#35 Hey Teacher Leave Them Kids Alone
In July, we had a small, beautiful funeral for my Aunt Joan. The Church was bright and airy, different from the dark and imposing churches I remembered from my years in Catholic school. There were abut 30 people, so the service was quiet, every footstep echoed through the building.
One thing about Catholic masses is that there’s a lot of standing/sitting/kneeling. It’s all very choreographed and the pews come equipped with kneelers that hinge up and down as needed. When it came time for the first kneeling bit, I was horrified at the scraping, thumping sounds of the kneelers. I thought I caught a look of disappointment on the priest’s face, too. Hadn’t any of these people learned to manage the kneelers correctly? I haven’t been to church since the last funeral and even I know how to do it.
A memory bubbled up: at least once a year our entire elementary school would sit in the church, wearing our wool uniforms in stifling heat and practice raising and lowering the kneelers on command over and over until it was done in absolute silence.
As a kid, I never wanted to go to school, ever. I suffered from all sorts of made-up ailments. I prayed for snow days. One of the greatest days of my life was that one morning in High School when we were told to go home before we even walked through the door. Turned out Brother Bernard had a little meltdown and set his desk on fire. No school!
It’s a little weird because i was a pretty good student, I had a lot friends, and then, as now, I love to learn new things. Thinking about it now I realize that part of it was that I was scared. All the time.
For me, school was an obstacle course marked with tiny terrors and dubious rewards.
School Bus Evacuation Drills
Once a year the bus driver would pull over to the side of the road mid-route and make us jump out the back door. We, in our spring jackets with our book bags swinging against our hips, made our way down the aisle to the three-foot drop. I would walk it like a man going to the chair, speculating what kind of horrific school bus accident would involve abandoning the vehicle in such a manner. Some of the kids threw themselves out the door, high on the adrenaline rush. I’d stand on the edge, paralyzed until the driver finally rolled her eyes and helped me down while the other kids watched, smirking.
I had 3rd grade teacher, Mrs Cunningham, who wore colorful sweaters and had long, lustrous dark hair. If we girls behaved, one of us would get the honor of running a pink wide-toothed comb through it in the afternoon while she graded papers. The suspense of who would be chosen to comb Mrs. Cunningham’s hair drove me to distraction each day, a pit of anxiety building in my stomach. A cold hatred blossomed in my heart toward any girl chosen over me and I’d vow to be the best, nicest, and funniest girl in class the next day.
I’m sure we had a few nice nuns at school. But in my mind they’ve all morphed into one towering Disney villain: a stern woman in a blue dress and veil with a murderous gleam in her eye. Her voice operates on 2 levels: whispering and hollering.
On my report cards teachers noted that I was a “chatter box” and was often “visiting with [my] neighbors” instead of doing my schoolwork. Once our whole second grade class attended the May Day mass wearing our communion dresses and I was chattering away with a neighbor to the point where the nun had to come and shush me. Before returning to her seat, she looked at me ominously and whisper-hollered, “We’ll discuss this at school tomorrow!"
I faked sick for the next three days.
Of course I was chatting with my neighbor! I'm sure I was very excited about my curly bangs and my giant rosary.
A Brief Respite
Our uniforms were wool jumpers with polyester blouses underneath and navy blue socks pulled up to our knees. We wore them all year no matter the temperature. There was no AC in the schools back then (is there now?) and the windows only opened a crack. On the hottest days, the teachers would take pity on us and let us put our heads down to rest for a few minutes, our swampy foreheads searching for a cool spot on the hard wooden desks. Those were the days that we would be marched down the hall in a double-file line, arranged by height, to the water fountain where we could slurp up cool, metallic water — but only for 3 seconds.
The 3-second drink, I’d later find, was not unique to our school. Gary Gulman did a whole bit about our generation’s dehydrated childhood on his latest special and after I heard it so many things made sense.
Starting in second grade, we regularly received the sacrament of Confession. This is a fancy way of saying we had to kneel in a dark closet and reveal the sins of our 7-year old souls to a man obscured by a dark screen. No matter what I said, what sin I copped to, the priest always sounded angry as he sentenced me to 10 Hail Marys and a Glory Be. I wasn’t a bad kid, but the anticipation of confession and the priest’s disapproval gave me stomach aches for days before.
In high school, they still took us to confession but they didn’t keep track of who actually went into the closet. Somehow, for once, they trusted us to “do the right thing.”
I did the right thing and never went into that closet again.