Back when I was a little kid, attending Catholic grammar school, it was the nuns who pretty much ran the place. Oh sure, the priests were the church leaders. Itâ€™s a very patriarchal religion. But in the classroom or out on the playground, it was the ladies in their black habits who punished our youthful indiscretions by sending us to the bench for our lunch-hour or to detention after school and on weekends. Or cracked our knuckles with a ruler. And aptly titled, it was Sister Superiorâ€”principal of the schoolâ€”who handed down the most and the harshest of these punishments. But she also may have helped save my life.
Being an energetic little soulâ€”â€œhyperactive,â€ as more than one teacher had diagnosedâ€”Iâ€™d been the recipient of Sister Superiorâ€™s punishments on numerous occasions. Usually, when my current teacher had felt overwhelmed by my classroom exuberance. Admittedly, I was a chronic talker and had trouble sitting still in my desk. I got caught eating Jujubees in reading class. I spent the lunch-hour in her office. I wore Beach Boy-inspired huarache sandals with my uniform pants. She made me wear a little, white-knit, girlâ€™s sweater all day as a fashion accouterment. I got into fights on the playground with other kids. I spent Saturday afternoon pulling weeds in the church garden. Occasionally, sheâ€™d call home but my mom was usually out working. There was no such thing as an answering machine or voice-mail in the early â€™60s. So Sister Superior would pin a note to my chest. I was always afraid she was going to purposely stick me with the pin, as she pushed it through the folded paper into my shirt front, while leaning over me. But she never did. And I never dared remove it, even though my little brother would double-dog-dare me. Mom usually found them a day or two laterâ€”still pinned to my dirty, white shirtâ€”when she sorted the laundry from the hamper.
It was a rich parish back then. Almost all white. I was the poor kid. Not the only one. But still, I was aware of my status. And didnâ€™t like it. Daddy had died when I was ten. Mom worked as a waitress to support our family (I had a baby sister, too) and put us through parochial school.
You put it all together and I was pretty much the ideal target. And it all came back to me years later, when I read the headline on the front page of the L.A. Times: â€œArchdiocese Says It Didnâ€™t Shield Kids from Priests.â€
It happened one Friday at lunch-hour. Back when JFKâ€”our first and only Catholic presidentâ€”was still living in the White House. It seemed like a good time to be Catholic. I was out on the school playground with all the other kidsâ€”boys in our salt-and-pepper cords with collared, white shirts and girls in pleated, green-plaid skirts with collared, white blousesâ€”playing our usual lunch-hour kickball game, as the girls played hopscotch across the yard. There was a standing rule against kicking the ball over the left field fence and out into the street. But because I was one of the littlest kids in my class, every now and then I liked to pop one over the chain-link, just to show the bigger guys (and the girls, too) that I could. Unfortunately, Sister Superior happened to be walking the blacktop grounds at the time and benched me for the remainder of lunch-hour.
â€œAnd if you dare remove your derriere from that bench before the bell rings, mister, you will spend your Saturday weeding the church garden.â€ Her hands were on her hips as they often were when she stared down at me, nostrils flaring for added emphasis. â€œDo I make myself perfectly clear?â€
She shook her headâ€”as if I were a lost causeâ€”turned and walked away, scanning the playground for other perpetrators.
So there I was on the bench, under the almost-new, aluminum awning cover that had been installed the previous summer to protect us kids from the elements as we ate our noon-hour lunches. I was aggravated Iâ€™d been caught and soon grew restless watching the other kids kicking and running and laughing and having a good old time. I remember grabbing hold of one of the metal supports that propped up the awning cover under which I was tethered (figuratively speaking), closing my eyes, and rocking myself back and forth on the bench, like a prisoner holding his cell bars.
â€œWhat are you doing there, boy?â€ a manâ€™s voice asked suddenly, sternly from afar.
I opened my eyes and looked up. Father D____ was hurrying towards me, his shiny black shoes marching double-pace under his black slacks. He was a tall man (or at least I remember him that way), with slicked-back hair and his brow usually furrowed.
I stopped rocking and sat up straight.
â€œOh. Itâ€™s you, Barkawitz. I should have guessed.â€
Father D____ and I had a history, too. Iâ€™d studied Latin under his tutelage, a precursor for serving Mass. Wasnâ€™t as fluent with the language as he demanded. Heâ€™d made that quite clear after our first Mass together. But I was eleven-years-old and it was Latin. God, gimme a break.
But Father D____ wasnâ€™t the type of person to give anybodyâ€”especially meâ€”any kind of break. â€œI saw you trying to pull down that awning,â€ he accused.
â€œWhat?â€ It was a metal post. I couldnâ€™t if Iâ€™d wanted.
â€œDonâ€™t act stupid. You heard me. You were trying to deliberately tear down the new awning.â€
â€œNo, Father. I-I-I wasnâ€™t. I was just . . . holding onto it.â€
â€œAre you calling me a liar?â€ He seemed to grow more threatening, as he lorded over me and awaited my answer.
I didnâ€™t know much back then, but I sure knew calling a priest a liar was like a mortal sin and probably worth a direct trip to hell, so regardless of what he was, I wasnâ€™t going to be the one to tell him. â€œNo, Father.â€
â€œWell, one of us has to be lying. Which one is it?â€
His options pretty much eliminated any good answer from me. So I stammered again: â€œI-I wasnâ€™t trying to tear it down, Father. Honest.â€
â€œSo you are calling me a liar.â€
â€œDonâ€™t talk back to me. I want to see you Saturday afternoon. Two oâ€™clock. Come directly to the rectory. Donâ€™t talk to anyone else. Iâ€™ll deal with you myself.â€ He turned sharply and walked off.
Iâ€™d never been to the rectory. Had only seen itâ€”like the nunsâ€™ houseâ€”from the outside. Both brick buildings were humbly nestled behind the church. Only he and the old Monsignor, who was on leave in Ireland at the time, slept inside.
And just when I thought it couldnâ€™t get any worse, Sister Superior was headed back my way. â€œWhat just happened here?â€ she asked.
I tried to explain without making anybody look bad. Just a misinterpretation of the facts. But I could tell by the look on her face that it wasnâ€™t working, so I repeated: â€œI wasnâ€™t trying to tear anything down. Honest, Sister.â€
She took a deep breath and blew it out with such force that I could hear the wind out her nostrils. â€œAnd youâ€™re to go to the rectory tomorrow?â€
â€œYes, Sister. Two oâ€™clock. Father D____ said to go straight there.â€
â€œWithout checking in with me?â€ She pointed at herself, index finger nearly thumping her chest.
I nodded back.
Her hands went to her hips again, but she didnâ€™t say anything else. I could see she was mad. As mad as Iâ€™d ever seen her. But for some reason, I was suddenly below her radar. She spotted Father D____ over by the side of the church with a couple of first graders. Then without another word, she marched off with giant steps in his direction. The other kids on the playground got out of her way.
Mom gave my little brother Bruce and me change from her tips to ride the bus to school each day. But he and I always walked or ran instead (depending on how late we were), opting to spend our quarter each on candy at Carrâ€™s Marketâ€”a little mom and pop grocery store in the middle of our two-mile trek. We always walked home together. On the way home that Friday, I told Bruce what had happened.
â€œYou gonna go?â€ He was a year-and-a-half younger, but almost my height, with darker hair and skin, and considerably more brazen.
â€œâ€™A course. Heâ€™ll kill me if I donâ€™t.â€ Doing otherwise had never occurred to me.
â€œI wouldnâ€™t go. I donâ€™t like that guy.â€ His thumbs were stuck under the straps of his canvas backpack with the Johnâ€™s Bike Shop logo, head forward, as he strode ahead of me on the sidewalk.
I remember worrying for my little brother that referring to a priest as that guy had to be a venial sin at least. â€œWait up.â€
I had a hard time getting to sleep that Friday night. No one had pinned a note to my chest, so when Mom had gotten home from workâ€”she rode a three-speed Schwinn with a basket on the handlebars; she didnâ€™t know how to drive yet or have the money to repair Daddyâ€™s old Ford in our drivewayâ€”I didnâ€™t tell her anything. I knew sheâ€™d ride off wearing woolen gloves and her crisp waitress uniform early the next morning. And Bruce would watch my little sister for meâ€”heâ€™d never rat me out to Momâ€”so I could do my time with Father D____ in the rectory without her finding out. But as I lay there in the dark in my bed, I couldnâ€™t stop thinking about Sister Superior. How she had marched like a soldier across the playground towards Father D____, shooing the little kids away, then turning to him, hands on her hips. Which was weird. But you could always tell when Sister Superior was mad at you. She didnâ€™t hide it. And the way she followed Father D____ behind the church, I could swear she was mad at him.
The next morning, as Bruce and I watched â€œMighty Mouseâ€ fly across our black & white TV screen, he advised me simply, without double-dog-daring me: â€œDonâ€™t go.â€
I was innocent. I knew it like I knew my name. So I figured God was on my side. And He was Father D____â€™s Boss. But still . . . â€œWhatta you think heâ€™ll do to me if I donâ€™t go?â€
â€œYell. Anâ€™ probâ€™ly make you study Latin at lunch-hour for a month.â€ Bruce had likewise been the victim of Father D____â€™s Latin wrath. â€œBut thereâ€™s no way Iâ€™d go inside his house. Alone.â€
But by one-thirty, I was already at Carrâ€™s Market. I only had a few cents in my pocket, so I bought some penny-candy, sat on the curb, and ate a red licorice stick to kill a little time (sure didnâ€™t want to be early). But I couldnâ€™t stop thinking what a gyp the whole thing was. I mean here I was going to the priestâ€™s house on Saturday afternoon for something I didnâ€™t even do! So when I finished the red licorice, I ate the black licorice stick, too. And the four-pack of chocolate, hard-taffy Kitts (the best penny-candy value on the planet), even though I knew it was making me late. To heck with it! I popped a jaw-breaker in my cheek, got up off the curb, and headed back homeâ€”my first true act of Civil Disobedience.
Monday morning at school, I did my best to lay low. Kept my mouth shut in class. Tried not to fidget. Slumped in my seat. Saved the Lik-M-Aid candy in my pocket for lunch-hour.
Which was when Sister Superior caught me, standing all alone on second baseâ€”like a bum at the communion railâ€”as she walked the playground. She pointed her finger at me, then wiggled it for me to follow her. My team put in a pinch-runner.
Over by the scene of my so-called crime, we stood alone, togetherâ€”facing one anotherâ€”me looking up, she staring down, nostrils already flared, arms crossed. â€œWhat happened Saturday?â€ she asked.
I took a deep breath and told her: â€œI didnâ€™t go.â€
â€œWhat?â€ She seemed genuinely surprised.
Before she could yell, or put her hands on her hips, I added in my defense: â€œI didnâ€™t do anything wrong.â€
She kind of smiled down at me, her face relieved of its usual severity. â€œYou didnâ€™t go?â€
I shook my head. â€œYou can do what you want to me, Sister. But I didnâ€™t do what Father D____ said I did. And Iâ€™m not going to the rectory.â€
She put her hand on my shoulder, but her grasp was gentle, not the vise-like grip Iâ€™d felt in a previous deportmental interrogation. â€œCan you stay out of his way?â€
Stay out of his way? I nodded back. â€œYes, Sister.â€
â€œGood. Go play kickball. Iâ€™ll take care of Father D____.â€
And I guess she mustâ€™ve. Because we never talked about it again. And Father D____ never asked me to serve Mass for him again. About a month later, our white-haired Monsignor returned from Ireland. And during summer vacation, Father D____ was transferred out of our parish.
As I continued to read the series of Times articles about priests sexually abusing children, I couldnâ€™t stop thinking about Father D____. I donâ€™t pretend to know what he had in mind for me that Saturday afternoon in the rectory; whether he was a child rapistâ€”like other exposed members of the priesthoodâ€”or just an angry man in a black suit with a clericâ€™s collar, who wanted me to wash his dirty dishes.
At eleven, I never considered it. As an adult, I shouldnâ€™t have to. At the time, I was standing on principle. And it may have saved my derriere. Literally speaking. Or maybe it was another principal. As I said before, it was the nuns who pretty much ran the place. Call me old school, but I miss their black habits on the playground when I drive by or coach the kids in their after-school sports programs.
Iâ€™ll keep up with my reading. I think Sister Superior would want it that way. And if Father D____â€™s name is ever revealed like the other fallen priestsâ€™, Iâ€™ll fill in all the blanks.
WORLD - AN EDGE IN MY VOICE
Copyright © 2010 Mark Barkawitz
Copyright © 2010 Mark Barkawitz
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