My Sunday school class walked outside and I unfurled the butcher paper along the cement. At one end I placed two pie tins full of brown paint; at the other, a tub of water and a towel. The children were supposed to stand in the dirt (the paint), walk across town (the butcher paper), and step into the tub of water at the end of their journey where Jesus would wash their feet.
The boys shoved their socks into their shoes and I cuffed their pants, but many girls wore tights under flower dresses and I sent them to the bathroom to remove them. Tights, when you are six or seven, come off in a tightly rolled tire, and more than one girl hopped out of the bathroom, ankles shackled. I peeled the final inches over their feet.
The first child made gooey brown prints across the paper and giggled when I swiped my fingers between her toes in the dish tub. She stepped onto the towel and I—Jesus—patted her feet. It was supposed to go this way, with the child whose feet had been washed becoming Jesus and washing the feet of whoever next crossed the paper expanse.
I don’t think the washing was supposed to be so zealous, water soaking pant cuffs, bare legs and sidewalk. I don’t think the children were supposed to zoom back in line and traverse the paper again and again. I don’t think the water was supposed to turn so brown that we were washing feet in mud. I don’t think the children were supposed to cajole me to stand in paint and walk the paper while two eager escorts kangarooed at my side.
I don’t think we were supposed to walk across the butcher paper until it disintegrated. By then the children and I were leaping into the dish tub and stomping across the sidewalk leaving chocolate footprints everywhere. By the time the tub was empty from splashing, the water had wicked up the boys’ knees, the girls’ legs were clammy, and everyone, including me, was cold with paper clods and cement grit clinging to our feet.
The towel was waterlogged, the return of socks and shoes and tights was impossible, and returning to the classroom to continue the lesson plan seemed pointless, so we sat along the edge of the sidewalk in a patch of sun wiggling our numb toes, the children wishing they could walk through paint every Sunday. I was probably supposed to tell them that walking through paint wasn’t the point, that there was a more important lesson to learn from this activity––a paragraph or two we teachers were encouraged to convey in our own words––but my teacher’s book was inside.
When the parents came to retrieve their children I sheepishly handed them rolled tights and assorted footwear worried they might be angry with the children, or me, for their soggy appearances. But the parents just eyed me quizzically, noticing that I, too, was barefoot with brown flecks dotting my white skirt.
“How was Sunday school?” they asked.
“Fun, fun, fun,” their children answered loping toward the social hall for cookies and punch.
I wrung the towel over a bush, stacked the pie tins, placed them in the dish tub, dried my hands on my skirt, picked up my teacher’s guide, and without reading it, tucked it into my bag. I slipped on my sandals and tiny grains of sidewalk gunk rubbed against my soles as I walked home.
Cathy Warner recently earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. A Californian for 50 years, Cathy now hosts a writing retreat and leads writing workshops on Bainbridge Island, Wash. She blogs about her midlife move and remodeling adventure at This or Something Better.