Confessions of a Parochial Boy
… Of Pagan Babies and Chocolate Milk
When Charles Dickens began his classic novel, A Tale OF Two Cities, with the words: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness”, he may have been predicting my Catholic grade school experience.
“Si hoc legere scis nimium eruditionis habes”(1)
I was born in the summer of 1952, the son of Catholic and Eastern Orthodox parents.
Not long after my homecoming, my parents agreed that a coin flip would determine what church I would attend and what religion I would violate for the rest of my life.
My father, the Catholic, won the best-of-one coin toss on the second flip after accusing my mother, whom he had graciously given the honor of tossing the coin, of conducting an “improper flip”.
It was sometime after breastfeeding but before toilet training that my authoritarian overlords deemed that I should attend the local Catholic grade school.
Their decision was a practical one. My father, stunned that I had difficulty stacking more than two building blocks at a time, concluded that he hadn’t sired the next Ted Williams or Otto Graham. My mother, resolute in her hope that her first born son would resemble Tyrone Power, became crestfallen after the thrill of birth had dissipated, realizing that I bore a striking resemblance to her husband. Knowing that I could never rely on athletic prowess or matinee idol looks, mom and dad acknowledged that a quality education was my only hope for success.
Forced consignment to a Catholic grade school was quite a stigma. Parochial School was often considered a reform school for weird kids who were socially maladjusted. The really cool kids usually went to the public school. Oh, sure, some of them were juvenile delinquents and even more of them had trouble pronouncing their own names, but they were the kids we admired and the ones who got into trouble and always got away with it. The boys were the stars of the Little League and, later, the high school football teams, and were the ones who dated the cheerleaders and the majorettes, the really knock-out girls who also went to public school and who wouldn’t have been caught dead talking to a Catholic school boy.
So it was that in September 1958, I bid adieu to the bliss of my pre-school years and was ushered into the real world of first grade.
St. Edmund’s Catholic grade school was situated atop a hill just outside of my small home town. The campus was nestled amidst a grassy slope that served as our lunchtime playground and a rustic lower forty that still fosters fond memories of parish picnics and other summer outings. The campus consisted of two buildings, an upper one where grades one through four were interned and the lower building where the inmates from grades five through eight were housed. Nearby was a convent, the home of the school nuns, who would inculcate in us the four “Rs” of reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic … and religion.
I have but few memories of my first day of grade school. I recall a pleasant day and a classroom as clean and orderly as an army barracks and that exuded the sweet smell of Lestoil.
Sister Francine, our first grade teacher, was also the school principal. Crisp and proper in her black nun’s habit, she carried her ever-present rubber tipped pointing stick, which we were soon to realize as the parochial school billy club. Stern-faced and dour, the Good Sister was the Catholic school version of Scared Straight.
Once order had been established by our Warden, education commenced. We were soon introduced to a pair of phantom classmates …Dick and Jane. Though we were never informed of their destination, the two continued to run, doomed to exhaustion by their perpetual textbook treadmill.
One of the more fascinating institutions in grade school was the lunch milk program. Every Friday, students would submit a tan envelope containing twenty-five cents for the following week’s milk.
Shortly before lunch, eighth grade boys would deliver cases of milk to each classroom. Most of us would receive a red and white carton of bland, white milk that tasted as if taken from a cow that had digested too much melted cardboard. Once everyone had received their consolation prize, the dark brown cartons of chocolate milk, more coveted than an Isaly’s skyscraper ice cream cone, were distributed. The cool kids, the really cool kids, always drank chocolate milk. I was condemned to drink white milk, my mother insisting that the chocolate version would ruin my health and rot my teeth, no matter that I was a kid and my teeth were falling out, anyway. How we envied those Chocolate Milk Kids. They had rotten mothers who didn’t care about their kid’s health or if their kid’s teeth rotted. The really cool kids not only drank chocolate milk, they had really cool mothers, too.
An advanced degree in psychiatry was not required to predict what milk a kid would drink. The more bizarre-looking a kid was, the whiter was his milk. The good looking kids, the ones the nuns would always pick to play Joseph or John the Baptist or the apostles or Roman centurions in the school plays, would always have chocolate milk. The smug faces of those Fortunate Few, with their dark brown cartons of milk mocking us from their desktops, increased the feelings of inadequacy that gripped the rest of us. There can be little doubt that one of the most traumatic experiences in grade school was to be welded to a desk at lunch time, trying not to choke on white milk, while seated next to you was some wise-ass kid with perfect teeth slurping on his carton of chocolate milk.
Even worse was that not all the Chocolate Milk Kids were boys. The cute girls, the really cute girls, would drink chocolate milk, too. They, too, had rotten mothers who didn’t give a damn about their daughter’s molars. There is no doubt that the single most traumatic experience for a boy in grade school was to be welded to his desk at lunchtime, trying not to choke on his white milk, while seated next to him was a really cute girl with perfect teeth and a wise-ass expression on her face, slurping from a carton of chocolate milk.
Occasionally, the Chocolate Milk Boys would whisper things about the Chocolate Milk Girls. I never really understood what they meant and I left grade school never knowing if any of it was true. I do recall, though, that most of the Chocolate Milk Girls went to the public high school with the juvenile delinquents, the clueless, and the future felons from the public grade school. Those of us who were sentenced to those eight long years of white milk were also the ones condemned to the Devil’s Island of the area Catholic high school, where the boys were forced to wear the indignity of neck ties and suit jackets and the girls were required to wear uniforms that made them resemble real estate agents.
Catholic grade school youth were taught to embrace Faith, perpetuate Hope, and donate their parent’s money to a Charity deemed appropriate by the Church. At St. Edmunds, that charity was … pagan babies. None of us knew what the hell a pagan baby was or where they lived, but every month we were expected to submit that obligatory tan envelope stuffed with our parents largesse so we could save those damn pagan babies and, God forbid, if you were one of the rare kids who “forgot” his tan envelope the first of every month.
My father operated a small business at the time and knew a racket when he saw one. Every month he would cringe when I told him I needed fifty cents so that we could save those damn pagan babies (initially, my entreaties were directed at my mother who, after repeatedly ordering me to “go see your father”, led me to do just that). I could never answer his queries about those pagan babies and, eventually, he would relent and hand me two quarters. I always suspected that he knew that I would be humiliated if I didn’t contribute and that he may have been as terrified of Sister Francula as was everyone else in the parish.
I don’t think that my father had much regard for pagan babies.
My first grade experience was a typical one of learning new things, battling the malady not yet known as Attention Deficit Disorder (some called it Little Boy’s Disease back then) and suffering the misfortune of sitting next to the kid with the perpetual cold who always had snot dangling from his nose.
It was in the early Spring when we encountered a dilemma none of us would soon forget and one that would color our perception of a classmate for quite some time.
Frankie Simpson was an unassuming boy whose face appeared frozen with a look of perpetual pain, suggesting that he suffered from chronic constipation, and was exaggerated by a quizzical expression best described as dazed and confused. He seemed unable to grasp anything and when the Good Sister would recite “see Dick and Jane run” he was as likely to glance toward the window as he was to stare off into some far distance fantasy realm. Frankie Simpson belonged in public school.
It was shortly after lunch when it happened.
While engaged in whatever busy work that Sister Torquemada had given us, our full stomachs digesting our peanut butter sandwiches and moon pies, our attention was interrupted by a malodorous assault on our too young nostrils.
Frankie Simpson had just had an accident … in his pants.
The eruption, as if not severe enough, was exacerbated by what must have been a severe case of tropical diarrhea. Astonishingly, Frankie refused to leave his seat, hoping, perhaps, that if he just kept still, no one would notice. With the situation deteriorating, Frankie was ordered to the bathroom, too late, and an emergency call was made to the school janitor.
Gus the Janitor was a kindly gent in his late sixties and was, as luck would have it, engaged in his hourly cigarette break with, unbeknownst to the multitudes, our parish pastor. Unfortunately, only their good friend, Philip Morris, knew their whereabouts. After what seemed like hours, he arrived, bucket and mop in hand, and no doubt cursing the fact that he had discarded his World War I gas mask prematurely. By then, the “aroma” had wafted throughout the building, infesting all four classrooms. I suppose we will never know why Sister Francine did not evacuate the building, or at least the first grade, but we endured; thankful that Frankie Simpson had held it together during lunch.
I have no idea where “Stinky” Simpson is today, but I wish for him the very best in life and hope that his memories of grade school are as fond as mine, at least, for him, from the second grade onward.
As second graders at St. Edmund’s, we were about to embark on our own Age of Enlightenment, thankful for the summer months that allowed us to recover from the horrors of first grade. Though Sister Francine presided just across the hall from us, she was too busy enacting a new and improved Reign of Terror on her latest class of unfortunates to be much concerned with us. It was an exciting time as our grade swelled with new students who had enrolled from an adjacent community that had yet to finish construction of its own parochial school. Dick and Jane had raced to oblivion and we encountered new and challenging subjects. Soon, we were to experience a Catholic Rite of Passage known as First Holy Communion(2).
Though eager for the occasion, we were to confront a new and terrible roadblock to that moment: the Devil’s stepchild known as … SIN!
Sin was that terrible topic that was not to be addressed in the first grade and one that was too shameful for utterance in the second grade (remember that we were, after all, second graders. By the seventh grade, sin was all that most of us wanted to talk about). Apparently, during the three month summer lull that separated us from the second grade, a metamorphosis occurred and we returned to school the moral equivalents of La Cosa Nostra. Because a sinless state was a requirement to receive communion, the Catholic Church had deemed that the only solution to our moral reprobation was … First Holy Confession(3).
Confessions were heard every Friday at St. Edmund’s School because it was expected of us to attend church on Sunday and partake of communion. Though often voluntary, there would be hell to pay if you were one of the few who refused to blab his sins to our parish priest.
Our confessions were heard in the confessional, a box-like structure similar to a medieval Iron Maiden, which was located in a cramped and windowless supply room that suffered from oxygen deprivation. Once the door was closed, the room became nearly pitch black, and this Black Hole of Sin, made to resemble the blackest pit of Hell, was sure to frighten us to confess any sin that we had ever committed, whether we had committed them or not. In most cases it was the latter that was the problem.
As seven-year-olds, and, to some, beyond that, our ignorance of sin was almost universal and, if we did sin, most of us were barely aware of the transgression. It was confession time, however, and we had to confess something … or anything. To be speechless in the confessional at a Catholic school was tantamount to going to school naked. This meant that most of us sat at our desks, our brows covered in sweat, our small hands shaking, desperate to imagine a sin, any damn sin that we could tell the priest.
This was not true of every child. The cooler kids, or ones who had big brothers or sisters to counsel them in the finer points of sin, were well prepared on confession day. This brings to mind our grade school legend known as Charley “Chip-Chip” Swanovich.
Swanny was a walking sin encyclopedia and if you needed a sin, Chip-Chip was the kid to see. He could have made a fortune selling sins but, thankfully, he had yet to embrace the American concept of Greed.
A typical negotiation with Charley went something like this:
“Chip, what am I gonna tell the priest?”
“Aw, that’s easy. Tell ‘em you had impure thoughts about Jan Krumpka.” (Jan Krumpka was the cutest girl in the class with long curled hair, a dazzling smile and sugar-sweet eyes that would have melted Mt. Rushmore. It was a matter of time before she would manufacture more impure thoughts than a pole dancer).
… It was then that I asked the first profound question of my life: “what …what’s … ahh … impure thoughts?”
“It’s … you know …”
“C’mon … it’s, you know, the opposite of pure thoughts.”
“Chip, I don’t have pure thoughts of Jan Krumpka!”
“Forget it … just tell ‘em you swore last week.”
“I tell ‘em that every week … he’s starting to catch on.”
“Well, then tell ‘em you lied.”
“I tell ‘em that every week, too … he doesn’t believe me anymore!”
Before Chip-Chip could offer his sure-fire can’t miss sin, our talks were shattered by a stern “Swanovich, it’s your turn to confess”. Shrugging his shoulders, Charley would just look at me with that famous smug expression on his face.
In my years at St. Edmund’s, no kid ever entered the confessional better prepared and with more confidence than “Chip-Chip” Swanovich
Once secured in the death row cell of the confessional, we knelt before a screen. Who was on the other side of that screen? Was it the pastor or the assistant pastor? Was it …GOD! For all we knew it might have been the janitor, anxious to make a few extra bucks. Had Sister Vampira smuggled our mothers into school, instead, to spy on our sins so that when we went home for the weekend they mysteriously knew everything evil that we had done, allowing them the ready made excuse to banish us from playing outside until we got married?
Shaking, and with broken voices, we then uttered the words that no Catholic kid will ever forget: “Father, forgive me, for I have sinned”. What followed was the usually boring litany of “I swore seven times last week” (did the priest actually believe that we kept score), and “I lied five times last week”. The third sin was always the problem (three sins were considered acceptable; more and you faced banishment to the public school), and was normally the wild card of “I talked back to my mother three times last week”, a “fib” if there ever was one since any priest knew that talking back to your mother was more dangerous than spitting at a member of Hell’s Angels. By the fourth grade, the good priests of St. Edmund’s must have feared that the school was overrun with devious, spoiled brats with the vocabulary of longshoremen.
Once the mystery guest behind door number three absolved us of our sins, we were then given a number of prayers to recite for our penance. It is here that a curious paradox was presented. Because most of us hadn’t really committed sin, or any that we actually understood, we entered the confessional in a stainless state. Then, in a bold act of maturity, we lied about sins that we said that we had committed but hadn’t and, once absolved of those sins that we said that we had committed but hadn’t, we left the confessional, not in a sinless state like we were before confession, but, suddenly, in a sinful state because we were much too embarrassed to admit to the priest that we had just lied to him about sins that we said that we had committed but hadn’t.
After this Magnificent Deception, we sat at our desks, dutifully reciting our silent prayers of penance for sins that we said that we had committed but hadn’t. We were relieved, at least. We had another whole week to invent sins to tell the priest that we had committed but hadn’t.
Surely, we were all going to Hell!
As our grade school years passed, Sexism became the norm in the world of Catholic grade school sin. Mostly, boys were expected to sin, its stain, a badge of honor. Our mothers may have been horrified at the very thought of their little apostles sinning but our fathers would express mock indignation, then turn away with a smile, secretly proud that their sons were, indeed, chips carved from the original block and proof that we were on our way to becoming men.
There was something appallingly wrong with any Catholic grade school boy who didn’t sin.
There was an entrenched double standard that applied to the girls, however. They were the angelic beings, pure and perfect and all of them little Angela Cartwrights(4). Not only would they never do any of the gross things that any normal boy would, they didn’t sin, either. It was a different time and sin was not expected of any girl until after she was married.
One such girl was Gina Spinagini, or as we called her, Gina Spaghetti. This immaculate female occupied the desk in front of me in the second grade and we were quick to become friends, talking to each other whenever possible. Occasionally, we would play tic-tac-toe and whenever I glanced at her innocent doe-eyes, a feeling strange and pleasant but not yet understood would seize me.
I could never imagine her confessing that she had cursed or lied or shoplifted everything that she could grab from the local candy store.
Sadly, any girl suspected of sin was worthy of public school and was branded forever by our mothers and the nuns with a gigantic crimson “S” on her forehead.
All was not lost for these Girl-sinners, however, as they attracted boys the way sugar attracts ants. Nearly every boy was in awe of the Girl-sinner and desperately wanted her as a friend.
I’m sorry to say that Girl-sinners were all too rare at St. Edmunds.
It wasn’t until high school, or the sixth grade or so for the public school girls, that Catholic school girls achieved coveted Fallen Woman Status. At that time they morphed from precious little angels into wily young Eves who had eaten the apple from the Tree of … “I’m a Girl and We’re the Same Age but I’m More Mature Than You so I’m Going to Manipulate You and Wrap You Around My Little Finger and Crush You Between My Sly Little Hands and, Besides, I’m Better Than You, Anyway”.
What the girls didn’t realize is that the boys couldn’t wait for it to happen.
Life is a series of happenings where its door opens to our future and closes to our past. At St Edmund’s, one such happening was the day we entered the fifth grade, that time when we left our little-kid years of the upper building to join the big kids in the lower building. We had finally escaped the daily scrutiny of Sister Robespierre and we felt as though we had matured beyond our young years.
Happiness ruled our lives but then came that terrible day when it was time to draft the altar boys.
It was late in the school day when Sister Francine, with our pastor, Father Leo, stormed through the classroom door like thought police from an Orwell novel and proclaimed that a quarantine had been imposed and would not be lifted until the quota of altar boys had been filled. Wielding her ever-present pointer, the Good Sister surveyed every boy in the class, while Father Leo stood nearby, too terrified to speak, and chose which unfortunates would be dispatched to four years of forced labor at the altar of our local church.
Slumping in the last seat in a middle row, I felt strangely detached from the proceedings, certain that I was somehow shielded from scrutiny. For an instant,my eyes shyly drifted upward from my desk and were met by the steely gaze of Sister Francineastein.
“ … What about Rayne … he lives a couple hundred yards from the church. He can walk to church. Rayne … you’re an altar boy!”
I had been drafted!
Being an altar boy was quite an honor …for the poor kid’s mother. For the eight of us who had been forced to join this holy chain gang it meant staying after school to learn a language that hadn’t been spoken in two thousand years (the Latin mass was still prevalent in the sixties), and getting up at an ungodly hour of the morning to serve weekday masses that attracted seven or eight fanatics. None of this, however, compared to the humiliation of wearing the altar boy suit.
The vestments required of an altar boy consisted of a cassock, an ankle-length black garment that buttoned in the front and resembled a crude evening gown, and a surplice, a knee-length white tunic with pleats and puffy sleeves that made the most masculine of altar boys appear ready to float away to NeverNeverLand with Peter Pan. Besides looking like a first class weenie, the outfit made any boy appear gender-confused, as if not sure if he really was a boy.
There were but two ways to escape this servitude: being expelled from St. Edmund’s … or death. Unfortunately, Sister Francine, reveling in our misery, was prone to overlook our most egregious offenses, and Death, though unthinkable, often became a realistic option whenever any of us faced a full length mirror attired in our black and white weenie outfit. Because escape was futile, especially when noticing our mothers beaming with pride while we paraded like penguins on that holiest of stages (and our fathers hid their heads in shame), we quickly gave up hope for Lent, and counted the days until we were paroled from our sacristy of spiritual service.
I experienced the usual hi-jinks of the altar boy. There were the times when I served masses alone because the other boy was too lazy to get up in the morning, forgetting my Latin responses, that terrible Sunday when I burned too much incense, creating panic for those in the congregation who had not yet passed-out, and stumbling in embarrassment whenever I noticed a cute girl in the first pew who was smiling at me.
My altar boy experience was a generally positive one. I earned some cash serving several weddings and funerals and was voted captain, a hollow victory-by- conspiracy, I suppose, since no one else wanted it. On the morning of November 25th, 1963, I was one of four boys to serve our parish’s memorial mass for President John F. Kennedy, who had been assassinated the previous Friday.
In late May of 1966, I served my final Catholic mass. Later that year, my altar boy vestments were relegated to their final indignity as my mother, who actually asked if I wanted to save them for posterity, altered them and gave them to her favorite niece … as a Halloween costume.
Mid-May is that blessed time of the year when its longer days herald the coming of summer, and it was that time in 1966, our stay at St. Edmunds nearly gone, when Sister Francine announced that there would be a graduation mass and a breakfast where our diplomas would be awarded. Our class was the first to complete all eight grades at St. Edmunds and, that day, I saw the Good Sister in a different light. There was a warmth that exuded from her and she seemed genuinely proud of us.
Our grade school years were ones of contrasts. We endured the usual childhood maladies of the flu, chicken pox, the measles, and thanks to one unfortunate classmate, vaccine shots to protect us from Hepatitis B, that earned, for him, our everlasting enmity.
We discovered that life was not about play but was a serious matter to be respected and appreciated. We suffered no bullies and made real friends for the first time in our lives. Though often strict, our teachers imparted knowledge to us that exceeded the lessons from our textbooks, and ones that would serve as a foundation for our adult years.
We crossed off each day on the calendar during those long ago dog days of August, dreading the start of another school year, and did the same in May as the looming release of summer vacation, with its magical offerings, tempted us to gaze from the classroom windows at the playgrounds of our youth rather than at the blackboard. The teachers seemed tolerant of our reverie, perhaps recalling their own youth, and I suspect that even Sister Francine smiled when the final school bell of the year meant three months of tomorrows where our most urgent responsibilities were playing baseball, popsicles, breaking in new sneakers, and staying up as late at night as we could.
I graduated second in my class, finishing behind one of my best friends who, in what seemed like an ancient time, would talk to himself as he ate his lunch and drank his white milk. Thanks to a nomination by Jan Krumpka, the girl who was sure to choose me to be her teammate in any of the boy-girl activities, I delivered the final speech at our graduation breakfast. I spoke of the friends that we had made in our time at St. Edmunds.
That afternoon, a gang of us toured the streets and the hills and the valleys of our kingdom, our subjects unmindful of our royal entourage.
We laughed and joked and teased each other, singing the lyrics of any Beatles song that came to mind.
The time was carefree, sweet, and good.
We were no longer classmates, but brothers and sisters who shared a special bond. We had endured and achieved and passed the thresholds of the first challenges of our lives.
As we marched through the meadows and past the cornfields and pastures of the place we called home, the caress of the brilliant June sun brightened our mood. We were oblivious to the shadows on the horizon of war and the draft, of demonstrations and dissent and assassinations. Those were dark times for the days ahead of us and our experience of them would shape us as profoundly as our grade school days.
For now, we had sipped from the cup of success and the aftertaste would sweeten our lives through the summer months that followed.
St. Edmunds is gone now, its dying days hastened by declining enrollment. Its buildings remain, though, and on those rare occasions when I pass by them I can still hear the echoes of happy children at recess and see the ghosts of even happier children pouring from the buildings on the last day of school or dashing through the snowflakes from an early dismissal for the Christmas break.
In the mid-seventies, I rekindled a friendship with a former classmate. She was kind and shy with long, dark hair and large dark eyes that touched me as much then as they did long before. We spoke of special things but circumstances and careers and distance would turn what might have been to what would never be.
In 1977, I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. I’m blessed that the seeds of my salvation were planted by the good priests and nuns of St. Edmunds.
My mother passed away not long after St. Edmunds was shuttered. I was her son to the end and as time passed she didn’t mind it so much that I never resembled Tyrone Power. She always said that I looked better.
It’s time to go.
I think I’ll pour myself a good, stiff drink.
It’ll be milk on the rocks … white milk.
… Oh, did I tell you that I have great teeth?
Disce quasi semper victurus vive quasi cras moriturus …
("Learn as if You will Live Forever; Live as if You will Die Tomorrow")
Note: The names here have been changed to protect … the guilty
(1)“If you can read this, you have too much education.”
(2) A ceremony of the Catholic Church, in which a child receives, for the first time, the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.
(3) The Sacrament of Penance, in which a penitent confesses both his mortal and venial sins to a priest, who, given the authority by Jesus, absolves the penitent of those sins.
(4) 1950s and ‘60s era television actress who portrayed Danny Thomas’s stepdaughter from 1957-1964 on the hit series “Make Room for Daddy”.