Portrait Of A Miscreant
I was a Catholic School brat.
My school, my elementary school, at least, had a strange look. It was a squat, four story, block-wide, brown brick building devoid of exterior ornamentations. It could very easily have been a factory or, if you believe those of us who went there, a prison. The school had two entrances, both double-wide steel gray doors. My entrance, the boy’s entrance, was through the back of the building. The girls entered through virtually identical double doors on the opposing side of the school; wooden crosses were affixed to their doors though I couldn’t say what they guarded against. None of the girls looked like vampires from a Peter Cushing film. There was never anything that exotic entering Our Lady of Perpetual Pain.
The girl’s portal opened onto the main office and the auditorium. More thought was given to design and appearance on this side of the building. This was the public face of the school. A half-story marble staircase rose to a wide landing. A Sacred Heart of Jesus statue commanded the landing and oversaw everyone entering the building.
There have been any number of movies featuring miscreant students kneeling before a statue with books balanced on upraised hands. They are all, with some variations, historically accurate. At my institution, we were not allowed to kneel. The good sisters were not about to allow any resting – even if only against the heels of our feet during brief, unsupervised moments. No, at Our Lady of Perpetual Pain, the offending student was required to stand before the statue. Feet together. Shoulders back. Arms extended forward in a supplicating posture. The Mother Superior or one of her minions drew a tight circle around our feet in chalk (similar to those chalk outlines on crime dramas); we were required to stay within that circle at all times. Two nuns then placed two old, heavy and fragile looking leather bound bibles on each outstretched hand. God help the student who dropped the word of God on the floor. There were always more creative ways to instruct a wayward soul. Thank you, Torquemada.
On one occasion – there were several – when I found myself staring up into the mournful eyes of the Son of God, I had to pee. I have a medically-certified weak bladder. I was provided a note from a Board Certified member of the Urological Sciences after a series of seriously embarrassing tests involving an indeterminate length of hose and gallons of water. Said note was filed and forgotten as soon as it left my Mother’s hand. Straying from the path before lunch and getting caught was an unfortunate miscalculation. Lunch was our proscribed, pre-ordained, tolerated and permitted bathroom time. Anything else was covered by one of the seven deadly sins (Hubris and Sloth were probably inscribed on my permanent record) promising a discussion with the Mother Superior. Knowing that I could not leave the circle without permission – which might not be granted in any case – I kept to my post casually shifting my weight from one foot to the other, doing the pee-pee dance while I desperately prayed for salvation. Salvation was not forthcoming. I voided before the statue that greeted parents and bishops.
The urge to urinate is sort of like having an itch and trying not to scratch. As soon as I knew I had to go, my whole body began working against me. My casual soft shoe quickly became vigorous. I began bouncing from one foot to another – always keeping within the circle – at an increasingly frantic pace. I could not have moved faster had the nuns placed hot coals under my feet. To protect the bibles, I crossed my arms tightly clasping the awkward, unbalanced tomes to my chest. I began to pray.
Please, no…God, please, no…Oh, God, please, please God…Oh, Dear God, please not now…please…SHIT!
When it started, there was no stopping. I lacked the muscles or strength of will to simply leak, to dribble. My shame was abrupt and dynamic. My pants darkened from zipper to ankle. Water gushed over my sock and shoe and pooled around my feet. The urge to dance passed and I found myself standing before the Sacred Heart of Jesus, head back, eyes closed in reverie (there is a lot of relief when you really…really…oh dear God…really have to go); every drop held by my magically and miraculously bottomless bladder spilled onto the marble floor.
If Catholics do not believe in Karma, they should. As if on cue, Sister Magdalena appeared on the stairs. Her entrance was timed not only to witness my disgrace but to focus the attention of the entire school – and perhaps the universe – on my most spectacular indiscretion; within seconds, everyone knew of my personal oasis in the center of hell. Her first reaction was to scream. She could not have screamed louder had she stumbled upon Pope Paul VI and the convent’s ancient mastiff Domingo engaged in intense, interactive prayer.
“What in God’s holy name do you think you’re doing!!!” echoed up and down the stairwells and along each hallway.
Sister Magdalena was a thin, forty-five year old soprano. She spoke in that same screechy, high pitched whine whether giving a lesson, raising her voice during choir practice or chatting on the phone with a parent. The only reason no one laughed during class was that she taught religion. No one laughed during religion.
My heart nearly crashed into the Pearly Gates at the sound of her voice. The bibles tumbled from my arms. A disjointed attempt to catch them in mid-flight failed miserably. One landed with a splash, further parting the seas and increasing my shame and humiliation. Fear reached new levels. What was left for me? The sign they would hang around my neck this time was Heretic. They burned heretics once upon a time. Our Lady of Perpetual Pain had at least one nun old enough to remember the recipe.
I was not allowed to go home to change my clothes or to wear any of the castoffs that the school collected. My Mother was called. The situation – as it pertained to me – was explained with sincerest regrets. Mom was informed that they would call again when I was ready to go home. She should be ready to collect me then. I spent the rest of the school day balancing bibles – that sin had not been paid for yet – while my urine stained pants dried. After school, after the entire female student body got to walk past me towards the exit – making note of the unpleasant scent of sin – I was required to wash and dry the stairs from top to bottom. When I was done, Mother Superior had me place my nose on the cold marble and sniff. While I was bent low snorting damp stone, she informed me, in her standard monotone, that a clear thinking Christian boy would not have to be told what to do next. A good Christian soldier would do the right thing and make sure the steps were clean – for the glory of God. She obviously thought – and maybe knew – that I wouldn’t do the right thing. I was ordered to wash them again before I had a chance to answer.
Mom came to collect me when the job was done; not once did she protest my punishment.
There was a rumor – a Catholic School urban legend – that insisted sucking on a copper penny gave you a fever. It was a rumor I needed to be true. More than anything, I wanted to be sick. More than anything, I wanted to stay home and serve my time for a day or two – or even a week or two – in my room. I sucked on that penny all night. I slept with it under my tongue and spit it behind my bed in the morning. I complained about fever and begged to stay in bed tucked under the covers.
I was sent to school without as much as a cool hand on my allegedly enflamed cheek. Mom was not one to end punishment early. I guess time off for good behavior wasn’t Christian.
The Mother Superior’s office was to the right of the statue of Jesus just outside the auditorium. She spent her days behind a solid mahogany door that was never left open. A brass door handle, brass nameplate and a golden crucifix, symbols of her office, were all highly polished. A single, simple and uncomfortable (take it from me) chair sat to the side of her office door. Apparently couples were not expected or encouraged by the Mother Superior. Anyone who came in pairs – parents, for instance – had to stand.
Inside, the walls were lined with mahogany book shelves. The bibles were in there somewhere. Hiding. Waiting. The Mother Superior sat behind a suitably ornate, authoritative, mahogany desk. It is where visitors to the school stopped before being escorted anywhere else. I do not know what she did behind that door; every time I was sent to speak with Mother, her hands were clasped around her rosary. I had the impression that I disturbed her prayers a lot; every time she looked up there was a tired, forlorn look in her eyes.
Twin staircases rose from either side of the lobby toward the second floor. The marble ended at the top – just out of sight.
Mahogany was a theme throughout the building. It was dark and impenetrable. Very little light made it into Our Lady of Perpetual Pain.
The entrance on my side of the building, the boys’ entrance, opened onto a small foyer barely wider than the doors. Twin steel staircases scissored back and forth towards the upper floors. Hallways on each landing provided access to the classrooms on the second and third floors and the teacher’s rooms on the fourth. Unescorted students were never allowed on the top floor.
Since boys and girls shared these stairs and passageways to get around the building – the girls’ entrance was only used to enter the school – steel mesh walls, the same heavy gauge, heavily painted metal that covered the windows enclosed the stairwells and divided the halls, keeping the sexes apart on the stairs and in the classrooms. I have a habit of mentioning movies and television shows to describe everyday activities; navigating Our Lady of Perpetual Pain reminded me of Stalag 17.
In the third grade, I developed a crush on a fourth grader from the other side of the wire. Most of the time, when the girls walked the halls, they marched as if in a processional, eyes fixed on the shoulder blades of the girl directly ahead, faces either naturally blank or lost in introspection. Mary Ellen Coffey was different but I cannot define how. She walked, talked and acted like every other girl in her class. Shedidn’t wear her plaid uniform skirt shorter (or longer, for that matter) than anyone else. There was never an extra button undone on her blouse. Her pleats were always starched and perfect. I noticed both. The silver cross she wore around her neck was the prescribed length and worn in exactly the same way as every other girl.
Mary Ellen’s cross was always perfect. It was the ID badge it was intended to be. Mary Ellen was a poster child. On the surface. That’s what my brain kept telling me, anyway. When I was near her I felt it, like some sort of individuality pheromone she let escape or allowed to slip past the facade. The reality, maybe (or probably), was that I had discovered horny ahead of the curve.
The boys wore similar crosses through the boutonniere hole on their jacket collar. Mine was always twisted or turned upside down. Sometimes it fell off altogether. I was always being told to stop fidgeting when I tried to fix it. I was never going to be asked to pose for photos in The Tablet or for any of the pamphlets the school mailed to parents. Somehow I never fit in. The occasional growth spurt left my pants too short. My shirt tails never stayed properly tucked. I had a permanently wrinkled, permanently disheveled look (made worse by the fact that Mom was never good with an iron). My differences were always on display or made public knowledge by ever vigilant teachers; they repeatedly felt the need to correct my slovenly deficiencies through mindless, repetitive exercises and lengthy punishments publically administered. I was often called to the front of the class to read some specifically tailored exercise. Why God Cries When My Shirt Tails Flap in the Breeze? was a personal favorite. I read it as the opening act to one of Mother Superior’s assemblies.
On one occasion, when the entire school was heading towards the auditorium for an assembly, I saw Mary Ellen’s class approach from the opposite direction. I tried to catch her eye and caught a fleeting glimpse of a smile and, less probably, a wink. I stuck my fingers through the wire mesh and wiggled them. A little secretive wave at the enticing Mary Ellen. It was an action without thought – at least what the nuns would call Christian thought – but not without consequence. I was fixated on the fourth grade love of my life but failed to take note of her teacher; nuns travelled with every class. The ruler was as much a part of her uniform as was her floor-length black robes and her beads and it struck my intruding fingers with a force only an eighty pound, eighty year old Bride of Christ can produce. I withdrew my digits with a yelp – repressing more than a few tears – and fast-stepped after my class. I was removed from the assembly for a talk with the Mother Superior. It was not my first; in truth, I was a regular on that seat outside her door.
I never got to speak to Mary Ellen. With my fingers red and bruised, I headed home. A block from my house, and away from the watchful eyes of the Good Sisters of Perpetual Pain, Bill Coffey passed me a note from his sister. Bill was in my class. A fellow third grader. He was shorter, squatter and heavier than me. The note offered a little encouragement. You didn’t cry. Good for you. The note came with a PS. Bill delivered a quick, powerful sucker punch straight to the gut. It knocked the wind out of me and doubled me over. I would like to say that he caught me by surprise but, in truth, I was never athletic. The only muscles I owned were in a Charles Atlas exercise book under my bed.
While I was still spitting and gasping for air, Bill added his own brief warning.
“Stay away from my sister, wop!”
I watched Bill Coffey trot off without a care in the world. When he turned the corner, I cried. Third graders do cry…when they can get away with it. I stayed on the street until I could dry my eyes and headed home.
Mom greeted me with a swift, and firm, slap to the face as I walked through the door. It, too, was a sucker shot. The Mother Superior had called. It was the fourth time I was struck in just under three hours. Hand, belly and butt still hurt. My face stung and burned red. I was beginning to run out of body parts.
“Why can’t you just behave?” Mom asked in her shrill, no-nonsense voice.
I wanted to say I didn’t do anything wrong. I wanted to protest. All I did was wave at a girl, for Chrissakes, but I would never have added the Chrissakes! Mom’s second slap would have reverberated throughout the neighborhood. Sinning before the Mother Superior was one thing; sinning before the Son of God…fuck, I would have been lucky if they still burned sinners at the stake in our Brooklyn neighborhood. I wanted to tell my mother that I liked this girl. She was cute. Your little boy is growing up, but I never got the chance. First of all, guys don’t talk that way to their moms and secondly, it wouldn’t have mattered. Mom was already in full rant mode screaming about embarrassing the family.
“Do you have any idea what they think of us?”
No, I thought to myself, but you’ll tell me. You always do. I grabbed my bag, an imitation leather case that buckled across the top and headed up the stairs towards my bedroom. I left Mom’s tirade behind me.
“That’s right…go to your room…and stay there…stay there until your father comes home…I’m sure he’ll have something to say…”
They certainly would have something to say. Mom would still be angry when he got home and the speech would be revisited but not with me. Dad would think it was all silly. That would be the word he’d
use. Silly. He might even wonder what all the fuss was about: his son waved at a girl. So what. I didn’t think Dad would come up the stairs. Dad rarely reprimanded me – I had to really…really work hard to get his attention; I was capable but waving at Mary Ellen just wasn’t Dadworthy – and he never cared what they thought of us at the school.
I lay on my bed and waited for the pain to go away. I fell asleep before it did.