How To Survive Catholic School
What is black and white and black and white and black and white? Give up? A nun rolling down the stairs! That little bit of humor earned me a beautifully-timed slap across the face, delivered, dare I say gleefully, by Sister Mary Elizabeth when I was in the 7th grade at St. Patrick School in Tacoma.
And yet I survived, time and time again, as the nuns and later the Jesuits tried their best to mold me into the image and likeness of Jesus. Fat chance that was going to happen!
True, our family was Catholic, but I have always suspected that I was sent to Catholic school because my mother wished it; I’m fairly certain dad didn’t really give a damn one way or another. I know for a fact he didn’t like nuns, which became apparent very early on in my career at St. Patrick School. In First Grade our teacher announced to the class that from that moment forward yours truly would be known as William rather than Bill because William was a saint’s name. By the time I got home I was in tears, telling my mom that Sister Brutus (or whatever her name was) told me I was no longer Bill. Mom made the mistake of telling dad when he got home from work and then the fun began. At seven that evening we piled into the car, drove down to the school, woke up half the neighborhood, and then dad announced to God and anyone else listening that he had named me Bill and he would be goddamned if some nun who has never had children was going to change my name.
Oh, but it didn’t stop there. Five months later the same nun slapped my left hand with a ruler because she said all God’s children used their right hand to draw and print. Home I went crying, told mom who of course told my dad and off we went again in the early evening to once again wake up the neighborhood as Big Dale informed the aforementioned nun that if I wanted to print with my toes then that’s what I would print with. My reputation had nowhere to go but up after that….or so I thought.
Now lest you gain the impression that I think Catholic schools are horrible let me tell you that I received an excellent education in the Catholic school system. This was the Fifties and at that time in the United States corporal punishment was accepted; in the Catholic school system it was expected by all, including my parents. It’s not that my dad had anything against corporal punishment; he didn’t blink an eye when I was slapped in the 7th Grade for my black and white joke. It’s just that dad had a code that he believed in and heaven help anyone who did not agree with that code.
The nuns had a job to do as dictated by the parish priest as dictated by the bishop as dictated by the pope. Just as they had a job to do the students felt it was their duty to find creative ways to make their jobs harder, and for eight years I did my best to honor that duty. We were not bad kids by a long shot. I, for one, was an altar boy, knew the mass in Latin, played the organ at weddings and funerals and could genuflect with the best of them. All admirable traits for a Catholic student for sure; on the flip side I knew exactly when to expel gas for the maximum effect, could camouflage tacks on the nun’s chair with the best of them and was somewhat of a legend for leaving lizards and frogs in the desk drawers of my teachers. It was eight years of a battle of wills and only the strong survived.
Yes, I am a Catholic school survivor. Little did I know that grade school was just a warm-up for what was to come….high school and the Jesuits. For those of you not familiar with the Jesuits allow me to enlighten you. The Jesuit Order of the Catholic Church was considered the Marine Corps of the Church. The men who taught in the schools as a prelude to priesthood were tough as nails and ran their classrooms like a drill sergeant preparing their troops for battle. Their weapon of choice was a flat board with holes drilled in it for less air resistance and the board was used on our backsides whenever we had broken one of a thousand different rules. The paddle was bad enough but it was usually wielded by a man who received a great deal of enjoyment from the sound of fifteen year olds yelping in pain. The name of the school was Bellarmine Prep but it could just as easily been called Sadist High School.
Our greatest nemesis was a man named Mr. Thompson (not his real name) who would tell us to grab our ankles and then would back up ten paces so he could get a running start before whacking us. This usually resulted in the offending party flying across the front of the classroom, then limping back to his seat believing in the awesome power of God.
For repeat offenders the whacks were delivered at lunchtime out in the courtyard in front of the entire student body. If you don’t think that builds character you are sadly mistaken.
So now I stand before you, a man of character. True, I dream of delivering corporal punishment to some of those long-gone teachers, but with my luck they are all dead and buried and I will forever be cheated out of my revenge.
Would you like to know the punch line to this story? I became a Catholic school teacher.