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 Everything2.com:
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.
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.
Please open your hymnal to "Sex Machine."
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.
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.