Your Hand Will Stick out of the Grave!


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.



The Bad Speller’s Dicshonary

The Bad Speller’s Dicshonary


 I am a victim. I am, however, not alone in my victimized state. You might be one also. Many suffer in silence shouldering the shame and heartache of imposed phonics. We are…bad spellers.

In Sister Marie’s third grade class it was drilled into us, “If you don’t know how to spell a word, sound it out.” That was a cruel hoax played on those of us across the English speaking world who carry the scars of that phrase. In my early years, I thought a system for written expression was the answer to book reports, essays, and letters to Santa. Following Sister’s instructions there were no words which I needed to shy away from. But, the academics would not leave well enough alone. After teaching us the master key to literary greatness, they came along and added another phrase. “Well if you don’t know how to spell it, just look it up.”

What a death blow to a struggling phonetically challenged young man. If I could not spell a word I would sound it out but no one told me I was also pronouncing the word wrong. What I was saying and what I heard were two different sounds. “Sound it out or look it up,” did not even connect in my world.

I was a freshman in the seminary when I realized The Lord’s Prayer, The Our Father, was not the Are Father as I had been spelling it. I sounded it out. This mistake was made clear to me on my first trip to Connecticut for Sunday Mass with my sister. I was the only person saying the “R’s” through the whole prayer. I was a Nebraska boy surrounded by a bunch of Kennedy sounding locals.

I could never figure out the signs which demanded, “Do Not Litter.” I thought it was illegal to throw out your cat droppings. If you didn’t want me to trash your roadway then why not put up a sign, “Do Not Lidder.” My personal nemeses is the word history. I just saw in a hymnal at Sunday Mass, the word spelled in a way familiar to me, histry, makes sense to me. As a matter of fact, I have experimented with spelling it as, histery which is how I hear it or my favorite, histary, they all work for me.

Write now, my spell chek is reddy to blow up. I am saving a few of these words to my dictionary for future use.

My brother Tom, who will always be an influence in my life, was an amateur radio operator or “Ham,” as they are called. I wanted to be one also and join him communicating with people around the world. The first license required the mastery of Morse code. I had no problem committing the dots and dashes to memory and recognizing them tapped out on the key. To pass the test required the sending and receiving correctly of so many words in a measured time frame. Piece of cake, until it came to sending back a message. You really needed to be able to spell to communicate effectively in code. The person on the other end of the dots and dashes would receive a message that was more like code than the code they were trying to decipher. It didn’t take long for Tom to encourage me to pursue a different hobby.

Mom came to the rescue. She must have noticed that her special child was struggling and racing rapidly to a life of flop houses and bread lines with his inability to master the written word. She found what was to save my life and lead me to a somewhat successful educational experience. Random House publishing company, recognizing that there is more than one way to spell a word, published The Bad Speller’s Dictionary.

The volume was a God send in the form of a little pocket book. It was affirmation that those who can only spell a word one way, lack any form of creativity.  Within this gem one can find philosophy under the “f’s” where it has a place right next to philanthropy and fizicks. (See, you knew what I just spelled.) The manual has followed me to job interviews where I knew I would need to write in a way that is accepted by the general hiring climate. It is in my briefcase before my computer and never out of reach when I am working from home.

Those of us who suffer from Ortographobia, the fear of misspelling, also know that there are trick words hiding in every sentence. Words such as to, two and too, there and their, and countless others.  The Bad Speller’s Dictionary has me covered in this area also.  At the end of each alphabet section there is a listing of words that look alike or sound alike.  As a self-diagnosed ortographic, I cringe whenever I need to write away from spell check, or my trusty Random House book. Those trick words without any conscience on their part, rear their ugly heads and bring my writing to a grinding halt.

Many who suffer from bad speller’s affliction will just ask someone how to spell a word. That is great if you are in the presence of a retired grammar teacher, or a saintly nun who recognizes the signs of this crippling phobia. Otherwise you are on your own. What you find when you issue the challenge; “Does anyone here know how to spell Cincinnati?” (Which if you ever lived in Cincinnati, you soon learn they pronounce it Cincinnata) this just further compounds the problem. The question only serves to bring out the closet Ortographics. People begin to stumble over their letters and you soon learn it is better to resort to a different city or find a new way around the word.

I spent five and half years studying in the seminary. I regret not one day living and learning behind those holy walls. I have no doubt, God led me there for the salvation of my soul, although I am still waiting to see if His plan worked. However, as they say, the devil is in the details. While there, my phobia reached a clinically dangerous level which could only be comforted with occasional retreats to the local pubs. I had steeped to the lowest point in my spelling life.

The introduction of foreign and classical languages did me in. I gave up. I admitted I had a problem. I couldn’t take the constant correction, the embarrassment and shame among my peers. My downward spiral was brought on by violent contrast such as; my Latin instructor, who was female, Jewish and a Doctor of Classical Languages; my Greek instructor, a German Lutheran minister. My ability to keep any proper spelling was lost. Then, the condition grew worse, Spanish was introduced. The devil of spelling won.

On what was a cold November night (probably not but we will use it for effect) I grabbed my Bad Speller’s Dictionary, retreated to my room, huddled in the corner, a broken man, I surrendered my spelling soul to the gods of grammar, dictionaries and thesauruses, where ever they might be.

Of course none of it was that dramatic but it makes for a good story. The truth is though, I am free. No longer trapped by the chains that bound me with fear and embarrassment. I welcome the corrections. I rally in the variety of ways I can approach a word and not feel like I am the only one that has the same view.

Today, individuals who have no knowledge of my condition will ask, “How do you spell history?” That my friends is a very different questions from, “What is the proper way to spell history?” I respond with every bit of honesty I can muster, “This is how I spell it.”

I appreciate that embracing my weakness is, all part of growing up.

If you would like to know what ghoughpteighbteau really is, you will only find it in The Bad Speller’s Dictionary.  Send me a request using the comment section and I will tell you what ghoughpteighbteau really spells. Once you find out, you will never raise your eyebrow to a misspelled word again.