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How far back into your childhood do you remember? Although it took place 62 years ago, I can still remember, when I was 3 or 4 years old, stepping stone by stone across the border around my mother’s flower garden in the back yard. I was making fanciful plans to go into the nearby woods and pretend I was a cowgirl right alongside Cheyenne Bodie and Bronco Layne.
I remember at the same age meeting my future best childhood friend Patty for the first time. Her father had come down to our house to play horseshoes with my dad and some other neighbors. He brought Patty along, and while the men played their games, Patty and I ran small cars under the hedges in the front yard, pretending that they were trees in a sinister ghost town.
Those are little early childhood snippets, much like dreams. I’m sure you know what I mean. But memories of my first intimidating year in elementary school are as vivid as Technicolor.
In 1957, some schools offered kindergarten, but it was not required—not even a half day. Our Catholic school, St. B’s, did not offer it, and my parents chose not to send me to public kindergarten. Thus, I entered first grade as a raw recruit among some veteran kindergarten alumni. I was thrown into a whole new world cold turkey.
The majority of teachers at St. B’s were nuns in full habit. That was an unnerving proposition for me right off the bat. For the first time, I came eyeball to eyeball with women of indeterminate ages, dressed all in black from head to toe with the exception of a white wimple around the face and neck. Giant wooden rosary beads were attached to the belt at their waists.
I soon learned that it was not just their looks that were frightening. I tried to steer clear of the mean ones and lay low whenever possible. Looking back now, maybe I can empathize to a small degree (very small). These days, having 30 students in a classroom is a challenge for a teacher, and class size caps are a common issue in contract negotiations. Consider that my first grade class at St. B’s was comprised of approximately 53 students. Yes, you read it right. That’s fifty-three! My brother’s class had close to 70. Being exceptionally stern may have been the nuns’ only hope of avoiding mayhem.
On the other hand, threatening to hang a kid by his toenails outside the window was going too far. Whenever you witnessed Sister storming down the aisle, habit swishing and rosary beads clattering, lips pursed and daggers in her eyes, you cringed and prayed that it wasn’t you she had in her sights.
Physical punishment for minor infractions, such as biting nails or misspelling words, would be considered child abuse today—grounds for losing your job and being criminally charged. Resorting to face slapping and other forms of corporal punishment was a flimsy excuse for overworked teachers because back then, they were mostly dealing with Beaver Cleavers and Opie Taylors with a few Eddie Haskells mixed in.
I was always scared of doing something wrong. One time after recess, my first grade teacher, Sister Hedwig, summoned those students who had gone into the school buses to stand up. I misunderstood. I thought she meant that those students who rode the bus to and from school should stand. I innocently stood up along with a few other classmates. She then went into a diatribe about our misbehavior, and I distinctly remember her saying that our brains were like something “rattling around in a tin can.” I was mortified to be described like that. I finally realized that she was calling out those students who had gone into the parked school buses in the parking lot during recess without permission. I hadn’t even known anything about the bus trespassing incident.
Right before lunch one day, we lined up for our obligatory trip to the restroom. Talk about fear of nuns, my anxiety led to an incident that I remember with distress to this day. Sister must have been at the head of the line, which was already out in the hall. For some reason there was a hold-up, which was bad news for me. I had to urinate badly and was too scared to go to the front of the line to tell her, too scared to just run down the hall. I tried arduously to hold it in, but I was just a little first grader, and shortly thereafter a stream let loose, and a puddle formed on the floor.
I was less embarrassed than I was petrified. I ran over to my lunch box for a tea towel and proceeded to clean up the mess. I prayed that no one would rat me out to the teacher, but I figured that out of 52 students, some wise guy would relish the opportunity to instigate an entertaining scene with Sister Hedwig blowing her stack over somebody else for a change.
Everything after that is a blank, so, obviously, I got out of my predicament alive. I would have remembered if she had hit me or done something equally as degrading. I’m guessing that Sister was none too pleased, made me clean it up myself, and went on with her trying day.
There was another bathroom incident that year. I can’t remember if it was related to that incident just mentioned or if it was later in the year. One day my mother told me that Sister had called to say that I was asking to use the restroom too often. I don’t know if she thought I was purposely doing it to get out of class or if she was concerned that I had a problem, but I do know that I would have never risked her ire unless it were an emergency.
My mother took me to my family doctor, where I learned that I had a urinary tract infection. That sparked one of the few times that Sister Hedwig was truly nice to me. She told me that I could get up and go to the restroom any time I needed to. I didn’t even have to ask. I don’t recall taking much advantage of that offer after the first day, though, probably because I feared it was just a passing fancy that Sister would soon rescind as she yanked me back into the room by my collar.
To treat the UTI, I was to take some round white pills that tasted bad. How do I remember the shape and color of pills 60 years later? Well, even though it veers off the topic of bullying nuns, this humorous story is worth telling. Since the pills tasted bad, I put them in my mouth when my mother handed them over, but I didn’t chew or swallow them. I’d immediately go outside and throw them in the garden.
If I were indoors, I’d tell my mother, “I have to go to the bathroom,” and then promptly go into the bathroom and hide the partially dissolved pill behind the electric heater. Now that was dumb, even for a six-year-old, because my mother was a cleaner, and I should have known that sooner or later, she would move the heater to clean the bathroom floor. That scenario had never occurred to me. What a dummy! Within a week, I was busted. My mother said, “I wondered why you always had to go to the bathroom right after taking a pill.” Another blockhead move.
So, she called the doctor to report my misdeed, and he said that I should still take the pills. And so I got my just reward. I ate every one of those deteriorated pills that had sat on the bathroom floor for a week. At least I got away with disposing of the pills in the garden!
Now, my mother was a tough cookie in her own right, but if Sister Hedwig had been doling out the pills, I wouldn’t have dared to pull that chicanery. She’d have taped the pills to my nose and made me stand up for an hour like the nuns made us stick outlawed chewing gum to our noses.
I was a well-behaved child who rarely got in trouble in school, but one day I did get smacked by my teacher . . . accidentally . . . because I happened to be in the line of fire. She had hauled off to slap a boy across the face, and her backswing hit me in the mouth. She apologized profusely.
Many of my baby boomer friends and acquaintances had similar experiences in their years in Catholic grade schools. One of the most common topics is how mean the nuns were. It was like an epidemic in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Why? Why did we witness a crying child who was banned from making a Christmas art project because he had forgotten his homework, a child who is rapped on the knuckles with a ruler because he feels too ill to sit at his desk and do arithmetic problems, a child who is ridiculed for her left-handedness?
Some say the core is isolation from the norm—no opportunities to experience romantic love, intimacy with a husband, or having children. Some say it’s because they had little life outside the convent and school, in some cases not even having access to television or newspapers. And there was that 50+ kids in a class dilemma.
Compassion was missing from those nuns’ resumes. They treated us kids like little adults. Corporal punishment was still an acceptable form of discipline back then, and the nuns took full advantage of it.
Other boomers proposed darker reasons, but I don’t want to go there.
Though the majority could scare the daylights out of a rattlesnake, there were a few nuns that we admired. My favorite was my second grade teacher, Sr. Constance. She may have been in her twenties—young, attractive, and congenial. She did not need to bark, threaten, and hit to maintain discipline. She was respected.
In spite of an overdose of callous nuns that I encountered in my 8 years at St. B’s, I did get a decent education and was well-prepared for the public junior high school that followed.
In Part 2 of this post, which will be published soon, I’ll discuss the day to day routine at St. B’s, which was fairly typical of Catholic schools in general across the country during the 1950’s and 1960’s. Besides all of my negative musings, I can honestly say that there were some benefits from my Catholic schooling. I’ll talk about that as well.
Do you have any anecdotes or opinions that you’d like to share about your religious educators in the 1950’s or 1960’s?
*The names have been changed to protect the guilty.
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.