ST. PATRICK's (Part II)
The picture above was taken before my time at St. Pat's, but the feeling it evokes is very much in my memory. The regimentation depicted above was very much a part of my childhood experience. I was determined to be a "good boy" and an excellent student, and I can say those aspirations were typically met during my eight years of grade school. I learned in first grade that life could be unfair, but I also learned to keep my mouth closed if I didn't want that unfairness to spiral out of control. When a fire drill was called one school day, I marched silently out of my room as a student of the very sweet Sister Christian. But as with all fire drills, some students were giggling or whispering, so the nun next door, who was a bit of a battleax, took the opportunity to grab me out of line (I was the shortest kid in first grade), pick me up by the roots of my hair, and wave me back and forth like a rag doll. She barked to the students filing out that she would do the same to any student who spoke a word! I was a demonstration prop! The nuns were tough. Here is a picture of my very first composition book on Day One of First Grade:
Yup. You can see in the upper right on page one of my composition book the very first comment any teacher gave me to help me become better: "bad"---written in red pencil! I'm sure I felt great that day! Those capital letter "I"s were pretty bad at that.
Sometimes, I tried too hard to demonstrate my "goodness". I guess I was too afraid that my name would wind up in the leather-bound little black book that the principal carried around inside the sleeve of her habit. We were always told that any indiscretion or offense would wind up on our "Permanent Record" and follow us through life. I was terrified that I would one day, after college, apply for a corporate job with Widget, Inc., only to be told during the interview that It was recorded in ink that I had drawn a caricature of my science teacher one day in May in the third grade. My hopes for employment were then summarily dashed! So, I gave up my lunch hours some days to go to the local supermarket, fill up a cart with day-old loaves of bread or expired box foods or overripe bananas, and wheel the cart all the way back to the convent. I volunteered any time a nun needed a messenger or someone to run an errand.
By and large, I had terrific nun teachers. Fortunately, I avoided Sister Jerome in Grade 5 (nicknamed Sister Geronimo). Sure, I heard stories about harsh nuns who bullied and intimidated students. My brother had a ruler broken over his knuckles from a nun who relished corporal punishment a little too much. There were legendary punishments like making students kneel straight-backed for long periods of time after first strewing dry grains of rice on the floor. My one bad experience didn't come until the Eighth Grade. It was the second time I was taught by a lay teacher-Miss Candela. She was very caring, and I did well in her class, but for religion and Social Studies classes, I had Sister Avita, who had the class cater-cornered from Miss Candela's room. One day in class she mentioned the city of London and the river that ran through it--the Thames. Only she pronounced it as it is spelled- Thaymz', not as I knew it was pronounced--Temz'. I didn't say anything, but that night at dinner I told my father, and (since he always gave me bad advice) he told me that I should alert her to the error the next day.
The next day I wave my hand and say, "Sister, my father says the river is pronounced "Temz". She shot me a dirty look. I had no idea that such a comment warranted revenge. Later that school year, I entered my class at 8:45, when the doors opened. Often in that 15-minute interval before the school day started I would review my work or read as other students wandered in. On this morning, two kids on either side of me thought it would be fun to wage a spitball and paper airplane war at each other. Soon, little sodden wads and sleek folded jets were zipping by my head. My teacher had not yet arrived but everything stopped in its tracks when Sr. Avita fairly bolted through the door and stared at me menacingly. "Douglas. I saw you throw that airplane across the room." Dumbfounded, I said, "Sister, I didn't throw anything." She retorted, "Are you calling me a liar?" I told her that I was most assuredly not calling her a liar but that I was only sitting at my desk reading. She then said that for calling her a liar I had to stand in the corner outside class in the hallway. I slowly rose from my desk and walked out to the hallway, which was the main entrance to the school. Hundreds of students filed in for the day's classes--all passing me by as I stood in shame and humiliation facing the intersection of two walls.
Then, as if by a miracle, my fellow student Frances, who had been involved in the air sorties, walked out of my room and into Sister Avita's room. I could easily see her peripherally and hear her when she said, "Sister, Douglas didn't throw that airplane. I did." All of a sudden, the Hallelujah Chorus was playing in my head. I had been reprieved! But my hopes were short-lived (pronounced as in short-wived, but that's a different blog post), as Sister Avita then said, "Ah ha! Sticking up for your boyfriend, Eh?" This was actually a little funny, since I once stopped at Frances's house to drop an assignment off when she was sick and her mom told me how much she liked me but that I was too short to go out with her daughter!
Needless to say, Frances was then relegated to a different corner. Sister Avita said I would have to stay after school. My Permanent Record would likely vault me into the FBI's Top Ten Most Wanted Criminal List. The after-school requirement was the worst because there was no late bus. It would mean that my mom would have to drive from Syosset to Glen Cove, presumably after picking up my brother and sister from their school. She would be hopping mad. And then I would have to hear it from my father.
I screwed up my courage at lunchtime and inched my way meekly into the Principal's Office. I explained what happened before school began and that Sister Avita had "mistakenly" charged me with a violation that I had no part in. That Frances had copped to it was a strong corroboration of my side of the story. The principal assured me that she would address the issue directly with Sister Avita and that I could go home on the regular bus. Sister Avita, from that point on, did little to hide her contempt for me, but we had no further interaction until the last day of classes.
During the last period, Sister Avita asked us to come up one-by-one and turn in our textbooks, which were invariably covered in brown supermarket-bag paper or professional bookcovers that a few students could afford. Just before my name was going to be called, I ripped off the book covers to all my textbooks to save Sister the task of having to do so at her desk. As I brought the books up to her, I dropped all the old book covers in her waste basket, with the dozens of others. I handed her the books and she said, "Where are your book covers? You know you are required to have book covers on all your books." I pointed to the waste basket, but she acted as if it made no difference that my protective covers (with my name clearly on them) were sitting there on top of her waste basket, newly removed one minute earlier. The letter of the law said my books were to be covered, and if she was not able to remove them, then mine clearly were not. When I received my final report card, five points had been removed from my final average in each of the five subjects for which I had textbooks. She had gotten her revenge.