Sunday, January 08, 2006

Another Day in Catholic School

Another Day in Catholic School

Another Day in Catholic School (2005)

Here's something new-- and something that stirs not-so-fond memories of my formative years being whacked on the knuckles with the metal side of wooden rulers by nuns whose heads were filled with psychotropic visions of Pentecostal fire.

I went to Catholic school in South Dakota. The prairie winds would whip drifts, and I'd walk through snow tunnels to get to school. The parking lots would be plowed out into one corner leaving an Everest for massive king-of-the-hill matches during recess.

My strongest memory was of Sister Veneranda -- my 6th grade teacher. She had broken an arm slipping on the icy convent steps one November morning. About two weeks later, on a frozen tundra afternoon, a friend of mine, Tim, who will eventually be in the lowest circle of hell, beaned Sister Veneranda with an iceball. She dropped like a glass-jawed prizefighter -- and broke her other arm. The next day, she shuffled into class with two casts. She'd be lecturing on some religious topic and turn -- as she had thousands of times before -- to write some critical detail on the chalkboard. Her face would go slack. Her casts would bounce like some pathetic, half-hearted isometric exercise. That motion would later remind me of Karloff as Frankenstein's sad hand gestures of friendship to his unwilling mate in Bride of Frankenstein. Finally, her eyes would bore like Dracula's hypnotic glare into some hapless female student sitting in the front row who would bound to her feet to take dictation with chalk.

Were the dungeon days as bad as I dimly remember, in spite of every repressive lock and dam technique to hold back the horrific flashbacks? Or was my experience an anomaly? Did other Catholic school grads study in divine bliss with Mother Teresa models? Let's sift through the searing recollections found on the Internets.

From PureDoxyk at

I once got stuck in the corner for an entire day for asking why there were similarities between Lucifer (the "Lightbringer") and the Greek myth of Prometheus. I even had that real-life horror story happen, where I was in the confessional and the priest had left his microphone on.

Nothing like broadcasting one's sins to the congregation. What could be worse? Maybe... sex education from nuns? From New Oxford Review:

My son Nicholas was in third grade at St. Elizabeth School in Oakland. Driving one Saturday on an errand, I heard Nicholas make this statement from the back seat: "My teacher told me to put a condor on the peanuts to protect myself from AIDS." I hit the brakes and pulled over. What Nick heard as "condors and the peanuts" was actually about condoms and the penis. Well, the point was quite lost on him, but it grabbed his parents' attention immediately. Nicholas was being taught about contraception -- in third grade.

We confronted the teacher and the principal for two reasons. First, the teacher had not informed us that she intended to speak to our third grader about sex. Second, and perhaps more significantly, such teaching is in direct contradiction to the teaching of the Church. We complained about both these issues, and were shocked to receive a defensive response from both the principal (a Dominican nun) and the teacher (an ex-nun). Both of them explained, with a touch of racism, that the majority of the children attending St. Elizabeth's are Hispanic and African American and that they (and their parents) do not understand the importance of practicing "safe sex." My wife told the teacher that, as the parent of a third grader, the mother has the right to speak to her own children about sex when she feels the child is ready to hear it. The school had now pre-empted that right; it had assumed the authority of the parents. Adopting the public school attitude that "we are the experts," this Catholic school convinced itself that it was the "great white hope" for the teeming and stupid masses of east Oakland. How sad, and how arrogant.

He said peanuts.  Yowsaaa...

Please open your hymnal to "Sex Machine."

But the mind games used to break you down psychologically by attacking your appearance and holding up holy noses to class distinctions were among the most devious tactics. From Nelly's Garden:

Then there were Sister Diabolical’s surprise fingernail inspections. She’d sweep in and go round everyone and inspect our fingernails. Humiliation for anyone whose nails were less than pristine. We’d all be frantically using compass points to clean them before she got to us. Once after failing inspection I got sent to the washroom to give them a good scrub and when I got there I scrubbed and scrubbed till they were nearly bleeding. Then Sister Benedicta nobbled me at break time for having all these white soap flecks on my jumper.

“Nelly Moser, you dirty, dirty girl. You’ve been eating ice cream and got it all over yourself!”

As if. As if I had the money for ice cream.


After the first year I got put into the second stream because I’d performed poorly in my end of year tests. I was mortified but in the good old Convent tradition more was to come. Sister Benedicta was our form teacher. She introduced an encouraging little ritual to motivate us to be smart and tidy schoolgirls. At the end of every month she’d have a class prize for the most well turned out girl. And while she was about it there would be a dishonourable mention for the least well turned out. The prizes were nothing to get excited about – maybe a holy picture or a cheap set of rosary beads. Anyways Mary Teresa won it the first month. Her father was a wealthy businessman and she got a new uniform every term. I got the dishonourable mention. The second month Mary Catherine won it. I got the dishonourable mention. The third time it was Mary Teresa yet again and myself for the booby. After the Christmas term Sister Benedicta gotbored with her little scheme and it was never mentioned again. Maybe she just got bored of humiliating me because by that time I’d gone numb and had stopped reacting. Bullies need a reaction.

Pull.  Pull.  Pull!!!

Recess, children. Please don your target-embroidered jumpers.

But maybe it was all just a bad dream. Perhaps, just perhaps, nuns have retooled their Gonzales gaga for torture image with a PR makeover. No more are they dark agents taking cues from Torquemada's playbook. Maybe they've gone soft, as Chuck Tersella learned in a (I'd guess fictional) interview in "Nun but the Best" from Exquisite Corpse:

“Yes, well, at any rate, I was hoping you’d answer a few questions for me about the way discipline is administered these days in Catholic Schools."
She immediately became suspicious. “What do you mean, answer questions? Who sent you? Is this about Father Mc Mann and the little league team again? Talk to his lawyer if you have questions."
“No, no," I said. This was getting weird. “I just was wondering if Nuns still hit kids with rulers and yardsticks and stuff anymore."
She calmed down a bit. “Lord, no," she replied. “We never lay a finger on the little uh, darlings anymore. Those days are long over." This last was said with a trace of wistfulness, I thought.
“But why not?" I asked, astounded. “That’s what you guys do. It’s what you’re famous for. Not hitting kids would be like Dick Cheney selling all his Haliburton shares and opening up a chain
of abortion clinics. It just doesn’t go. It’s stupid."
“Don’t call the Catholic Church stupid, sonny."
I took a discreet step back out of kicking range. She went on. “And anyway, it wasn’t our decision. There are laws about this these days."
“But how do you keep order? I mean, the thing that cured my attention deficit disorder was the knowledge that you were standing just behind me with three foot piece of wood."
She smiled. “Me personally? I just invite 'em to play kickball with me. That usually calms them down. But the other Nuns have to call their parents and try to work it out with them."
“And that works?"
“Well, it saves on yardsticks and rulers, but I think the old ways are best. We got into trouble when we stopped saying the Mass in Latin, I always thought. Damn Vatican II."
I nodded sympathetically. “That’s what did me in. “It gives away too much in English. I mean, we might as well be Protestant."
“God forbid," she replied, sniffing. “But now that you mention it, we do have more discipline problems these days...truancy, fighting, cursing, the occasional Grand Theft Auto, that sort of thing. It wasn’t like that in the old days. If a student didn’t do what you wanted, it was off to the Cooler...uh, Principal’s Office. Yes, the children knew what that meant and they respected it." She stared at me a long moment. “Did I ever send you to the Principal? You sort of have the look."
“Once or twice," I murmured uncomfortably. “But now that I’m older, I recognize the value of that kind of discipline. In fact, I’m grateful for it."
She smiled again, a shark-like grin really. “Damn straight. Have you ever spent time in a maximum security institution?"
I shook my head no.
“Then there you go. It worked. Parents don’t understand that it’s the domino effect; a bit of backtalk today turns into assault with a weapon of mass destruction tomorrow." Her voice started to rise. “We Nuns are the front line. We’ve got to take back the schools! We’ve got to nip this in the bud! And if the parents don’t like it, then we’ve got to...." She was nearly yelling by this point and I started to get nervous. She must have seen the look on my face because she took a deep breath and calmed down a bit. “At any rate, something has to be done. I pray about it all the time, even now, here with you."

Catholic school convinced me to "retire" from Catholicism. I figure I went to Mass so often as a kid that I've stored up enough get-into-heaven indulgences to last a lifetime. I'm hedging, based on the good deeds of my youth, that one day I'll ascend and high-five St. Peter. I mean, what could I be doing that might derail my bullet train to the white light?


Students can be suspended for a lot of odd reasons these days -- wearing "objectionable" T-shirts, cross-dressing for prom, planning elaborate senior pranks -- but a principal at a Catholic high
school in Sparta, New Jersey, has added another offense to the list: having a blog.

That cuts it. Sister Veneranda was right. I'm going to hell.


idyllopus said...

Great, as usual.

South Dakota, huh. Some of the LDN from there recently had a class action suit because of RC boarding school abuse.

I got out of RC with only a couple of years of CCD. I noted when I was a teen however that many of the friends I made had been raised RC, only I didn't know that when I got to know them and noting that I wondered if perhaps even a brief intro helps in building a slightly different mindset from the Protestant. I'd wondered if it was a greater receptivity to the non-literal. Perhaps not.

Not discounting the negative treatment I received there (for which reason I said I didn't want to return when I was 10, and did not). But I've noticed no less hell dispensed by Protestants. The cup goeth around liberally. There should be an accounting for all such churches. But most escape radar via heavy protection by clergy and congregation.

cruelanimal said...

I've sometimes wondered what can happen behind the closed doors of the ultra-religious home-schooled set when rigid fundamentalism can go unchecked?

There's a closed system of education no organized church could ever hope to match.

Tim said...

"ultra-religious home-schooled set"

Hey, that's me.

I can't speak for others, but with me and my kids the big difference is the absence of the institutional environment, which I think is the big problem in education.

Homeschoolers are teaching their own children. It's the hired hands, in most cases, who mistreat children, because they're hired hands and not parents.

Sure, there's probably some nutcases out there, but I really think that the majority of homeschoolers are parents who don't want to their children to be formed by an uncaring institution like they themselves were.

I've often described schools as "daytime orphanages." My kids have me, we don't need the brick box down the street with the poor, stressed-out teachers who run it.

Home isn't a perfect place and some families have problems, but I think the home environment has plenty of advantages over institutionalized environments when it comes to learning, even if the schools aren't as bad as the one you experienced in South Dakota.

But you have raised a good point that homeschools are a mystery to many people and since they're often associated with church people, it's natural to assume unpleasant things.

You know, I don't even have a wooden ruler...

Neil Shakespeare said...

LOL! Man, that is the funniest! Great pic! I've had several friends who've attended catholic schools and their stories are all excessively frightening. And as a protestant growing up in Minnesota I've tunneled to school myself a few times. Now, if you'll excuse me, I've gotta go put a condor on my peanuts.

cruelanimal said...

Tim: I probably should have clarified that I am not against home schooling in general, and I have a number of friends who home school their children.

But I live in the heart of the Baptist Bible Belt, and I've seen some bad examples. My point was that when a rigid fundamentalism is the driving force and center of instruction for home schooling, I worry that concentrated, unchecked indoctrination on young minds can make Catholic schools look like bastions of secular humanism. Parents can provide some checks on curriculum of religious schools through PTA and other activities.

But, as you note, and as I've seen with friends, home schooling done right with bright and caring parents sure beats my Catholic school experience and institutional cookie cutter education.

Wooden rulers are probably passe. Nuns have moved up to Tasers.

Anonymous said...

Catholic School

The moths patrol the corridors,
Swooping down from their black cowls,
Shucking lipstick from the girls' bathroom
& popping the discarded condoms.

The moths screech with bony fingernails
Algebraic unreal numbers and dates
From saints' lives on the blackboard,
Erasing everything just before the test.

The moths cluster before the bright light
Of their favorite pupil, twisting on their
Wedding rings and wishing for a new acolyte
Who could illuminate their collective prayers.

Against the barbed wire that surrounds
The playground, the Goths rake chain mail
From their Harleys and leer at the mottled
Cluster of virgins whom the moths flutter around.

Dr. Mike

Tim said...

"But I live in the heart of the Baptist Bible Belt"

Well, that puts things in perspective now. I think that's the Canadian equivalent of Alberta, or out west in general.

There have been a number of fanatical religious folks from Ontario who have moved out west (with their guns) to do their own thing.

I think in USA terms they might be called the religious right, and associated with the Republican Party.

I guess it's one of the differences between Canada and the US. We don't seem to have an equivalent to many of the cultural groups there, like the Republicans, for instance.

cruelanimal said...

"We don't seem to have an equivalent to many of the cultural groups there, like the Republicans, for instance."

Man, that's like one of those parallel universes in the Superman comics -- a bizarro world where everything is the opposite.

So, you live in a country where openly lying to the public, pre-emptive war based on NeoCon delusions, spying on citizens without judicial checks, merging church and state with glee, blatantly slashing benefits for the poor while lining the pockets of the wealthy, gutting student loans and aid to the elderly, slapping shackles on sciene, waging an absurd war on drugs, raping the environment at the whim of business, paying members of the press to spin stories to the government's agenda, appointing political cronies to positions of power, and openly advocating torture and unlimited detention of we-won't-call-them prisoners without charges or trials?

What you you trying to do up there in Shangri-la, er, Canada? Be humane and civilized and decent and enlightened and progressive -- or something?

Tim said...

I really can't explain Canada. Maybe it's the weak sense of identity that prevents us from getting organized and active which in turn limits us to small sucesses and small failures.

It's not all good, that's for sure.

America is a country founded in revolution and constitutional principles. Canada never stopped being a colony. The British government ammended our constitution twenty years ago and then handed it over to us to look after. Can you imagine such a thing in the US?

We had a golden opportunity to join the 13 colonies in their rebellion against the British back in 1776 but didn't.

Hey, I should posting this to my own blog!

idyllopus said...

Well, as you are probably aware, we homeschool and my preference is the government be involved as little as possible because I think learning interests and speeds and ways vary from individual to individual, some more so than others, and I've just about no use for testing.

Now, twenty years ago I remember jumping up and down over religious right homeschoolers and believing there should be some controls.

But then I unexpectedly was pregnant at 39 and when said child was two I looked at him and thought, "I'm going to send this beautiful mind to the hell of public school? I don't think so!" And soon I realized why I would not want government intruding on how I homeschooled.

I read and read and read on methods before he was five but what we do has had less to do with what I've read than what works for our son.
The most enthusiastic voices for homeschooling have been amongst all the artists/musicians we know. And most of the people we know are musician/artists. I think it's because they all share horror stories from school and being among the artistic outcasts who learned in alternative ways. I didn't anticipate our son being an artistic type, I seriously didn't have such expectation for him, but he is and learns in a decidedly alternative way. School and desks and regimented study periods and testing and worrying about Fs and As would have squashed him flat.

cruelanimal said...

I suppose because I endured forced religious instruction that tangled my brain badly -- and because I live in an area where religious right fundies trumpet home schooling to ward off the evils of secular humanism -- I've seen too many bad examples. Some these these scrambled souls, victims of their parents' private crusade, turn up in my college classes

But, as I said above, I have friends who've done it right and their children are the better for it -- and, as you note, are often more creative and better at critical reasoning. Institutional conformity -- sitting in rows, teaching to tests -- sometimes beats down the imagination and dulls the faculties.

I think I need to relocate to a more enlightened area. Are any blue states accepting transfers?

cruelanimal said...


I meant to respond earlier and say thanks for sharing another terrific poem. The moth metaphor makes for movement and tension and the last stanza is superb.

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