Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Life in Uniform: Second Tour of Duty

All names have been changed except for Gertie and God.

I felt two uncooked T-bone hands on my shoulders: meaty, bony, and clammy at once. They pushed me into a chair in the anteroom of the principal’s office and held my head back. My eyes, still trying to adjust from being dragged indoors out of the sun and snow, could barely make out the white halo Sister Pauline’s habit formed around her face. She was the only nun in school who wore the habit, and oddly that tradition made her seem eccentric. I tasted blood in my mouth and thought I would vomit but had enough wits about me to realize that I liked The Flying Nun’s habit better. Nothing in my imagination could make me believe that this nun looming over me with -- what was it, concern or boredom? -- had any qualities in common with Sister Bertrille breezing through Puerto Rican skies rendezvousing with beautiful Carlos for high jinks and flirtation hardly befitting a woman of her station. This was nothing like that. No laugh track, no handsome Puerto Rican.

I’d been playing on The Hill. The Hill was a mountain of snow that appeared each year thanks to the plows that cleared the parking lot of Bishop Baraga Central Grade School. The Hill was the best spot to play despite its turn from snowy benignity to icy menace during the schizophrenic thaws and freezes of an Upper Peninsula winter. The student body regularly sported bumps and bruises thanks to The Hill, but on this day I had taken a grave dive and broken the fall with my face.

There was blood from my nose to my moon boots, but Sister Pauline, astute as a spatter analyst, sussed out the problem in seconds and clamped two fingers on the bridge of my nose like a vise cranked too tight. “Better?” she asked. I sat there silent for a few minutes thinking, No, not really. “Better,” she announced and declared my convalescence complete. The whole time she only spoke two words to me, actually, the same word twice. She turned me loose and I attempted to balance my head on my neck. It was better, no bleeding, no pain. If you look carefully, you can see a slight difference in my nose in pictures pre and post fall. I’m convinced I broke my nose that day and Sister’s quick thinking, two-fingered rhinoplasty kept me from looking like the losing end of a bare-knuckled brawl.

Because she saved my face and because, as the years passed, I learned that her quiet ways and austere style were representative of a deep devotion to a spiritual life and an enviable discipline, I asked Sister Pauline to be my confirmation sponsor. I was eighteen and sorely lacking in discipline or devotion. I needed Sister Pauline to help me get “better” again. The day I asked if she would honor me with her sponsorship, she simply smiled and said, “Yes.” I loved her. She’s gone now, but I think she’s watching over me because during punishing times I can hear her ask, “Better?” and when I’ve worked to put myself back together again, there’s no mistaking the sound of her humble certainty: “Better.”

Sacraments are, to use the parlance of a Catholic education, a heck of a big huge deal. There’s baptism, first reconciliation, first communion, confirmation, marriage, and holy orders (Those two are mutually exclusive unless you want to participate in the informal sacrament of “raging scandal that will follow you forever, possibly straight to Hell.”) and the anointing of the sick, formerly known as last rites. Try to stay away from that final one Reader until it’s absolutely necessary.

Reconciliation and first communion were paired in the same school year. Before we could even think about receiving communion, lots of practice went into our virgin visits to the confessional. We learned our acts of contrition; we knew the protocol of who said what to whom; our transgressions were locked and loaded and ready to fire. The night our class filed into the cathedral we all took a seat in a single pew; we were a chain gang linked together by nervous complexions and sin. We had a choice; we could talk to the priest behind the confessional screen or face to face. I was wary of the whole scene, but when my number came up I decided the only way to do it was face to face. If this man was going to judge, absolve, and sentence me, he wasn’t going to do it from behind a screen. He was going to see my 2nd grade hands shaking and my pathetic trembling lower lip. The problem was I had nothing to say. Later years would tell another story, but at that time I was a pretty good kid. I didn’t really do anything worth confessing other than act like a brat once in a while. I didn’t think with all the planning and getting dressed up and everything, saying I was a brat was really worthy of the occasion. This was a big show and it deserved a grand finale.

I walked in and sat in the chair opposite Father Louis. He looked at me. I looked at him. He squinted a little my way. I raised an eyebrow. He lowered his head and stared up at me. I turned in my chair and gave him a little of the hairy eye. He folded his hands in front of him and blinked deliberately. I thrust out my chin and flared my nostrils. This wasn’t my first reconciliation; it was a Sergio Leone movie. Suddenly I started to speak in tongues. Whose tongue? I don't know. It wasn't my tongue. I told stories of rotten things that I never did. “I stole Gertie’s girdles and hid them under the insulation in the attic for a week. She’s still itching. Instead of putting my quarter in the collection basket I took two out so I could buy Charlie’s Angels trading cards. I spit in the water fountain. I cheat at Candy Land all the time. I cheat on spelling tests too even when I know the words. I just like to cheat. I’m a big cheater Father Louis. I hide my vegetables in my napkin and throw them in the garbage even though Mrs. Bessinger told us to give thanks for our food and pray for those poor kids in China with no rice. I pinched my nephew to see if he’d cry" (well that one’s true), on and on it went. Father Louis, who knew me well, in fact he was at our house for dinner three times a week, was wise to me. He let me go on for a while, probably for the sheer entertainment of it all. “Ali” he finally interrupted, as I was about to confess to murder, “take a breath and go say five Hail Marys.” I asked him if I should still say my Act of Contrition. “Might as well.” So I did and went back to the pew to beg forgiveness for all my imaginary misdeeds. Later I found out that I had stayed in the confessional longer than anyone and subsequently developed a reputation for being a very sinful child.

On deck was first communion. It is a profoundly important sacrament, but kids rarely realize that until much later. For a little girl, the day is all about the dress. I had seen pictures of girls in their miniature wedding dresses at their first communion. A little creepy? Sure. But it was a chance to wear layers of lace and crinoline and maybe even a veil! I’d still like to know who had the swell idea of dressing us all as identical alter boys when it was my turn for first communion. All the pretty scenes in my head faded. I was foiled by uniforms again. In this case the clich√© is solid: a picture says a thousand words. Witness, if you will, Reader the great joy I was feeling on that day.

By virtue of being a parochial school we had our religious education during the school day, but because the public schools were not full service stations, their Catholic kids came to our classrooms every Wednesday night for catechism. The third grade thug who sat in my chair repeatedly tested my willingness to share and my patience. After several Thursday mornings of finding the contents of my desk a maelstrom of loose papers, I decided, “let go and let God” wasn’t working. It was time to “fight dirty and finish it.” The following Wednesday as I packed my bag at the end of the day I sneaked a note in my desk that read: “If you touch my Trapperkeeper one more time I’ll put a curse on this desk and the next time you sit in it you’ll probably die. That’s the truth because they teach us that stuff here.”

Sister Celine was my teacher that year. She looked and acted like her holy orders came courtesy of Quantico. For no good reason, she terrified me, and to this day I suffer post traumatic stress when I try to do math. My note had found its way from my desk to hers, and I felt like I was going to find my way from where I stood to a spot in Baraga’s tomb down by the lunchroom.

Sister Celine asked, “Alex, what is this?” No one called me Alex. She waved the paper back and forth. I imagined death by a thousand paper cuts.
“Well, what Alex?” That name…
“That’s a note.”
“A note to whom?”
“To that jerk that uses my desk for catechism.”
“What kind of a note is it Alex?” Wow, she could really put an edge on that “x”.
Sister Kelly of the Divine Spelling Words had done wonders for my confidence two years earlier, and I replied only a little tremulously, “It’s the first warning” and jumped a couple of quick steps back.
I believe I saw Celine the marine stifle a laugh. “What kind of shape was your desk in this morning?”
“Pretty good.”
She crumpled the paper and dropped it in the wastebasket. “Well Alex, I guess it worked.”

Those nuns were loose cannons, wild cards, question marks. I never knew what to make of them. Just when I thought I had pushed one to the limit, she would come to my rescue. On the one hand they frightened me, but I also admired them so much it made me consider putting on a habit myself for a minute. Then one day I took a good long look at Patrick Jarvis. Nope, the habit wasn’t going to be my bag.

Sixth grade was my final year at Bishop Baraga and it was all about change. It’s not that I can’t handle change, I just feel the best way to approach it is to imagine it’s a porcupine perched on a cactus clutching a bouquet of poison ivy and maybe a loaded gun. I was all nerves and suspicion. Our class moved from the lower wing of the school to the upper wing where all middle school kids lived. We had to cross the hall TWICE to change classes, trade in our jumpers for skirts and vests, and play Sisyphean games of kickball on a slanted field where low man on the totem pole spent every recess chasing the ball downhill through half of South Marquette just to see it kicked back there when the next player was up. My junior ulcer was just starting to hint around my stomach when the flier for basketball was handed out with the lunch menu one day. I brushed it aside like a math assignment and thought no more about it until the coach called our house a few days later to inquire why I hadn’t signed up. Apparently they needed eleven girls to make a team and there were eleven girls in our class. That math problem I could do and the answer was, “Oh s***, I have to play basketball.”

I had just cut loose of my Brownie uniform after enduring the churning of butter at one meeting (a pointless activity when there's an A&P a block away) and being forced to bob for apples at another meeting (unsanitary, humiliating, and gross). Now, I was donning yet another uniform to play a sport for which I had only a rudimentary understanding. We were the Baraga Colts. I felt like an ass. I knew you had to get the ball in that basket, but beyond that I was lost and no one thought it prudent to whip out an English to Basketball dictionary and help me brush up my vocabulary. Practices were fun but games left me cold. I did get to ride on the bus to exotic locales in Michigan like Ishpeming, Escanaba, Gwinn, and Negaunee. My uniform never suffered a crease or a sweat ring as I became well acquainted with the benches in every school, but when I was called in for a minute or two at the end of a game I was so confused I didn’t know what to do. Every time a ref called a five second penalty I figured it had to be me even though I was nowhere near the ball. What was a five second penalty? I figured it meant I couldn’t play for five seconds, so I would stand perfectly still in whatever position I found myself in and count to five before I started aimlessly wandering the court again. I cannot imagine why a coach, ref, some parent, MY parents didn’t ask why I was out there playing freeze tag while the rest of the girls were playing basketball. The only time I ever got my mitts on that ball was in the team picture. I think the coach felt sorry for me and threw me a bone, which I of course dropped and had to chase across the gym.

As surprisingly as it began with uniforms laid out on a six year old girl’s bed, my Catholic School career ended when my parents decided to enroll me in public school for two years before high school. I had fought going to Bishop Baraga; six years later leaving was unthinkable, but again, the decision wasn’t mine. School became a building after that and never again felt like a home.

My years in Catholic School taught me to speak up and fight back. They taught me that if you yell “Animal killer!” when your third grade teacher steps on a bug she will walk out and a very unhappy nun principal will take over the class for the day, and that’s not fun for anybody. I found that walking by Bishop Baraga’s tomb on the way to lunch every day is only scary for a couple of years and then you get over it. I discovered what it was to be part of a team even if I felt like I was playing a different game. I realized I could take a fall, get bloodied, and get up again. And Reader, in case you’re wondering, I did learn something about my religion. I learned about compassion, social justice, forgiveness, mercy, and that good works matter as much as ritual, all the things so often overlooked in the critical observation of the dos, the do nots, and dogma.

By example, the nuns and priests that influenced my early education, both religious and academic, showed me that you don’t have to worry and wring your hands all the time, that contrary to popular belief, Catholicism doesn’t exist for the sole purpose of making its members feel like crap about themselves. I know everyone’s experience is different and I can only speak to mine, but I never understood the phenomenon called Catholic Guilt. I’ve never felt it in my life. Kloster Guilt? For sure. But none of my teachers ever talked about guilt. I was taught that if you feel bad about something: pray, think, figure it out, and make it right. I certainly was never ordered to wallow in it. Perhaps most importantly, I was encouraged to discover that conformity does not equal holiness; we may have all been in uniform but our teachers wanted us to realize how unique each soul and mind were and that striving to reveal our purpose for being in this world brings us nearer to God than anything. I think maybe the old snowshoe priest Bishop Baraga would be pretty happy we were taught to be our best and most authentic selves. Could be that’s what he had in mind for us all along.


  1. My best friend always tells me I have serious "Catholic Guilt" problems. This never made sense to me since I am not a practicing I realize what it really is..."Kloster Guilt" :)

    These were both amazing. I laughed so loud in the hospital waiting rooms I think people think I am a wack-a-do! (Especially the pinching your nephew part...I knew that was true before you admitted to it!)

    Passing the computer over to my dad right now...if anyone will understand these posts it's him!

  2. Amazing. I'm already wondering what I could get on ebay for a signed, first edition. As if I could ever part with it.

  3. Man, does this bring all my Catholic School memories back, some good and some bad. We also had a "hill", it had steps from our many trips up and nice slides from our bottoms going down.

    Nuns have eyes in the back of their heads, that is what I learned from 11 1/2 years with the "sisters" Dominicans and Franciscans.

    Good job as usual. Love reading your blogs.

  4. Vivid...


    I don't know whether to laud you for your amazing words-into-pictures, or to condemn you for reminding how it (once) meant to be a catholic inmate.

    You excelled at both.

    The pictures you inspired will never fade...

    Dr Thom