25 May 2009

Dear old Golden Rule days . . .

The school I went to when I was in first and second grade, Central, was built a little before World War I, and the architects had certainly never heard of the Americans with Disabilities Act. (Probably because it hadn't been passed yet.) To get into the thing you had to go up six or seven steps, my classroom was on the second floor, and the restrooms were, of course, in the basement. The steps in the stairwells were made of some kind of stone that had been rounded by fifty some years of use. They were also slick as ice whenever there was the least bit of moisture on them.

Because my crutches would often just slide out from under me on those steps the principal, Mr Green, would carry me up to my classroom in the morning whenever I had a knee hemorrhage, and then back down at the end of the day. At lunch time he would carry me down to the lunch room and then back up to the classroom, and if I needed to go #1 or #2 Mr Green would carry me down the three floors to the restroom. All this being lugged about like an infant was just a bit humiliating for me, and didn't do Mr Green's bad heart much good either, so I often didn't go to school when I had a knee bleed.

When I was in second grade Tecumseh's Catholic church began building a school. It was completely modern which meant it was ugly as hell, but more importantly it was all on one floor. My parents thought if I could go to St Elizabeth's (I have never known why it was in the possessive) I wouldn't have to miss so many school days because of knee bleeds. So after many discussions and a couple meetings with the school's administration they scraped up the tuition charged for the children of non-Catholic pagans—about three weeks worth of Dad's wages—and bought me three pairs of wool slacks, some white shirts and an assortment of clip-on bow ties. Since a uniform had not been decided on yet boys were to wear dress slacks, white shirts and a tie. Girls had to wear a dark skirt and white blouse.

The first day of third grade I jumped out of the car a little excited, and a little apprehensive about this new school and these strange teachers dressed in about forty pounds of black robes. Without even trying I immediately began establishing the lack of harmony and total absence of good will that would exemplify my time at St Elizabeth's by pissing off a stern, older woman in black robes, and getting into an argument with another lady that had all white robes and turned out to be my teacher. All before I got into the building.

The lady in black turned out to be the school's principal, and in the fullness of time I learned that we were to supposed to address her as 'Mother Superior.' That first day all I knew was that she was a stern, angry for no particular reason lady who told me to stop running and walk like a gentleman. The lady in white stopped me at the door and said, "What class are you in, young man?"

"Um, third grade, ma'am."



"Do not grunt like an animal. You say 'Sister.'"

"Why, ma'am?"

"You do not address me as 'Ma'am,' you say 'Sister.'"

"But you're not my sister. She's in Oregon."

"My name is Sister Rose. I am a nun. You can tell I'm a nun by the habit I wear. You address me and all the other nun's that dress like me as 'Sister.' Do you understand?"

"Yes, Ma'a…," her left eyebrow went up so high it almost disappeared behind the white band that went across her forehead, "Sister!"

"Very good. Now, what class are you in again?"

"I'm in third grade, Ma…Sister, but it's for the first time."

"Your room is the second door on the left. Now go in and take a seat."

"Yes, Ma'am."


From there on things seem to go steadily downhill, no matter how hard I tried to follow the several million rules that seemed to govern everything from how we dressed to what we said to how we walked out to recess (single file, looking at the head of the kid in front of us) I would somehow manage to mess it up. I got in trouble for giggling when Sister Rose explained that even though she wore a flowing, white habit we should not think she was an angel. When asked to explain why I had giggled I got into even more trouble. (I said it was obvious they weren't angels because we could see their underwear on the clothesline behind the convent, and everybody knew that angels didn't wear underwear.) I got in trouble when she said she wore a wedding ring because she, and all of the other nuns, were the bride of Christ, and I said I thought it was against the law to have more than one wife. I got into trouble because I would forget to stand when called upon by Sister Rose, and for a few hundred other minor lapses in thought or action; but perhaps my major failing was wearing a tie, or to be more precise, failing to wear a tie.

At least three , and very often four or five, days a week I would forget to wear my tie. My mother even began keeping a couple in the car for the days I left home without one, and I would still manage to arrive at my desk sans tie. Sister Rose would call me up to her desk, and would pin a bow tie made of folded notebook paper to my shirt. As she pinned it on she would quietly list all of the reasons I would be going to Hell, and the punishments she personally would inflict before I went.

One Monday morning Sister Rose told me to stand and explain why I did not have a tie on. (We always had to stand when speaking.) I said that in all probability I forgot it.

"Step up to the desk, please." I made my usual morning walk up to her desk and stood beside it waiting for my notebook paper tie. "We will see if this will help you remember in the future." I braced myself for a smacking, but instead she took out of a drawer a huge, bright yellow bow tie made out of poster board. It was wider than I was, and in large, black letters it said "Guy's Tie!"

I'm not sure what reaction she was looking for, but I know for a fact that the one she got wasn't it. This was great. This was even better than the one Soupy Sales wore. I took it from her and said, "Wow! Can I put some polka dots on it?"

The other major problem I had with the rules, and I think it was the one that eventually led to all parties agreeing that I would perhaps be happier in the public school, was that rule about standing when speaking. If you dropped, say, your pencil you could not just reach down and pick it up. You had to stand up next to your desk until Sister Rose recognized you. Then you had to say, "Excuse me, Sister. Excuse me, Class. I dropped my pencil." Sister Rose would then give you permission to pick it up. After retrieving the run away pencil you would sit down again.

Somewhere around the fourth or fifth week of school I had my first knee bleed of the school year. After the first few, really painful days Mom decided that I should begin taking advantage of St Elizabeth's one story floor plan. When I sat down at my desk I got my first indication that this might not be as easy as had been hoped. The desks were the kind that had the seat attached to the desk portion on the right side, which meant you had to get in on the left side. When I sat down I automatically put my crutches down along the left side of the desk. Sister Rose immediately objected. I had to put them on the right side.

I tried to point out that I needed them on the left side, and putting them down on the right side was difficult because I had to lift them over the desk while not hitting the kid in front of me, and the connection between the seat and the desk made it difficult to reach the floor. That was not important. I would put them on the right side of my desk.

Then I dropped my pencil.

At first I tried what I though was the logical thing to do. I raised my hand. After holding my hand up for five minutes or so Sister Rose finally said, "Guy, you know the rules."

"You mean I have to stand?"

"That is the rule."

I leaned down and got my crutches. I carefully lifted them over to the left side missing the kid in front of me by a couple inches. I turned in my seat so I could stand up. When I stood the change in pressure made my knee throb with pain. Then I turned to face the front of the room.

After a couple of minutes to show that there would be no pampering me just because of a hemorrhage, Sister Rose said, "Yes, Guy?"

"Excuse me, Sister. Excuse me, Class. I dropped my pencil."

"You may retrieve it."

The pencil had rolled a few feet away. I used one crutch to pull it to me, then bent down to pick it up. This was trickier than it sounds. My left leg was the one that was bleeding, and the swelling had made the joint contract and it would neither bend nor straighten. I couldn't just bend at the waist because that caused the muscles in the back of my thigh to stretch and was very painful. So I had to balance on my right foot, and lift my left leg behind me as I bent over while holding on to both crutches with my right hand and using them to keep from falling on my face. Then I grabbed the pencil. After straightening up I got my crutches back under my arms and turned so I could sit down. I sat down and then turned to face the front again. Then I had to lift the crutches back over the desk and put them down on the floor. All in all it took up about ten minutes of class time from the initial drop to putting my crutches back down.

The other kids were doing their best not to giggle, and my knee was throbbing. The whole thing was stupid, and it was at that point that something in my nine year old brain snapped. I decided that if this was how we were going to play the game I would play it to the limit, and we'd see who gave in first. From then on at least once each morning and once each afternoon I would accidently drop something. Sometimes twice. On my best day I lost two pencils in the morning and an eraser, pencil and ruler in the afternoon.

Each time I would laboriously pick the crutches up and lift them across the desk. I stopped worrying about the kid in front of me and he eventually became pretty adept at ducking. I would slowly turn in my seat and struggle to my feet, and then slowly, painfully (even when it didn't hurt) turn and wait. Sister Rose would stand there in silent rage. She would hiss, "Yes, Guy," and I would do my little sing-song apology. Except for being as clumsy as a carp, which I was pretty sure wasn't a sin, I was doing nothing wrong and I was following the rules to the letter. She would tell me to pick whatever it was up, and be quick about it. That never happened.

During Christmas vacation Mom, Sister Rose and the Mother Superior had a meeting. When school started up again in January I was back at Central. Life was good.

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