In a black and white photo of my first day of school, you can see Mary Jo in the background with her hands on her hips and a little jealous smirk on her face. Me in the foreground with a matching pixie hair cut and a smart new plastic school bag. My sister is three years younger than me which means I have always been a step or two ahead. I rode a bike first. Lost a tooth first. Went to school first.
But when her turn came to go to school, to half-day kindergarten, she hated it. She didn’t cry when mom dropped her off but she regularly escaped. As soon as the teacher let the class out for recess, she walked the three blocks back home all by herself.
I was in the second grade at a different school, a Catholic school that didn’t have kindergarten. We were serious in the second grade. Serious about reading and math but mostly serious about our first communion. That spring, my class was in church practicing for our First Communion ceremony which mostly meant practicing to assemble in an orderly line for the procession and sitting quietly in our pews.
I was concentrating hard on my prayers, trying not to be distracted by the boys who were snorting and punching each other in the pew behind me, when the black and white clad sister who was the principal came in and whispered something to my teacher. Sister John pointed to me and I shrank with fear and guilt even though I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong. I wasn’t talking or moving at all!
The stern nun beckoned to me with her curled finger and led me back to her office–the principal’s office, the scariest possible place on earth for a kid. This was the place where parents were called. The place from which some kids never returned to class! I was wracking my brain to formulate a defense against the trouble I was sure those horrible boys had gotten me into.
But that wasn’t it at all. It was Mary Jo. At my school! Sitting on a stiff wooden bench in the waiting area with her scrawny scabby legs dangling in the air, arms across her chest, and her face screwed up in a defiant sneer. I was relieved that I wasn’t in trouble but also peeved that my sister had interrupted the transformative holy experience of first communion practice.
Apparently, my kindergarten-hating little sis had managed another one of her escapes and went home to an empty locked house. My grandparents lived next door to us but Mary Jo didn’t dare knock on the door. She was perpetually mad at Grandma for holding her doll hostage. Grandma was trying to teach her a lesson for leaving the poor thing outside in the rain.
Determined Mary Jo had navigated more than a mile walk to my school crossing the treacherous Fond du Lac Avenue and wandered around the hallways until she was spotted. “I’ve called your mother at work,” said Sister Principal. “You are to walk home with your sister now. Your mom will be there by the time you get home.” I was allowed back into my classroom to collect my homework and Mary Jo and I set off for home.
“How did you get to my school?” I asked as she struggled to keep up with my brisk purposeful pace.
“I dunno,” she said. “I walked.”
“You’re going to be in so much trouble,” I told her. Mary Jo didn’t even flinch.
Mom flung open the door as we approached and rushed us inside. Mary Jo got a hard hug and then a serious lecture. Mom knelt down and held Mary Jo’s shoulders tight. “Mary Jo, you are never, ever, ever to leave school again.” Mary Jo sat in a tight knot and glared at me over mom’s shoulder.
I couldn’t help but admire the guts and outright boldness it took to do what she did. It’s been that determined spirit that I’ve always respected in Mary Jo. It shines whenever she’s up against a challenge. It was there when she fiercely advocated for and supported her children through some challenging times, when she cared for her husband through a health crisis, when she went back to school and began a completely new career, and countless other times. I stand with my hand on my hip, a smirk of understanding, and watch her with awe.