabe thats why.I am still waiting for my postcards.... Bummer

10:10 PM  
Anonymous Joa said...

So in order to make this comment have nothing to do with anything (the anythings of your blog, that is), I just wanted to apologize for not being at Columbus Circle in Manhattan on Friday during my awesome visit to New York.

I know you must have missed me DEARLY, and I can only imagine one teary-eyed MJ scanning the crowd for a Joa. But I was out on Broadway, watching the amazing RENT. And there was a Maureen Johnson in that, so I figured that make up for it.

And, you know, I was sort of on this tour thing that ignored me whenever I mentioned cool goings on that I wished to attend.

Oh, oh, oh, I saw Girl at Sea in the bookstore! But I have no money. I especially don't have enough money for new hardbacks. Why are books so expensive? Do they not want us to read?

So since I can't commemorate this release by buying the book, I went to the library to check out an old one that I hadn't read. But they didn't have any Maureen Johnson books...they did have a book by a Harriet McBryde Johnson though, so I got that. *beams*

11:32 PM  
Anonymous Ammy said...

Oh my god! Hilarious! I can totally relate to that and it seems like exactly the kind of thing that would happen to me. I kind of... did say B***c to a teacher who sounds almost as bad as Sister Ann Oiance. Luckily, she didn't hear me, but she stared at me for a second too long after I said it, so I avoid her at all costs now.

2:40 AM  
Blogger alternatefish said...

hi there! you don't know me from Adam, I'm sure, but I've just tagged you with a Thinking Blogger Award. I love reading your blog.

4:06 AM  
Blogger Tobias said...

Maureen, it (really) has been tomorrow.....

9:32 AM  
Anonymous kiersten said...

no more exams!!!!!!!!!!! whoooooooooo!!!!!! (until next year of course.) we definitly need to celebrate the start of summer with the things to be scared of in the summertime list.

5:26 PM  
Anonymous kiersten said...

ohmygosh. my friend goes to *maureen's old school that i'm not going to tell you* and she says that tehre is a nun who has a three pronged cane who is old and she's either polish or italian or something. could this possibly be her? we're trying to find out if its the same person. and you now have a new fan. (i'm getting her to read them. she just read your blog and cracked up)

6:01 PM  
Anonymous kiersten said...

*there sorry. i can't spell.

8:18 PM  
Blogger Kate said...

I'm addicted to your Catholic school horror stories. I go to a Catholic all girls school with polyester heat uniforms of death and nuns, but it sounds a lot less strict. For example, I once saw a cart full of beer (BEER!) being wheeled into the monastery.

Then again, they are Salesian nuns.

(but please, more stories from your high school days!!)

On another note, I started and almost finished reading Devilish in aforementioned school's library (we have some super cool librarians) and I like it a lot.

10:22 PM  
Anonymous L.M. said...

Hello! I got your signed card the same day I picked up Girl at Sea from my library. How weird.

And you should totally post that list.

12:45 AM  

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