Wednesday, December 7, 2016

More school

First grade memories are quite distinct. The following three years blur together. Sister Cor Marie was our second grade teacher. I remember that she was pretty, with pink skin that would turn red when she bent over or got angry. And she did get angry. There was a boy in class who was the "bad boy" of the class. It so happened that his house was just across the street from the school, and one day when he got in trouble, he ran out of the school and ran home. His mother brought him back, and Sister Cor Marie put him over her knee in front of the whole class and spanked him with a yardstick. That was just physical punishment, and not really unusual or noteworthy, but I also remember that she stood him in front of the class and told him that no one in class liked him, that no one was his friend, and she asked if anyone liked him. No one did. That was more cruel than any spanking.

Second grade meant First Holy Communion, which also meant first confession. Before we could go to confession for real, we had to practice. We had to learn how to begin: "Bless me father, for I have sinned. This is my first confession, and these are my sins." (Ever after we would say, "It has been one week since my last confession and these are my sins.") Then the list of potential sins: I disobeyed my parents 3 times. I told one lie. I hit my brother or sister 5 times. There were lists of commandments to consider, things we didn't even understand--impure thoughts, impure deeds. But I think those must have come later. We were seven!

One day Sister Cor Marie dragged the lot of us up to the church (which was upstairs in the same building as the school) and sat us in the benches, and she went into the priest's cubicle in the confessional, and one by one we took turns going behind the curtain into the confessional, kneeling down and waiting for the screen to open, and then practicing our confession with the nun. This, of course, was only make-believe! We didn't have to say real sins, and she couldn't actually forgive them.

I don't remember my actual first confession, only the practice one. I have a picture of myself on my first communion day, and I can't tell whether I remember it or if I only remember seeing the picture of it.

Was it first grade or second grade when I used to take a world atlas to school to read? Maybe first. I remember sitting on the curb in the schoolyard, poring over charts of grain production in various countries, and some older kids came over and wanted to know what I thought I was doing. I'm reading this book! They challenged me to read some of it, and I did, and they backed off: that little kid can read that book!

Second grade was also when I was bullied by a much older girl, a seventh or eighth grader. I was running home for lunch and she stopped me and questioned me like some sort of Gestapo agent: Where are you going? Why were you running? What grade are you in? "Second." "A second grader. About to make your first communion, and you run on the sidewalk like this? What would your mother say?" I remember that she said the thing that bullies and abusers always say: "Don't tell anyone about this. It will just be between you and me, and I'll try to get you off the hook." Although I knew perfectly well that there was no rule against running home for lunch, I did keep it a secret. Fear was always justified. There was much to fear. Now that I was seven and had made my first communion, I had reached the age of reason, and was responsible for my sins. If I ate a hot dog on Friday, or missed mass on a holy day of obligation, I could go to hell. Only if I did it deliberately. If I ate a hot dog by mistake, I could just confess it, but if I did it on purpose, knowing it was a mortal sin and just defying the rules, then I had full responsibility for it.

We memorized these rules as part of our catechism. What is required to make a sin mortal? To make a sin mortal, the action must be a serious sin and I must know it is a serious sin, and I must do it deliberately.

Third grade barely exists in my mind. My teacher was Sister Thomasina, who was ancient. Her mouth was twisted and she talked out of one side of her mouth, like Popeye. She had taught my grandfather, and my grandfather was 58 when I was born, so 58 years before, he too had been a third-grader at Saint Patrick's. If she had been 20 when she taught my grandfather, that made her 78. It was believable. To teach third-grade for 58 years in one school--it could happen. These Dominican nuns had their Mother House in St. Catherine, Kentucky, but the ones that taught us were all from the Boston area, talked the same way we talked, and there were only a few schools in the Boston area that Dominican nuns taught at. They didn't move them around as much as some other orders of nuns. Also if you got good at teaching third grade, why not let you keep doing it?

We were afraid of fourth grade. Word was that Sister Amelia was tough. But the summer before we entered her class, she has surgery for gall stones, and she was as sweet as honey the year we had her. She was fat, a round plump older woman. What I remember about her is that she told us not to eat potato chips because that's what gave her gall stones. The nuns used to sell candy bars for us to have at recess, 5 cents apiece. They kept a carton of them in what was called "the press." (A large wooden cabinet.) This was a way to earn a little money for the school.  I think they also sold chips, but Sister Amelia was against chips.

I remember a few things I actually learned in 4th grade. We memorized the Great Lakes using the acronym HOMES. We had "picture study," in which we glued a postcard of a famous painting into a notebook and wrote about what we saw in the picture. we had "class poets" and "class artists" and "class musicians." Mozart was the class musician in 4th grade. We studied a famous painting by Chagall, and Sister Amelia told us that she had milked cows as a girl on a farm in Iowa.

This was also the year that John Kennedy was running for president, and of course normally nuns did not involve themselves in politics, but this was the first Catholic, and one day Sister Amelia told us to put our heads down on the desk because she had a surprise, and when we looked up, she had a great big Kennedy for President pin fastened to her white habit. My grandfather showed me a quarter he had gotten in his change with a red skullcap painted on Washington's head--an anti-Catholic warning that if Kennedy was elected, the Pope would take control of the country.

We had a radio in the classroom, and every morning we tuned in to the Cardinal and a group of priests reciting the rosary over the radio, and we prayed along with them, "The first joyful mystery, the annunciation." We also recited the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary after lunch each day. Queen of mercy, pray for us, queen of all saints, pray for us, virgin most holy, pray for us, virgin most pure, pray for us, tower of ivory, pray for us. The rhythm and the poetry of it slipped into my soul, and I love to hear it, even now. And we all found that after a few months, the words were all memorized, without our ever intending it, and we could say the whole thing by heart.

It was also on the radio that we heard the first American go into space. Alan Shepard, 1961. The whole thing only lasted 15 minutes, and we prayed the rosary the whole time, all the adults expecting disaster at any moment. Sister Amelia beseeching us, Pray children, pray! We prayed him up and prayed him down safely.

The whole of my experience of Saint Patrick's school feels like I was unconscious. Everything was predestined, every part fit exactly where is  belonged. Everything would go on like this forever. World without end, amen.

And then it ended.

I started fifth grade as usual, but I have no recollection of who my teacher was those first few days of fifth grade. There was trouble. The "Milk Wars" were going on and my father's pay had been cut. There was another baby at home, and we had moved from Linden Street to a much nicer house on Cottage Street. There wasn't enough money to pay the tuition for me and my brother at Saint Patrick's. My mother went to the priest and explained and asked him to let us stay until she could pay. And the priest said No.

My mother cried and told him that our family had gone to this school for 3 generations, maybe more. He said No. My mother said we would have to go to public school! He said, Then you'll have to do that.

So we were pulled out of the only school we had ever imagined, and put into a class at Breed Elementary. Strangers in a strange land, the moral equivalent of reform school or a house of prostitution, for all we knew. I remember wondering, In Catholic school, they teach us to love God. In public school, do they teach then to love the devil? Now I would find out.

Monday, December 5, 2016


My mother and her two sisters had attended Saint Patrick's Grammar School, as had her father and aunts and uncles. So I too would attend Saint Patrick's School. We lived just a few blocks away, but I was too young for first grade. The cut off was probably December 1st, and my birthday wouldn't be until February. But I remember my mother asking me if I wanted to go to school, and I must have said yes, because I did. I remember that she knew the nun who was the superior, and so it was decided--I would start school. Was I five, turning six in February? That seems right. My mother had her hands full with a 4-year-old brother and an infant. I needed to get on with it.

But I was an immature five. I would have to walk to school by myself, and I remember practicing: down Linden Street to the corner, turn right onto Cottage Street, walk to the end, and then my mother asking, "Now which way?" and I pointed right, to Saint Michael's School, where the Polish kids went. No! Across McDonough Square and down Light Street. She hired an 8th grade girl to walk me to school, and paid her a dime a week.

In those days, when you started school, it was literally the first day, the first time you left your mother's side There was no pre-school, no pre-K or kindergarten. You went from playing in the house and in the yard, to actual school. You were expected to be able to recognize at least a few letters, maybe the letters in your name, but that was it. School would take children from their mother's sides and get them reading by the end of the year.

The classroom had 50 desks fastened to the floor and 50 seats, also fixed in place. Five rows, 10 desks in each row. The desks had holes in them intended to hold inkwells. (Did the tiny first-grade desks have these or was it only higher grades?) There was one nun per grade, whose job it was to keep order, keep all these children in line, in their seats, and get them up to speed. There were no parent-volunteers in the classroom, no teacher's aides. Just a mob of children and one woman in a long dress.

School began with prayers, of course, and a flag salute. There were 4 or 5 children who had stayed back from the previous year, and they were given roles as leaders, because they knew the Pledge of Allegiance and all the words to the prayers. Then the rules were explained. We were not to call the bathroom "the bathroom." It was to be called "the lavatory," or "the lav" for short. I remember thinking that saying, "I have to go to the bathroom" rather than, "I have to pee" was the height of politeness, and now there was a new, even more refined way to say this simple thing. I also remember thinking that it was "the lab" and it took a while to get all these children to call it "the lav." We were to raise our hands if we needed to "use the lav." One girl didn't manage, and I saw pee running off her chair and onto the floor. There was a boy in my class named Carl, which I misheard as Cow.

Sister John Mary was my first grade teacher. She had tannish skin and a plump face, but that's all I could see of her, because as a Dominican nun, she wore a white habit and black veil and black shoes. She was a young woman and had a sense of humor. At one time during the year, her father came to visit her (an unusual event, since we didn't think of nuns as having parents, and in fact, they weren't supposed to think of that either.) She told us that her father's name was Mr. John Mary. To have revealed her actual family name would have been a complete breach of protocol. So her name was Sister John Mary and her father's name was Mr. John Mary. I only knew that this was funny because my mother laughed when I told her.

Sister John Mary played a prank on us on April Fools Day, telling us that there was an elephant in the back of the room. She also went a little crazy some time in the middle of the winter, when she was faced with trying to get 50 children into and out of their hats and boots and coats and gloves multiple times a day. We were supposed to bring a clothespin from home with our name written on it, to fasten our boots together in the cloak room. But many of us had forgotten to bring one, and our boots were a jumbled mess in the half-dark cloakroom, as 50 small children scrambled and fumbled with finding and putting on our gear. And Sister John Mary snapped. She told us that she had called the janitor and had him take every unmarked pair of boots and throw them into the flaming furnace, and all our boots were gone. I think the janitor even came in and affirmed that it was too late, all the boots were gone. The picture is as vivid in my mind as a sermon about the gates of hell--all our rubber boots, burned up! What would our mother's say? They paid good money for those boots. What would we wear on our feet in the snow all winter? First one child and then another began to cry, and soon dozens of little children were sobbing over their lost boots. Then she told us to walk into that cloak room and get dressed and go home for lunch. And there were our boots! They weren't burned in the furnace after all.