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.

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