Mary Gertrude and the Alligator

By Anne K. Kaler, PSBVA

In first grade, Mary Gertrude noticed that her seatmate Paul who was called Pollie was smaller than the other boys at St. Erasmus School. In second grade, she noticed that he hadn’t grown much over the summer. By the first day of third grade, she backed him into a corner to question him on why he was called Pollie instead of his given name of Paul.

“Because,” he explained, “my real name Paul means small so I’m just following what my name means – small. You see, ‘Paul’ means more than small in size. It also means ‘one who is modest and humble’.”

When she questioned how he could be “modest and humble” if he had just mentioned it to her, he confessed with a sly grin, “That’s my secret. I keep my humility quiet because I don’t want anyone to think that I am proud of it – being humble, that is.”

Mary Gertrude frowned at the faulty logic of this statement but allowed her sympathy for Pollie to let the matter slip by her until she noticed how some of the other third-grade boys tended to make fun of his size.

“Don’t worry about me, Mary,” he insisted. “I can hold my own with the boys. My brothers are teaching me wrestling moves so that I don’t get hurt if someone does fight with me. I can outlast them. Besides if they pick on me too often, I can just mention it to my brothers. See? Either way, I win.”

Having an older brother herself who would massacre any boy who messed with his sister, Mary Gertrude nodded.

“Besides it’s all right, you know, being small. I actually like it because I can get into small places. Now if I could talk to my mom into getting me glasses, I’d be set. Nobody bigger than me could pick on me then ‘cause then they’d be pickin’ on me and the good sisters don’t allow that in our school, no, sir, they don’t.”

Mary Gertrude admired his cleverness. Why hadn’t she thought of that?

Then he leaned close to her ear to whisper, “It is the girls that give me the most trouble ‘cause I can’t fight girls.”

While Mary Gertrude staunchly upheld that principle, she noticed that some of the girls did snicker at Pollie’s small stature. Indeed, she herself had been the butt of some nasty remarks from those same girls, that is, until she talked firmly with her fists clenched tightly at her sides to several of the ringleaders. Now she simply ignored them and they left her alone.

But on this first day of third grade, Mary Gertrude noted that the class had acquired several new students. She knew that she would have to educate them about not teasing Pollie on his size.

So, several days later, when a new girl Luttie Roverson laughed because Pollie wasn’t tall enough to write his answers very high on the blackboard, Mary Gertrude took it upon herself to object by hissing a threat to Luttie.

In a voice as shrill as fingernails down the very same blackboard. Luttie protested to the Sister Radiana that Mary Gertrude had threatened her.

At the nun’s raised eyebrow, Mary Gertrude claimed that she had merely coughed and she did so a number of times as proof. Luttie turned to give her a suspicious look, while the nun just tutted “Ladies, ladies, quiet please” at the two of them.

If a small lie and a convincing cough were all it took to restore order in her third grade universe, Mary Gertrude thought it was well worth her efforts.

* * *

A little later that fall, Pollie’s brother came back from driving rich old Mr. Michaels to Florida for the winter, bringing back tales of exotic beaches and fish and reptiles and dainty seashells. Last year he had brought back a real stuffed alligator which Pollie had proudly shown to Mary Gertrude after school.

Although she admired Pollie’s gift, she felt a fleeting sorrow for the small creature who had to die to amuse a human. “My father has a travelling bag” she said, “made from an entire alligator, I think, but the poor thing looks all twisted and uncomfortable because its tail is wrapped around its back and onto the top to act as a handle. Why didn’t they just put other handles in the middle of the alligator’s back? Then you could carry it with the head facing front or the tail facing back. Would you carry it facing people to be polite or away from them letting them see its tail first?”

For once, Pollie, being a naturally polite boy, offered no response as he stroked his new toy.

* * *

Several weeks later, when the third grade had another show-and-tell day, Mary Gertrude had brought her mother’s sewing basket to show, certain that the class had never seen anything as splendid as this before. She swept down the aisle like a princess carrying a treasure box.

After all, the box had come all the way from Hawaii, she explained, and was made up of dyed palm fronds with a fitted interior of delicate pink silk. With great reverence, she demonstrated how the small drawers held sewing supplies and how the silken pockets were designed for scissors, needles. Even the spools of thread fit neatly on projecting rods.

Surely, she thought, this sewing basket was close to being one of the wonders of the western world. While the boys showed little interest, the girls admired the compact neatness of her mother’s treasures. Even Sister Radiana stroked the soft lining in amazement.

That day several other students went on after her with moderately interesting objects. By the time for lunch neared, there was only time enough for one more show-and-tell and Pollie was up next.

Mary Gertrude heard Polly stumble a bit as he passed her, brushing her shoulder. She straightened up in alarm. What was Polly up to?

At the front of the room, he looked in Sister Radiana’s direction as he carefully removed the stuffed alligator from his brown satchel. He held the stuffed animal carefully in his hands and positioned himself well away from Luttie’s front row desk in the front row.

For several minutes, he seemed much at ease as he told how his brother had brought the stuffed alligator back from Florida several years ago and how the family had marveled at it ever since. He let the front row of students touch the skin of the alligator’s back, all the while he blathered on about its scaly skin, sharp teeth, and prodigious appetite. He then walked up and down the aisles to allow the others to touch and see the alligator

As he passed Mary Gertrude, he grinned and bent to allow her to touch the alligator’s head. He was having fun, she thought, showing off his exotic animal. Its glassy eyes rested under hooded lids but it looked very much alive with its sharp claws on its feet and tiny teeth glistening in its wide open mouth. “You’re sure that it is dead”, she whispered,” passing a tentative finger over its scaly back.

“Oh, yes, it is dead,” he chuckled as he returned to the front of the room.

“I didn’t see it, Pollie,” Luttie piped up, “and I didn’t have a chance to touch it. You walked right by me. Sister, make him show it to me.”

Polly hesitated only a moment. Mary Gertrude watched carefully as he slipped the alligator into its satchel but turned slightly away to reach under his woolen vest. Then he held the alligator again right under Luttie’s nose.

“Did you get a good look at him, Luttie? Make sure you look at the size of his teeth.” The girl’s thin face scrunched up in distaste as he encouraged her to hold the alligator which he put firmly on the desk.

The girl looked at the alligator with cautious interest, leaning forward to look more closely at its teeth. As she started to pick the alligator up around the middle as she had seen Polly do, the alligator suddenly bent sideways to hiss at the girl’s hand while its tail swung around to strike against her wrist.

Lutie shrieked, the girls in the class followed suit, the boys howled, the alligator jumped for its life, scrabbling around on the wooden floor looking for safety. It clambered onto Sister Radiana’s desk and into her open drawer where it whipped around and hissed at anyone who came near it.

Pollie, in the meantime, was doubled over with revengeful laughter and Mary Gertrude hid her head in her arms to stifle her own laughter.

Sister Radiana gave up trying to impose order and sent the class down to the cafeteria early with the boys all hovering together and hooting at the girls for their fears and the girls tossing their pigtails in disgust.

Polly and his pets – both stuffed and live – were sent home without lunch and with a note to his parents. For the next few days Pollie eased himself into his desk seat gingerly but happily.

Mary Gertrude knew somehow the balance of justice in the universe had been restored.

Anne K. Kaler, Ph.D. As a life-long reader, Anne (always with an “e”) is now attempting to read every book in the universe, while helping to publishing more. Surprised to learn that she was actually a teacher, she persisted in that field for nearly fifty years until she started volunteering at PSB.