There is no question that soldiers who endure the pain and humiliation of boot camp together form lifelong bonds for having endured the experience. Such bonds are only deepened by the intensity of combat in a war zone. Similar bonds are also formed among survivors of Catholic grammar school.
I’m often asked where my sense of humor (humour for my Canadian readers) comes from. Sure, I was born with it to some extent. But like many great comedians, it developed as a defense mechanism to cope with an unhappy childhood. Our Catholic school wardens were often cruel but our parents were not sympathetic. In hindsight I guess they paid handsomely for our torture, so the nuns were given a free pass. Plus it was the early 1980s, so “intentional infliction of emotional distress”, “PTSD”, and “Stockholm Syndrome” were not terms widely understood at home.
Now the majority of our teachers were completely normal teachers. It was the nuns who could make you pee your plaid jumper at the mere mention of your name. Even now I wake up with cold sweats (cold…keep your hot flash jokes to yourself) still thinking of some of the nuns who taught us in juvie.
I was reminded of Sister Anthony this week when I read many Facebook posts about the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Sister Anthony was a scary woman. She was skinny and quite frail looking, but make no mistake about it, she was well skilled in modern torture techniques. I’m fairly sure Dick Cheney trained with her in his formative years.
One of my icebreakers at cocktail parties is the pronouncement that I was once kicked by a nun. This may be why I don’t get many social invitations. I had committed the sin of putting my foot up on the wooden rail of my 100-year old desk, and she kicked me while admonishing that “ladies don’t sit like that.” Well, I’m pretty sure that “ladies” don’t go around kicking children either, but I had not yet discovered my inner Johnnie Cochran at that age. I don’t know what Pope Francis would say about Sister Anthony committing battery on an 11 year old, but it is a somewhat comforting thought that the conversation might involve excommunication.
She also thrived on intimidation. Now if you went to an average Catholic grammar school, you no doubt witnessed or experienced the traditional punishment of having your knuckles cracked with a wooden ruler. That was for lightweights. Sister Anthony used a car antenna. I remember when she first held it up, stroking and fondling it like Dr. Evil stroked Mr. Bigglesworth. (Not where you thought that joke was going, was it? Get your mind out of the gutter, you heathens.) She then paraded it up and down the aisles pontificating that it would be much more fun if it were like a weapon in a James Bond movie that fired bullets. Never mind that we were 10 & 11 year olds and probably not allowed to watch James Bond movies in the early 80s. I also question what movie night was like in the convent. Shouldn’t they have been watching “The Singing Nun” on their film projector?
Sister Anthony also famously gave out detention for having her wig knocked askew in a raucous gym class volleyball game. Her version of detention involved making boys (for some reason only the boys) report to the convent on a Saturday, and then locking them in a dark basement for 3 hours. And somehow our parents went along with this. Perhaps it had something to do with the Cold War or conserving energy after the oil crisis. It was somewhat fitting though, because I think 5th grade music class also involved learning show tunes and dressing as street urchins singing songs from “Oliver!” Only we were deprived of gruel.
Aside from the corporal punishment wing of my grammar school, there was the other kind of torture inflicted by the nuns—public humiliation.
I am thankful every day that cell phones and YouTube did not exist when I was in grammar school, and accordingly, there is no physical evidence that I once danced an interpretive dance with a tambourine and ribbons in church to Bob Dylan’s “Blowin in the Wind” accompanied by hippie Sister Ann on guitar. There was no escaping such performances. Church participation was required in some form, but only the cool kids got to be in the choir. If you didn’t make the choir, you were basically shunned like an Amish person wearing red. Thanks for making me tone-deaf Mom and Dad, and ruining any chance I had at being popular. I was left to sit in the church pews to mock the choir until I was given detention. So it’s all your fault I’m a social pariah.
I have to admit though, that Catholic school does teach you valuable principles. Diagramming sentences. Tambourine playing. How to cheat at bingo. The black market value of communion wine. And basically how not to suck as a human being. Like every school, there was one or two bad apples. But thanks to the miracle of Facebook, I’ve managed to reconnect all these years later with many of my classmates, and they are some of the most generous, decent, strong, and confident people I’ve ever met. Serving hard time does that to a person. Once you’ve been broken and publicly humiliated, you have nowhere to go but up.
I have a sudden urge to put flowers in my hair, break out some maracas and do an interpretive dance to “Kumbaya.”
[Ed. Note: This is dedicated to my St. James peeps for being some of the best people I’ve ever met. St. James peeps! Do the Humpty Dance!]