Wednesday, March 29, 2006
Nuns & Roses
I'm trying to remember the name of the nun who used to torture me during my lunch period at Our Lady of Angels cafeteria.
She was so horrible, so repulsive, that I guess I can't be faulted from blocking her name from my memory. Her face, of course, is another matter.
She was fat and seriously ugly, like a brahma bull in a nun's habit, and when she came lumbering into the cafeteria my stomach would tumble.
Sister Mary...? No. Sister Agnes...? No, can't get the name. Well, whatever her name was, if there's any justice in this world, she's rotting in hell right now and will continue to do so for all eternity.
The Play's The Thing
I recently saw the play "Doubt" by John Patrick Shanley, and while it was fantastic, it also brought back some toxically unpleasant memories.
The story takes place in a Catholic school in the Bronx during the 60's and except for a different borough, and a slightly different style of nuns' habit, everything looked frighteningly similar to my old grammar school.
There was the photo of the Pope on the wall, the old time loudspeaker from which the mother superior would supplant the voice of God and issue her holy orders of the day. There's a scene early on in the play, where a young nun tells the mother superior that she's teaching an art class to her students.
"Art class," the older nun sniffs disdainfully. "A waste of time."
That about sums the nun mindset, or least the nuns I had the great displeasure of meeting. If you've never went to Catholic school, I envy you. All the rumors, all the horror stories, all the funny-but-sick anecdotes that you've heard are true; even the ones that aren't.
These women really were horrible--for the most part--mean-spirtired, frustrated old hags who should not have been allowed to look at children, let alone teach them. They were the bullies in black, who ruled not out of a sense of dedication or love, but through fear and abuse.
They would hit the students, pull the girls' hair, basically do anything they wanted to make the children feel like dirt. It was like Parris Island for eight-year-olds. All of this was done in the name of God and discipline, but I don't recall seeing very much of either during my first five years of grammar school. All I saw was a lot of terrified kids, myself included.
Everything out of our mouths seemed to begin with the words "Sister says..." like "Sister says we have to use fountain pens." Every mistake, every little error was inflated to mass murder levels, so a kid who forgot his homework was made to feel like Josef Mengele, Ivan the Terrible and Ghengis Kahn all wrapped into one.
I haven't done any formal research on the matter, but to the best of my knowledge, no one ever died because a kid didn't have his pencils sharpened during math class.
And, of course, we had the catechism drilled into our heads all day long. We were forced to memorize these sing-song questions and answers, like Who made us? God made us. They got longer and more complicated, and more ridiculous as the year went on.
Sisters of Merciless
I remember my first grade teacher, Sister Rose Bernadette, who was actually semi-normal. My brother used to tease me by calling her "Sister Rose Berna-jet" which for some reason made me furious. I can't believe I'd defend a nun for any reason, but I guess it was a schoolyard version of the Stockholm Syndrome.
I spent so much time being afraid in those years. I once lost all my crayons, except for green, and I couldn't bear to tell anyone about this. When Sister Rose found out, she hit the roof.
Another year, I managed to drop this quizbook into the narrow space on the stairwell between the bannister and the wall. It fell some three flights to the basement, I suspect, but I wasn't going after it and I sure as hell wasn't going to admit that I lost it. I just went around with knots in my stomach fearing discovery.
I was always bad at math and one year we use to have recess right before math class and I always dreaded what would happen when recess ended and I had to answer, or try to answer, the sister's questions.
In the third grade I had Sister Joan Bernadette (no relation to Sister Rose, as far as I know) and she used to get on my case about my penmanship.
She once had me stand at the blackboard in front of the whole class so she could skewer me because of my handwriting. Finally, she screamed at me to go back to first grade where I belonged, and when I started walking to the door--doing what she just told me to do--she screamed all the louder because I wasn't trying.
If I had been a POW I would have received better treatment. I was a child, for Christ's sake, and while I shouldn't take the Lord's name in vain, Christ on a cracker, what the hell was wrong with these demented bitches?
Was it the lack of sex? Because I don't think a non-stop roll in the hay with best endowed porn star in creation would have helped these freaks, and I doubt if the even the most desperate XXX actor in the Western Hemisphere would want any part of that action anyway.
I remember when that fat sow in the cafeteria would stand over me and make me eat all that godawful food they severed, the sort of stuff that stray dogs would turn down.
One time my sister, who also went to this holy hell hole, bravely came over to the table and tried to defend me. The two-legged sow rudely waved her away and for that alone I'd like a chance to rearrange Sister Schweinhund's porcine mug with a baseball bat. Not too bitter, am I?
Meanest Mother of Them All
And then there was Sister Frances Josepha. Ah, Sister Francis, my fifth grade teacher. I don't want to be harsh, but the truth is Sister Francis should have traded her black habit in for a white straitjacket and relocated to a sanitarium in the Ural Mountains.
Completely out of her mind, this one. Not just mean, though she was that and then some, but also nuts. Bonkers, psycho, wacky, you pick the adjective. An overgrown infant who was given a position of authority, Sister Francis delighted in turning the kids against one another. Her favorite term was "bozo" when addressing students.
Sister Frances was obsessed with communists. Convinced the godless commies were going to invade any minute, she told this room full of fifth graders to keep our souls in pristine condition at all times because machine gun-toting Reds could burst into our classroom at any moment and mow us all down in a blazing hail of hot lead.
How these satanic cutthroats made their way to our school in Bay Ridge to assassinate the occupants of this particular class was never explained. I would think they'd arouse some attention on the R train, what with the guns and the accents, and I doubt they had money for a taxi. Didn't matter. You never questioned Sister Frances.
And to be fair, she ended that story with the line, "I'm not trying to scare you." Scare us? KGB mauraders are charging up the steps ready to kill us during recess. Don't be silly, sister. What's to be scared of?
Once during an American history lesson, we all turned our books to a page with a drawing of a vast army moving through the woods during the French and Indian Wars. They were about 20 across in the image and they stretched out to the horizon as they marched off to some battle.
"You see that?" Sister Frances said. "That's what the communists are doing right now."
Really? And where is this exactly? The Poconos? Are they planning to invade Mount Airy Lodge? They'll be awfully confused when they get a look at those heart-shaped bathtubs.
She once told us an allegedly true story about some bad young girl who somehow got involved with Satan--the real one, not some guy in a red-horned costume.
I forgot most of that tale, but the kicker was the girl died as she so richly deserved and the word "Hell" was emblazon across her chest, so she had to be buried with her breast covered. I guess it was kind of like the Evil One's luggage tag.
I remember bursting into tears during one of Sister Frances' classes. The particular reason escapes me--oh, memory, you're such a tricky bugger--but when you're a child under constant daily pressure, when every bleeding mistake or misstep is a horrendous crime you going to either start crying or start shooting. Luckily there were no gunstores in my neighborhood.
I stood there wailing and she gave an open-handed uppercut, not in the least bit painful, but as I type up this bad memory I am consumed with the fantasy of socking this wrinkled old bag right in the jaw and watching her tumble ass over tin cup across the smooth wooden classroom floor.
Another time I was at the blackboard and for whatever reason I didn't move fast enough, so she screamed "get over there!" and then sneered, "scared of your own shadow." Which, I was. But who made me that way, Sister Francis? You should have taken a long look in the mirror, assuming your god ugly puss wouldn't have shattered the poor glass into a million pieces.
Fear and Loathing in the Classroom
My mother went up to see this headcase on parent/teacher day and two seconds into the meeting, without any provacation, Sister Frances said, "if any student says I beat them, they're lying."
Duly noted, nut bag. Oh, and, by the way, you're a lying sack of sanctified cowflop.
That was a difficult year, fifth grade. I believe that was the year my grandmother died, and, a short time later, my parents split up for a brief, but agonizing period. My siblings and I were fighting a war on two fronts.
Later on in the year I was selected to be some kind of class president after the previous one was booted for dereliction of duty. I didn't want the job and I remember trying to make myself smaller as Sister Frances cast her vulture's eye around the room.
I could feel her heat vision on me before she stated my name--"Robert!"--and I knew I had been selected. Sort of like George Bush. I didn't want to rat out the tough kids, and I pretty much kept to myself, ignoring whatever meager responsibilities I had.
Some of the girls complained to me when I didn't put the bad kids in place, but I had enough problems without pissing off the local roughnecks.
It used to kill me to see how nuns were portrayed in movies and on T.V. They were always these saintly, soft-spoken, attractive (say what?) young women who were so holy they damn near glowed. Oh, for Christ's sake, I'd wail, what world are you dimwits living in?
Later on, Catholic school survivors began writing the truth, so we got plays like "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains it All to Do." That show is a little severe, even for a Catholic school survivor like myself, but it does blow the holy nun cliche to hell, where it belongs.
My 50th birthday is less than two years away and I know I should forget these episodes and forgive these awful women. But I can't seem to do it. I'm still angry, after all this time.
I blame my Catholic school education, my exposure to these freaks, for so many of my problems--my lack of confidence and self-respect; my inability to speak up for myself, to say I don't like something or I don't want to do something; and my insufferable desire to be liked no matter how much it costs me. I spent a lot of my life scared of my own shadow, for no goddam good reason, and it makes me mad.
The more I get to know myself, the more I see that I and most of the other kids in that class did not begin to deserve the abuse, scorn and humilation that was heaped upon us in the name of God, country and education. Even the bad kids back then weren't that bad.
Maybe it's a good thing that I've forgotten the name of that nun in the cafeteria. Maybe I should finally forget all the other pain associated with my Catholic school days and live in the time I have now. How long can I keep blaming my problems on those awful times? When do I take responsibility for who and what I am?
The past is nothing but shadows now, and shadows can do me no harm.