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.
Dumb kids were also tougher than smart kids, as a rule. You didn’t last long on the playground with the dumb kids if you were unwilling to take a swing at somebody, or were too afraid of getting hit. I was not particularly brave, or tough, but I had fallen off my bike at a young age and, to my mother’s horror, broken one of my front teeth. Thankfully, this was before the age of universal cosmetic dentistry in America. Throughout grade school, my broken tooth gave me a degree of rough-and-tumble cred that was as invaluable as it was false. I had also observed—and moving from school to school gives a kid a broad sample—that you usually had to hit somebody only once to be considered dangerous enough to be left alone. Drawing blood guaranteed actual respect. At St. Joseph’s, a popular activity was humiliating the weak kids by dropping them into the “spit pit,” an outdoor stairwell that led down to the school’s basement. Victims would be spat upon as they tried to escape up the steps. I bloodied the mouth of the first bully who suggested such a fate for me, immediately claiming the status of legendary playground thug.
Such were the invaluable lessons of the dumb kids’ class. So when the nuns promoted me to the smart kids’ class midway through the school year, I had the best of both worlds. Overnight, I was anointed with academic potential, a designation all the more meaningful because I had earned it. Arriving with my broken tooth and dumb-kid rep, I instantly became the most feared and respected student in my new classroom. It was too much success for a 12-year-old to handle. Soon after my first elevation, I remember my new seventh-grade teacher roughly pulling me aside on the playground and announcing that my head was so big, she wished she could “just pop it with a pin!” This was a disturbing concept, and still occasionally visits my dreams: a towering, wrathful nun, pink face wrapped and pinched in starched white linen, wielding a huge pin pulled from some obscure corner of her habit. This was the closest any of the good sisters ever came to abusing me, if you don’t count the Fátima message. Still, given my swaggering self-importance, she showed saintly restraint.
I relished my role as the bad boy among the goody-goodies. Once, in the second half of eighth grade, our nun, a kindly old soul, fell asleep at her desk while I was reading aloud the answers to the previous night’s homework from her teachers’ edition of our math book. She would award this privilege to a student who had performed especially well on a test, so what I did next was abject betrayal. Before nudging her back to awareness, I read out the answers to the next few homework assignments. This was the kind of thing a dumb kid did without thinking, but among the smart kids, it was considered daring and ingenious.
The combined efforts of Saints Petronille, Peter, and Joseph failed to make me a religious man, but my Catholic-school years shaped me in many ways. The nuns taught us to think about big things, about the whole sweep of life and death and right and wrong. Such thoughts could be disturbing, but they were valuable. The nuns taught us that the capacity for evil is real and present in this world, especially inside ourselves. They taught us to at least consider the moral implications of our actions and ideas, and they showed us that real goodness is in giving up something not when doing so is easy, but when it is hard.
Nevertheless, some of the best lessons came from my “dumb” classmates, and those two midsemester promotions. It’s well and good to enjoy the world’s esteem, I learned, but better still to be underestimated.