The best way to really appreciate and understand my Catholic School experience is to first watch the following four-minute clip from the movie, The Blues Brothers. It sets everything up nicely.
Ok, now that you have an idea of where I’m coming from, I’ll tell a few more stories about my incarceration at St. Matthew’s Catholic elementary school. We’ll start with the “Dirty Words Incident” from the 5th grade.
When you were in a Catholic school in the 50’s and 60’s, you were peppered all day long about things that were sins. Disobeying your parents, having impure thoughts, stealing, not going to mass, using bad language and on and on. While it was paradoxical, my friends and I seemed compelled to want to do the very things that we were told were sinful. The risk was low. We might go to hell or purgatory, but to avoid that all we needed to do was go to confession. It was a get out of jail free pass and you could go as often as you wanted.
One day the boys in the class decided to pass around a note listing dirty words. Each boy would add a word then pass it on. By the time it got to me all of the best words were taken. And I’m not talking about “pee” or “butt.” Our fathers served in WWII so by age three most of us had probably heard all of the really bad words. But I was stumped, then suddenly I had a stroke of genius! I wrote, “Sister Mary Mother of Mercy” on the note. This was the name of our teacher of course and I knew the shock effect would earn me praise from my friends at recess. I tapped the shoulder of the boy in front of me and he reached back to grab the note. Suddenly, out of nowhere came the bony, pasty-white hand of Sister Mary Mother of Mercy, who slapped my wrist with a ruler as she snatched the note. She unfolded the note in front of the entire class and I swear, her normally ruddy Irish face turned purple. I’m sure the words embarrassed her but seeing her name on the list of dirty words meant that I was toast.
This offense was so serious that the immediate beating that ensued was not going to be the end of it. For starters, I was kicked out the altar boy society. This was a big deal. St. Matthew’s was an older parish so I got to leave the classroom a couple of times a week to serve at a funeral. The funerals usually occurred in the morning which allowed me to escape the dreaded catechism question and answer period. And of course, there was another phone call by the Sister Superior to my mother. As I mentioned in an earlier post, my mom was a closet Presbyterian and while she tired of the constant phone calls about my misbehavior, there were never any real consequences at home because of them.
By 7th grade there had been enough turnover in the convent to allow me to get reinstated as an altar boy. Going again for shock value, one day I stole (yes, I know – a sin) a bunch of the “hosts” which were little round pieces of bread given out at communion. I walked around the school yard “giving communion” to my friends. Suddenly I was grabbed by the back of the neck by the pastor (Monsignor Lynch, a very cranky Irishman) and hauled into the principal’s office. He screamed, “Were these consecrated hosts (blessed by a priest at mass) or were they unconsecrated?!” Not being one to ever study the catechism, I looked up, terrified and said, “What’s the difference again?” Well, needless to say that would be it for my altar boy service. I was out for good.
I could go on and on with these stories. Looking back, I think at times I was intentionally trying to be the mirror-opposite of my older brother. Larry was four years ahead of me and there was no way I could compete with him. Larry got straight A’s and I got, well, all of the other letters. Larry was always well-behaved. For some reason I couldn’t sit still. But despite all the acting up, I did learn one thing in Catholic school. I learned to write, which helped me all through my working years and now allows me to publish this blog. To all of my former sisters who are looking down at me from heaven, I want to say thanks for that, and sorry for all the trouble.