Silver & Gold

And while we are talking about fourth grade, I am reminded of Maureen McArdle’s neck in front of me in the third row, that smug smarmy neck, gloating and preening at me for nine long months, as day after day, week after week, she bested me in math tests and social-studies projects and science experiments, finishing first in whatever academic contest had been posed to the class by Mrs. O’Malley, who looked like a linebacker with spectacles, and she, Maureen McArdle, owner of that smirking neck, again and again got her paper back with a gold Jesus on it, whereas I earned a series of silver Jesuses as long as your arm.

No boy ever accumulated such a parade of silver Jesuses. I brought them home day after day, week after week, Jesus glinting like a brilliant new coin from my satchel, and showed them to my mom, who tried her best to pretend that a silver Jesus was every bit as good as a gold Jesus. At least it is not a bronze Jesus, she actually said once, a line I remember because I had never heard that sentence before (or since), and because my brother Thomas had earned a bronze Jesus in kindergarten that very morning, apparently for not peeing on himself, for once, or perhaps for managing to eat his lunch without incurring injury, for a change. You wouldn’t believe how many times this kid started out to eat a candy bar and ended up with a cast on his arm, or tried to open the peanut butter jar and finished by using the last seven Band-Aids in the pantry to stanch the blood, which caused my father to once again use lewd and vulgar language, which he had sworn, in front of a priest at the Nocturnal Adoration Society meeting, not to do, but did.

The bronze Jesuses in our class, I note, were scattered like cherry petals, willy-nilly (and there actually was a kid in our class named Willie Nilley), everyone earning one eventually except Michael O’Sullivan, whose grandfather had married a Lutheran—a mixed marriage, yes, but not a good example of miscegenation, Michael, as Mrs. O’Malley said, tersely, while handing Maureen McArdle yet another gold Jesus.

I kept my silver Jesuses for some years, in a drawer filled with Jesuses of various shapes and hues and materials. There was the Jesus patch presented to us by a visiting Jesuit one time, as a sort of team logo, and there was a small statue that may or may not have been Jesus, presented to me in sixth-grade basketball, although the coach, one of the dads—and not one of the dads who had ever played or seen basketball played before, it turned out—told me that if it was Jesus, which he was not totally sure it was, for it was a rare case of a long lean Jesus portrayed in tight gym shorts, sculpted as if he, basketball Jesus, had just launched a jump shot, his right hand following through correctly so as to impart backspin on the ball, and his left hand serving as a guide, something like the tower that guides a rocket until the moment of liftoff, at which point the tower, or left hand, having executed its function, flies free—are you listening to what I am saying, Brian?

Anyway, the reason I tell you this story is to relate the time I set out to actually, no kidding, steal a gold Jesus from Maureen McArdle’s desk at recess. I had been driven mad by the infinite parade of silver Jesuses and I set out, greed and rage in my heart, to procure a gold Jesus, come hell or high water. I say this ruefully, aware of the stench of sin, but a man must face his demons, even those that taunted him when he was ten years old, and I crept toward her desk, wondering what that awful stench was. I hoisted the lid of her desk and found her most recent gold Jesus, face down in what appeared to be the soggy remnant of a liverwurst sandwich. Thus ended my roaring ambition for a gold Jesus unearned by personal toil and discipline, and I have been a better man since.

I think we can all agree that this is a lesson that should not be wasted. When next you find yourself weary beyond words of silver Jesuses, and your dignity and discipline have dissolved to such a degree that you find yourself on your knees at recess slinking up an aisle of cracked and ancient linoleum toward a desk glowing with gold Jesuses, take it from me, your friend Brian, that this is a bad idea, not a project that will end well. Return to your seat forthwith, and face forward, with your hands where I can see them, and forget the smug prim neck of Maureen McArdle; for while you will go on to a glittering career as a penniless essayist, she will eventually become an Episcopalian bishop, I believe somewhere in the Midwest, says my mother on the telephone. Let us say a prayer for her eternal soul. Do you still have your silver Jesuses? Did I tell you what happened to Thomas?

Published in the 2012-01-13 issue: 

Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland magazine at the University of Portland.

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