IN WHICH I don a uniform but not the dogma
“Oh, you’ll find out. Boy, will you find out!”
This ominous statement, tossed my way by my cousin Sam during our final balmy picnic of summer, was half-warning and half-taunt. He’d approached me after the apple bobbing and said, “Hear you’re going to sister school next month.”
This was the first and only time I’d ever heard the term “sister school,” but I knew what he meant. Soon the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, a Roman Catholic teaching order founded in Amiens, France in 1804, would be teaching me my last year of junior high (ninth grade) at Bishop Fenwick four miles away. I’d been put on the waiting list for the more “accelerated” Catholic HS, St. John’s Preparatory School. Fenwick was merely my backup school, a gambit my parents had bet on and won. So they thought.
I was not grateful to Sam for his new information. “Yeah, so what d’you know about it?”
He said nothing, just grinned like he knew firsthand all about Fenwick, even though he’d never gone there. If he weren’t four years older than I, practically a different generation, I would’ve wrestled him to the ground and squeezed more information out of him in a headlock. But Aunt Eve was a single parent, which made him a “child of a broken home.” We were supposed to treat him nice. At my mother’s urging, my father brought him with us on boat rides a few times, so I knew I should cut him some slack. Plus, he was at least two inches taller.
He was friendly and never whacked me, so I liked him, and on that day in the park I figured he was telling me the truth. But he was also plunging me into a dread darker than a priest’s cassock.
My dread was for good reason. The nuns’ teaching methods hadn’t changed much since Napoleon’s day. The first day we were immediately thrown into a boot camp of the spirit, filled with strict rules and homework loads heavier than a Grande Armée soldier’s backpack. I complained bitterly after the first week and begged my parents to let me go to Danvers High School. But I might as well have, in the words of the immortal Jim Morrison, “petitioned the Lord with prayer.”
To his credit, my father was more colorful than The Doors. “You’ll eat snow cones in Hell first.”
To the middle-class Catholic family, public school was a fate worse than death; spiritual death, of course, but they also feared possible academic death. Although Danvers had “college prep” programs that taught calculus and physics and assigned Shakespeare, there was always that chance I could get stuck in a class with “a bunch of dumbos,” according to my mother.
“You did a little too well last year, Mr. Smartypants,” she said. “Must mean you weren’t challenged.”
Most of us were terrified that first day.
I should be fair. Parochial schools may have gotten a bad rap in the last decades, partly through the appearance of nuns in satiric films and plays like Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You (1979), Nunsense (1985), and Sister Act (1992). Not all my teachers were masters of the Inquisition. Two of the nuns I had were competent teachers and drummed neither religion nor discipline into me. I admired Sister Jean Francis, my algebra teacher, for easing us through difficult concepts so well that we actually understood them, and she did it with occasional warmth and humor. And my Latin teacher, Sister Felicitas, while not “favored by the gods” as her name suggested, taught me Latin so well I scored Magna Cum Laude in the Auxilium Latinum exam of 1962. As to why I was taught Latin instead of a useful language like Spanish, that question required no answer. Latin was used in the Catholic Mass, so it clearly was the language chosen by God.
My first day fear panned out because Sister Corde Maria was in charge of three of my classes: English, art, and religion. In contrast to Sister Jean Francis and Sister Felicita, Sister Corde Maria was another creature entirely. About one short decade separated her from us and a recently released novitiate, she was the rookie cop on the school’s toughest beat: freshmen. Some freshmen were coming straight from public schools. There was no question that she had to extract respect from us; otherwise, we’d just “trounce” her. At least that’s what I heard an older nun tell her a week or so later outside the teacher’s room. It didn’t matter that most of us had never been taught by nuns before and had relatives like Sam who’d struck fear into our hearts (not that it did any good).
Sister Corde Maria didn’t particularly like poetry, but made us memorize “Silver” by Walter De La Mare (“Slowly, silently, now the moon / Walks the night in her silver shoon”), because he’d also written the ultra-pious Stories from the Bible. She knew almost nothing about art and I never saw her draw anything. But I think she really loved religion. Her religion course included not just a daily class, but an 8:00 a.m. “meditation” in home room as well.
Meditation involved her reading us about some topic we needed to know about, like selflessness, respect for parents, and regular church attendance. She’d been reciting these meditations during the previous weeks, and the consequences of not following the dictates of any one of them was just normal everyday-scary.
But none of them was as harrowing as what we were about to hear.
“The meditation I’ve picked out for today,” Sister Corde Maria said, “is about one of the deadliest sins. Can anyone name for me the Seven Deadly Sins?”
Mary Joyce Carter’s hand shot up, like on cue. And she always knew the answer.
“Pride, greed, envy, gluttony, wrath, sloth, and. . . .” She suddenly stopped. What’s going on? I wondered.
“That’s only six.”
Mary Joyce looked down to conceal her reddening face. “Uh. . . uh. . .”
“Go on Mary Joyce. What is the seventh deadly sin?”
This is getting good. I know what it is. And everybody else does too.
“Uh, lushph,” she mumbled.
“I’m quite sure none of us could hear that. What did you say?”
Paul Randazzo couldn’t control himself and up went his hand. When she didn’t call on him, he stood up anyway. “I believe she’s trying to say ‘lust.’” At the last word, he pointed his finger to the ceiling, declaratively I think.
“Thank you, Paul. Does that mean you’re well-acquainted with this particular sin?”
That got a class chuckle, but Sister Corde Maria cut it short by snapping her hand down as if trying to slap a large beetle. Then the room quieted down so much that any beetle that flew in would’ve thought it was empty.
She started the reading.
It was warm that summer evening Robert and Marie went to the drive-in to watch a show. But before going, they neglected something. They didn’t check with their parish newspaper to see if the movie had appeared in the Legion of Decency condemned listing. That was their first mistake. The movie was not like any other they had ever seen. It was foreign. It showed sins against the Sixth Commandment in gruesome detail. The actors wore indecent clothing and used profanity. Marie wanted to go home, but Robert persuaded her to stay. “Just a little longer,” he said. Both of them began having impure thoughts. Robert touched Marie in an impure way and she said no at first. With one eye on the screen and the other on Marie, Robert kept trying, leading both of them closer and closer into mortal sin. They left the drive-in for a spot they’d heard about, a desolate place where pagans gave in to the sin of lust. That was their second mistake. Afterwards they sped home, but never got there. Their car smashed into a tree, causing a fatal accident. Tragically, Robert and Marie were no longer in a state of grace. The jaws of hell opened and swallowed their souls.
When Sister finished, gloom plopped down on the class like a morbidly obese angel. There had never been much class discussion after the previous meditations, but sometimes students talked about them in the schoolyard. The bad boys made impious jokes and the girls giggled. This one was different. It was so scary nobody ever talked about it. I thought about it for days, and then invoked it whenever I felt a dirty thought slithering up my loins. It usually worked. But lately these thoughts were getting super-strong and now were starting to invade more than my loins. Indeed, they were barging into my very dreams. Worse, they made me commit tactical errors. I let pretty Maureen Wilton copy my homework one morning, which I shouldn’t have, but we got away with it.
But I didn’t get away with this. In art class Sister Corde Maria gave an assignment. We were to draw “God’s beautiful mountaintops.” I asked her what the difference was between God’s beautiful mountaintops and regular beautiful mountaintops. She swept her right arm toward the window as if there were mountaintops outside—there were only three-deckers—and said, “If God hadn’t made mountaintops, you wouldn’t be able to draw them, would you?” I wasn’t a dumbo, I got the hint. Stick God in the drawing. To the left of my purple mountaintops, I drew the venerable gent with flowing white beard and long wispy hair. When I got the drawing back, God had a big red “X” across him and “Blasphemy!” scrawled below. I got a D-. Maybe I shouldn’t have drawn him grinning, but would that have changed anything?
My next error had worse consequences. One day after class I walked up to Sister Corde Maria and asked her what her name meant.
“It means ‘Heart of Mary’ in Latin,” she said. “Don’t they teach you anything in Room 212?”
I pursed my lips thoughtfully and tilted my head. “Actually, I think that’s incorrect. Heart of Mary would be ‘Corde Mariae,’ genitive case. Your name, Corde Maria, just means ‘Heart Mary.’ You should probably fix that.”
She took a deep breath and threw such a scowl at me, it should have melted the soles of my shoes and knocked me down. Turned out it did far worse.
“We’ll see about that, Mr. Know-It-All. By tomorrow I want you to turn in an essay for ‘extra credit.’ Tell me, in your own words and in two pages, what Miss Havisham’s rotting cake symbolizes. Since you’re so smart, you ought to be able to come up with something . . . ohhh, smart.”
It was late in the evening before I was able to complete the essay. In it, I concluded that Charles Dickens was trying to symbolize Miss Havisham’s rotting soul. That calmed Corde Maria down for now. But my next crisis at Bishop Fenwick happened the following day, and it spawned an even greater one.
I thought that I would have less trouble with fellow students at a pious school like Bishop Fenwick. I soon found out that Catholic schools have the same proportion of bullies and thugs as public ones, perhaps an even higher one because of all the corked-up tension. One hood, Larry Callahan, a sandy-haired kid about my size, began shoving me, using the old “excuse me” routine that Jimmy Bork had practiced to perfection two years previous. The nuns had no idea what Callahan was up to, and assumed he was being so polite pardoning himself for bumping into me. After the third time in one day, I sneered at him and said “So you wanna fight, Callahan? Meet me back of the school, uh, tomorrow afternoon.”
It had to be put off for a day because both of us were mandated to round up our seconds. Fights in Catholic school were scheduled, like early 19th-century duels, and required seconds to accompany each participant in case the winner got jumped by the loser’s henchmen. I asked my new buddy Chuck Faris and he readily assented.
We met behind the mound of dirt and mud and gravel where they were building the new football field. It provided excellent cover from prying nun eyes. Callahan showed up with two seconds, burly kids named Neil and Joseph. I wasn’t scared though. Our history teacher, Father Bukay, had told us that Christian crusaders always prayed to St. Michael before going off to save the Holy Land, so I hedged my bets and did the same that night before. I hoped seven minutes on my knees were all that was required.
Near the top of the dirt mound, we squared off for a few moments and Callahan said, “Gonna murder you, Bates.”
“We’ll see,” I said. He grabbed the lapels of my London fog trench coat and I popped him one on the forehead. That surprised him so much he gritted his teeth and said, “Oh, you’re gonna get it now,” and came at me again, swinging like a drunk cowpoke on the Death Valley Days show. I showered him with Willie Pep’s windmill punches and within a minute I’d knocked him onto the loam. I jumped on him and pinned him down for so long that Joseph, his first second, said, “I think he’s fucking him.” He wouldn’t give up and kept squirming, but I said that I had to be somewhere and that if he didn’t give up right now, I’d slap him silly.
He gave it up and I got off him. Neil then challenged me, and I declined. “I got no beef with you.” But Chuck was in the mood for a tumble and accepted and Neil quickly pinned him to the ground. It got so ridiculous I went home and got yelled at by my mother for ripping a hole in the pants of my brown uniform, a small price to pay for victory over that punk Callahan.
It was my last fight ever. I quit while I was ahead. For the rest of my schooling, I used taunts, irony, rude oaths, and as a last resort, negotiation to avoid scuffles.
After that fight, Callahan laid off me and a few days later pounced on Paul Randazzo. A short kid with Buddy Holly glasses and tar-black hair, he walked tilted forward and rarely swung his arms. I saw Callahan pull the same “excuse me” routine on Paul and after school I told him he had to stand up to the creep.
“He’s an asshole,” Paul shouted. “Why’s he doing this?”
“Yeah, who knows? But you gotta fight him off. Even if you lose couple times.”
“Maybe I stepped on his foot in gym, or said something in class he didn’t like, or maybe it’s the way I’m dressed. . . .”
“Paul, these are uniforms. This is how we’re all dressed.”
“Not our shoes. Think it’s my shoes?”
I should have told him to learn boxing by watching Willie Pep. I could have even lent him my Charles Atlas book, which I hadn’t sent back yet and who knows? It might have worked for him. Instead, I gave up. I wasn’t going to get anywhere with him and I certainly didn’t want to get in trouble over this. My parents already knew about my snarky comment to Sister Corde Maria. When my mother saw me typing my report the previous week, she asked what it was.
“Paper on Dickens,” whereupon I slipped and blabbed about my nun confrontation. My mother’s eyes squinched like somebody had turned on a bright light in the middle of her afternoon nap.
“Don’t you be acting smart with those nuns. They mean business.”
It was like telling me not to look over that fence at our neighbor, skimpy-suited Miss Overholt sunning near her pool, or I’d be committing a sin of impurity. I had to try, just once. A few weeks later I did push my luck at school and what happened next, much of it anyway, wasn’t my fault.
The list of offenses for which you could be sent to detention was longer than a solemn high Mass. For example, you could get it for using profanity, or saying just “yes” instead of “yes, Sister,” or tearing a page in a book (even a moldy old textbook like the 20-year-old Adventures in Reading), or by throwing food, and worst of all, speaking during period changes. Bishop Fenwick didn’t have enough teachers to patrol the halls, so they stationed four student hall monitors on each floor. A hall monitor was one of your peers, instructed to hand out detention slips to anyone who even peeped. They’d park themselves in strategic locations, like in front of the lockers or at the stairs, and sometimes they’d hide behind open doors. Their closest analogs were the Bürgerinformanten of Nazi Germany, citizens encouraged to report Jews and Communists in the neighborhood, like the woman who turned in Anne Frank.
Not so with my buddy Chuck. He signed up, lured by the getting-out-of-class-early perk. He caught me once when I said “shit!” after dropping a book, but didn’t write me up. He just grinned and wagged his finger. Another monitor did nail me for something and I had to spend an afternoon in detention copying the boring rules book. I stayed clean for a couple of weeks, then noticed that Chuck’s station had a replacement.
I felt icky, like I had to walk barefoot across a field where dogs roamed loose, pre-leash laws. I was locked in a high-stakes poker game and all my cards were blank. I was in a Roadrunner cartoon dream, the one in which I was falling off a cliff. This time when I hit ground, I wasn’t going to bounce.
- My eighth-grade schoolmate Paul Thomas was one of those rare kids who was smart without being a smart ass. His fate belied my mother’s nightmarish view of mid-sixties public education. See Epilogue. ↑
- Ans van Dijk. After WWII, she was arrested by the Dutch authorities, tried as a traitor, and shot. The night before her execution she was baptized and joined the Roman Catholic church. ↑