(A Summer Re-Run…Originally published on Exquisite Corpse)
My friend from up the street, who shall remain nameless so I won’t get her in trouble for telling you this (her name is Linda Paglione), just moved up to this area full time after growing up in Brooklyn, NY. She started this past school year by putting her little boy in the local Catholic school, 1st grade I think it was. She wanted a firm hand with this little hellion; bear in mind, this is the kid who nicked me for like, 75 cents out of my change dish one day when they were visiting and when she confronted him, he lied through his baby teeth and refused to give it back. Ruffian.
Anyway, with what seemed like perfect logic to me, she shipped him off to the Nuns. Having been sentenced to 12 years of Catholic school myself in my younger days, I was well aware of what lay ahead for the poor kid. But hey, it was for his own good. A yard stick across the back never hurt anyone; well, it hurt me, but that’s beside the point. So imagine my surprise when I saw her not long ago and she told me the kid was back in public school. I asked her why.
“Listen to this,” she said, the disbelief still in her voice, “they called me up one day and said that he had hit another little kid and that he needed discipline. So I said, ‘So discipline him! You’re the Nuns, hit him with a yardstick or something.’ They said they don’t do that anymore. Why should I pay all that money if they won’t even punish the kid when he does something wrong? So I put him back into public school.”
Well, I just couldn’t believe it, so I went straight away to Our Lady of the Church 2 Streets Up On The Left to find out what was going on. The school still looked the same; it was like someone had taken Joliet Penitentiary and plugged it into the side of a Church. There was an older Nun standing on the side steps. As I walked up to her she saw me and dropped something on the step and ground it out with her heel. A thin wisp of smoke drifted from the corner of her mouth and she swallowed hard. Tears came into her eyes.
“Good Morning Sister Mary Ellen.” I said, my voice rising and falling in that same sing-song cadence that little kids use when a teacher walks into the room. It had been a lot of years, but I still knew that face. Sister Mary Ellen, my third grade teacher. I was sure she couldn’t forget me; how well I could recall all those happy days we spent together in class 3-D, practicing penmanship and getting whacked every time I came up with a wrong math answer. But she was a demon on the kickball court…good legs and that billowing Habit made it impossible to tell which direction the ball was going to go. I still carry a shin scar from getting a bit too close to her in the heat of a game.
She looked at me blankly. “Do I know you?” she asked, wiping the tears from her eyes.
“Sure!” I said brightly, “Don’t you remember your favorite student?”
She eyed me balefully. “My favorite student was Marcia Fieldham. She was wonderful…quiet, intelligent, and courteous. That is, until she graduated from Notre Dame and went into the Adult video business. But never mind that, who are you?”
I told her my name, and then said, “I guess it’s hard for you to remember everyone who went through your classes. You’ve been doing this a long time.”
“No,” she replied, “I pretty much remember all my students, except the really colorless ones. I’m sorry, I’m sure you’ll come back to me.”
“Yes, well, at any rate, I was hoping you’d answer a few questions for me about they 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 Halliburton 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,” she warned. 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 long 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?” I asked doubtfully.
“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,” I agreed, ” 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. A student didn’t do what you wanted and it was off to the Cooler…uh, Principle’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 Principle? 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.”
“You’re praying now?” I asked, amazed at her capacity for multi tasking.
“Yep,” she answered proudly. “You get used to it after 40 years of being a Nun.”
“Wow”, I was impressed.
She glanced at her watch. “Well, my child, I have a recess to monitor. It’s been lovely to see you again.” she paused,” You realize, this is all on background don’t you? I don’t want to see this in print anywhere.”
“Sorry, Sister,” I answered smugly, “you should have told me that before. It’s public domain now.”
I don’t remember much after that. The ER doctors told me that I was found in a ditch behind the school, beaten and stomped to within an inch of my life. But the thing that confused them most was a splinter of wood they found in my back that looked a lot like a piece of a yardstick.