When I look back on my formative years, it's a wonder I wasn't completely bald by the time 8th grade rolled around. You know, from all of the "stress" I endured at the hands of our devoted faculty. To this day I am convinced I would have never survived Catholic school if it weren't for escaping at least three major incidents.
On top of a hill named Granger, in a city called Garfield, less than 4 miles from our beloved Cleveland, sat St. Therese Church and School. The church is still around, but the school has been renamed John Paul II Academy as part of a merger with nearby Sts. Peter & Paul. And if you're taking notes, sports fans, they are no longer the Wildcats but are instead the Panthers. I believe someone at the Lions Club came up with the name?
St. Therese is the second oldest Catholic parish in Garfield Heights, having been established in 1927. Don't quote me on this but I firmly believe the very nuns of those early days were still teaching there when my parents enrolled us in the late 1970s. These were the days when Catholic schools featured habit-wearing nuns toting wooden rulers, in the likely event some form of corporal punishment had to be administered.
We moved to Garfield Heights during the Blizzard of 1978. I know this because Dad kept getting the U-Haul stuck in 18" snow drifts on the way to our new house, not that it was coined the Blizzard of 1978 yet. Even though we could not see more than 10 feet in front of us, we somehow managed to get the truck out each time, and would continue to do so until reaching the apron of our new driveway where we finally got stuck for good.
We had left our home in Twinsburg, which was hard for me to swallow. I was not quite 11 and had gotten used to playing in the woods all around me on Mortus Drive. Garfield Heights, from what people were telling me, had cleared away all of their woods during the Eisenhower administration.
Another culture shock was being informed by Mom and Dad that we would now be attending Catholic school. This, after years and years of getting away with murder while attending public schools in and around the mean streets of Twinsburg. I had no choice but to rebel. I would devote the next four years to seeing just how far I could push the collection envelope. And with a little bit of luck I might be excommunicated from St. Therese and sent back to live in the woods on Mortus Drive.
Making the transition from public school to Catholic school in the dead of winter had to be done and done fast. My brother and I had to undergo complete transformations practically overnight. That meant school uniforms with navy ties having the insignia STS (acronym for St. Therese School) and haircuts buzzed so short you could rub ArmorAll on the "whitewalls" that now surrounded our ear lobes.
When we arrived at school on the first day, we noticed something unusual. There was not a single remnant of playground equipment in the schoolyard. No swings, no slides, no nothing! I wanted to run off to the woods and hide, but again, there were no woods. We saw a few kids positioned about a hundred feet from each other standing military style, motionless and with their arms at their sides, against the chain-linked fence that separated the school from the street. We found out later they were caught playing ball on school property during recess, an infraction punishable by up to seven Hail Marys and some time to reflect in "solitary confinement." To this day, no one knows whatever became of all the balls and childhood dreams confiscated by the nuns over the years. My guess is they were donated to the missions.
In class we were taught to memorize and recite many prayers. Although it wasn't school policy to openly brag about St. Therese being a special kind of school, I knew of at least two nuns who would have enacted into law the "Wildcat Creed" given half the chance. We believe that the St. Therese Wildcats are the chosen ones. We believe that public school kids are on drugs and are destined to spend an eternity in Purgatory. We believe that paying $400 a year ($250 for the 2nd child) for tuition is not enough considering attendance at this fine institution is a privilege and not a right.
The first incident that nearly sent me to the chain-link fence happened on Ash Wednesday when I was in the 6th grade. Once a week and on holy days, the student body got out of class for an hour so we could attend mass at the church. On Ash Wednesday, Catholics receive ashes on their forehead to signify personal repentance and kick off the first official day of Lent.
On this particular Ash Wednesday sitting in the pew amongst friends, I could not help but notice how somber the mood was. Students, nuns, lay teachers, and nearby parishioners walking down the aisle after getting their ashes looked like they were sporting brand new shiners. I imagined in my tiny little head that while they were up on the altar with the priest, they said something so horrific the priest had to haul off and slug them right in the middle of their foreheads. A funny enough thought to make me burst out loud and get yanked out of the pew by the talon-like claws of Sister Mary Hubert. After thirty seconds of her face-to-face screaming and going into great detail about everything that is wrong with me, she stopped yelling and relinquished her stronghold on my limp and temporarily paralyzed right arm. I would not be punished, but I did have to return to my place in the pew using every ounce of my being not to shed any tears.
Incident number two happened shortly before serving mass one evening. As an altar boy, I was permitted to enter the church through a side door that led right up to the altar in front of the first row of pews. One night my friend (let's call him Stanley) and I arrived early and entered the church. It was unusually dark inside, and not even the luminated wall of donation candles could have forewarned us what was about to happen. We could barely make out the shadowy statue of Christ which hung high above the altar, but nonetheless His presence was evident. Stanley and I thought it would be funny to salute Christ instead of genuflecting like we were taught. I think one of us may have even said, "what's happenin'" out loud, I can't remember.
Thinking we were the funniest act since Rowan and Martin, we continued on when all of a sudden the roof above us opened up and a loud, stern voice bellowed, "how dare you come into the House of the Lord and mock him with such tomfoolery!" In an instant my heart began to race, my legs shook and trembled, and my jaw dropped to the ground with an enormous thud. I looked around frantically for a sign, any sign, that would indicate that if this is indeed God calling, he would take pity and show mercy on us. I soon realized that my second brush with religious authority belonged to the voice of Father Blinn, our fearless pastor. Still trembling from all the guilt, we casually slid into a pew and spent the next few minutes in deep thought until it was our time to serve mass. Thanks to the dark church, I don't think Father Blinn ever got a good look at us. I stared punishment in the face once again, but narrowly escaped the wrath of the dreaded chain-linked fence with just a minor accident in my pants.
The third and final incident also happened inside the church. We were sitting according to class during an all-school mass one afternoon when I noticed an ant crawling on the back of the pew in front of me. Not thinking anything of it, I returned to my missal where I was intently following along with the First Reading before being distracted by the ant. (Honest, Mom, I was following along with the missal!) Taking one eye off the missal, I noticed the ant had been joined by a friend. Make that two friends. I buried my nose deeper into that missal because I was determined to be good and follow along for the duration of at least one reading before graduation rolled along. Off in the distance I heard a girl say, "look at all these ants!" By now there was a long row of ants marching on the back of the pew in front of me. I was starting to wonder where in the state of unholy limbo they were coming from. I felt something tickle me on my stomach, near the inside of my coat pocket. Seeing an ant, I quickly brushed it off and watched it land on the kneeler below. I decided to go deep pocket diving to make sure that one particular ant was an isolated case and that I didn't have an entire colony of holy crawlers hanging out inside my coat pocket. What I discovered next immediately sickened me and made the pit of my stomach ache with so much worry I began sweating bullets by the bucketful. There were dozens, perhaps millions of ants feasting on an old peanut butter on cheese cracker I had left inside my coat pocket weeks earlier. With students all around me stepping on ants and causing a commotion, I went ahead and prayed my seven Hail Marys, hoping this act would bring about a miracle, or at the very least make it darn near impossible that the ant trail be traced back to me. When mass let out, I bolted for the school dumpster (aka the "Red Monster" in those days) and furiously emptied out my pocket full of ants. To my surprise, no one, not even a nun, ever discovered where all those ants came from. I was able to crawl away from this one with my dignity still in tact.
Before long, 8th grade graduation came and went without further incident. I never realized my goal of getting excommunicated and sent back to the woods. I even discovered that life at St. Therese wasn't so hard after all. Even for a public school kid like me.