Another excerpt from my experiences at a Catholic elementary school. Read all about it in my book: “I Thought I’d Died and Gone to Heaven.” Click on the link at the top of the page.
The Artful Dodger:
I REMEMBER ONE TIME, I believe it was in grade six, Mr
Bowner’s class, in one of the outside portables. We had a break
from our usual lessons when in walked Sister Mary Bernice to
instruct us on the vagaries and intricacies of confirmation—
another religious rite of passage, a sacrament. Not like corporal
punishment, mind you, but a call to religious arms in that you
were now a member of the Catholic brotherhood—and sisterhood.
But not to be outdone by the nuns, we still got whacked by
the priest on the top of the head. Hey, but the neatest part of this
sacrament was that we were allowed to take on an additional
name. Of course it was supposed to be a name that harkened
back to the saints or the martyrs or some other holy ordered
person. Not for me though. I was fascinated at the time by the
War of Independence and loved ornery sea stories. So I took the
name of Paul. St Paul, how cute, they thought. No, not really.
Paul, after John Paul Jones. My real first name was John so it fit
nicely. John Paul Morrison: the United States Navy’s first real
naval hero. Or so I dreamt.
As I am sitting there listening to the Sister’s rant about the
religious ceremony of confirmation, I became bored. And what
can a ten-year-old do in a situation like this? Squirm? Not really
and not for long. For those wooden seats expelled splinters.
Shake one’s leg? Perhaps. But one gets bored of that pretty
quickly. But Hilroy, God bless their hearts, they thought of everything
when they designed those plastic rulers for students like me
that could bend and yaw them with great flexibility before snapping
and breaking in two. They made great sling shots, but
without the sling. More like a catapult. Just bend her back, let her
go and watch the spit ball rip. Amazing! Better than that though,
these rulers had three holes that were strategically punctured
across the twelve inches of hard plastic sheen. One hole at each
end, about one inch back from the edge, and one hole of which
was dead centre on that ruler. And these holes were engineered to
such an extent that their circumference was just large enough that
an HB pencil, a number 2, could slide itself through those holes
with little friction. Man, those Hilroy engineers and designers
were geniuses. They thought of everything. All one had to do
was insert the HB pencil through the centre hole, flick one end of
the ruler with your finger, then watch it spin like a top or a helicopter
rotor around and centred on the pencil itself. Faster and
faster one could make that ruler spin, limited only by the quickness
of one’s finger and wrist. That is until that dreaded sound:
whack, whack, and more whack of open-palm hand to face
followed by the burning cheeks and the incessant ringing in the
ears. Sister Mary Bernice had struck again, ever so discreetly and
Her other weapon came in the form of a very long, wellworn,
or should I say, well-used strap. It was about eighteen
inches long by about three inches wide by about one eighth inch
thick. It was rigidly firm yet flexible. It was worn and frayed at
the business end, brownish red and fading. Not blood-worn,
mind you, but faded from years of use. I often wondered where
on earth they got these things. A throwback to the Spanish Inquisition
perhaps? Or do they have a strap-making factory somewhere
in the Catholic Archdiocese. Perhaps all Catholic school
principals like Sister Mary Bernice had to take a course aptly
named “THE STRAP,” or “Corporal Punishment 101.” And did
they take them with them from school to school? And,
oxymoronically, our school was named “Our Lady of Peace.”
But just a few blocks away, in the next parish, was the more
appropriately named school “Our Lady of Sorrows.”
For us lads, getting the strap was somewhat like a rite of
passage. I remember on one occasion though, quite funny, a
bunch of us were summoned to the principal’s office—Sister
Mary Bernice. It meant only one thing, that summons: corporal
punishment. Her office was located at the end of a narrow
corridor on the main floor, adjacent to the school’s entranceway.
Once you entered the corridor, there was no turning back. And
her office door was always slightly ajar as I recall, but just a
smidgen, such that each one of us in that line of doomed souls
could hear the whacks and the cries and the wailing and the
gnashing of teeth. For this, as in all events at a Catholic separate
elementary school, and in real Catholic terms, was truly a religious
refrain and existential experience, pedagogically speaking
of course. You could also hear and feel the whoosh and the wind,
as that strap came down from heaven onto our earthly psalms,
We were all lined up in single file. I was two back. Whoosh,
whack, whoosh, whack, whoosh, whack. I could hear plainly
enough and feel the rhythm of the usually two, sometimes four—
one or two whacks per hand. This waiting in line was pure
torture. I had to hand it to the nuns. They had an iron grip on
both corporal and psychological warfare, I mean punishment.
You knew what was coming. But the wait was interminable. The
summons, that call to arms, was almost akin to waiting for the
gallows and for your call number, er name, to come up. Will it
hurt? How bad? Will it sting? How bad? Some of the boys, the
really young ones screamed, peed, shit themselves and then cried
their eyes out.
“GET BACK TO CLASS—NEXT,” she snapped in precise
military fashion, like the drill sergeant that she was.
And, looking back on those incidents, I have to admire the
tenacity and perseverance of Sister Mary Bernice and her ilk. She
never let up. She was in great shape. She could easily handle ten
of us at one go. Ten? We were always in trouble. I wondered how
much she could press!
Next up, penultimately for me, was this gangly looking kid
from grade five. His offence? Who knew! But it didn’t really
matter what you did or did not do in these Catholic separate
elementary schools. You were singled out for something sinister
in deed or, failing that, in thought. Those nuns had to be telepathic,
no doubt. For even if you were outwardly innocent you
must have had evil thoughts of some sort. They knew, of course,
for they were always telling us to get rid of that smirk on our
faces or they would remove it for us. It obviously reflected a
nuance of some evil, pure and subconscious, unadulterated dread
and evil thoughts.
His name was Arthur—Arty for short. O’Neill I think. One of
eight siblings in that family. A good Catholic family. I knew his
younger brother Gerard. Arty was very tall for his age, thin as a
rake. Cocky and incorrigible, very athletic. I really do believe
that incorrigibleness is also a prerequisite to attend Catholic
separate schools because I heard that descriptive word uttered
toward us by the nuns and lay teachers on a daily basis.
Arty was a tough nut to crack in this religious environment.
He showed no respect, only humorous disdain for what was
occurring to him and the rest of us.
“NEXT!” Sister Mary Bernice barked.
Arty looked back at me with that smirkiness and smugness of
his and with a whispered smile he said, confidently:
“Watch this.” In he went.
“Hold out your right hand, Mr O’Neill.”
I could just barely see through the crack in the door. Arty
held out his hand. It didn’t shake out of terror. Surprisingly, it
was as steady as a rock. Sister Mary Bernice drew up and with
all of her strength and with her temples bulging and with her
bloodshot eyes aflame—frothing at the mouth, the devil incarnate
it seemed—came down from that mountain and burning
bush in such a whoosh with her hell-bent-for-leather strap.
But just then, at that precise moment in time, young Arty
pulled back on his arm. The strap missed Arty’s hand. It was too
late. The momentum and trajectory of the strap lacked the sudden
recourse of Arty’s gnarly hand to curtail the downward thrust of
that blood-worn tool of medieval pain. That strap came down so
fast and so hard and in full force with both a whiplash and a
snap, crackling sound that seemed to crack into eternity as well
as the right thigh of Sister Mary Bernice. Her habit shook wildly,
uncontrollably, and could offer no resistance or restraint from the
Godforsaken blow of the blood-worn strap.
Young Arty could not contain himself. He laughed himself
silly. It was not a nervous laugh, mind you, but a gut-wrenching
guffaw. The rest of us, at least those of us that could see what had
transpired, were in bewildered shock: almost like some spiritual
shock and awe moment. Young Arty had the good sense, even as
a twelve-year-old, to get the hell out of there. Sister Mary
Bernice waned somewhat but she was strong, steadfast, and
remained on her feet, cussing it seemed, hyperventilating, or was
that just spiritual raptur-ed-ness I heard, for she was calling on
God and the Son of God many, many, many times. I didn’t know
it until that particular moment that Jesus had a middle name that
started with the letter “H.”
The rest of us were spared. Good ole Arty. Funny that, but we
didn’t see Arty for a few weeks after that. And why did they call this punishment corporal? Don’t really know. As young impressionable lads, we didn’t have a clue as to what the term corporal punishment meant. That would come later. Yet this was no military school, I can tell you. So in that
vein I always wondered what “Private” punishment would be
like? This was after all somewhat of a private, albeit Catholic,
separate school. Then again perhaps it was best not to press the
issue or go in that direction.
Okay, so why didn’t they call it Lance Corporal Punishment?
This would be a more appropriate term, for more often than not
the skin on your palms would be slightly lanced with cuts and
scars as the tip of the strap cut into raw and virgin flesh. Blood
splattered everywhere. That strap sure was designed well: with
maximum potentiality for pain built right in with nastiness
threaded through and through into the coarse but smoothly
grained and textured leather. Perhaps it really was blood-worn.
And, I was told, but I don’t know for sure, or by whom, that once
you graduated to a Catholic high school, the Jesuits or Oblates or
Basilians, who ran those schools, had a name for their form of
disciplinary action, which was really code for corporal punishment—
not corporal punishment, or Lance Corporal Punishment
but Major Punishment, major pain. I can’t really believe that.
Must be a Catholic urban myth. We shall see.
Are you sitting comfortably:
Great song, great group. How I miss the British invasion, in stark contrast to the corporate musical crap that is out there now.