Friday, January 17, 2014

The Silver Lining of Catholic School Closings

So the diocese looked at its data recently and decided among about a dozen or so others to close my old grammar school. It's a sad weird sensation at first but upon further review as they say in the NFL, if it saves just one kid it will all be worth it. Saves one kid from what? my imagined reader asks. And as I let down the Hallmark movie filter we tend to slap over our childhood memories my guts go to a knot and I recall the dread that seized my first grade class any time we had a substitute. Our teacher was a large matronly woman with an unspellable Polish name that concluded in an orgy of z's y's and I think a c stirred in somewhere too. She wasn't mean or unkind but she wasn't warm or nurturing either. She moved up and down the aisles barge like at about one knot with an air of impending disapproval that made us try extra hard to earn her thin cool smile. But compared to Sister Charlene, Sister Chuck the big kids on my bus who swore and spit out the windows called her, Mrs. ---zxxzxzc was a ray of warmth and a hug and a beam of pure sunshine. Sister Charlene, if I can recall her grim scowling visage, resembled Popeye with a veil jammed down over his forehead. She moved quickly and with decisive violent action often hiking up the sleeves of her habit in the fashion of a bar fighter about to start throwing haymakers. In my mind's tortured eye I still see a chin wart and not your basic denuded one dimensional carbuncle but one of those gnarly Bactrian affairs with wiry hairs jutting from between its crags. Though her leitmotif favored Popeye she was not far removed from the Seahag. 

In Sister Charlene's life there was one particular cross she found unbearable : a young child's messy desk. It must have spoke to her of deeper and darker sins on a plane none of us at the impressionable age of 5 or 6 could fathom. Sister Charlene I believe must have agreed with Mel Brooks whose Moses stumbled and dropped a tablet, recovering quickly to announce that he was bringing the 15, errr,10 commandments down from Sinai for his peeps to have a look at. I am not sure what the other 4 could have been but I know Sister was convinced an unkempt desk was the express gateway to  a life of venality and birth control could not be far behind. On a given day with a substitute, Sister Charlene would appear at our door like a specter with a venomously saccharine smile inviting our sub to go have coffee or make a phonecall for a few minutes. To the sub it was a colleague showing a little appreciation for the help. But we knew better. She was methodically removing any possible witnesses to her forthcoming acts of brutality. Sister Charlene would then begin the inspection of desks peering over our shoulders and complimenting the high strung type A kids whose items were neatly stacked and organized in 2 little piles, pencils, crayons and rulers laid out perpendicular to them. Her praise was syruppy and it sounded like someone who'd been forced to pay a compliment to a sworn foe. If you listened between her manly breaths you could hear her true annoyance. Order and correctness were not what she came to find. She had her guns sighted on disorder and chaos. In other words, me.

And it didn't take lone before she hit paydirt, grasping Joey Leone's desk with both hands and hefting it almost to a clean position then tossing it forward with a grunt and in one continuous violent motion yanking back on it and flinging all of the contents across the floor. Sister would then slam the desk to the ground and eviscerate its owner with a gorgon's eye. Now pick that up, she'd hiss with unbridled malice. And put it back the right way. She'd scowl at the terrified 5 year old as he scrambled out of his chair mortified that all of his stuff had been spewed across the tiled floor for his classmates to see. She would then proceed to the next victim and repeat the process. If there were 11 messy desks they were all going to be upended and if there were only 3 or 4 that was fine too. I think she liked it when there were more. She was definitely getting off on this in some twisted perverse way that none of us, thankfully could even imagine at our age. And once when the hapless quiet overweight girl with the standing bathroom note tried to use it as a Mulligan to escape Sister Charlene's wrath the nun denied her. We were stunned. Everyone knew Doreen had an authorized any time bathroom note and we all assumed I guess that it might have had something to do with her size. She was a pretty big kid, but sweet and gentle and quiet. You'd never have a problem with her and you'd never dream of being mean to her either. Unless of course you were Sister Charlene. Doreen looked as stunned as we felt when her request was denied. She sat back down in her seat and tears began to stream down her cheeks. She wasn't going for drama it was purely involuntary, the kid had no option but to sit in her chair and cry in the face of unprovoked cruelty from an adult in a religious habit. The crying enraged Sister Charlene further. Instead of admitting her gaffe or showing some humanity she yelled at Doreen and accused her of faking for sympathy assuring her that it wasn't going to work this time. Implied of course was that Doreen was an evil manipulative little wretch and the adults in her life were simple gulls who'd betray Jesus without a second thought over a few tears from a duplicitous first grader. 

Naturally my desk had its turn in the pantheon of shame and if God gave me a gift for comic relief, as I believe he did, it was in full view this day. Among the papers, army guys, football cards and cough drops flying through the air there was also a full glass jar of Miracle Whip. To everyone's amazement the jar hit the ground on its lid and did a crazy duck walk of a roll across the entire width of the room before coming to a rest against the wall with a b flat clunk. My classmates erupted in shocked spontaneous laughter. Sister Charlene looked as if she might have soiled herself. What? I think I recall her croaking. What? What? As if the unlikelihood of such a projectile flying from my desk had snatched her breath from her. My classmates continued to roar with relief and hilarity as the outrage of a glass jar of Miracle Whip sailing through the air of their classroom rippled through everyone's imagination. When she finally composed herself the old crone seemed a little off her game. It seemed as if this unexpected moment of mirth had somehow stolen her momentum from her. Why is that in there? she asked. 

Well, two reasons actually. Neither of which I was about to share with this creature. Number one is we were all handed a slip of paper one day for what the PTO lady called a "pantry shower" for the sisters. I had never heard of such a thing and when my sister told me the slip said "salad dressing" I knew what that should look like. But when my parents handed me the jar of miracle whip I somehow feared they'd got the wrong thing. Are they idiots? This crap is what you make tuna fish and deviled eggs with. I've never seen anybody put this on a salad I thought. So I was reluctant to expose my parents for idiots to the likes of Sister Charlene and the rest of her nun housemates. There was another reason too. While I might have been 5 at the time, my County Cork DNA contains somewhere in the area of 800 years of doing battle with bullies in positions of authority. It would be a cold day in hell before I'd hand over a jar of anything to the likes of that old bat. I think I used the second reason to comfort me in my dilemma over the first reason. So what if my parents don't seem to know what salad dressing is, Sister Charlene doesn't deserve any presents after the way she treats us. And after seeing how she'd abused and terrorized the harmless, passive Doreen my DNA was in full boil. It was for that thing, I said, where we were all supposed to bring food for you. I see the look I had on my face in the visage of my first grader son Ronan when he has had it with someone's nonsense. I squinted my eyes the way he does and jutted my little freckled jaw, tightened my shoulders and like Ronan does, I totally forgot to breathe. The pantry shower ? she snarled. I glared back at her. Yes. Well why is it in your desk? she asked, was she trying to de-escalate now, did I discern a softening in her tone? Because I didn't have time to fill it with broken glass, cat crap and rat poison I wanted to tell her. I guess I forgot about it, I said with an "up yours" shrug. She arched her eyebrow with that revelation and maybe, who knows, realized I was telling her to bugger off. I really didn't care at this point, she was so far across the line even I knew it. Sister Charlene walked across the room as I gathered my spelling tests all 100%s with stickers by the way, my plastic army guys, cough drops and crayons and stacked my books and notebooks in the expected twin towers with a gap in between for holy cards and special intentions. Our sub returned and glanced oddly at the post orgasmic nun clutching a jar of miracle whip, thanked her for the break and Sister Charlene left. 

If I were to come across a teacher  -- man or woman -- treating 5 and 6 year old babies the way that nun did us it would probably take divine intervention to keep me from bouncing their head off the blackboard. I had no question then and I have none now that Sister Charlene was a deeply disturbed human who enjoyed terrorizing and abusing children. She wasn't there for too long either as I recall but I don't ever remember any incidental gossip involving her which is nothing short of shocking. I think the fact that she was careful to clear the area of adult witnesses probably extended her reign of terror somewhat. Recently I read a bizarre revisionist letter to the editor fondly if confusingly recalling the harsh treatment he received at the hands of thugs hired to teach him. The guy's logic was that it was good to be abused by adults because it will prepare you for the same kind of cretins later in life. Or it may condition you to accept more abuse as you never learned the mechanics of standing up to a bully even if it cost you a butt kicking. I am still sad in a detached nostalgic way that my school is closing. It was fun sneaking beer with the other stage hands  in eighth grade during practice for the Christmas play. Yes, a parent's group had inexplicably stashed several cases of 16 Ozers in the store room off stage. Nobody but about 6 of us had any idea it was back there. There were a lot of fun times back in the days of Father Doyle who'd take the stage after said Christmas play and tell us he was a little disappointed in our Christmas Spirit and he didn't want to see any of us again til next year, canceling our last day of school sometimes without a heads up to our teachers or the Principal. The cool teachers celebrated with us and the control freaks pulled at their hair for the sake of their plan books being off by a day.  He didn't do it every year but more often than not he did. Imagine an entire gym filled with repressed Catholic school kids being told they were going to start their vacation in about 5 minutes instead of 24 hours and 5 minutes. It was bedlam at best. God Bless Father Doyle who built that school more by sheer will than by the holy spirit's guidance.  

But with the bad goes the good and for every Father Doyle there's a Sister Charlene lurking in the shadows. So I will temper my sadness for the closing of my school with the relief that any vestigial Sister Charlenes prowling the aisles of the schools to be closed will have to turn their energies to other work, who knows maybe even something useful to mankind in a state prison somewhere.  


  1. Rumor has it Sister Charlene's zombie is working for the Danielson Group, making sure that no teacher with a messy habit of not totally controlling all 45 minutes of a lesson gets anything above "developing" on their evaluation.

  2. I kinda thought Sister Charlene had returned when Folasade Oladele almost made every admin at City Hall pee their pants on a daily basis! Wonder if Oladele was checking desks and throwing them around during her reign of terror? "Mugsy" Guinn seemed made of the same stuff and had the same effect on the WNEDers. LOL, Mr Crowley. I almost started biting my nails again, as I did to sooth my fear in a first grade very similar to yours. Time for all of us grown ups to stand up to the 'Sister Charlenes' in our profession. Wonder how Bob Wilmers looks in his nun's habit? Does he self-flagellate in his kinky chateau in France? Will he encourage the TFA'ers to wear special TFA scapulars under their clothing? In case they get into trouble in the classroom, the scapulars on their bodies can direct the authorities to call Wendy Kopp!