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ST. PATRICK's (Part I)

For my schooling, I was a charge of the priests and nuns (and an occasional lay teacher) at St. Patrick's School in Glen Cove, Long Island. The church and school, an exemplar of Irish-Gothic architecture, were constructed in the late 19th Century and always seemed a bit mysterious to me. It was not hard to visualize the environs as a castle or fortress with secret passageways and hidden rooms. The stained-glass windows and oaken panels enhanced the mood, and the bell tower chimes--the Westminster Quarters--made me think I was in London, with Big Ben not far away. I'm sure today that Hogwarts would come to mind.

My home was in Syosset, on the North Shore of the island, and I had started school at a local kindergarten. My class with Miss Fish is depicted below. I'm sure you can pick me out standing next to Miss Fish in the back row. Because my birthday is in late November, and because school admission policies had December 1 as a cut-off date for a given year, I was almost always the youngest in my class. Therefore, I was also usually the shortest and smallest student in my cohort. Most of the kids were second or third-generation Irish and Italians.

It was quite a change to enter First Grade in a strict Catholic school. My uniform consisted of grey-flannel trousers with a black belt, a white collared shirt with a green tie that had SPS embroidered on it in gold or a bow tie, and a wool blazer in green with a chest pocket bedecked with a gold SPS emblem. If the kids were caught in a shower or came off the playground at lunch on a particularly humid day, the air would be redolent of wet wool, thanks to the lanolin that sheep secrete which emanates after being dampened. Some people like the smell, but I was not one of them. If I were to smell wet wool today, my mind would immediately flash back to sixty years ago.

Each morning, I would be awakened early and pushed out the door shortly after 7:00 AM. The circuitous bus route from Syosset to Glen Cove and towns in-between took about 45 minutes on a typical day, so I'd arrive just before 8:00. School didn't begin until 9:00, so I often went to 8:00 morning Mass in the adjacent St. Patrick's Church. After a quick service, I would wait outside the school's entrance until 8:45, when the doors would open. Except for the red sign, this is what I saw.

Classes were always large, and there were many students from my town in addition to all the other neighboring communities. There was no Catholic school in Syosset, and many parents, including my mom, wanted their children to have a parochial school education. Most of the teachers were nuns. I didn't realize then how little education many of my teachers had. When I graduated eighth grade and entered an elite public junior high school in Syosset, I was a good three years behind my peers in math and science. My music teacher at St. Pat's, Sister Brunonis, entered the convent at age 14! I'm sure there were very few teachers with even a basic college degree. Below is my fifth-grade class (43 students!) (I am first-row left). Miss Mirenda was one of only two teachers in my eight grades who was not a nun. My dad thought she was a "dish" when he saw her at my Confirmation ceremony and referred to her as "Carmen Miranda" after the fiery chili pepper 40s movie and music star of the same name!

Above: The real Carmen Miranda

Ritual was an important element in a Catholic school tradition. For example, every first of May an eighth-grade girl was selected to be the "Queen of the May" and would have the honor of placing a crown of flowers on the top of the statue of the Blessed Mother which overlooked the town's main drag. In my basement at home was a photo of my own mother, atop a ladder, decorating the state of the Virgin Mary at her high school, St. Dominic's. Whichever girl was selected would beam with pride. Often cars pulled over from the road to watch the ceremonies. It's not a great photo below, but the statue of the Blessed Mother is at the top of the first set of steps. All the students would be lined up on the steps and the sidewalk that formed the perimeter of the school grounds. Below the photo is a postcard of an earlier May Queen ceremony.

There was an eighth-grade trip at St. Pat's, like most schools. I almost screwed it up big time! Either the principal ( a nun) or my eighth-grade teacher collected the student admission money for going on the trip to Rye Playland, north of NYC.

The total came to $125.00. That may seem not much, but that is the equivalent of $1100.00 today. I was sent during lunch to a bank in Glen Cove with all the collected monies. I exchanged all the small bills in my possession for three bills handed to me by the teller--a hundred-dollar bill, a twenty, and a five. It may have been the first time I had actually seen a C-Note. I put them in a brown envelope and inserted it in my inside jacket pocket, and ran back to school to salvage what I could of recess. I can't believe today that I was entrusted with this task--to leave school grounds and walk on city streets I did not know, to find a bank I had never been to, and return with the proper money! When I got back to school, I reached into my jacket to find...nothing. No envelope. My teacher went into full hyperventilation mode. I assured her I had it and would be back in a minute. I ran as fast as I could back into town, retracing my route and keeping my eyes peeled for a brown envelope. As I neared the bank, my spirits ebbed and all I could think of was my parents having to fork over what amounted to what I was sure was a week's salary. But then I noticed something on the sidewalk ahead. If only...! Sure enough, no one picked it up before I reached it. I only hoped that no one had picked it up during all the time it was lying there in the middle of a busy sidewalk. Inside I found three crisp bills with pictures of presidents (and Ben!) and the words United States Note! Whew! I ran back to school (I was reeking of lanolin at that point!) and turned over the envelope to a much-relieved principal. The trip to Playland was a huge success!

Next time, I will discuss the religious training that separated a Catholic school from a public one. I'll also tackle the subject of punishment--corporal or psychological.


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