Facing the Dark Side
When I was in the sixth grade at my Catholic school, I dreaded being promoted to seventh grade. Sister Mary Scary taught seventh grade. That nasty creature who floated around Saint John’s wearing Rome’s version of a burqa, but used a white frame to emphasize a face that was perpetually angry, who posed as a Catholic nun but was really the Wicked Witch of the West. That daughter of Satan himself, would have complete control of my life from eight to three every weekday, plus an extra hour at church every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation, when I would be forced to sit, kneel, or stand to watch men and boys dressed in feminine garb prance, kneel, sing, pray, and read in a dead language of which I understood nary ten words.
Saint John’s Church and School
Mom and Dad were delighted in June of 1958, when I handed them my report card with that depressing word emblazoned on the back cover: “Promoted!” To me, it said, “sentenced to nine months of suffering in Purgatory at the hands of evil.”
I worried all summer. My friend, Jimmy, who was a grade ahead of me reported the horrible carnage that he and others had endured at the hands of Lucifer’s daughter. Whatever the version of depression a 12-year-old boy could encounter, I’m sure I had it. Never, have I wanted a summer to pass more slowly.
My parents always supported authority over me. The nun, teacher, priest, cop, drunk adult, irate neighbor, or neighborhood tattle tale was always right. Ok, occasionally, they really were right. But from my point of view, my parents should have supported me – their son who they claimed to love. I could not discuss my fears about the nun with my parents.
My siblings had the “we survived, but you probably won’t” attitude and said as much. However, my older brother, Danny, did have some advice for me. “Be an altar boy. They like altar boys,” he said. That made sense to me. I would play their game to survive.
I worried enough about Sister Scary that I managed to get through seventh grade with minimal physical damage and mental distress. I passed academically, and I was home free. This time I was even more pleased than Mom and Dad that I was not held back. I had not shed one tear. I was doing well. My eighth-grade teacher was to be Sister Mary Wonderful, who was also the school Principal. Life was good again.
Toward the end of seventh grade, I was finally approached to join the exalted and glorious ranks of the chosen ones. I was asked if I wanted to be an Altar Boy. All my friends were becoming Altar Boys, and I wanted to be one, too. My brother, Danny, had been one, and it was what good Catholic boys did.
I accepted the offer from the Father O’Burts, logically assuming my parents would approve. I started learning the Latin prayers and talking to other boys about the process and the job. I was happy about it. My plan for eighth grade was to be one of the chosen. I even signed up for the school basketball team. I didn’t play well, but I was the tallest boy in my school. I began to look forward to my final year at Saint John’s.
Not So Fast
Then, as the skies darkened again, I had the familiar bad feeling. As September and the start of school approached, there was a shockingly frightful rumor. Sister Wonderful was being transferred, and Sister Mary Scary, the evil antagonist of my short life, was being promoted to school principal and would be moving up to teach eighth grade.
Oh, dear God, No! I was supposed to be done with her. But as every dependable source, including the church bulletin, soon validated, ‘twas da troot. The second coming of the Inquisition had been promoted to Principal of Saint John’s elementary school, and would teach 8th grade to my class. I knew that I could not survive another year. My only solace was knowing that, except for a few favored girls, the rest of my classmates were as upset as I was. The Altar Boy gig became critical.
So then, still expecting them to be pleased with the news, I decided to tell my parents that I was to be an Altar Boy. I expected them to be proud, if not overjoyed.
I was happy when I walked into the kitchen and sat down for dinner. She was at the sink behind me. “Mom, guess what? Fadder O’Burts as’t me ta be an altar boy. And I’ma gunna do it, too.”
I turned to look at Mom, smiling and all full-of-myself, at first. Then, severe shock set in when she turned and said, “No yer not!”
Dad looked up and added, “Like Hell, y’are! Yeh kin get dat idea outa yer thick skull right now.”
Dazed, I needed something quick – a prayer, to get sick, perhaps a deadly disease, anything. Desperation was overcoming me.
I was unaware that when Danny had been an Altar Boy, it was not a good experience. The logical consequence, of course, was that I was not permitted to follow, and my parents did not give one inch. Nor did they tell me why I was being denied my only hope to survive nine more months of the Black-veiled Horror. Today, I am glad that I was not part of that Altar Boy thing, but at the time, it was the worst possible news.
Quickly, I changed the subject. “Mom, Coughlin is 7th through 12th grade. Can I go there for 8th grade? I’ll be starting there fer 9th grade and high school the next year, anyway.”
She didn’t even look at me. “Now, Billy-boy. Why’d ya do dat? Jist graduate St. John’s then go to high school like your brother and sister did. After I see ya graduate Saint John’s, the Lord can take me. It’ll never happen again.”
“I will graduate from Coughlin High, Mom. And probably college too. So, the Lord can wait.”
With that, the food in Dad’s mouth came spewing out. He was choking and coughing and wheezing and trying not to die while laughing at my confidence. My wonderful summer was ending in embarrassment and darkness. I became angry and depressed again.
As It Happened
I was right. Eighth grade was worse than seventh for exactly the reasons that I had predicted. Even our basketball team suffered from the curse of the cruel Head Demon. Sister Mary Scary controlled every aspect of student lives – thus influencing their spiritual growth or decline. She and I were in constant struggle to have all of Hell on our side. That nun and I never had one good day. Eventually, we developed a healthy fear of each other as my size and strength worked to discourage many of her thoughts. Sister Scary promoted me to high school and out of Saint John’s. To this day, I’m certain that neither of us wished to deal with the other any longer than necessary. I was neither the first, nor that last, to be moved along to become someone else’s problem.
Age and experience change how we see our world.
Look both ways and mind the gaps.