All this talk about the abusive residential schools? What about all of us Anglo Saxon Caucasian Catholic School boys and girls? I was abused by the nuns in elementary school growing up in Toronto: Our Lady of Peace – as in the strap and the hard slap across the face by the hands of Sister Mary Bernice (not her real name). When I graduated to a Catholic Private High School for Boys that was run by the Basilian Brothers I also graduated to major pain.
I wrote a book about it. “I thought I Died And Gone to Heaven. An Existential Journey.” Check it out by clicking the link at the top of the page.
Here is an excerpt. From my elementary school days:
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 hydrofield.
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 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 schoolyard where I would be confined for the
next seven years.
Catholic grade school: grades first through eighth. 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 worst? 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
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 jaunty walk, more like a saunter, not unlike
Charlie Chaplin’s, and would stride through the hallways 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 nondescript really as it was framed by that
white veil of nunnery. I think her hair was black, slightly greying
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.
To match 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 surefire
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 tone-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-palm whack, her fingers
would somehow claw their way across one’s face so 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.
Tomorrow? The Artful Dodger.
Our Guessing Game for in the end it won’t matter at all: