SJSA Grade Six - The Year I Rebelled
Let’s go back a year to sixth grade. This was a pivotal year in my career at SJSA. I set records that probably were never matched until the school closed and the building was leased to the Chicago Public Schools. This year for the first time in my young life I did form, express, and hold onto my own opinion which ran counter to the opinion held by someone who was not only an adult, not only a teacher, but a nun to boot! I also fought back against a system that was treating me what I considered unfairly. This first taste of independence did come with a cost, but it was a cost that I happily and proudly paid. If I had to do it over again, I would do the same thing today as I did back then. Question; was I grown up then or am I still a child now?
Sister Margaret Jean was a firm believer in the Teacher’s Pet System. She had her pets and a small stable of snitches and they served her loyally and well. Some of her pets had their “petdom” passed down to them from siblings and they were really part of a Pet Dynasty. Very often these pets didn’t do anything themselves to deserve being a pet, perhaps a sibling had sold a lot of chocolate that year and this was the school’s way of saying thanks. Sister came up with an idea that we would have a class play, invite the parents and just generally show off our talent. I thought that was a grand idea and she had my full support. It was to be a play where some missionaries helped some poor people. Okay, not exactly an original idea, but hey she was a nun! So with a slight reservation, I mentally approved this idea. I really thought a good shoot’em up would be better but I decided to give the missionary play a try. I assumed I would be getting a leading role in this off-Broadway extravaganza and I saw myself as Humphrey Bogart talking to Lauren Bacall as we discussed helping the poor folks. “Here’s looking at you kid.” I loved all things Bogey back then.
I would be great; I would be recognized as a great actor, I would finally be released from the dummy brigade as Sister, choked with emotion dried her tears with her white bib as she remembered the drama and pathos my performance brought to the stage. Probably I would have provided a heavy dose of pathos and as to drama, maybe not so much.
My dreams and expectations notwithstanding, Sister Margaret Jean did what all of the other good Sisters of St. Joseph always did for me; she burst my bubble when she announced who had the speaking parts. You guessed it; her pets had all of the choice assignments. The rest of us would be sitting or standing on the stage, mute, appearing to be poor by walking around or sitting there barefoot. I was very annoyed, to say the least. She was excited over the play and almost twittered as she laid out the story for us. For some reason, I had gotten it stuck in my head that I would be a better actor than either David or Patricia, two of her chief pets that year, who had gotten the main speaking parts. Unfortunately, there was nothing that I could do about the situation except grin and bear it; (I did a lot of grinning and bearing back then) that is until Sister Margaret Jean herself presented the solution.
We were down in the gym, which was NEVER used as a gym during any of the years I was at SJSA, getting ready for rehearsal. The class was making noise and Sister Margaret Jean in her “this is your last chance” voice shouted for us to be quiet. Then she did it! She herself made it possible for me to make a political statement, to declare my independence, to show my total disdain for the Teacher’s Pet System. She delivered herself into my hands when she asked in an incredulous voice;
“Is there anyone here that doesn’t want to be in the play? If so just raise your hand!”
With a scowl on her face that could have curdled buttermilk, she surveyed her charges expecting to see nothing but sniveling, whimpering, and cowering children. She saw a lot of those, kids were good at doing that when a nun began to shout; it was how the game was played, it’s what the nun expected and of course we were there to please her. What she did not expect to see was my hand raised high. Sister almost snarled when she asked me;
“Michael what do you want?”
She could not conceive in her wildest dreams that anyone would want to opt out of her stupid play. The play that had my backing just moments before had become stupid when I didn’t get one of the good parts. I stood, because of course you did not speak to a nun sitting down, and with a firm, but very respectful voice said;
“Sister, I do not want to be in your play because you picked only your favorites for the good parts.”
I sat down. The gym/rehearsal hall became deadly quiet because a storm was about to hit.
Like General McArthur, I had made the boss look bad in front of her underlings and like Douglas, I would suffer a tragic fate. The mild-mannered nun changed into a tigress. She bellowed at me to get on my feet. In an imitation of Sally Fields of Flying Nun fame she almost vaulted over the chairs between her and me, her habit and veil flowing and flapping in the slipstream, her eyes were ablaze with the fire of righteous indignation and foam was forming at the corners of her mouth. Landing in front of me as if she were a black and white avenging angel, she physically pulled me by the arm dragging me behind her and out of the gym and into the hall. This was the first (and last) time a nun actually got physical with me. The nuns at SJSA did not hit or otherwise physically abuse children on the whole each of them loved children and did their best to teach them. I guess I was the same as Cool Hand Luke, a hard case. She took note of but ignored the twittering of the rest of the class, they would get theirs in a minute once she was done attending to me. She twirled my body around and made me face the wall, the bricks were tope colored. She told me to stay there and to keep facing the wall. Stay there I did. “I am a born wall facer,” I thought to myself as I admired the straight lines of mortar holding the bricks in place. When rehearsal ended the class filed out past me with a very stern looking Sister Margaret Jean standing right next to me, I was still studying the wall very carefully as I had been instructed to. She did not correct or silence any of the kids that chuckled at my predicament as they passed by; it was part of the humiliation she wanted me to feel. I accepted this punishment, as if I had a choice, and was very glad that I said what I said and had opted out of the play. For the next two weeks, when the rest of the class went to the gym for an hour to practice the play, I was left standing outside of our classroom in the hall facing the wall until they returned. Sister seemed to have some sort of kid facing wall fetish. I was allowed reentry into the classroom only after everyone else had been seated, and to protect her dignity, she would send a snitch out to get me, and this way all could see the fate of a rebel, of one who questioned the system. I was the sixth-grade poster boy for “don’t let this happen to you.”
Had Sister Margaret Jean been a British Admiral commanding the British fleet in the seventeen hundreds, I am sure that she would have seen to it that I was flogged through the fleet and maybe even keelhauled for my offenses. Not enough? As I had dared to question the established order still more punishment was forthcoming to me. I was awarded three demerits for being disrespectful to Sister Margaret Jean. It would NEVER have occurred to me or any of my classmates to be disrespectful to a nun – that brought consequences at school and if the parents found out about it, double trouble at home. We also thought that being disrespectful to a nun or priest might be a mortal sin. Up until that day my demerit card could have been sold as brand spanking new since I had not received any demerits yet that year. Three demerits entitled me to stand in the first-floor hallway during the hour after lunch, facing the statue of the Virgin Mary for a whole week while the other kids were at play. You could also choose to face the other way and look at the stairs going up but that wasn’t as interesting. Also that semester I received capital punishment, the most serious punishment a lone teacher could, on her own authority inflict on a student. I received a D under the school spirit category on my report card. I was probably the only person in SJSA history to ever receive a D in school spirit. The rumor was that you had to be caught with a bottle filled with gasoline stuffed with a rag, and a lit match in hand, ready to burn the school to the ground before you could be given a D in school spirit. The truth of the matter was that I was very proud of that D. I would not have traded that D for an A in math and a four-day school week. I learned on that monumental day, which I celebrate as the day I started to think for myself, that sometimes you had to speak up to try and right a wrong, but you had to be ready to face the consequences, that is a glimpse of God that follows me to this very day.
I have published my autobiography and it tells the story of living, learning, and loving in the 1950's and 1960's and beyond. It is a good read - send me a flicker email if you want a sample from the book by email - a PDF file.