Recess is over. Time to take out our spelling boo . . . But wait. Something’s up. Sister Benedicta has an especially sour look on her face and is slowly and calculatingly panning over the masses . . . er, the 53 kids in the classroom, sometimes stopping for effect to glare at a likely suspect for whatever crime had just been committed.
And so began the inquisition. Without explanation, Sister started going down the rows, having each child stand up and tell what kind of sandwich he or she had eaten for lunch. Obviously, some nefarious student had done something inappropriate with his or her leftover lunch, and Sister would be like a hound dog on a pork chop until she had identified the culprit.
When it was my turn, I stood up as timid as little Oliver Twist. “Peanut butter and jelly,” I peeped. I didn’t think that I had done anything wrong, but the nuns were so exacting, who knew what I may have inadvertently done to provoke them?
Maybe I had missed the garbage can and my peach pit had landed on the floor. Worse, maybe I hadn’t finished my sandwich, and Sister would demand that I fish it out of the trash can full of used tissues and pencil shavings and then force me to eat it. Or maybe she would just whack me with her pointer. I should have stuffed the sandwich down my thermos bottle like my friend Ann did to avoid detection.
All I remember of the outcome is that I was not deemed the guilty party. Considering that I don’t remember the name of the perpetrator, the kind of sandwich at the heart of the interrogation, nor the punishment exacted, I assume that, much to her chagrin, Sister Benedicta had not been able to prove her case beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Whew! Another disaster averted. Just one more episode at St. B’s Catholic School in the 1950’s/60’s when the nuns, sometimes exultantly, would scare the living daylights out of us.
Here you may want to acclimate yourself to the boomers’ Catholic school day by reading Part 1 and Part 2, my most recent posts.
We were now free to carry on with the afternoon subjects.
There were spelling tests every Friday afternoon. Handwriting was usually graded along with the week’s words, and sometimes the artwork on the page was graded as well. Notice the formal heading on my spelling test below: name, subject, date, grade, room number. This was required on nearly all work. Neatness was paramount.
Those nuns were brutal graders. How could I get only a B in handwriting on that page? I don’t think I’ve written that neatly in the last 50 years!
English was taught with uncommon fervor. Drill, drill, drill. Unendlingly copy sentences from book to paper. Diagram sentences at the board. Write formal book reports. Sister would pound nouns and verbs into you like a jackhammer on concrete.
You would find references to religion in all of our textbooks, whether it be language, science, or geography. I still have my fourth grade English book titled Voyages in English, which was commonly used in the Catholic Schools. It was written by Rev. Paul E. Campbell and Sister Mary Donatus Macnickle. Here is a page that illustrates the integration of the Catholic faith into our curriculum:
After searching the Internet, I believe it most likely that St. B’s used the My World of Neighbors Catholic Schools geography series. I remember a little boy our age traveling around the world with his parents, learning about each country along the way—the climate, physical features, natural resources, industry, etc.
Anytime we wanted to answer a teacher’s question, we raised our hands and then stood up when called upon, even if it were just a one-word answer. We were, however, encouraged to answer in complete sentences.
There was no physical education class. Recess was our gym class.
There was no regularly scheduled music class. I remember occasionally learning about the different notes and mnemonic devices like “Every good boy does fine” and “All cows eat grass.” We didn’t proceed much further unless we took private instrument lessons. Sometimes we just sang. My favorites were “Old Dan Tucker” and one that started with “Hallowee-ee-een, the witch is riding high.” I can still remember many of the words to that song.
There was no specific library class nor a librarian that I can recall. There was a library in the school, but I remember going there only once or twice during recess in 7th or 8th grade. I don’t recall a teacher ever reading us a book.
We did have art class regularly, but we just used simple materials that would discourage a classroom of 53 students from engaging in a gooey free-for- all. I loved art class and still have dozens of my pieces.
We worked hard. I remember no cooperative learning groups, no hands-on learning centers, few open-ended discussion questions, and few enrichment activities during the school day. We just worked.
Enrichment activities were often assigned as booklets to be completed outside of the classroom. I have kept many of them, such as these:
You really had to work for your grades. The grading scale was thus:
A—93-100 B—85-92 C—75-84 D—70-74 E—69 and below
Now, I have already reiterated how a large percentage of nuns at St. B’s were tyrants in black, but 2 of our 3 priests could make us tremble in our buckle shoes just as well. During a homily, our pastor could bellow up a storm. One time, he left the confessional to roar because we students, lined up for confession, had been talking. Well, after that brow beating, we didn’t utter a syllable.
On report card day, the two assistant priests made their rounds of the school, visiting each classroom to distribute our report cards personally. We waited with bated breath to see which priest would enter the room—the always humble and friendly Father L. who stepped into the room without fanfare or the intimidating and surly Father M., who entered with a swagger and a flourish.
Our 5th grade report card:
Below is the back of the report card. Today these points might be considered invasion of privacy, but I see that my mother’s responses were always generic.
The wayward kids shuddered when Father M entered the room for it was that one day every six weeks when they would face their comeuppance for the misdeeds that so stoked the ire of the nuns. When Father M saw a report card he didn’t like, particularly the ones sporting a “U” in conduct, he would growl and toss the report card into the trash. The boy (nearly always a boy) would scuttle up to the garbage can with his head down and eyes on the floor and fish his report card out of the can. Sister, who had to deal with those unruly boys daily, would smile with satisfaction.
Father M would even stop and pause for effect if he saw an “S minus” conduct grade on a report card. Then he’d utter his famous line, “An S minus is a U draped in mercy.” Even the well behaved kids were relieved when he exited the room.
One teacher taught all subjects until we were tracked in literature and math in 7th and 8th grade. Back then in most parochial schools, the teachers got no free periods during the day other than lunch, which could be another reason why many were so testy. Sometimes, near the end of the day, when teachers and students were burned out, we got to play Seven-Up, a very popular game in schools in the 1950’s. Put your head down, close your eyes, put your thumb up, and hope to get picked.
Hall monitors patrolled the halls, keeping a watchful eye out for talkers. Talking was forbidden; violation of that rule resulted in a V ticket. The punishment for receiving the dreaded V ticket was a written one, usually an educational exercise, and its complexity depended on your age.
One time, when I was assigned chalkboard duty with Judy S. at the end of the day, we went into the custodian’s room to fill the bucket with water. We got sidetracked when a mop fell over, and while we were trying to retrieve it from its stuck position, I discovered that the bucket was overflowing. I yelled, “The bucket is overflowing!” and out darted the hall monitor to give me a V ticket. He had no mercy. The teacher in charge of the monitors made me write 25 words that contained a certain combination of letters. I was afraid to tell my parents, but they had to sign the paper, and I would have needed the courage of David the Goliath killer to forge a signature. Fortunately, they weren’t too concerned about it.
Another time, outside at dismissal, I had committed some summary offense, and a patrol came over to give me a ticket. Out of abject fear, I attempted to escape. When he tried to stop me physically, I wrestled with him until he grabbed my pink jacket, pulling a very large button from it. I managed to get away, leaving the button behind on the ground, but that was not the end of the story.
The next morning, I was summoned to a nun whom I didn’t know, an upper grade teacher who was supervisor of the patrols. I recall her towering over me, her eyes flaming, as she lectured me about how assaulting the patrol was a worse offense than the original. I don’t remember my punishment, but I certainly was not pleased to wear that pretty pink jacket day after day with one very large button that didn’t match. (At least my mother had replaced it.).
Naturally, there was no air conditioning in the school, so on those hot and humid afternoons when everyone was wallowing in sweat, we were permitted to take a short break to get a drink. Just as there were hall monitors, there were also water fountain monitors. That was a plum job for a teacher’s pet. As each child took a turn at the fountain, the monitor would turn the handle, count to 10 (or less), and then you would be cut off. After all, it took a long time to appease the thirst of 53 kids, and surely the teachers didn’t want to be seen as pampering us.
At dismissal, we had 3 bus “trips.” The first trip consisted of walkers; the second trip was for those who lived not far from the school. When the busses dropped off those kids, they returned to the school for the third trippers who lived further out. A series of long and short beeps over the loudspeaker signified your bus number.
I rode Bus #9 on the second trip. It was represented by 3 short beeps. It’s amazing that I remember after all these years, but I listened intently for those three short beeps day after day for 8 years.
That was the school day, day in and day out, with few deviations.
Was a Catholic school education a benefit or a curse? From reading the past three parts, you may think that I found nothing redeeming about attendance in a Catholic school. Not so. I will explain in Part 4.
KAREN GENNARI is the author of The Crab Hollow Chronicles, a fictitious memoir based on her experiences growing up in a neighborhood full of boys in 1961/62. It also explores the merits and challenges of life in a Catholic family of seven.
Join nine-year-old Karen Schmidt in her attempts to navigate Crab Hollow Road amidst the overwhelming male majority who beleaguer her at every opportunity. Does Karen have the fortitude to weather toadnappings, midnight escapades, false impersonation, and more? Along the way, relive the people, products, music, sports, and headlines of the early 1960’s. Virtually every page references the 1960’s. Lots of your favorite toys are mentioned in these pages.