It’s Elementary My Dear.

A short article I read about corporal discipline in Chinese elementary school got me to thinking about my own childhood school years:

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Smiling faces? Not for long! See how that nun is smiling? She knows!

September 1957. It was now time for school. Grade one. I was a smart young lad back then for I skipped Kindergarten. What kind of name is that anyway, Kindergarten? Jimmy-mum and I would go together: walk to school, and keep each other company all the way and on the way. It was about a mile and a half to walk, normally taking a shortcut through a huge hydro-field. I can still remember that walk. Stay on the left side of the road, face traffic, look both ways, cut across the street, quickly, then walk through the tall long grass of the hydro field. That field’s tall soft early autumn grass seemed to undulate in the light breeze, like an ocean of late summer’s tall grass. Each long and tenuous swell appearing to a young fellow like me as an enormous mountain barrier or a sea swell that had to be climbed or sailed across. Down hill and dale we would go, through valley and trough, then up to the next crest, then to the next and to the next, finally portaging across some wild and raging river until alas, back to the reality of the school yard where I would be confined to for the next seven years.

Catholic grade school: grades 1 through 8. No middle school, no junior high or whatever they feel inclined to call these things these days. To us kids it made no difference.  And to an imaginative lad school was school. And it sucked. And the Catholic Schools really, really sucked because in addition to all of the scholarly stuff we also had to contend with the wrath of God disguised in long flowing black robes and habits. Sister this and sister that.  Father this and father that.   Adapt quickly and quietly and quickly and quietly we did for it soon became apparent that it was us against them. For that reason alone our time in the Catholic School system was the very best of times as well as the very worst of times.  At its worse? A residential school for white Anglo – Saxon boys and girls. At its best? It was a great deal of fun and a whole lot of laughs for it was us against them for the next seven years. Seven years, as I skipped a grade for being the smart ass that I was back in those days.  Then again the Catholic Separate School System had a mandate and a mission to spit out as many good catholic boys and girls on society as fast as was heavenly possible.

They had lay teachers there as well. Some were great, others not so much.  Ms McFayden, grade seven, a closet chain smoker.   Mr Bowner: a superb, artistically inclined grade six teacher. There was Ms Tupper, grade three; Ms Kellerer, grades four and five; Ms Raddigan, grade eight, Radiator in our vernacular. Sister Theresa, grade one. Grade two – I can’t remember.

Sweet innocent Sister Theresa. We all loved her. Beatific: possessing an angelic soft hewn face with saintly features. She was young and she was beautiful. And a nun at that! Thinking back, what a waste.  But at that time she made a lasting religious impression on our impressionable minds. In today’s world she would have been our elementary school “Ying.”  And with all things “Ying” there had to be a “Yang” and in this case our elementary school “Yang” turned out to be Sister Mary Bernice…”Yang.”  Burly, tough as nails, she wore polished black ankle height sea boots with that black habit of hers.   Her gait was that of a sailor who was not yet accustomed to the stability of dry land. She possessed a jaunt, more like a saunter, not unlike Charlie Chaplin, all the while twirling a baton or strap that we would become very familiar with soon enough.  She was so intimidating that even the parish priests took notice. Her face was non descriptive really as it was framed by that white veil of nunnery.  I think her hair was black, slightly graying at the temples. I know this because her temples seemed to bulge out whenever she was laying out the wrath of our heavenly father across the palms of our earthly hands.

Like her gait she yelled like a sailor: a real Chief Boatswains Mate or Buffer in the naval vernacular. Her wrath came down unexpectantly and unrepentantly with the sure fired will of an archangel, but no St Michaela here!  She had two main weapons in her arsenal to keep us all in line. Her hands, left or right, it didn’t matter, came across one’s face totally and entirely out of the heavenly blue like some religious and corporal stealth attack.  Just like that: whack, whack, and more whack, followed by the incessant burning of the cheeks and ringing in the ears. Not tinnitus mind you for that would come later but a toned deaf ringing with each whack of those unflappable calloused palms or the gnarly backs of her hands. With years of experience under her black habit she learned to cup her hands ever so slightly and in such a way that with each open palmed whacked imprint her fingers would somehow claw their way across one’s face in such a manner that they seemed to draw one’s cheek and face upward toward heaven, as if in a corporal raptured state of mind waiting for and begging for heavenly intervention.  To be fair to her she was an equal opportunity inquisitor. The girls got it too. And their faces? Wow. Pink and as pink as pure virginity could be but stained with the tracks of their tears. Such tears they were: welling up and falling down and across those pearly, pretty and innocent faces.

Us lads, we chuckled.

Song of the day:

Don’t become indoctrinated. Maintain your ability to think critically. Stay away from University.