mad in pursuit notebook


Epiphany: 5th Grade

In November 1959 everything changed. Our family moved to south St Louis and my sister Kathleen was born (child #4). My mother was preoccupied with a new baby and a two-story fixer-upper. And my father had moved from a desk job to a sales job that played havoc with his hours. I was on my own. (Or so I like to remember it.)

At Holy Rosary school, I had been on top of the world. I had girlfriends, boyfriends, and teachers who appreciated my virtues. The classes were so crowded that in fourth grade 16 of us (2 rows) were put in with fifth-graders -- so I knew all of the fifth grade material. Actual fifth grade was going to be a breeze.

But then at the end of October we moved. Epiphany was a newer building with smaller classrooms, but was also bursting with a thousand Baby Boomers. Grades were tracked, my cousin Tommy told me: "smart" and "dumb" -- 5-1 and 5-2. On my first day I was put in 5-2. The teacher Miss Edlin did nothing but scream. I got up the nerve to tell her I was in the wrong class -- that I was smart. I don't remember her exact words but it amounted to "shut up."

The class was unruly and I got swept up into a massive group punishment of having to write something like "I will not talk in school" a thousand times.

Luckily I got transferred to 5-1 and no one mentioned that I'd never completed the punishment.

Sister Parthenia Marie was a fleshy old nun dressed in Dominican white. She also prized discipline. Whenever she left the classroom (usually to drag some poor boy to the principal's office), she would return to ask us "who talked" while she was out. Everyone would stand. Everyone -- the talkers and those who needed to express solidarity with the talkers. Catholic guilt by association.

My first week in 5-1: another group punishment. We had to write 500 times: "Speech is silver, but silence is golden."

By Thanksgiving I had come to my own independent conclusion. I had no use for false confession or for taking on guilt and punishment when I knew I wasn't doing anything bad. I had no problem being quiet and drawing or writing when the nun left the room. If I did exchange words with someone, I didn't consider it misbehavior.

From then on, and through eighth grade, whenever a nun burst through the door shouting "Who was talking? Stand up!" I stayed seated. Even if I was the only one. ["Epiphany" continued>>>]


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