Anyone who attended a Catholic School has a wealth of stories in their back pocket. It’s not that those who attended public school have any less, it is just the Catholic system seemed to produce the “unusual” stories.
Many attending Catholic schools prior to the early seventies, were trained by holy sisters. Notice I said trained over taught. There was ample amount of teaching going on. We learned our times tables, history facts and English grammar just the same as any normal pupil. The training came in much more subtle ways and in some cases not so subtle.
For example, training in Sister Number 1’s class (I changed the name to protect the innocent, me, just in case she is still lurking in the halls of a convent somewhere.) As a boy, you didn’t walk into Sister’s class without a belt. I am sure it was not part of a fashion accessory model that she lived by. She truly believed that a boy without a belt was walking around advertising himself to the young ladies. If you didn’t have a belt, you were marched to the boy’s bathroom. Sister stood outside like Sergeant Schultz from Hogan Hero’s, while you were inside, feeding toilet paper through the loops for your missing belt. When you stepped out, she tied a big bow with the toilet paper so all could see you left the house without being fully dressed. To this day, I would never think of wearing slacks or jeans without a belt. I am trained.
The sisters, as well as the priest, were held in the highest respect. Not always by the students, but always by the family leaders. The old stories about getting into trouble in school, meant double trouble when you arrived home are true. If an incident occurred in school, it didn’t take long for your parents to find out about it. When a fellow student bit the dust of discipline, a collective gasp went up like a crowd watching fireworks. Everyone knew the poor student was in for a double whammy.
One of the most saintly of all the nuns was our third grade teacher Sister Marie. Sister was not much taller than the average third grader. Her Sister of Charity habit added an extra five or six inches to her but that still did not do much to make her stand out in a crowd of students. Sister Marie would remind you of Father Fitzgibbon played by Barry Fitzgerald in the classic movie, “Going My Way,” only in a habit.
Because I went home every day for lunch and my route took me past the convent I was assigned to walk Sister Marie across the parking lot to the convent for her lunch. This would usually shave about ten minutes off my lunch time but during those walks, sister shared some of her stories and thoughts. It was on one of those walks I found out that sister for years was the seamstress of the convent. This devout woman was content to mend and sew for her sisters and prepare vestments for the priest. It was only in the later years that she was allowed to pursue her lifelong ambition to teach. There are times when I can still feel sister’s tight grip on my arm.
Sister Marie was a great organizer of playground sports. During recess she would send the girls to play tether ball or jump rope, while she umpired the baseball game with the boys. Sister assigned the positions and teams. I suspect she was raised in a family of boys judging from her knowledge of the sporting world and the rules of the game.
During one recess softball game my fate was determined for my end time. It was my turn at bat and I approached the plate with a confidence that from this day on I was never to find again. I don’t know how many pitches it took to set the scenario up, but it only took one misguided swing to seal the deal.
The ball connected with the bat, but not in a way that sent it forward. Instead a foul ball was sent back in line drive fashion to the umpire, Sister Marie. The ball connected squarely on Sister’s habit. The ball ripped the habit from her head revealing a compressed clump of wiry gray hair and immediately shaving five inches off her height. Of course as the batter, I had no idea what was happening behind me but what I could see in front of me was a look of shock on every defensive player. When I turned around, I saw sister hurriedly fumbling with the habit dangling behind her. She was like a mother caught half undressed by her children. Immediately other nuns came running from all ends of the playground to sister’s aid. It was like watching a flock of crows descending on a fresh ear of corn.
No one paid any attention to me. I stood alone in my shame. The batter’s box was now a prison which held my feet solid to the ground. I knew at that point my life was set on a path of doom and gloom with the final end advertising to the world for all eternity my indiscretion. It didn’t matter who said it, but it might as well have been a chorus from the heavens, “You hit a Nun. Your hand is going to stick out of the grave for all eternity.” That was the rule. If you hit a nun or priest you knew that was the fate of the offending hand.
We were all ushered back to the classroom. Sister Marie was nowhere. I don’t know who filled in for her but my afternoon was lost anyway. All I could think about was how I was going to tell my folks. The shame I brought to the household was never going to be erased. I knew I would be buried in some far corner of the cemetery where the grass was never trimmed that way my hand would not show above the thistles and buffalo grass. The family secret would be hidden forever.
When the final bell of the day rang, I had no desire to charge down 18th street towards home. The longer I could stay in school, the longer I could delay the news to mom. We weren’t so well connected in those days, so the news was on me to share. All the way down the hill to the house I could feel the push of fate on my back like a grubby prison guard shoving me to move faster as I stumbled to find the next step.
When I got home, mom was upstairs ironing. She was sprinkling clothes with her coke bottle sprinkler. A pile of clothes rolled up beside her which had just come out of the refrigerator where they were stored to prevent mold. She had no idea the level of my sinfulness but she could tell something was wrong from the minute the screen door closed behind me. Mothers are like that. I confessed my sin to her. She didn’t seem to see the seriousness of the hit. To me, I would never see mom and dad in eternity because I was most likely going in the opposite direction while my hand stayed behind and waved a warning to all would be offenders. Then she uttered the words no kid wants to hear. “We will just wait until your dad comes home.”
This put a stamp on my salvation that I knew would not be erased. Dad, who the nuns thought was next to God himself, would now have to suffer in the shame of his son, the nun basher. When dad came home mom shared the story so that I did not have to relive it again. I can remember dad, still in his postal uniform, telling me to get ready to go see Sister Marie. “Did you apologize?” he asked. At that point I could not remember if I did or not. He loaded me in “Black Beauty” the family DeSoto and up the hill to the convent we went.
With dad standing behind me, I knocked on the back door of the convent, the one that led to the kitchen. The first nun to the door was Sister Number 1. I am sure I turned whiter than the white of her habit. Maybe they were going to eat me for supper, which would have saved my life at that point. We were invited in by Sister and led through the kitchen to a long dining hall. Waiting there for what seemed like a thousand seconds of silence, Sister Marie finally appeared. She walked in a determined cadence towards me and I prepared myself for a slap or a wrap across the knuckles. Instead, I was pulled close to her in an embrace that was so motherly for a woman who never knew that joy. I could smell the fragrance of Ben-Gay or some type of salve smeared on her forehead. Through scared tears I uttered “I am sorry” and to this day I can’t remember her response.
Until Sister was sent back to the Mother House, I continued to walk her across the parking lot, rain or shine. We never spoke of that incident again. But, I have this suspicion when I finally move on from this world I might be greeted by this little old nun at the gate smelling of Ben-Gay looking for help across the golden way.
All part of growing up.