Self-portrait with bitten fingernails and ruler

The nuns come down our rows for what
they call "inspection"— they start
at the nape after pulling our uniform

collars back to check for grime; then
they peer into the waxy dusk of each
dark child's ear. We can even hear

their breathing: pale mosquitoes
clothed in voluminous gray habits,
feet in rubber-soled work shoes.

Then the girls are made
to stand; they'll check if skirt
lengths meet the fingertip test. Last,

each of us has to lay both hands
on the desk, fingers splayed out
like nervous starfish before a piano

recital. This is when they wield
the ruler most: for dirt under
the fingernails, for torn cuticles;

for the whites at the tips mown
across in haphazard patterns by teeth
sometime in the night during sleep.

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