I grew up Catholic. My parents both came from Catholic homes, and graduated from Boylan Central Catholic High School. My grandparents, and great-grandparents, and family a ways back? All Catholic, to my knowledge. I took it upon myself to break a long-standing tradition, it seems.
Growing up, I spent most of my church masses across town at my parent’s old stomping grounds of St. Edward’s Parish. At one time, my grandmother used to keep house there for Father Murphy. He was the fellow who baptized me, and seemed an omnipresent influence in my formative years. I remember his sermons fondly. And for a kid who was trying hard to understand why it was necessary to hang a giant cross with a macabre visage of a dead man on it, as well as remain awake during mass, that was saying something.
What made Father Murphy’s sermons unique (in my experienced comparison of a number of other sermon-givers, anyway) were his knack for knowing his audience, and his uncanny ability to infuse humor into oft-somber topics. Even as a young boy, I got a lot of his jokes. Trust me, that’s a gift of oration in action.
For those of you who think Catholicism is evil, and that all priests are pedophiles, I wish that you could have known Father Murphy. And while I cite myself as a ‘recovering Catholic’, whose faith never really stuck (I believe in God, for the record), I don’t bemoan my ‘Catholic experience’ in the slightest.
My grandmother not only kept house for the good Father, she was also heavily instrumental in helping in a number of ways to develop the church entity as a whole. I can’t even begin to describe the sheer time, energy, and money this single woman brought to bear from the less-than-modest means available to her. A lot of what I learned about what it truly means to be generous, I learned from her. It’s funny how I’ve only now just considered this.
As a Catholic child, I attended St. Bernadette’s grade school. It was a place where I forged my first new friendships outside the comfort zone of my neighborhood. Sadly, scant few of them remain in any significant way today. Oh, sure, I still have a handle on a couple of folks. But for the most part we haven’t interacted in any meaningful way in decades.
Even in kindergarten, I somehow found myself branded as one of the ‘uncool’. It was a shroud of exclusion that I bore thereafter, all the way through high school. For as tough as that was, I don’t regret it. It was a component of shaping me into who I am today.
Part of the problem, I think, was my age. I began school a year earlier than most. I’m guessing that my parents had their hands full with me. Seeing that I was just precocious enough for the public school system to provide them a respite, I’m guessing they did everything in their power to make it happen.
Hell, I would have.
I remember on the playground (before school, and during recess) we’d play ‘pterodactyls’ – a game which basically consisted of us emitting high-pitched shrieks, flapping our arms, and running around like meth addicts trying to make certain they never got laid. And bumper cars. Oh, bumper cars. We would fold our arms across our chests, and try to knock one another down. This, sadly, was the single sport that I have ever been better than anyone else at.
Also present were Hot Wheels and Star Wars toys. These were the de facto currencies of the worshipped. I remember one of my early friends, Todd Boatman, was an only child. As such, it was apparently incumbent upon his parents to help his toy arsenal outshine any of his remaining classmates’ by a factor of ten. Trips to Todd’s toy box were like a pilgrimage to the Kaaba for the 4-8 year old set.
Wait – that sounded mildly perverted.
Meh – oh well.
As a child, I often found myself afflicted with severe ear infections. I recollect spending more days home than any kid I knew at the time, and burning through medication after medication (each progressively more vile) in a vain attempt to stop me from lying still and crying for hours. I’ve shut out a lot of those memories, but the pain was some of the single most excruciating that I’ve ever endured.
Often, I would be sent to school in the hopes that I could make it through the day. I was missing so much class that my parents were concerned about me being held back. Even so, I still found myself in the Principal’s office on numerous occasions as I waited for my chariot and driver to arrive early to fetch me. What was odd was that I was intrigued by the fellow who held the top post at the institution. His name was Joe McDaniel (whose brother, Mike, I would meet later on in life, and who is a totally righteous dude in his own right). I remember him as a decent fellow (no, he’s not dead). I would insert myself into his day, in an attempt to keep my mind off of the discomfort and boredom one-two punch I was experiencing. Instead of being annoyed, he acquiesced to my interloping. We’d have conversations that, as I recall, bordered on philosophical. I took to calling him Joe, seeing no problem in doing so. It wasn’t meant as disrespect. Rather, I looked upon him as a friend. I’d love to hang out with him again, even for just a single evening. I believe that he’s retired to Florida, though, so that’ll probably never happen.
One odd memory that I have is of the mature oak tree at the southern entrance of the school. It was the first time in my life that I had ever seen acorns, and I thought the things were just absolute masterpieces of design. I would marvel at them, in their differing stages of life cycle, mesmerized by the ingenuity that had to have gone into creating one. Seriously, if you’ve never done so, check out acorns. They’re amazing.
Part of my activity during my time at St. Bernadette was singing in the choir. I have no idea (I should probably ask, come to think of it) how I got involved in it in the first place. My father has a rich, deep singing voice. That much I do know. So perhaps he, or my Mother, saw something in me that they wished to nurture. That, or they were looking for more time to recuperate on occasion from the thankless job of raising me. Either one works.
Choir was overseen by Mr. Pratt. I remember three things about him: he drove a black 442 with gold effects, he was balding, and he annoyed the living daylights out of my parents. I vaguely remember practice, and I vaguely remember that I learned a lot about singing during my short tenure in the group. I also recall his pushing hard for me to join the Kantorei. My parents let it be my decision, and I was too young to see how that would present anything other than a dent in my play time. I declined.
Mr. Pratt was persistent to a fault. To his credit, I’d like to think that he saw something singular in me. One of the few things I can do well is sing. I listened to music at an early age, and honed my range (accidentally, of course) by trying to perfectly mimic every singer I sang along with. To this day, my range is all over the map. I LOVE karaoke, and once even sang center-stage at The Mall of America in front of four-tiers of onlookers and a full audience. It was friggin’ memorable.
All of this foundation, however, was undermined by a single Nun.
My third grade teacher was Sister Valentine Marie. She was known as the sternest figure in the school. My first run-in with her was when I was in first grade. I had received a die-cast car for Christmas, only to lose it on the playground. I reported it lost, and it was quickly found. I was told to head to her classroom to pick it up.
She played the ‘not so fast, kid’ card.
The first thing I noticed, above all else, was the smell of peanut butter. I have no idea what the candies were, but she was eating one (and, I’d learn later, did so often) and it was overpowering as she spoke to me.
“>So and so< found your car.”
“Can you describe it?”
“It’s long, and orange?”
“Okay.” Here, she retrieved it from her upper desk drawer. “>So and so<? Come up here, please.”
At this point, the summoned boy (and my new hero) appeared on my right.
“This,” she said, “is >So and so<. He found your car. Before I give it to you, you need to thank him, shake his hand, and agree to say ten Hail Mary’s for him.”
This, folks, was how I got my car back.
So: third grade.
I think we were still in the early days of the school year when Sister Valentine Marie, to my way of thinking, went totally nuts. For whatever reason, she made it known to us that boys were all evil. Over the course of days, and then weeks, she would hammer this point home: women ruled, men drooled. It all came to a head when she decided that she was upset with one particular boy in our class. At the end of the school day, she told all the girls how good they were, and sent them off.
All of the boys were commanded to stay.
We didn’t understand this. This had never happened. The whole school was letting out. It was a nice, sunny day (that, I remember). We were told that, because of whoever’s actions, all of us were to be punished. Further, if any one of us acted up – from here on out – there was to be more of the same.
My inner monologue was asking all sorts of questions, as we were told to sit in silence. The minutes ground away. Soon, a quarter hour had gone by. The parking lot was nearing empty. Parents had begun to make their way in, trying to figure out what in the hell had happened to their kids. They were met at the door with a stern warning to remain outside. That a punishment was under way.
The group got larger. Someone had the presence of mind to involve the Principal. For whatever reason, he declined to intervene.
This single event caused an exodus of kids from St. Bernadette’s Catholic, to Summerdale public elementary. I, and a number of my then friends, found ourselves making the move. Our parents, it seemed, had had enough of Sister Valentine Marie’s shenanigans (which they had heard about all along, but which were clearly getting worse).
I don’t know whatever became of her. I mean this in the nicest way, too: I don’t really care. She was the only teacher I never liked, and who never taught me something meaningful. Which is sort of sad.
From then on, until the time I went to high school, the public school system was my home away from home.
Heath D. Alberts – Co-Founder & Marketing Director
Author of: ‘Terminal Beginning‘ (2010) | ‘Guerrilla Business‘ (2012) | ‘The Battery Man‘ (2013) | ‘Last Rights‘ (2013) | “Deeper” (2014) | ‘Photographic Memory‘ (2014) | ‘Guerrilla Business 2.0‘ (2015) | ‘Not On The List‘ (2015)