I was in fifth grade, in a new-to-me Catholic school in Pennsylvania, having recently moved from Trenton, New Jersey (and another, vastly more benevolent Catholic school) just across the river. First day in class I witnessed a kid getting a thorough thrashing at the hands of a nun, violently ripping the boy’s white dress shirt from his back in the process. I’d never witnessed anything like that in my previous school. When I told my parents, they said that when they were young, corporal punishment in school was accepted. They assumed the kid must have deserved the beating.
Eventually I’d done something wrong… but exactly what it was now eludes me. What I do remember is that the nun demanded I tell my parents to come to school and speak with her.
At the time, life at my home was quite chaotic: Mother on the nasty end of a bipolar disorder, a younger brother with asthma, a kid sister with Nephrosis and a 50-50 chance at living. (She made it and now has children of her own). My father drank, trying to dull the despair over the realization that he’d fallen hopelessly in love with a mean, unstable woman. A school disciplinary situation would have turned an already bizarre household into a nightmare. I didn’t want to be a part of that.
Hell, I never told my parents about all the beatings I received at the hands of those vengeful women. None of them thought much of boys. What could the world have thrown at these women that they’d devote their lives to teaching children what rotters little boys were. Some of them shouldn’t have been allowed around children in the first place. Never mind the priests when I hit high school. That’s another post altogether.
Of course this complicated home life was embarrassing to me as a kid, so I didn’t tell the nun the reason I wouldn’t be bringing my parents into our dispute. I just didn’t cooperate. She retaliated by making me stand against the wall at the side of the class until I did.
The exercise became a battle of wills between my ego and the nun. Each day I took my place cheerfully, doing lessons at the side of class, rolling my eyes, snickering, joking and flirting with the girls whenever the nun turned her back. I’d correctly answer any pop quiz she threw at me when she assumed she’d caught me not listening.
Since I could make eye contact with virtually everybody in the room, I got as much attention as the nun. After a week, I was a school hero—talk of the recess yard— kids looked up to me for my dissent. The other nuns sneered at this Trenton punk’s brazen challenge. At eleven years old, I became the martyr who stood for us kids in the face of totalitarianism. While I couldn’t have articulated the concept as well at the time, it sure felt good.
Three weeks went by before the nun told me I could sit down. Sometime later, she took me aside and said that even though she was angry I’d won the round, she still admired my determination and fortitude. I never told her why I wouldn’t comply. I did say that I would’ve spent the rest of the school year standing. She believed me. She never challenged me again with something so egregious, but never really appreciated me either.
I’m sure she was pressured to acquiesce by other nuns who saw that something like this could get out of control. Beating was far more effective.
But I’d quickly connected with an entire school of kids.