Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Catholic school vs. art...

Some of you may have had wonderful experiences attending Catholic school, though I've yet to hear anyone I know use those exact words to describe it. My own experience began in first grade, just before my sixth birthday, and ended after seventh grade, when I finally convinced my parents to please, please, please let me go to public school. Of course, my begging had nothing to do with it. My dad, who was not Catholic, was more than happy to put an end to the tuition bills, followed by the constant pleas for money for all of those things that tuition didn't cover.

When I think back to my grade school years, I often wince. I am well aware that while youth has many wonders, it is also filled with cruelty and anxiety, no matter where one goes to school. One expects it of children, but that the nuns contributed to my misery during those years I have no doubt. That I had any confidence to pursue a life and a career in art after the experience is a testament to the resiliency of youth and the power of the artistic spirit.

In first grade,it was primarily my printing which was criticized as sloppy, even after extensive practice. Oh, and my desk was a disaster. I would periodically be asked to stand, while Sister John Anthony lifted my desk, tipped it sideways, and emptied the contents onto the floor. I suppose I should be grateful that she didn't dump out the contents with me still sitting in it, but my humiliation as I had to collect my pencils and neatly return my books to their cubby left no room for gratitude.

In second grade, when I had finally mastered printing, we had to learn cursive, and I was equally bad at it, according to Sister Ann. Even my 75-cent, school-issue yellow Palmer Method pen could not save me from her wrath. I actually had no difficulty MASTERING penmanship. My problem lie in the way Mr. Palmer decided that left-handed people should position their paper and pen, but there was no convincing Sister Ann that I knew more than the man who invented these handwriting lessons and had a pen named after him.

In third grade, Sister Rita, a cranky red-haired nun with a canker sore and a perpetual clump of spittle on her bottom lip, would make us sit with our palms down on our desks for ten full minutes each day, which was an eternity to this eight-year old. I always needed to move my hands. I wanted to grab a pencil, scratch my nose, anything but keep my hands still. According to Sister Rita, my inability to master this discipline indicated that I was a thief. I prefer to think that it was my artistic nature that made me want to constantly be DOING something with my hands. Fortunately, I did not pursue a life of crime in spite of Sister Rita's summation of my character.

In fourth and fifth grades, I had lay teachers, which probably explains why I don't recollect those years as painfully. Although Mrs. Clampett, my fourth grade teacher, did make me sit with chewing gum on my nose one day when I was caught chomping away in class. Public humiliation was by far the most widely practiced (and effective) method of discipline at dear old St. Patrick's. Ms. Como's fifth grade class actually held a positive artistic memory. I remember winning a pumpkin decorating contest -- actually, I think it was a tie between me and Eddie Skelly, who was not happy at all to be sharing accolades with a girl who chose to adorn her pumpkin with false eyelashes, lipstick and my mom's wig. (Yes, my mom had a wig. It was 1974!) She was one pretty pumpkin, I do recall! -- I was referring to my contest entry in that statement, though my mom was quite attractive as well.

And this trip down memory lane would not be complete without mention of Sister Vincent, who decided after she had finished reading our first book reports, to call us to her desk, one by one, and publicly torture us, in uniquely violent ways, for our miserable writing skills. In my case, as with many of my female classmates, she decided to pull on a fistful of my long hair, yanking my head dangerously close to the corner of her desk. You might think that the boys, with regulation-short haircuts, might have gotten off easy, but she chose to shake them by the shoulders until they lost their equilibrium and their heads were bouncing off the chalk board. I'm sure that's what motivated me to become a better writer. Incidentally, my dad (a state trooper at the time) paid a visit to the principal's office after hearing about this incident, and while Sister Vincent verbally abused us in many creatively evil ways for the remainder of the year, she never again laid a hand on any of us.

While I did time in Catholic school for one more year in junior high, the climate was very different from my grammer school, so my story will end here today.


Liz Ness said...

As I read through, I began to wonder when this took place...what horrible behavior those teachers exhibited! I see that it was in the 70s when it wasn't okay anymore(though, I don't believe it was ever okay). I am so glad you survived that and so sorry that any kid ever had to endure it! Just horrible!

Thanks for sharing the story, though. It's important to relize that even in an era when we expect enlightenment, it might be missing in some.

Jesse said...

Wow, my 3 years in catholic school were very different from your 7 years. I did not have any nuns. I think they were dying off by the time I reached St. Pats. I did however have Eddie Skelly's Mom in as my 3rd grade teacher and she was a witch. So, I am glad that he did not win the pumpkin contest and lost to a girl.