Chapter 1: Catholic Kids Make Great Faces
I went to Catholic school under protest. On my very first day, my parents had to get me out of the closet twice, pull me out from under the bed by my feet three times, and retrieve me from behind the sofa. Before I could escape again, my mother had my hand in a viselike grip and was leading me down the street.
We passed the Rosellis' little brick house and heard Mrs. Roselli's opera records playing. As usual, she was singing along at the top of her lungs, though her voice was hardly as steady as Caruso's.
After the Rosellis', my mother and I both walked off the sidewalk to dogleg the Santinis' house. Their house was the only one on the block that didn't have grass growing between the sidewalk and the curb. That was because everybody walked there. The Santinis' house had a four-foot-high hedge surrounding it. Their son Pauli was usually hiding behind that hedge, ready to get an innocent passerby with a water balloon, spitball, snowball, pile of leaves, or whatever seasonable prop might be available. Even when people knew that Pauli wasn't home, they walked as far away from the hedge as they could get. It was best just to stay in the habit.
Pauli wasn't behind the hedge this morning. He wasn't even awake yet, since he went to public school and didn't have to be there for another hour and a half. The nuns had kept Pauli long enough for him to make his first communion. They then felt that they had fulfilled their duty to him and asked his parents to remove him from Catholic school. He was going to third grade at Franklin Public School three blocks away. If I ever got up the courage to actually talk to Pauli, I'd ask him exactly what he did to get out.
Appearing at the corner were another mother and child. I took heart. At least I wasn't alone in this. My mother noticed them too. "That's Mrs. Minelli and her daughter Sandra," she told me, sounding more relieved than I felt. "They live two blocks over." I'd never seen her before because I was only allowed to play on my own block. "Sandra will be in your class."
Mrs. Minelli and Sandra hadn't noticed us. Mrs. Minelli was busy retying the bows on Sandra's long blond pigtails. When we got to the corner, Mrs. Minelli looked up. "You must be Mrs. Cascone," she said to my mother, "and..." she looked at me.
"Gina," my mother told her. "And I'm Shirley."
"Beatrice Minelli," she introduced herself. "And this is Sandra," she presented her daughter, clearly expecting applause.
"Hi," I mumbled.
"Hello." Sandra smiled widely. "Aren't you excited? I am."
I shrugged. There was something wrong with one of us. I wasn't sure which one.
Meanwhile, my mother and Mrs. Minelli had established the fact that they had both gone to Catholic schools not far from one another. "Do you remember a Sister Agatha?" Mrs. Minelli asked. "She was transferred from your school to mine."
"Remember her." my mother shook her head, smiling. "How could I forget her? That one was something else." It was the same voice she used when she said that I was something else the day I made a spiderweb in the hallway with my bubble gum, sticking it and pulling it from wall to wall. I couldn't wait to hear about Sister Agatha.
"Yes," Mrs. Minelli answered, "she really is something special. I have her over to dinner quite frequently. Maybe you would like to come over sometime and see her again."
"That would be nice," my mother lied.
Sandra was still smiling. I couldn't go through with this. But it looked like it was too late; a bus turned onto the street about five blocks down.
"Looks like this is it." My mother patted my shoulder.
Not quite, I thought, devising a surprise attack. I knew that my mother was overly confident that this ordeal was over. I played on that. As the bus approached, I stood there sheepishly. When the bus was halfway down our block, I threw my lunch box at my mother and tore off toward home. I was fast, particularly when my adrenaline was running. While my mother was busy chasing me, the bus left without me. I got home before she did and locked her out of the house. But, having planned this on the spur of the moment and under acute pressure, I had neglected to take into account the fact that my father was still in the house. It was an impressive fight for freedom, but I was outnumbered. They took me alive. My father had to drive me to school, under ever-darkening skies. We had a terrible storm that day. I was sure it was an omen.
I sat in the car, watching my father out of the corner of my eye. Though his cheeks were throbbing the way they always did before a verbal explosion, his voice was calm. "Don't you want to go to school?"
Brilliant deduction. But then he is a lawyer, I told myself. You can't get anything past him. "No, I don't want to go to school," I pouted. I was furious that it had taken him this long to catch on to that fact. However, it had taken him and my mother both at least ten minutes to find me under the bed -- the third time.
I didn't answer.
"Is it the nuns?"
My stomach turned over inside me. I didn't want to be left alone with nuns. The only time I ever saw them was in church and they were always mumbling words that I didn't understand. How would I communicate with them?
My father had been watching for my reaction to the question and he must have seen my face pale at the mention of nuns. "Why are you afraid of the nuns?"
"I don't understand them."
Looking back, I don't think my father realized that I was worried about a language barrier. He thought my statement was more profound. After all, he didn't understand nuns either. "Ah, well," he hesitated, "there's nothing to be afraid of. Really, nothing at all. You'll see. Have I ever lied to you before?"
He'd told me it wouldn't be so bad having my tonsils out. And he'd promised that I'd just love fried peppers. But I was in no mood to listen to a speech on his integrity so I shook my head no.
We drove through the huge wrought-iron gates onto the expansive grounds of Saint Lucy's. I wondered if they closed those gates once all the kids were inside. We came to a stop in front of an enormous building. Farther down the path was another large white building and beyond that, the palatial-looking stone convent.
"You want me to park the car and come with you?" my father offered.
I shook my head no.
"You'll be all right?"
I nodded, reaching for the door handle.
"Don't I get a kiss?"
I leaned over and gave him an indifferent peck on the cheek.
He accepted my lack of affection and reached around me to unlock my door. He really overestimated me. I did a lot to keep from going to school, but I wouldn't have jumped out of a moving vehicle. He flung open the door and I slid out and slammed it shut behind me.
I didn't watch him drive away. I was absorbed in the scene that confronted me, of which I'd become a part. Uniformity. Tall kids, short kids, fat kids, skinny kids, all upholstered identically. I looked down at myself, then back up at the group milling around in front of me like zombies. I'd hated that uniform the first time I saw it; but now that I'd gotten the full effect of dozens of them before my eyes, I learned to loathe it.
Uniforms put a damper on summer. They had to be ordered in July. And the way kids grow, we all needed new ones every year. So every July I had to relinquish the sheer joy and abandon of summertime to be dragged to the store for an afternoon. Of course I wasn't alone in this. Kids from Catholic schools all over the city endured it. We never looked at each other while in the store. There was an unspoken ethic among us that we maintain our strength and dignity by not sharing our suffering. Whenever I looked around the store, I was sure I saw a number of unattended adults hanging around the uniform department. I knew why they were there -- to catch the free show. Some of the most expressive faces in the world can be seen in the uniform department of clothing stores. The dressing room door would open and out shuffled the condemned child dressed in the drab gray and maroon, or gray and blue, or gray and green plaid. The scene that ensued was always the same.
"Mom," I would call in a whisper, not wanting to draw any attention to myself or come too far out into the store where other people might see me.
My mother never responded, she was always too busy collecting the necessary accessories: five white blouses; five pairs of gray socks; two gray sweaters; two bow ties; one beanie, hold the copter.
My eyes rolled back into my head, my hand slapped my cheek Jack Benny-like. "Mom," I called again in a sharp whisper. Mom continued about her business, oblivious to her mortified child. "Mo-ther," I hissed, finally capturing her attention.
"Oh, good." She smiled. She knew she was walking on eggshells. "Come here. Let me see how it fits."
My upper lip curled up like a vicious dog. "You come here," I warned.
She tried to humor me. She came over, kneeled down, slipped her fingers into the waistband to make sure there was enough room, tugged on it to straighten it out.
"What does it matter if it fits?" I growled. "I look like a jerk anyway."
"Now it's not that bad," Mom consoled.
My face said otherwise.
"Look." Mom dragged me over to the three-way mirror -- a big mistake. "It looks kind of cute."
"You really think so, Mom?" I asked, wide-eyed.
Mom was relieved. She thought she was making headway. All she had to do was keep a straight face while she lied. "Sure."
"Good." I scowled. "We'll buy it for you. Because I'm not wearing it!"
Feeling a twinge of guilt for insulting my intelligence by lying, Mom nonetheless resorted to plan B. "You know, you should just be happy that you don't have to wear the kind of uniforms I did when I was in school," she reprimanded.
"I'd just be happy if I could go to public school like a normal person." Pauli popped into my mind, and I realized that I was grasping at straws.
"Don't start. Your father and I want to give you a better education. We want you to be someplace where you won't get lost in the crowd."
"That would be easier in prison. The uniforms are nicer there too. And I'll bet the food is better. And if you don't want to eat it, nobody's going to give you a lecture on the people who are starving in China."
Mom was laughing by now. She remembered. She knew how many times I'd heard her talking to her friends about their school experiences and fondly referring to the school as "the prison camp."
It didn't take me long to understand how accurate that image was. I often thought about war and prison movies where they put the hero in solitary confinement and you see him sitting there bouncing a ball off the wall, doing push-ups, pacing the cell. He does all these things in an effort to hang on to his ever slipping sanity in the face of constant denial and betrayal of human needs. The scene is an impressive testament to the durability of the human spirit. The classroom scene was comparable; a room full of children sitting in straight rows for hours on end, moving only as commanded; no ball, no push-ups, no talking, even to yourself.
The prisoners in the movies communicated by tapping on the cell walls. We had a system too -- faces. I was surprised how eloquent a face can be. Of course, like the prisoners, we could communicate only along our own row. Turning around or making any gestures was just too risky. We couldn't even use cliché faces. For instance, you'd never stick out your tongue. If Sister happened to be using her rear-view vision while she was writing on the board and saw somebody stick out his tongue, she'd know what was going on. Our way, the most she could think was that we were sick, or better yet, that she was breaking us.
There were, however, hardships that even communication would not assuage, suffering that could not be alleviated. There was no way I was going to raise my hand and ask the person who gave the third degree about going to the bathroom: "Sister, may I please get up and walk around for a while because my behind is asleep?" Instead, I'd sit there saying to myself, "O God, no. This is it; the beginning of the end. No, the end of the end. How can I joke at a time like this? My body is beginning to atrophy." My mother told me that my brain would do that if I watched too much television. I won't be able to get in line for lunch. Then I'll starve to death in this godforsaken place. Good! Then I'll be out of my misery and my parents will finally believe me and be sorry that they did this to me. But the lunch bell rang and I slid out of my seat ever so gently to deter the onset of pins and needles. My brow was knit, my teeth clenched as I lifted myself out of the seat. The other kids knew what was wrong. It was a common malady. My legs buckled for a second, but I managed to get to the back of the room -- last in line.
I never knew why we all rushed to get to the front of the line for lunch anyway. It was no reprieve; not even the lesser of two evils. The food was no worse than any other cafeteria really; just the standard, green-rimmed pork roll, the bottomless pit of mashed potato flakes, the watered soup, and stale bread and cakes. And every day we all stood and asked God to bless it. I'll tell you, for someone who could change water into wine and five loaves and a couple of fish into a repast for a multitude, the results we got were somewhat disappointing. The pork roll stayed green and tasted it as well.
And, as if we didn't have enough trouble getting this down, one of the nuns always had some grievance that she felt needed airing. Their favorite lunchtime dissertation was "What clogged the toilet?" This one came around once a month. The funny thing was that we were never exactly told what had clogged the toilet. No, of course not; it would have been far too easy that way. We had to sit there and "imagine," as we were commanded, how mortified Sister was when the plumber showed her what had caused the problem. How certain articles of feminine protection are not flushable. The way she described the condition of the bathroom, you would think that she had witnessed the scene of the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre. She pointed out the trauma that one of the younger children would have suffered had one by chance gone into that appalling bathroom. During one of these lectures, my classmate Dianne Luca leaned over and whispered to me "watch this." She punctuated Sister's point by throwing up right on the table. Actually she only spit out her mashed potatoes. She winked at me. Dianne and I would get along just fine.
Once, years later, Sister felt that she wasn't having the desired impact on us. She made us all line up right in the middle of lunch and file through the bathroom to see it for ourselves. Now, a toilet whose water level has run amok is a particularly unimpressive sight. After experiencing it, you can hardly expect to eat with the gusto you would if you had been looking over, say, the pastry cart. And let's not forget that we came back to the green pork roll, which I would gladly have flushed except that it would have clogged the toilet.
That day I'd really had it. I got up with my tray, making sure the path to the garbage can was clear of nuns. As I dumped the tray, I heaved a sigh of relief, then spun on my heels to return to my seat. But who was standing behind me but Sister Michael -- hardly the archangel. Sister Michael was a lot like Zorro; always appearing out of nowhere, without a sound, ready to do battle. She was all dressed in black, and if she didn't have the mask, she did have a better mustache. "Young lady," she said, "do you know that there are people starving in China, people who would be grateful for the food you waste?"
An alarm went off in my head. "Enough. I'm not going to take any more. Let them expel me. Let my parents do anything they want to do to me. After this, anything is better." I looked right through Sister's glasses into her eyes. "Gee whiz, Sister," I answered her, "I thought of that myself and I was going to mail them my lunch. But then I figured that those poor people have suffered enough." She walked away as though she hadn't heard me. She must have known I was pushing for expulsion.
I returned to my seat to wait for the after-lunch, thank-you-for-this-great-meal-God prayer. Then we lined up to go out to the exercise yard. That was where we learned to play like "nice" children. Every class had a patrol girl, whose duty it was to keep order and avert riots. An effective way of doing this was to see that the entire class was involved in one game. Never hide and seek; always things like jump rope, where once again you found yourself standing in line forever. When Catholic kids grow up, you will find that they are particularly good standers-in-line. They'll stand on line in supermarkets until their frozen fish is swimming again, without one word of complaint.
We went through rigorous training learning not to complain. After all, Jesus was crowned with thorns, scourged at the pillar, forced to carry the cross to Calvary, and crucified. And all He had to say about this was, "Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do." That made us feel a little guilty complaining about the discomforts we had to endure, like not being excused to go to the bathroom until we were certifiably jaundiced. The infuriating part was that we couldn't even take Jesus' attitude -- because according to the nuns, nuns were not in need of forgiveness. Anything they did to us was only to make us better Catholics. Like the Lord, nuns work in mysterious ways.
Copyright © 1982 by Gina Cascone