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The downstairs classrooms of my Catholic grade school were each painted a different color. All the walls were the same uneven stucco, a bump here or there calling out to me to run my hand over them. Sometimes in the rush to line up for morning prayers, an overzealous classmate would push me into the wall and a sharp stucco glob would jab me in the arm. The classrooms of the lower grades downstairs were each painted a primary color. The first grade classroom was the garish yellow of yield signs. The second grade room was a flat tomato red, and so on. Upstairs, where the upper grades were located, the walls were painted in soft pastels, the colors of babies rooms long forgotten.
I suppose the point was to stimulate your thoughts in the low grades, and calm you down when you reached adolescence. I was in fourth grade, one year away from that prized, magical transformation everyone thought happened the minute you set foot in the upper floor classrooms. The kids that had been downstairs with us the year earlier were now admired from afar because they became part of the “upper floor.” Last year, we played on the playground with them, sat together during mass, traded brown bag lunch items, gagged together over the snot-like tendencies of the cafeteria’s turkey gravy. But now, now they were the mythical dwellers of the second floor. They seemed surrounded by a glowing aura of maturity. How I longed to be one of them.
This was my second school year at St. Agnes. I was not Catholic, nor was any of my family. But my mother, disgusted with the state of the public system after my former elementary was decorated with used maxi pads, wrote a borderline bad-check for the first year of tuition, and plopped me down into these halls dedicated to Mary, Mother of God. I had cried for two weeks straight upon arriving. My plaid uniform was strange and itchy. I was mesmerized by the single thread of neon green that ran through the otherwise somber grey plaid. All the others kids in this school seemed to start each day with a heartfelt Our Father and Apostle’s Creed. I had no idea what they were talking about. Unaware of my two- grade higher reading level, the nun who was my teacher put me in the slow reader’s corner. This nun, when reading, pronounced the letter “a” sound in a word like “ah”, as in “Jack had ah ball.
At my old school, it was pronounced with a long sound, like “ay.” I burst into tears at my frustration over the two, and my mother was called into school for a meeting. She was called again when the nuns became unhappy about my slanted handwriting and the messy state of my cubbyhole desk. How in the world was I supposed to fit thick spelling, math, handwriting, and religion books into that little desk, anyway? My mother didn’t show for that meeting, sending a note with me instead informing the nuns of the migraine that prevented her from attending. The nuns sort of gave up on me after that.
I was always last in line as the classes queued up for Wednesday and Friday mass. We were required to line up with partners. I was consistently paired up with the only other non-Catholic in the class. Her name was Ling and she was a refugee from Cambodia. The church had taken in her family. When she and her family first came, our school held a clothing drive because Ling’s family had left Cambodia with just the clothes on their backs. Ling did not speak a word of English, and I was sure she was the only one beside me who had no idea who Art was and why he was with Our Father in Heaven.
During my first years at St. Agnes’, girls were required to cover their heads upon entering church. Some girls had lacy mantillas to wear, delicate head-doilies with bobby pins clipping it tight to their head. One girl had an antique mantilla that had been her grandmother’s when she attended St. Agnes. The girl’s name was Roberta, but everyone called her Robbie, the ultimate cool nickname. She was always picked to play Mary during the Christmas play. Her hair was long and cascaded over her shoulders under her head covering. My hair had been that long, until last year when my mother cut it off in her frustration at my lack of hair brushing diligence. My hair was now short, and my mother was always forgetting to give me back the one mantilla I had after she washed it. Sometimes when I forgot, the teacher would let me stay behind in the classroom while the others went to mass.
But my third grade teacher, appropriately named Mrs. Hunn, found it her personal duty to fill up the pews of St. Agnes with as many young minds as possible. Mrs. Hunn was small and dusty, but she was strong through the Lord, she liked to say. The two times I forgot my head covering, she made me use a Kleenex. I had to stand at the front of the class while she unfolded it and tried to make it stay on my head. It kept slipping off, so she doubled up scotch tape and stuck it to the Kleenex, then stuck it to my hair. Once she accidentally put her finger through the Kleenex and made a big hole. So, not only did I have a Kleenex on my head, but the Kleenex had a big hole, which, to me, is not really covering my head, so what’s the point?
The uniforms for St. Agnes were so thick and hard, I longed for the comfort of a burlap sack. In the hot summertime, these uniforms of boiled wool would stand on their own, regardless of having a body inside. Up until fifth grade, girls were required to wear a pinafore jumper skirt, which had a chest flap to cover up the idea of any boob potential. In fifth grade, the pinafore was shed and girls wore just a skirt and blouse. Boob potential became more a reality after fifth grade, so I never did understand the point of taking off the pinafore. The standard issue blue uniform blouses had a rounded collar and were consistently paper- thin. Repeated washings made them even more so, so by the end of the school year, girls were going around practically topless. But, in the name of modesty preservation, girls were required to wear thick white socks pulled to the knee. The only outlet for creativity was shoes. The kids expressed themselves through colored Converse high tops, or Nikes with bright swooshes.
One year, the rage was bright white Nikes with a blazing red stripe. I wanted a pair so bad. I begged for them for three months, and finally my dad took me to the store to get some. But they were sold out. Instead, he bought me a pair of cheap white canvas shoes and a red magic marker, and told me to be creative.
One year, the fashion rage was to put metal taps on the soles of your winter boots. The taps made a delicious clicking sound on the cold, waxed stone floors of St. Agnes, and during lunchtime it sounded like a symphony of percussion ringing through the halls. In our class, Robbie was the first to get taps, and the rest of us quickly followed suit. My dad tried to just stick RC Cola bottle caps into the rubber soles of my shoes, but they kept falling out at the least opportune moments. After much begging and pleading, he finally took my shoes downtown to the shoe store and had them put on real taps.
That was the same year I had Sister Mary Margaret for my homeroom teacher. She was an old nun and still wore a wimple. Sometimes you could see her hair and it was gray and stringy. She looked a lot like the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz. Sister Mary Margaret was not a mean teacher, but you could tell she had been around since the first Pope John Paul. It was always considered lucky to get Sister Mary Margaret for a teacher, though, because Sister Mary Margaret had narcolepsy. She would doze off at the drop of a hat, and would sleep for a good fifteen minutes at a time. The school principal, Sister Catherine Patience, told us that we were to simply continue with our lesson until Sister Mary Margaret wakes up, or, if that were not possible, we were to get out our rosaries and have Robbie the beautiful and perfect lead the class in a round of Hail Marys.
One beautiful spring day, just as Sister Mary Margaret was starting a lesson in prepositions, her head dropped to her desk, and the snoring began. It was her longest nap yet, and the classroom became restless. When it became evident Sister Mary Margaret might be out for a while, kids got up from their desks and milled around, visiting one another. One of the most popular boys in our grade, Matt Thompson, decided to sneak along the floor under Robbie’s desk and get a peek up her uniform skirt. He was under her desk, gesturing wildly to his friends, when Robbie reacted. Her shoe, with its metal tap attached, swung up and caught Matt square on the mouth. The metal tap became lodged in his lip. He was frantically trying to get it dislodged, but Robbie thought he was only being obscene. She screamed and jerked her foot away as hard as she could, taking Matt’s upper lip with it. Blood squirted in a high arc over the room and sprayed a red mist over Sister Mary Margaret’s white wimple. Kids were yelling, Robbie was crying, and Matt lay gasping in a heap on the floor, both hands covering his massacred mouth. Sister Mary Margaret awoke with a start, surveyed the scene of blood and panic laid out before her, and promptly passed out.
For the rest of that school year, the tap and mouth incident was all anyone could talk about. It was rumored that Robbie’s parents threatened to sue Matt’s parents, and then Matt’s parents sued Robbie’s family for medical expenses. I think it would have been a great ending to the story of Matt and Robbie and the tap and the lip if they had grown up and gotten married. What a story to tell the grandkids. But I have no idea what happened to Matt and Robbie, or any one else at St. Agnes’. The following school year, my mother, disgusted with the state of Catholic schools, plopped me right back into the public school system. I never wore a uniform again.
I visited a Catholic school a few years ago when I was looking into schools for my own children. Driven, just like my mother twenty-years ago, by the sad state of the local public school. I was surprised to learn that now only one in ten families there are actually Catholic. No one covered their head during mass. Some people even wore jeans. As I kneeled down, the kneelers were cushioned and thick, unlike my brief Catholic school days when the kneelers were solid wood and extra splintery. The kids were still in uniform, but they wore navy pants and white button down shirts. I laughed to look down and notice their bright colored Converse sneakers. No taps, though. Those were probably outlawed.
It is amazing how the smell of a Catholic church never changes, no matter where you are in the world. The thick smells of incense, wax, and age. I decided to stay for the entire mass. Nothing had changed in all those years. I still looked on while the parishioners filed before me and headed to the altar to receive Holy Communion. I felt both peace and nervousness of being somewhere where I don’t belong. At first I mouthed along during the Apostle’s Creed, and then I realized that I still remembered all the words.
write by Viva