The Education of the rascals
“A Piece of the Banner”
The Education of the Rascals
All of the kids in our neighborhood went to the local Catholic grammar school, St. John the Evangelist. There, in addition to our regular studies, we were instructed in the perils of life and the damnation of sinners by a community of nuns from the Order of The Sisters of Mercy.
The nuns were always a mystery to us. They existed in a total vacuum of “school.” We never saw them outside of church or school. Our sisterhood lived in a small green convent immediately adjacent to the elementary school. What they did for recreation, and whether or not they ate real food, smoked cigarettes or sipped an occasional glass of beer were things that we speculated about but never had any hard evidence. They lived in relative poverty and tended to their flock with all of their attention whether we liked it or not. Some were more popular than others and it wasn’t until later in life that we realized that they were indeed real people, not some mystical persona enveloped under those black robes in the uniform of God’s personal army.
Every morning, weather permitting, we would line up in rows in the schoolyard, smallest to tallest, like cadets in a military academy. The American flag would be raised and the pledge of allegiance recited by youthful idealists. We would then be marched to our classrooms for the morning’s instructions. Talkers in line might expect the discouraging scowl or a light tap on the back of the head. In class the admonition might be a ruler across the knuckles. You didn’t mess around with God’s personal army. They were serious of mien and purpose and always retained the power of the dreaded “call home.”
The nuns were pretty much adjunct mothers and, although inclined to be crotchety, cared about us and looked after us. It wasn't unusual for them to step in quietly and help with clothing and food where the situation warranted it. They did this with the finesse of experienced diplomats, in a blue-collar community that prided itself on accepting charity from no one.
“Lisa, would you please stay after class?” Sister Josita one day asked of a classmate. “I need to see you about one of your assignments.”
“Yes, Sister,” said Lisa, who sat down as we were all dismissed.
We had all felt badly for Lisa. Her house had sustained a fire and her family lost everything. Insurance and things like that were not something any of us had in reserve.
“We have a few items of clothing that other families brought in to help, Lisa,” the nun said. “Would you try on a few of these outfits to see if they help?”
“Yes, Sister,” Lisa replied eyes brimming with tears. Children had already noticed and commented on her lack of different clothing at school. Children often suffered for the pride of their parents. In this manner the good sisters discretely helped those in need.
Going to a Catholic grammar school was like being raised by a churlish maiden aunt. You spent all day with these religious women. Their authority and concerns encompassed your whole life. If they got wind of mischief or bad habits after school, they were on you like a detective the next day. No hardened policeman ever perfected the third degree as finely as these women had. One way or another, they managed to extract the details of the transgression from you with threats of hellfire and damnation. Then, the call would go home to your parents, and things would be decidedly unpleasant there as well.
“Mr. Martin?” Sister Mary Susannah would say into the phone.
“Yes, Sister,” my father would reply concerned.
“Young Joey (or Billy or Jimmy) is not bringing in his assignments. He is also acting up in class. Is there something wrong at home?” the good Sister would ask.
“Say no more Sister. I will speak to the lad this evening and you will have no more trouble from him,” said my father. “If you do, please call us again and I will put the fear of God into him.”
“Thank you, Mr. Martin,” said the sister.
That would be the end of that. A good dusting on the seat of the pants and some extra chores would usually instruct the errant young rascal to change his ways. We all feared that telephone call home more than we did any punishment from the sisters themselves.
I remember one incident in particular that involved throwing snowballs. The principal, Sister Susannah, lined up about twenty of us in a row and methodically questioned each of us as to our culpability in the incident. Anyone dumb enough to admit guilt got a backhand across the face. Nobody had to tell us about the theory behind the self-incrimination principle of the fifth-amendment. We had already figured that out for ourselves.
“Did you throw any of those snowballs, Joey?” Sister Susannah asked with the wrathful face that only an inquisitor in the Lord’s employ could manage.
“Oh no, Sister. Not me,” I replied with an innocent and earnest expression and a set of very wet gloves in my coat pocket. George Washington, the whole chopping down of a cherry tree incident and later fessing up to it was something we had all hooted about when we read of it during our study of American History.
“Washington must have been a real sap,” Eddie Gorman said.
“Can you imagine the knucklehead getting busted for chopping down a tree?” asked Billie Pierce. “He must have been a real pansy.”
In the local streets children didn’t develop an advanced appreciation for the lofty ethics of morality or other such highly esteemed principles until much later in life, when a good education, the military or run-ins with the local constabulary intervened.
As far as education went, the nuns did a pretty fair job with limited resources. We weren’t allowed to “not do the work,” or we faced hellfire and brimstone. It was pretty intimidating at that age.
“You are going to burn in the fires of hell if you don’t change your ways, Joey,” Sister Mary Susannah said to me one day.
“Yes, Sister,” I replied penitently.
It was important to have the right hangdog look of complete repentance about you in one of these exchanges if you wished to come out of the interview well.
“God gave you these abilities and he expects you to make the most of them, you know,” the sister would continue.
“Yes, Sister,” I said with a forlorn look.
At this point if you weren’t prone to make any smart replies and looked mournful enough, the sister would soften and let you off the hook without a call to your home.
“Well then, try harder and make better use of your talents Mr.
Martin,” she would say with a smile.
“The children in China are all starving, you know. They would only hope to have half the things you have.”
“Yes, Sister,” I would say trying not to make a face.
‘I bet the kids in China don’t have to put up with half of this shit,’ I thought to myself.
“Well, get on with you then. I have other things to do,” Sister
Susannah would say with a dismissive smile.
Most of the members of this Order of Mercy were of Irish-American extraction. Guilt then, as a behavioral modifier, was honed to a fine science. To this day, I still have uncomfortable memories of threats and exhortations promising eternal damnation over minor transgressions.
Joseph Xavier Martin