Tom, the Ruler, and the Trials of Sister Mary Virgil

by Sara Rubin


(in three scenes)


  1. Tom and the Ruler

Tom, my younger brother, had had it. Their fifth grade teacher, Sister Mary Virgil had gone too far. There they were, two more kids, Pete and Mike, being called up to her desk. She caught them passing a note again, and they were going to be punished. She had the ruler in her hand.

Something had to be done Tom thought, this had to be stopped! Each day children would be made to march to the front of the room, turn their palms up, and, standing quietly in front of her, have their hands, one or both depending on the severity of their crime, smacked by that ruler! Smack smack smack! The sting would bring tears to the eyes of even tough ten year olds, they couldn’t help it. It hurt.

Dictated by his own innate sense of fairness, and by his moral duty to stand against something he knew was wrong, (influenced by the earlier glimmerings of Catholic social justice), he had to act.

So on that day he didn’t leave Sacred Heart School at dismissal. He went into the boys’ room, and waited until the other children had left the building. He kept watch  until Sister Mary Virgil left to go to the teachers’ room. Then he dashed into the classroom and snatched the awful tool of oppression from her desk! He ran out, down the stairs, and out the back door of the school. He never stopped until he got to the little bridge that crossed over a small creek on Mill Street. There he broke that ruler into as many pieces as he could and threw them into the creek. They would be washed away into the bigger Elk Creek, pass through the center of town, and be gone forever

He felt good. Elated! He had done it, righted a wrong! He was very happy that night and slept well.

But evil is not  so easily vanquished. The next morning Tom realized that there was a whole cabinet full of school supplies at the back of the classroom! As he watched the teacher remove a fresh ruler from a stack, and re-lock the cabinet, he knew that his work was not yet done…



Though Tom was not observed and did not get into trouble for this one, he was guilty of other offenses while under Sister Mary Virgil’s tutelage. In an effort to obtain relief she sent note after note home to our mother, requiring Mom to go in to school to discuss her son’s behavior. Those efforts, of course, were never successful, and with the arrival of yet another note, Mom sighed and said “You know, I think that woman is just lonely.”



  1. Sister Mary Virgil

Oh my goodness, why did they give me these fifth graders? The girls are aren’t so bad, they  seem kinder. But some of those boys—several taller than me—I really can’t handle them. They do things that torment me, like make swishing sounds when I walk around the room, or pretend they all have to cough or sneeze at the same time when my back is turned. And it’s a whole group so I can only act as if I don’t notice. But they know I do.

This makes them more brazen, and they begin shooting spitballs across the room, chewing gum, or talking in class when there is supposed to be silence. I used to tape the offender’s mouth shut with wide adhesive tape, but it didn’t take long for them to tongue a hole through it and begin laughing or whispering again.

Now, my superior told me to use a use a ruler. I’m not sure I really want to. It seems somewhat cruel to make them come up to the front of the room and hold out their hands. I have to smack their palms so it stings. I’ll bet their hands are as soft as mine.

But, after all, I have to protect the order of my classroom, and they need to learn there are rules in this world that must be followed! And I, as their authority figure, am being demeaned. So I do hit them, and find that after the first few strikes it gets easier. I feel justified as I hit, and only a tiny bit guilty when the toughest ones’ eyes begin to tear. But it is for their good, and I go on.

These children don’t like me. All my life it has been like this; people just don’t seem to see me as likeable. I was not a pretty child. My face is scarred from severe childhood acne, and I think now, being scrunched up in my wimple, it looks even worse! Our family was not well off, and it was large. Our clothes were always hand-me-downs. Our parents were hard working but did not finish school themselves and didn’t care much about our grades.

I never had a boyfriend, or even many friends at all. It might have been because of my looks, or my clothes, but probably mostly because I was so shy and never felt that I fit in, anywhere. I laughed too much when I was embarrassed.

The nuns in school usually were kind, but as if they felt sorry for me. One though, Sr.

Kathleen, was especially nice to me. She let me stay after school and wash the                                         blackboard and clap out the erasers. My mother was proud that not only another adult, but a revered nun at that, valued me as something special!


After graduation, I thought of being a nun myself. It was a prestigious calling, and I liked the nobility of devoting my life to something larger than myself, and doing good. I also liked the security of having a ready made accepting community of sisters. And of course, I loved God, as all of those in the order did.

Still, now that I am a professed nun, things are probably not quite as happy as I hoped they would be. My sisters are nice to me, but I don’t feel I have any really good friends. I still am lonely sometimes, so I pray and feel comfortable at least with God.

But oh, this job, this class! Well, another day is over. I go to the teachers’ area to decompress. No-one is there though, so I walk back my classroom to find my lesson plans for tomorrow and get ready to leave. The desk looks funny, what is wrong? Oh, the ruler is missing. What could have happened to it?

Oh well, there are a whole stack of them back in the supply closet. I’ll get a new one in the morning.


  1.  Sister Mary Virgil”s Recreation Hour

Well, my preparation work is done. I don’t have to work on my lesson plan anymore tonight. I do have some free time left, I could go down to the recreation room. —But, then again, maybe I’d better look over that lesson plan one more time.

Everybody else, the other sisters, are already there I suppose, all gathered into groups, talking and joking. They seem happier than I am, they must be lighter spirits. I should go down. But it really would be much easier to just stay here, and if anybody asks why I didn’t join them, which they probably wouldn’t anyway, I could just say I was working on a difficult chapter I was going to be  starting with the class soon.

But, oh, come on, why don’t I just take the bull by the horns and go down. Be brave, take a risk.— But how will I feel when they hear the door open and they all look up and see my face in the doorway? My face. I can feel it getting red already. And who will I talk to when I go in? Who will I approach?

Or what if they don’t hear me open the door, what if no-one does notice me? What would I do then if I go in? Thread myself between their groups, smiling at anyone who glances at me? Make my way across the room pretending to look for someone? But there wouldn’t really be anyone I was looking for. And what would I do when I got to the end of the room? Turn around and thread my way back again?

No, on second thought, I’m not going to go down tonight. I don’t really feel all that well; my stomach feels queasy and my face does feel hot… I think I will just rest here a bit.

And I probably should spend some time thinking about that new chapter coming up anyway…




Sara Rubin is a local artist and environmental conservationist who has had a family pottery business for years in Brighton, NY.  Though her husband and she continue making and selling their pottery, she has also begun to write about the people and animals and places that make up her world.
(Sara can be reached at or