Aug 16, 2017

31 Days of Gratitude: Day 16

Day 16:  Elementary School

My goal in elementary school was to get all As and be ranked number 1. I failed at that goal, but still managed to learn to read, write, and do math. I also (almost) learned a bunch of life lessons for which I'm grateful.

I went to Catholic school at a time when they were mostly staffed by nuns. The nuns in my elementary school were part of the Congregation of Notre Dame. Back then, the nuns wore heavy habits with a rather bizarre looking head dress (a white starched thing with a long pointed thing sticking out under their chins). I cannot imagine how miserable they must have been in the heat. We didn't call them "Sister Whatever", but rather "Mother Saint Whatever." The nuns weren't paid and lived rather spartan lives. Yet they did their jobs without complaining.

Looking back, each year had its special lesson:

1st grade:  I was very excited on that first day. I was wearing my uniform, a new navy blue jumper and white short sleeved blouse and finally was going to learn to read. This was the very first outfit I owned that was bought in a store and not sewn by my mom. I tried it on so often my mom finally took it out of my room, only to return it the morning of the first day of school. We had to be there for an 8:30 mass. I was ready by 7:00.

The church was across a small side street from the school, and we were to walk across the street after mass and gather in the school parking lot by grade. My brother was ahead of me by 3 years and he told me that my first grade teacher was "Mother St. Buck Tooth." Sure enough, I found her -- she must have been all of 20, clad in this heavy habit on a hot day after Labor Day. She was easy to spot as she, indeed, had a wicked set of buck teeth.

I wanted my teacher to know that I was smart enough to already know her name, so I walked up to her and said "Hi Mother St. Buck Tooth. I'm Joanie and it is my first day of school. I want to learn to read." It's been almost 60 years and I can still see her brief wince. She didn't yell at me, just bent down and said, "My real name is Mother St. Thomas. That another name is a bad name that we won't say again." Shut up Joan.

2nd grade: We went to mass as a class on the first Friday of every month. After one such mass, Mother Saint Zenias, who had just celebrated being a nun for 50 years, called me to the front of the class and yes, made me eat soap for talking in mass. Shut up again Joan.

3rd grade: A new girl showed up. That never happened. Her name was Liz and we became best friends, a friendship that lasted through the end of high school. Liz died last year. I wish I had know she was sick; I would have showed up. Friendship is everything when you are a kid.

4th grade: Something went wrong with our nun teacher. She got sick. No one told us what the problem was, but we went through 17 different substitute teachers that year. It brought out the crazy in all of us. That's my excuse for what I did.

I was terrified that I couldn't memorize the multiplication tables, so I brought mine with me to the math test and put it under my butt, hoping to cheat off it. I never got a chance to cheat because I couldn't figure out how to look at it without getting caught. However, the substitute teacher saw me trying to look under my butt at the sheet, and accused me of cheating.

How could I be guilty of cheating when I couldn't see the cheat sheet?? I sat there and told this imposter teacher that, at most, I could only be guilty of attempted cheating (I was a big fan of Perry Mason back then). I don't remember exactly what she said until the end of our conversation when she told me that she'd be keeping a close eye on me. Luckily, she disappeared only to be replaced by yet another substitute. Winning a case isn't always the best thing that can happen.

5th grade:  Mother St. Barbara Elaine let us have drinks in the hot afternoons. We were each assigned a day to bring in jugs of Kool Aid or plastic cups. None of the other teachers did that and we looked forward to it every day. We'd put away our work and she'd walk around pouring Kool Aid into each of our cups. We couldn't drink until the last kid had Kool Aid in his or her cup. Then she'd stand in front of the class with her cup, raise it up, and say, "To the Blessed Mother." And then we'd all drink the Kool Aid to the Virgin Mary in one big gulp. Adults can be interesting.

6th grade: I told my 6th grade teacher, Mother St. Joseph, that I was writing my life story and someday it would be a famous book. She told me that I was "vain." It was pretty clear by her tone that vanity was a sin. Shut up Joan.

7th grade: By then our class really was out of control. We had never recovered from the 4th grade debacle and a bunch of kids were way behind. And once again, our teacher disappeared and was replaced by numerous substitutes.

One substitute was Mrs. Larson. She told us we were incorrigible and was going to only teach us useful things since it was a waste trying to stick to a curriculum. She taught us little tricks to remember how to spell certain words -- for example: she taught us the difference between "principle" and "principal" by telling us to remember our principal is our "pal". Well our principal was some super scary nun and definitely not my pal, but I got the point.

She taught us fractions by bringing in pizza pies at lunch time. Mrs. Larson taught the boys how to tie a good knot in their ties and how to polish their shoes. At recess, she taught the girls how do double dutch. I learned more from Mrs. Larson than any other teacher in elementary school. There's more to school than books.

8th grade:  The great Northeastern blackout happened on the night before we were scheduled to take a science test. I hated science but I really wanted an A and planned on studying for hours. But the lights went out and it was dark, so I couldn't study. My father called home to tell my mom that he and other men were out with flashlights directing traffic and had heard rumors that the blackout was caused by the Russians bombing New York.

It was possibly the end of the world so I assumed that, between the Russians and the lack of light, the science test would be cancelled. When the lights went back on later that evening, I watched Peyton Place instead of studying.

Mother St. Catherine had other ideas and proceeded to distribute the science test. I raised my hand and reminded her that we couldn't be expected to study in the dark. I left out the Peyton Place part. Mother St. Catherine responded:"You don't wait until the last moment to study." I got a D. Don't wait until the last minute to do stuff.

*****

I'm grateful to this school and to the nuns that staffed it. It's a relic of the past. We had 40 kids to a class and probably outdated books, etc. We had no science labs, field trips, gifted education, special education, or anything fancy and I suspect some kids didn't fair well as a result. But I did ok. I graduated knowing how to read and write. And I eventually learned my multiplication tables. I'm still practicing when to shut up though.

11 comments:

  1. loved reading your parochial school story - i could go on with my memories but many of mine are really good memories except for one or two nuns - i got caught chewing gum and when she asked me if i had gum in my mouth i said "that's for me to know and you to find out!" don't remember my punishment from her, but boy did i get it from my dad about respect, and on and on!! loved my first grade teacher (sister judith) and named my favorite doll after her (judy). i too got an excellent education, in fact had the same order of nuns thru high school and college. grateful to the Franciscans in Wisconsin!

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  2. Love this retelling of your education with nuns. I went to Catholic school 1st-4th grade. Mom pulled me and my two older brothers out of Catholic school after attending all the board meetings and getting fed up with the "politics" of it all and how some families who were more financially secure than my parents never managed to pay their tuition but wanted to be in charge and make all the rules anyway!
    What I really loved was your 7th grade year. So clearly illustrates to me what was "right" about our education system growing up versus Common Core today. Or just the general system of teaching the kids how to take a test and pass it for fear of losing your job as a teacher.
    Thanks for sharing!

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  3. What stories! They tell a lot about you in your formative years. The making of Joan. I can't imagine Catholic school, but I did enjoy my grade school years and believe I learned more in those years than in every other year put together. The young mind is a sponge.

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    1. indeed it is!! glad you enjoyed grade school

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  4. I hope you NEVER learn to shut up, J.B.
    =]

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  5. You are just terrific and I wish I had known you as a kid!

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  6. I, too, went to Catholic Schools. It was the 60's and we still had lots of nuns, dressed as you described, but lay teachers, too. Every time you wrote "shut up Joan" I could easily substitute "Kathy". I got in so much trouble for talking. I got my hands rapped with a ruler for twisting my hair (nervous habit), and sent to the hallway for talking too much. There were always 42-52 kids ( I know because we were numbered alphabetically and I was a W so usually last or second to the last), mostly the same ones from year to year. We, too, had the year of a zillion substitutes when our teacher had problems with her husband. As a class, we weren't kind to our subs and they never lasted long. Of course, it probably would have helped if they had put certified teachers in our room and not just some other kids' parents. Despite everything , I learned. I became a teacher, then researcher, all because of my 5th grade teacher ( a first year teacher). Wish I could find her to thank her for teaching me to love research. I've made a career out of it and it's all because of her. Teachers can be so awesome, as are your gratitude posts. Thanks for sharing!

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  7. Oh Joan! What a story. Wonder if any of those nuns knew you became a talented writer, not to mention an attorney. BTW, I was a sub for many years, requested jobs in kindergarten or first grade and NEVER over 3rd! I always wondered why the older kids were so mean to subs. (I tried!) I loved the little ones, teaching reading and all the crafting! :-)

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  8. I was always in trouble for talking in school as well!

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  9. We were non-practicing Catholics, so not Catholic at all, and more than anything else in the world I wanted to go to Catholic school and be Madeline. But didn't. Thanks so much for sharing your tale. So many things to take away from it. Ha!

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