Tuesday, July 9, 2013

There’s Always Some Nun to Blame - Redux

Original Post 1/18/12

I’ve mentioned a time or two that I attended Catholic Grammar school, full time, from 1960-1968, so I spent much of my early life surrounded by nuns.

Hey, why wouldn’t I?

Nuns are great….

We’d hang out at the convent to all hours, listening to the latest from Dylan; debating if this whole British Invasion thing was going to take off or wondering why no one really knew which of the five was actually Dave Clark.

Good times!

Well…not really….

I mean maybe if we actually did those kinds of things, but we didn’t.

Mostly we showed up every morning, sat quietly, hands precisely folded at the edge of our desks, backs straight, feet flat on the floor, and tried not to make eye contact with them. 

Making eye contact was bad.

Making eye contact meant that you were noticed and might be called on.

Being called on was bad.

Being called on meant you had to respond to the question being posed, and if your mind had chosen just that moment to wander back to the perplexing theories being proffered by Captain Kangaroo, earlier that morning, on hot cereal vs. cold…you had a problem.

See, the nuns of that era, had a theory of their own, which was that a little bit of pain was a good thing to get the old brain power in gear.  Not enough to draw blood or leave a mark, but just enough to help you recall those pesky times tables.

We had a nun, in the first grade, named Sister Helen, which may or may not have been her real name.

I suspected at the time that her real name might actually have been Natasha, and that she was a secret agent for the KGB who pal’d around with Boris Badenov.

That’s what I suspected.

Anyway, if you weren’t able to respond in the proper hands precisely folded at the edge of your desk, back straight, feet flat on the floor manner that was expected, “Sister Helen”, who was fairly youngish by nunish standards, would sidle up behind you—because they were experts at sidling— and grab hold of the one, precise little hair on the back of your head that was connected to every single nerve in your body…and pull. 

Never could you imagine that one little hair could be the source of such pain.

Now, panicked and totally clueless as to the nature of the question posed, you begin to throw out anything that pops into your head. Numbers, letters, historical figures and dates, bodies of water, continents…major and minor exports and imports of Brazil.  Anything and everything, hoping against hope that by some miracle you’ll hit on the correct answer. 

But you never did and the pain would continue until eventually a bright light would appear, beckoning to you, calling you home, bringing you some measure of peace, until you realized it was just Mrs. Gordon, the cleaning lady, opening the door to the cloak room, where we stored all our cloaks when we weren’t using them. 

The dagger room was in the back.

Then, to further add to your humiliation, Sister “Natasha” would keep on tugging until someone was finally able to answer the question, which was usually Marybuttercup Pennyloafers, with her smug little smile, who always had the answer to everything…including what exactly happened to Marilyn Monroe.

And then the pain would stop; at least the physical pain.

To be honest, I guess it could have been worse.  This was pretty much as deep as Sister Helen’s bag of tricks went. For the most part she was nice to us as long as we were paying attention. 

She had birthday parties for us with cupcakes, and holiday games and celebrations, exercise time when we would open all the windows on a 4 degree day, breathe in and breathe out, stretch and touch our toes.

She would even let us smoke in the back of the room….

No…I’m kidding.

We had to go outside to smoke.

So Sister Helen wasn’t so bad.

Some of the other nuns, and to be fair, lay teachers, I had along the way—those primarily left over from the Mesolithic era, when corporal punishment was widely accepted and expected— incorporated teaching methods that would have been frowned upon, even by Boris and the KGB.

But that was the way of the world before us, and even if our parents had a problem with it, there was a definite “ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies” policy in place.

In stark contrast to today, where if a teacher even hurts a kid’s feelings, they could be brought up on charges.

Someday down the road I’ll tell you about my 90 year old, or so it seemed, 4th grade teacher, a bull of a woman, who blamed us for the untimely death, over the summer, of our 100 year old 3rd grade teacher. She told us that we may have gotten Mrs. Cooney, but we weren’t’ going to get her….

Oh, and she also blamed us for killing President Kennedy.

Yep…marched right in after they announced it on the PA system, which was out and up the hall, so it was mostly unintelligible to us, and said, “The President is dead and it’s all your fault because you were talking instead of listening!”

And then we all felt bad about it.

I still do….

But don’t tell anybody. 

Especially Oliver Stone….

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  1. Very good article which I can fully empathise an endorse. From 1954 - 1960 I also attended a very Roman Catholic school. The mass an hymns were all in Latin back then. My problem was my father who had severely abused in a catholic orphanage decided it would great for us to share the experience. By then he was an atheist who ever so quietly undermined our religious knowledge. For that at least I am so glad.

    1. Catholic school was good for that….

  2. My cousin tells of having been taken down to the school basement and shown a furnace. The nun opened the door to the furnace where the flames were shooting out, and explained to the boy that next time he would be thrown into that furnace if he misbehaved again. He has no idea what he had done. In public school kindergarten (c.1930) there was a teacher there with very long and red fingernails. She would take a child into a closet, and from there screams and moans could be heard. I would arrive home with a headache every day. Now I no longer have headaches-- except sometimes at night.

    1. Yes…they had all those good time tricks up those big sleeves. I actually think they followed a standardized handbook….

  3. I look at the earnest faces of young children and their eagerness to understand their world. Then come the religious monsters who teach that violence is Gods of towing the line.


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