My years in the fourth, fifth, and sixth grades of grammar school at St. Joseph's, were the worst years in my life, and I have spent at least thirty more years of independence trying to make up for those three formative years robbed of my youth. Ask anyone who knows me, and they will tell you that I have much of the preteen still embedded in me.
Sister Janet was our fourth grade teacher, and I have the mis-notion of what her age might have been, but, trying to uncloud what was my youthfully skewed mind as to the age of adults, I figure she could not have been over thirty. She was oppressive and sexist, and compared to few other students in our class of about 36, she truly had it in for me. She, however, picked on all the boys in our class in one mocking way or another, sometimes with truly good humor, more often with embarrassing sexual overtones. Carrying the rudimentary nuggets of what I know of womankind today, I have no doubt that she had her worst days when she was menstruating, and that what she really needed was a good, long, satisfying fuck.
She mostly ignored the girls in the class and almost daily set upon the boys. There were a few "cool" boys in our class, and she would rib them in a jocular tone; although, they too were subject to her front-and-center stabs at humiliation.
If a boy had his shirt untucked, she would pull him to the front of the class, unbuckle his belt, unsnap his pants, unzip his fly, tuck in his shirt, and do him back up again. The girls tittered, and the rest of us boys, you'd think, would have gotten the message, yet this process happened many times after recess.
During the winter, there were snowbanks to play in. She warned us that if we came back in from the schoolyard with wet, snowy pants, that they would come off and be hung on the radiator to dry. Pity the boy who sat red-faced, staring at the floor in his long-johns or, God-forbid, his underwear. Most of us wore two pairs of pants at a time, lest our recess shenanigans would have that terror befall us. Many boys, many a time were down to one pair; damn if the slush leaked through them both. Michael Malia, one of the "cool" boys, one winter morning, had his pants stripped off and sat, boots on, chin up, in his tighty whities, and Sister Janet fairly blushed and beamed at his unashamedness.
To this day, as back then, I keep a messy desk. Several times, this met Sister Janet's wrath. I clearly remember a few mornings walking into the classroom with the feeling that today was actually a good, new day and then seeing the contents of my desk in a pile on the floor, and my desk next to hers at the front of the class. Before the "Pledge of Allegiance," I was to pick up my books and papers, pens and pencils, ruler and eraser from the floor, neatly arrange them into my desk, and spend the rest of the day next to her, facing the class. Titters all around. That smartass bitch; I raised my hand all day and gave her every right answer that everybody in the class didn't know. I'm sure that didn't help my relationship with her. When the bell rang to let us out, I would carry my desk back to its spot, and, as I remember, Maria Taliento would help me, blushing.
At one point during that school year, there was some scandal or another about corporal punishment in public schools, and some ACLU people or parent group had it outlawed. Ours being a Catholic school, we were above the laws of mercy, tolerance, and compassion, so we were, all in our school, handed permission slips to be signed by our parents, to allow the nuns to continue to hit us. I brought mine home, sure that my mom wouldn't sign it. Surely, she didn't want them doing that. She and my dad had exclusive smacking rights. Her response, as she signed the slip of paper was, "I hope they sock it to ya!" A line from "Laugh-In." I carried that slip back to school and dutifully placed it on Sister Janet's desk. I felt all alone.
I had two very close friends in those terrible years, Patrick Keeley and Angelo Mazzone. Patrick, pale, freckled, and obviously Irish, was probably the smartest kid in the class (I was probably second among the boys.), and Angelo was squat and exuberant and wanted to be a policeman. We were imaginative and inseparable. They told me great stories of their summer vacations and adventures with older sisters and brothers, and I made up tall tales of speedboats and Corvettes that had no basis in reality, because my life seemed so dull in comparison. I guess they were good stories, and they were never questioned.
One day, after the recess bell rang, the three of us were being rambunctious, and Sister Frances Claire, the fifth grade teacher, grabbed me by the ear and pulled me up the stairs to Sister Janet's fourth grade room, Patrick and Angelo meekly following. She told Sister Janet that if we thought we were so smart, we'd spent the rest of the afternoon upstairs in the fifth grade class. Sister Janet curtly smirked at us and said that would be fine with her. The three of us were introduced to the class of older kids to a round of laughter, and we got seats in front of the class. It was time for English, and Sister Frances Claire asked what is a diphthong. Her class went silent. I looked around, and all of her students were trying to avoid her gaze. Time stopped. I hesitantly put up my hand. She cocked her head and said, "Michael?"
"It's when you have two vowels next to each other that make one sound together, like 'around.'"
Patrick and Angelo's eyes were like dinner plates.
"That's right", she said, "Anyone else?"
Their hands poking the air, the fifth grade class exploded with answers now that the convict had broken the ice. We had Sister Francis Claire the following year, and hard-assed as she could be, I think that bold move softened her attitude toward all three of us when we got there.
At the end of my fourth grade year, as the trees bud and bloom, wet, snowy pants become grass-stained, and the bugs come out, I did something stupid. My parents called it "bad" and"wrong," and I can't, for the life of me, remember what it was (breaking a window? playing with matches?). Whatever it was, it was to be punished with the final humiliation of that fourth grade. Instead of waiting for school to let out before they did it, my parents sent me to the barber to get "the Butch."
I believe that the term "the Butch" comes from "the butcher," and it is a crew cut with a waxed-up front. It was a rite of summer, and, because it was so embarrassing, especially as this was the beginning of the 1970s, the days of long hair, my parents would mercifully let me get the Butch after school let out. Not this year. Whatever I had done warranted getting my hair lopped off and spending the last week of school, downcast, among my classmates, all of them knowing that I was being punished.
I went to school on Monday of the final week, staring at the ground, and it was a beautiful Spring day. I remember the lilacs. Patrick Keeley and Angelo Mazzone met me and they said the buzz job was alright, and I said no, it wasn't. I felt like hell. I was the only bald kid in the class. And buck teeth besides. Sister Janet's eyes sparkled; it was punishment that she didn't even have to mete out. My parents agreed with what she thought I deserved. At the end of the day I skulked home.
I got to school on Tuesday morning and both Patrick and Angelo ran up to me, and I'll be God-damned if both of them hadn't each had their hair shorn off. They had both gotten a Butch! To this day, it mystifies me how two nine year-old boys would conspire to such solidarity for a friend. Their act - they must have each asked their parents to bring them to the barber after school - still, to me, defines friendship, to share a friend's humiliation in an act of unity and defiance of convention. If one of us was not going to be "cool," we would all not be cool together, and it did not matter what anyone thought. We were friends, and everyone could see it.
I wonder what Sister Janet thought of that.