Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Sister Mary Anunciata Does Not Approve

School is very different than it used to be.  I grew up in the 1970s and went to Catholic school for ten years.  Things have changed a bit, teachers nowadays can't even pat a kid on the back for a job well done.  Back in the day, they could give you a smack upside the head if they felt it was warranted.  Today, teachers don't dare with even some basic levels of discipline for fear of lawsuits from screeching parents (most of whom went to the same schools I did!).  I called my eldest son's school and specifically told his teachers to take his cell phone away if they caught him using it during class.  The fact that I had to give them permission to do so was shocking to me and the fact that only ONE of them actually did it blows my mind.  The argument from parents that they must be able to get in touch with their precious at all times is stupid, unreasonable and just plain old rude.  Once upon a not that long ago, if a parent needed to get a message to their kid during school, they called the office and said child was summoned to receive it from Sister Ellen at the desk.  Class was only interrupted for true emergencies or major breaking news.  The phones in the classrooms only connected to the principal's office and if you were the subject of a conversation over one of those phones, you were in deep shit twice over.  I was completely nonplussed when I called my son's school and asked to leave a message for one of his teachers about something rather small and was rung through to the room.  More surprising was when the teacher answered...DURING class.  The nuns would have had none of that, trust me.
In Catholic school, the nuns were it.  The boss.  The direct line to God and you better keep it in line or you KNEW they would be telling the big man about your every infraction.  The nuns were fascinating to us, we were never sure if they were entirely human (and I still have doubts about a few of them).  I remember being completely blown away when I saw Sister Mary Clarence coming out of the bathroom stall next to me.  Dear Lord help me, I heard her PEE!  I had no idea they did that, despite having a nun in my very own family.  While my family was a bit more progressive than many, we still grew up with the full Catholic experience.  The uniforms that flattered no one, the all school masses, confession once a week and the nuns that made up the vast majority of our teaching pool.  These women were remarkable, they could be the sweetest, most kind-hearted creatures on the planet but could also wield a yardstick with the elegance of a samurai.  They would join in a kickball game on the playground and expertly peg the back of an out of turn talker's head with a blackboard eraser at 25 feet, hitting their target effortlessly every time.

They broke us in easy, first grade you either got Sister Stella (sweet, soft spoken and remarkably tall for a woman in sensible shoes) or Sister Marie Noelle (not much taller than most of us and had taught many of our parents in first grade).  First grade lulled us into a false sense of security, we thought they were ALL going to be like these two dear angels.  We were terribly wrong.  I don't remember who I had for second or third grade, I think they were both lay teachers and therefore, left no huge impression on me.  Third grade was memorable only for my being sent to the principal's office for asking if Holy Communion made us cannibals.  My reasoning being this, at the same time we were being taught about transubstantiation (the bread and wine BECOME the body and blood upon being blessed), we were also learning about the cannibalistic rituals of the Aztec, I think.  I became quite concerned, not only for myself, but for all our almighty souls as we had been assured these horrible man eating peoples had not only died out, but had all gone to Hell.  Can you see where MY eight year old brain went just then?  I asked the question, was roundly scolded and sent to the office to discuss this with the principal.  My mother was called and I was sure I was going to be thrown out to be educated no further.  My mother's response was typical for her, "You know, I never thought of that...what's the answer?"  The principal simply gave me a somewhat distracted smile and let me hang out in his office reading a book until lunchtime.  I never did get an answer.  These days, that would have been the start of some sort of intensive therapy and probably long term medication.
 Fourth grade introduced us to Sister Eunice, always angry and barely able to completely contain her rage.  You knew all hell was about to break loose when she'd start to whisper, the class would slowly start to quiet down as her voice rose to the glorious, screeching crescendo of  "YOU KIDS ARE MAKING ME SO CRAZYYYYY!!!!" This scene, both awe inspiring and inevitable, would be repeated dozens of times throughout my fourth grade year.  I occasionally felt sorry for poor Sister Eunice, having such a low tolerance for any sort of childish behavior and yet, here she was, teaching fourth grade.  I always had the vague idea that she was probably being punished for something. 
Sixth grade, we started moving from room to room and had different teachers for different subjects, it was all very exciting until we met HER.  The nemesis of almost all except the few privileged and chosen among us, the school patrol.  Miss Brink.  The name alone still causes an involuntary shiver down the backs of many.  Miss Brink, it was rumored she had been a nun but had been tossed out (or had left on her own, more likely) for some horrible infraction we could never even imagine.  Miss Brink was responsible for both our religion and math classes that year. I don't think someone was thinking clearly in assigning this horror of a teacher our confirmation classes.  This woman was a cross between Jabba the Hutt and a demonic drill sergeant.  Short, blond and angry at something none of us could even fully define.  Her methods were, unconventional, at best, borderline illegal at worst.  This woman was legendary, the tales so embroidered over time and memory that I think some truths may have blurred over time.  Her classes were met with a mixture of dread and frightened anticipation, we at never seen anything like her.  A teacher who hated teaching, seemed to hate us and really taught us very little of worth.  To this day, I have retained nothing on mathematically dealing with fractions.  She had two methods of dealing with gum chewers, both probably punishable by jail time these days. The offender would either have to roll the gum around the perimeter of the room with their nose, then chew it again. The alternative was depositing your gum into a jar of ABC gum she kept in her desk, select a piece from the jar and chew away.  She delighted in grossing people out by taking out her false teeth during class, counting on the squeamish among us to "Eeeeeew" appropriately and at the designated time.  For extra points, she'd occasionally set then on some hapless student's desk during a test.  Flicking them off the desk with your pencil was worth another trip to the principal's office.  For a treat, she'd suspend all pretend teaching and line the entire class up against the back wall of the room and  blast a whiffle ball at us for "fun".  This was no ordinary whiffle ball, this thing had started life as a regulation whiffle ball, but had, over the years, been cracked, smashed and broken and then fixed with layer upon layer of masking tape until it resembled a good sized beige grapefruit.  At some point, the ball became too much for a requisite plastic bat that comes with whiffle ball sets, so she switched to aluminum,  Give that image a minute to sink in: thirty sixth graders apprehensively and with varying degrees of terror on their faces, lined up against a blackboard, huddled together for protection like travelers stranded in a blizzard, the bodies of their fellows their only protection against the battering storm.  If you got hit, you had to sit down, most of us tried to get taken out early in the game as she seemed to grow enraged the longer people remained standing.  Her determination to nail that speeding ball of masking taped death at the stragglers was a sight to behold.  The longer those foolhardy few lasted, the redder her face became, contorted with renewed determination to bring those bold enough to dodge her missiles.  Don't bother trying to hide in the coatroom, that usually ended up like some sort of hallway of death, the ball ricocheting off the walls, taking out any foolish enough to attempt refuge there.  This was a "Fun" break from, you know, non violence and constructive learning.  You see why I retained nothing? And my mother was afraid to send us to public school because of the violence.
While I'm not recommending eraser throwing and whiffle balls of certain death in today's classrooms, I'm thinking a little of that would make a hell of an impression.

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