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ABC’s, Family Secrets, and Pagan Babies

It takes a lifetime of experiences and learning and moments, along with a multitude of people far too vast to ever count, all blended and sifted together that ends up shaping our lives and molding us into the people we become. Something that had a huge impact on my life, was my love of learning and anything school related, especially all the different teachers who came into my life and would become known as ‘my teacher’ for nine months at a time.

For the majority of my elementary school years, my siblings and I went to a Catholic grade school in a neighboring town only a few miles from where we lived. Our school had 8 grades and at that time there were more nuns than lay teachers.

2nd Grade Me with My Boing Boing Curly Hair

2nd Grade Me with My Boing Boing Curly Hair

In my first few years of grade school, the nuns still wore the traditional long black habits along with long black and white veils. Their veils hid all signs of hair. It’s funny how children think through things. I remember wondering if maybe the nuns were bald under their veils, since I’d never seen a nun with hair. Or maybe, I wondered, was shaving their heads part of becoming a nun? I guess there’s a chance someone may have told me the nuns were bald or their heads were shaved. Only I’m not sure why I didn’t ask someone about it. I was generally pretty good at asking questions, especially to my mom. I just know that our school’s nuns were from the Order of St. Francis and after the Second Vatican Council their order chose to keep wearing veils, only the veils became much shorter and allowed some of their hair to show. With that change, the hair mystery was solved for me, and I was relieved for them and for me. Very relieved.

During the school year and regardless of the weather, our entire school went to Mass everyday and girls were required to wear some type of head covering. A practice on the same order as the veils the nuns wore. With my mom and seven girls in our family, the chances are good we always had a colorful array of scarves and head gear to choose from. Now at that time, my absolute favorite head covering was the black mantilla lace scarves, only I’m not even sure our family had one of them. To me, not only did the name sound very exotic and mysterious, it was also very Jackie Kennedyish. I was captivated by anything Jackie Kennedy and thought she was beautiful. So of course it only made sense that I would think anything I’d seen her wear would be beautiful too. I specifically remember kneeling in one of the pews towards the front of the church and watching girls and women going up to Communion and comparing all the different scarves that they were wearing. Some scarves were worn tied around the neck and others were worn loosely draping, almost like a shawl. One day during one of those Communions probably around the time I was in first or second grade, I made the promise to myself that when I grew up I’d own and wear one of those black mantilla lace scarves.

Besides daily Mass, every grade went to regular confession, and during Fridays in Lent, the whole school would file into the church that was located right next to the school building. Each student would pick up a little purple booklet from the back of church, and each grade would sit in their assigned pews and section of church and along with the priest and teachers would pray the Stations of the Cross.

Our school didn’t require uniforms, something that I desperately longed to wear. I couldn’t imagine anything more wonderful than getting to wear color-coordinated plaid uniforms like I’d seen some of my cousins and all the students in movies wearing. We did have a strict dress code though and there was no such thing as girls wearing pants to school. With the exception of cold winter days when we were allowed to wear pants under dresses or skirts to keep our legs warm while outside; we promptly took them off in the cloakroom once we were inside. Likewise, we were only allowed to wear shorts one day during the school year and that was on the very last day of school. Our school year always ended towards the end of May and no matter what kind of weather we had on that day, we wore shorts. It could have been freezing cold and it wouldn’t have mattered; even with goose bumps, no one passed up the only opportunity for wearing shorts to school. And if the shorts were too short, they were immediately deemed inappropriate and the offender would have been sent home to change. There would have been no discussion or negotiation allowed.

Many of the nuns had two names and if I have this right, they gave up their birth name and chose a new one when they became a nun. My first grade nun was Sister Marie Antoine (we pronounced the second name An-Toyne) and a couple of the nuns my older siblings had, were Sister Lou Ann and Sister Louise Marie.

My favorite nun and teacher of all time was my second grade teacher, Sister Helen. Feel free to insert a choir of angels singing and all kinds of heavenly music playing right here, because that is just about exactly what I thought of her. Not only was Sister Helen beautiful on the outside, she was lovely inside too. She had a gentle speaking voice and a lovely smile and she listened in a way that made me feel like what I had to say was important. Remembering her conjures up images of Debbie Reynolds in The Singing Nun. I even think Sister Helen may have played the guitar too, unless the Singing Nun analogy has become a bit intertwined in my memories about her.

After I graduated from high school, I returned to the area and tried to find Sister Helen again to tell her what she had meant to me. One of the elderly nuns, Sister Elvira, who still lived in the convent next to the school told me Sister Helen had drowned in the Pacific Ocean a number of years prior to my asking about her. I learned Sister Helen had been a strong lifelong swimmer, something I hadn’t known, and that she’d also taught many people to swim. On the day she had died, she became caught in a powerful undertow while saving the life of a high school student. I couldn’t help getting choked up and feeling very sad that I’d never get to see her again and tell her how I’d felt about her. Only I’m guessing there was a pretty good chance I had told her, since I remember my mother admonishing me (a lot) for telling all our families’ secrets and stories to Sister Helen, something she had learned at parent teacher conferences with Sister Helen (and probably later from my other teachers too). At the time of my second grade reprimand, what puzzled me was I hadn’t even known we’d had any family secrets. With 10 siblings, I can only guess what trepidation Mom went through leading up to, during, and following the many parent teacher conferences.

Now years can soften memories and make them even a bit fuzzy, but I vividly remember loving my 3rd grade teacher too. Her name was Miss Spangler and not only was she extremely tall (although everyone is tall when you’re a kid) and pretty, she smelled as good as she looked. It was that wonderful smell of someone who has just stepped out of the shower all fresh and clean smell. I was also somewhat mesmerized by the fact that she dressed in lovely outfits and wore perfume and lipstick and nail polish everyday. When I think back on her, I see the teacher in the book, Ruby the Copycat. Miss Spangler also had dark brown hair and reminded me of Jackie Kennedy (someone else I happened to be mesmerized by at the time and still am a little to this day). I’m hoping I told Miss Spangler how I felt about her, only I probably did, along with a bunch of our family secrets too.

Our school also had a couple of Franciscan Brothers who were teachers. This order of brothers had a self-sustaining farm outside of town where they all lived and worked. The Franciscan Brothers threw a yearly bazaar or festival on their extremely well-manicured lawns and farm sometime during the summer or early fall. It was a fundraiser to keep their farm going and it was an event I looked forward to every year. Brother Kevin was my 5th grade teacher and Brother Conrad (who was one of my many grade-school crushes – I know) taught my younger brother’s class. Both Brother Kevin and Brother Conrad wore long brown robes (like their founder, St. Francis) belted with cream colored ropes tied around their waists, and they both were fantastic teachers.

What I remember the most about Brother Kevin was the raffles he held, especially during Lent, with an intriguing assortment of raffled prizes, including holy cards and pencils and rosaries and things that would have really appealed to Catholic grade school kids. My family never had too much extra money, but since the weekly raffle tickets cost 1 penny each, my mom was usually willing to give me a few pennies. Plus, it was for a good cause. All the raffle money raised went to one of the faraway missions the brothers supported or to help pagan babies somewhere in the world. Yes, they were called pagan babies, and although that term may seem a bit hilarious and somewhat inappropriate now, there is a little piece of me that still really loves that name.

Recess was always a favorite escape from the classroom and when I wasn’t jumping rope or playing dodgeball, I was hanging out by the swing set waiting in line for one of the 4 (or maybe 5) swings to open up so I could get my turn at soaring through the sky. While I waited, I’d be taking in the playground activities and sounds, while also keeping a watchful eye on the convent that was situated on the church property right next to the playground and the swing set. Every so often there’d be something hanging on the clothesline that would make me realize the nuns actually were human beings. I remember even sheets and towels had me wondering about stuff. I was a crazy dreamy kid, I’ll tell you. I’m also fairly certain, some of those laundry days had me heading home after to school with more questions for my mom.

In fact that reminds me of another time at school, when I was heading down the stairs and just as I passed the teachers’ lounge the door opened and I saw smoke come out. Now it wasn’t the school-is-burning-down kind of smoke, but instead the kind that signaled to me a teacher had been smoking. I was horrified. I was so horrified, I’m surprised I made it to my destination. In fact, I’m surprised I made it through my day. Who knows, maybe I didn’t. I remember hardly being able to wait to get home and tell my mom. The funny thing is, my dad smoked at the time. But the thought of a teacher smoking shocked me. We’re talking a teacher here, people. I don’t think I even considered for one second that it might have been one of the brothers or nuns who had been smoking. I can’t remember any of my just-off-the-bus and probably out-of-breath conversation that I had with my mom after this incident. She must have done an exceptional job of helping me sort through my shock or maybe she just helped me block it. Since I seriously have no memory for anything except the smoke coming out of the open door part.

While the teachers’ lounge wasn’t very large, it also did double duty as the library. I always loved library day. Every grade’s classroom was on a rotation schedule for going to the library and when it was a classroom’s turn, the teacher would send out several students at a time and in something like a relay race (although except at recess or Phy-Ed class, no running was ever allowed in school), when one or two students returned, another student or two would be sent to the library. I especially loved reading biographies, where I became acquainted with people like Louis Braille and Amelia Earhart and Helen Keller. I repeatedly checked out the book of children’s letters to the president that Mrs. Kennedy had published following President Kennedy’s death. One thing I don’t remember is ever smelling any residual smoke after the teachers had cleared out. That was a good thing, or maybe I just blocked that memory too.

Since our family lived in a neighboring town, we had to ride the school bus to and from school. That meant there was no such thing as staying after school to help the teachers clean erasers (a much coveted job) or washing the blackboards (another much coveted job). Other much sought after jobs included,

  • getting to ring the bell to signal the end of the school day
  • getting to hand out our morning milk or straws
  • getting chosen to hand out anything
  • getting to deliver messages to other classroom teachers
  • getting to raise the American flag
  • getting to take the attendance to the office
  • getting to change the cardboard numbers for the songs to be sung at Mass in church. I think only the principal (who was also the choir director and organist and eighth grade teacher) got to do that job, but I wanted to do it badly.

I used to daydream what it would be like to live in town while I watched longingly as my fellow classmates who did live near the school got to perform many of those tasks. Someday, I would think, someday.

Our school bus route changed through the years as did the faces of the siblings who road the bus with me. When it was mainly just the younger kids in my family, we’d be picked up and dropped off around 5 or 6 blocks from home, near the laundromat in our town. At the end of a school day, anxious to get home, we’d often race home. Since I was a fairly fast runner, there were many days when I won. Something that would both mortify and surprise my brothers. Enough so that generally, I never won two days in a row. Our dad drove bus for the school the whole time that our family went there, helping to offset or pay our tuition. He never had our bus route. That may have been done on purpose or by choice. But if I had to guess, I’d say it was by choice. My dad’s choice.

Report card day generally came with a bit of stress and worry and even sometimes relief. Attendance was always noted, but that never worried me, since I seldom missed school. Except for the grade when I pretended to be sick so my mom could pick me up and I’d get to drink 7-up and rest on the couch watching my mom’s favorite soap operas with her – Edge of Night and Secret Storm. That was after we made a quick stop at the clinic to be sure I didn’t have anything contagious that would have made the rest of my siblings sick. Of course, I didn’t. I was faking. But I stopped all faking nonsense when my older sister told me doctor visits cost money, a lot of money. I had never given it much thought, and if I had must have thought they were free. I’m betting the guilt of it weighed heavy on my conscience. I also bet I kept the priest busy in confession with my sins for faking sickness and missing school and causing extra financial burden to my parents. And maybe, just maybe if I hadn’t missed school, I’d have been better in Arithmetic (I generally got B’s and C’s), and may have known exactly what grade to expect. Instead I was usually opening my report card with some happy amazement, some relative disappointment, and some type of surprise. Penmanship and Reading and Spelling were generally A’s, while Science and Social Studies would be more in the C category. But it was the comments handwritten on the back that my parents generally paid extra special attention to – the teacher’s handwritten grades and notes for effort and class participation and sportsmanship. Words that in a nutshell summed up a specific quarter and also the student. For me without fail, I always received the rather redundant comments of “too social” and “talks too much.”

To this day, I don’t remember many of the specific report card grades, as much as I do the added comments or words. I wonder if some of my former teachers were to meet me today, would they still think those words applied? What would they think of my going to college and following in their footsteps by getting a teacher’s degree. Sadly, I’ll never know. I just know I’m grateful for all they taught me and for all their words of encouragement and instruction and the tools for learning that they gifted to me. The funny thing is, my being too social and talking too much, while still may be true, are probably two traits that have shaped me more than the some of the lessons I learned from books and classrooms.

And while I’ve never owned a black mantilla lace scarf or needed to, I’m forever grateful to my mom and dad who somehow always found the money for our yearly school pictures and doctor visits, and provided a home for my siblings and me where laughter was always present, where learning was always encouraged and nurtured, and where every day together was a blessing and a gift. Only we just didn’t know it at the time.


6 comments on “ABC’s, Family Secrets, and Pagan Babies

  1. Joan
    November 22, 2014

    OMG!! Maybe my favorite post EVER!! Like reliving my childhood days thru parochial grade school and high school. I was hanging on every word and anticipating the next. I couldn’t help but be afraid for your sanity though if you had known Jackie was a chain smoker. Wink Wink

    • spencedaniel2012
      November 22, 2014

      Oh my gosh, Joan. You and your wink wink crack me up. I’m so glad you could relate to my stories and that it’s your new favorite post EVER! You are also right about Jackie Kennedy, it would probably have crushed me. What a silly kid, huh?

  2. dianescheurell
    November 22, 2014

    I too relived some great childhood memories through this post. Pagan babies, lenten Stations of the Cross, crushes on the assistant priest (Father What-a-Shame). We also had May altars to Mary (perhaps you did too) where we got to bring flowers in from home. Our lilacs were always in bloom so we always had big bouquets.
    I like the job of cleaning out the little metal end pieces from the candles in the candle stand (what do you call that thing again?).
    And I did have a black lace mantilla. I probably confessed to having pride with that one unholy pride.
    Thanks for the memories. – Diane

    • spencedaniel2012
      November 23, 2014

      We did have May crownings for Mary, and bringing flowers from home was always encouraged.
      Cleaning the votive cups and replacing the candles was always a favorite job too, only it was one I did at my home parish since my mom was on the Altar Society. And sweet lilacs…I so love them and their distinctive one-of-a-kind fragrance. What a happy flower to think about on this cold and overcast fall morning. Thanks for your words, Diane. Be well.

  3. Bob
    November 29, 2014

    I had forgotten or maybe hadn’t thought enough about Brother Kevin in 5th grade. I do remember one time someone in class got in trouble and myself and at least one other were accused by B. Kevin. For discipline, he made us kneel in the back and hold our arms out to the side holding a book up.

    Pagan babies…lol

    • spencedaniel2012
      November 29, 2014

      That’s definitely a punishment not soon forgotten. Yikes. Thanks for sharing, Bob.

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