(continued from yesterday, when Jamie, a first-year teacher, had barged into Conroy's office and told the principal he wanted a kid named Westgaard booted from his class. He was angry--maybe I should say, "I was angry.")
"Give me a break," Jamie Laarman rolled his eyes. "I lost my cool because of the way he looked at me, not because of the stupid ashes."
"You think,” Conroy said, “that today when they come back from church with that dirt splashed on their foreheads, they turn into angels?"
Laarman shrugged his shoulders. "Why go through all the lunacy of putting. . ."
"See, 'lunacy,'" Conroy said. "You said lunacy, didn’t you? You're prejudice is showing--"
"I didn't mean it."
"And it's not lunacy," Conroy said. "Now sit down."
Laarman did. "I'm sorry I said that," he said. "I didn't mean it that way."
"You know what it means?" Conroy said.
"'Ashes to ashes, dust to dust--I may have been raised Protestant, but I'm not feeble-minded."
"Frailty," Conroy said, "you know anything about fraility, about sinfulness, about weakness, Jamie?-–you ever hear that kind of language in your church?"
"Of course,” Laarman said. “I’m sorry--I never saw anything like this. I look up at my kids after lunch, and half of them have smudgy foreheads, including Bob Westgaard, the biggest jerk in school." He pointed, pointedly, at Conroy. "You tell me--what did it mean to him--Ash Wednesday?"
"You Protestants,” he said, “you’re really big on judging, aren’t you?”
"Now who's prejudice?" Jamie said.
"Seriously," Conroy said. "It's a thing with you have, isn't it–looking at people as if you can tell whether or not they’re glory bound."
"I'm not sending the kid to hell," Jamie told him. "I just don't want him in my class. I don't ever want to see that kid again. He's a slime ball."
"Let me tell you something, Jamie," Conroy told him. "You're a really good teacher, and it's because you're a believer.” He sat back down, put both hands in front of him. "But you don't know a thing about Catholicism. Those smudgy foreheads mean we got burned, Jamie–-you and me, Catholics and Prots–-we all got burned when we got locked out of the garden, when we got banished." He pointed. “You know what I’m saying? The ash says we’re out–-you and me both.”
"And Bobby Westgaard,” Jamie said, “because that's what I want you to do: boot him. I won't have him back in my class," he said. "That's all I came to tell you--he's not coming back."
"So much for the whole damn human race," Conroy told him.
Laarman rolled his eyes. "I don’t want to argue Roman Catholic theology, okay?” he said. “Besides, I say it means nothing at all to kids like--"
"Who's talking Catholic here?" Conroy said.
Jamie looked up angrily. "Well, look at this," he pointed to his forehead. "There’s nothing here!"
"You're proud of that?" Conroy said.
Jamie got back up on his feet. "Look, I got to get back. You talk to him, all right? You tell him I won't have him back. That's all I'm saying."
“He gave you a look you didn’t like, right? Like Adam, maybe.”
“Oh, for Pete’s sake.”
Conroy reached into his desk, took out a pencil, and started shading a circle on scratch paper, a circle of darkness a half dollar wide. "I'll talk to Bobby Westgard," he said. "I'll tell him he can't go back to the garden."
“Is this some kind of morality play? Give me a break.”
Conroy kept darkening the circle. "So tell me," he said, "just how long did the two of you boogie around the cars out there before you finally threw in the towel?"
"Too dumb long," Laarman said.
"And Westgard’s still out there, I suppose?"
"I couldn't catch him."
"Ticked you off, I bet," Conroy said.
"I'd have killed him."
"I believe it." Conroy dropped the pencil and pushed his thumb into the black spot he'd pencilled in. "Tell you what–-let me make you a Catholic–-just today," he said, raising his thumb, black from the pencil lead. "Come here," he said, getting up off his chair.
"I'm not wearing no smudge," Jamie said. "I’m already embarrassed.”
Conroy looked at his thumb. "I guess you're right--it doesn't matter, does it?--whether the ash is up there on your head or not," he said. "Just as long as all of us know we got smudges–you and me and Bobby Westgard."
Jamie flinched noticeably.
Conroy put his thumb up to his own forehead and smeared it with pencil shavings. "The odd part is, I can't see it myself. It's meant for you too--after all, right now, you're the one staring." He picked a Kleenex out of the box on his desk, wiped off his thumb, then pointed up at his own forehead. "Ask not for whom the ash smudges, Laarman," he said. “You get what I’m saying?”
He held that sheet of paper out to Jamie. “I’m no priest,” he said, “but you’re no Catholic either.”
“You really want me to?” Jamie said.
“Just as long as you understand,” Conroy said. “Just so you understand, is all.”
Jamie took that sheet of paper out of his principle’s hand, looked at it carefully, then folded it, neatly, and stuck it in his pocket. “I get it,” he said. “I’m out of the garden, just like all those kids.” He laughed. “I know it. I get it."
“There isn’t a one of us on any honor roll,” Conroy told him, his finger in the air like a preacher. “You better get back to class before those kids take your room apart.”
“They're going to laugh,” Jamie said. "They saw me out there chasing the kid."
“I can't help think it was funny,” Conroy told him, “Just think--you think they look funny–-all that ash on their foreheads. Just imagine how they laughed seeing you chase Bobby Westgard around some Grand Am. What a hoot.”
And with that, Jamie Laarman left. He opened the door, smiling, and when he walked out, the secretary looked at Conroy strangely.
"You're not going to believe this, Rose," Conroy told her. “He couldn’t catch the kid,” he told his secretary. “Jamie Laarman chased Bobby Westgaard all around the parking lot, and he couldn’t catch him,” and then he burst out laughing.
“What on earth you say to him anyway?" she asked him, looking up. "And by the way," she said, somewhat testily, "I wish you'd tell me when you step out--I'd like to know."
"I haven't left," he said.
"Even when you go to church," she told him, and when Conroy looked at her strangely, she pointed up to his forehead.
For the record, what's true here is me running around the parking lot, chasing (and not catching) a kid who smarted off. That it happened on Ash Wednesday is fiction. But, for the first time in my life that February, I looked at a bunch of kids with ash on their foreheads from a quick trip they'd made to church during lunch. I thought it was just plain weird.
Conroy was a Catholic, and I was a rookie.