When You Have to Stand Up

In the spring of 1964, in my third grade classroom at Epiphany Catholic School in Miami, Florida, I defied my teacher and my religion. I had to.

The classroom held a crowded group of 60 children -- five rows of 12 desks each. We were having our morning religion lesson. Our blue Baltimore Catechism books, which held the question-and-answer version of my childhood faith, were out on all of our desks. Sister Dennis Mary loved religion class. She would wave her angel-winged habit arms with the tight-cuffs peeking out in excitement over the dogma that she had taken as her life's work. Chalk would glide in elegant cursive across the board with the words we were to write in our copy books and emblazon on our quivering young Catholic souls.

We were learning all about the Blessed Sacrament of Baptism, when Sister dropped the bomb. It was limbo. With her pretty young face flushed with the glow of her faith and her prominent upper teeth nibbling in excitement, Sister told us what happened to the "poor unfortunate children" who were not doused with holy water before they sadly died. "These babies are not allowed to go to heaven. They are not baptized. So they have to go to limbo," sister said with downcast eyes and a breathy, sorrow-laden voice.

She continued to explain that limbo is not heaven, it is not hell, it is not purgatory. Limbo is not a bad place. It just a place where babies go and they never get to see God. For eternity they stay in this no-man's land of just being. All because someone did not think to baptize them. Or, they just died too quickly for anyone to get to it.

My 9-year-old mind shrieked in denial. This could not be so! God would not do this. How could an innocent baby be held accountable for the actions -- or lack of actions -- of some stupid adult? I knew this was not right. I knew she had this wrong. There was some mistake. So, I raised my hand and asked Sister if she was sure this was right.

Sister Dennis Mary looked shocked. She looked stunned. Her teeth stopped moving, too. She asked me to stand and repeat my question. Nervously I stood and I asked, "Sister, are you sure this is right? I know God wouldn't do this."

There was a terrible hush in the room. All fidgeting stopped. All moving of sweaty arms and legs stopped. All fountain pens stopped scratching and all copy book pages stopped flicking. Then the "Ooohs" started and the humming noises of hands over mouths began. There was the veering of glances and the sliding of eyes from student to student. My classmates were as stunned as Sister Dennis Mary was. Robin Korth was questioning Sister about religion.

As I stood there, my legs shaking as I supported myself with a hand on the back of my desk, Sister carefully explained to me the ins and outs of how babies went to limbo if they weren't baptized. She looked me in the eye and asked that I repeat what she had said. I looked her in the eye and knew I could not. I knew what she told me was wrong. So I quietly said, "No, Sister, I can't." There wasn't a single sound in that third-grade classroom.

Sister told me to take my seat. She told the class to behave. She would be right back. In her absence, the rest of the class went about the usual misbehavior that occurs when a nun disappears. And I was left totally alone. No one talked to me or even looked at me. I sat apart and quiet. I sat determined and knowing. I sat quiet in the truth. God would not do this.

Soon Sister bustled back into the room with a satisfied look and her usual toothy-nervous smile. "Robin Korth," she said," Please step outside the classroom."

I got up from my seat and walked from where my desk was near the end of the middle row, and made it to the classroom door without tripping over my feet. I felt like I was walking in a dream. My feet seemed to move without any real volition on my part.

Outside the classroom, I was confronted by Monsignor John O'Dowd, the head of Epiphany Catholic Parish. He was annoyed and angry. I had defied my teacher. I had defied the teachings of my church. Who did I think I was? He scolded me in his Irish-tagged growl as his waggling finger scrolled busily back and forth past my young nose. He knew my parents were good Catholics as were all my brothers and sisters. Wouldn't they be shocked and ashamed of my behavior?

As I listened in silence to this old priest berating me, there was a sure inner voice that kept telling me that he was wrong. That limbo did not exist. That little children and babies were all with God. God would never send them away from Him because some adult forgot to do what they were supposed do. It wasn't right. It wasn't fair. God simply would not do this.

I nodded my head when Monsignor asked me if I would now be an obedient girl and mind my teacher. But my soul did not nod. I turned from him with my head bowed and returned to my seat. Shaken, I put my head on my desk trying very, very hard not to cry. As I calmed my breath and quieted my shudders, there was never a doubt in my 9-year-old heart that I knew what I knew. There was no limbo.