Catholic school was not the ordeal for me that it apparently was for many other children of my generation. I attended Catholic grade schools, served as an altar boy, and, astonishingly, was never struck by a nun or molested by a priest. All in all I was treated kindly, which often was more than I deserved. My education has withstood the test of time, including both the lessons my teachers instilled and the ones they never intended.
In the mid-20th century, when I was in grade school, a child’s self-esteem was not a matter for concern. Shame was considered a spur to better behavior and accomplishment. If you flunked a test, you were singled out, and the offending sheet of paper, bloodied with red marks, was waved before the entire class as a warning, much the way our catechisms depicted a boy with black splotches on his soul.
Fear was also considered useful. In the fourth grade, right around the time of the Cuban missile crisis, one of the nuns at St. Petronille’s, in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, told us that the Vatican had received a secret warning that the world would soon be consumed by a fatal nuclear exchange. The fact that the warning had purportedly been delivered by Our Lady of Fátima lent the prediction divine authority. (Any last sliver of doubt was removed by our viewing of the 1952 movie The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima, wherein the Virgin Mary herself appeared on a luminous cloud.) We were surely cooked. I remember pondering the futility of existence, to say nothing of the futility of safety drills that involved huddling under desks. When the fateful sirens sounded, I resolved, I would be out of there. Down the front steps, across Hillside Avenue, over fences, and through backyards, I would take the shortest possible route home, where I planned to crawl under my father’s workbench in the basement. It was the sturdiest thing I had ever seen. I didn’t believe it would save me, but after weighing the alternatives carefully, I decided it was my preferred spot to face oblivion.
At the schools I attended, each grade level was divided in two. Teachers observed their charges’ performance, and sorted them accordingly. Even in that euphemism-deprived period, no adult ever labeled the two academic tiers explicitly, but we children saw the truth. There was the smart kids’ class, and there was the dumb kids’ class.
It was the same in all three of the parochial schools I attended. My family moved twice: from Glen Ellyn, where I attended St. Petronille’s through sixth grade; to Port Washington, Long Island, where I attended St. Peter of Alcantara for seventh grade. After a year, we left Long Island for Maryland, where I attended eighth grade at St. Joseph’s, in Cockeysville. These were formative years, from age 11 to 14, from boyhood to adolescence. And both times we moved, I began the school year in the dumb kids’ class. Judging by my yellowed report cards, it’s safe to say that the nuns at St. Petronille’s had been merely whelmed by my potential. Since the nuns at the new schools had never met me, they decided to start me in the class where expectations might be more easily met.
Children are exquisitely attuned to the way adults size them up, so there was never any mystery about where anyone stood. Those of us in the dumb kids’ class took it as a badge of honor. Smart kids were pampered kiss-asses, overly concerned with pleasing teachers and parents. Dumb kids took no shit. With the burden of expectation lifted, we were unafraid, boisterous, occasionally defiant, and generally up to all manner of mischief. Dumb kids were fun. My bet is that when a comprehensive inventory is made of my generation, it will be found that not one person from a smart kids’ class was ever expelled from a Catholic elementary school. If there was trouble to be had—stealing wine from the sacristy, sneaking into the basement to smoke cigarettes, peering up the stairwells at girls’ underpants—the dumb kids got there first.