Sunday, October 24, 2010

Neighborhood Character: Brother Dominic

Schooldays form a large part of our childhood. Memories of those years come easily, maybe because that part of my brain is somehow compartmentalized and uncluttered with all that's happened in my life since. I've written here before about my grammar school, Our Lady of Lourdes, in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. They don't call them grammar schools anymore because they stopped teaching grammar many years ago. That's evident in the speech and writing of our citizens, even "educated" ones. But I digress.

What makes those days so memorable is that as children, we are sent to school like blank pages, ready to be filled up with the academic knowledge that will help us get along in life. This knowledge is imparted by our teachers who become like surrogate parents, each taking part in our development for one year and then handing us off to the next higher grade where the process continues. Most of us can point with gratitude to those teachers who had the most positive influence on our young lives. I had two such teachers that I remember very fondly, Brother Jude, (View "School Days, Part 2") and Patricia Hornberger) View "Tech Alma Mater, Molder of Men"). Unfortunately, we shudder as we also recall the bad teachers. Brother Dominic was one.

Our Lady of Lourdes employed women teachers for grades 1 to 4; there was no Kindergarten in the dark ages. For grades 5-8 the girls were taught by nuns, the Sisters of St. Joseph, and the boys by Franciscan Brothers. In the days when physical discipline was a reality in the classroom, teachers ruled mostly by fear. This sounds harsh, but in reality it eliminated a lot of the nonsense distractions teachers have to cope with today, and if you toed the line, you were usually OK. The nuns and brothers established the rules early on and you obeyed them, end of story. If you strayed, you paid.

Brother Dominic was the most feared disciplinarian in the school. His biggest regret in life was that he had missed out on the Spanish Inquisition. Instead, he took out his frustrations on the thirteen-year old boys placed in his care. Catholicism is a basically good religion that sometimes attracts bad people like pedophile priests. Brother Dominic was bad. Short but muscular, bald and humorless, he patrolled the hallways like a malevolent force, and as he was the 8th grade teacher, you knew you had to pass through his class before you graduated.

I remember older boys moving up from Brother Jude's 7th grade class, and how they changed when they met Brother Dominic in 8th grade. A shadow passed across their normally cheerful countenances as they prepared to spend a long year with the Angel of Death. Brother Dominic not only enjoyed physically abusing boys, but humiliating them as well. Maybe he had a Napoleonic complex and felt he had to live up to his reputation. There were also rumors of "inappropriate touching", but they were never addressed publicly. We all knew he was waiting for us like a dark cloud we had to pass through. "I'll get you my pretty, and your little dog too!"

In my years at Lourdes I found there were brothers who looked fierce on the outside but always had some redeeming quality that made them approachable. Brother Dominic was pure evil. I know some day he will have to answer to a higher power for all the boys he brutalized. As I finished the 7th grade, and was steeling myself for the fate that awaited me, the sun suddenly broke through the clouds. The hated Brother Dominic was leaving the school (maybe there was something to those inappropriate touching allegations after all) and my man Brother Jude was assigned to the 8th grade. In life we occasionally get unexpected breaks thrown our way. We may not deserve them but by the grace of God they come anyway. Thank you Lord for delivering me from clutches of Brother Dominic.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

Friday, October 15, 2010


It's alarming to see how far bullying has come since the 1950s. The recent stories of teens driven to suicide because thoughtless kids posted stuff about them on Facebook or Twitter are tragic beyond words. We were not exempt from the taunts and miseries that bullies inflict on their victims, but it's different today. With electronic communication and social networking sites, the bullies have an easier time spreading their poison, and a ready audience of kids with low self-esteem looking to find someone less popular than themselves to laugh at.

Bullies have been around forever. They try to compensate for whatever is lacking in their own character by physically and verbally abusing others. When I was growing up there were bullies who picked on weaker kids not inclined to stand up to them. Every block and schoolroom had one...they would find victims to taunt or beat up for no reason other than they had a funny name or wore thick glasses. I think for boys, bullying became a rite of passage. We would be bullied by older boys, and sometimes to save face, we would bully younger kids in retaliation. I remember two childhood experiences, one when I was the bullied and another when I was the bullier.

I tangled with a kid from Fulton Street named Louie. His brother was reputedly in a local gang called the Baldies, and Louie hid behind his brother's reputation to pick fights with everybody. One day he went after my friend Vinnie and I stepped in and beat the crap out of him. He snivelled that he would tell his brother, and foolishly I told him to go ahead. Probably not my best idea ever. One day Louie accosted me, only he wasn't alone. His brother and a few Neanderthals were with him, and they walked me around the corner to a recessed stoop near Roma's Pastry store. "Are you ever going to hit my brother again?" came the question from brother Baldie. Pop! "Do you know what I'll do to you if you ever do?" Pop! After each question brother Baldie put to me, snivelling Louie rapped me on the head with a stickball bat! Badly outnumbered, I endured the beating in silence. I was ashamed, but I thought better a live coward than a dead hero.

My turn as a bully came when we took advantage of a mentally disturbed young man we called "Eddie Goose". Although in his early twenties, Eddie hung around the edges of our crowd because he couldn't function as an adult. We used him to run all our dirty errands like climbing on rooftops to retrieve lost balls and stealing fruit from Steve the pushcart guy. Eddie gamely endured our taunts and insults as long as we let him into a game once in a while. Despite his sweet nature, one day one of the guys pushed too hard. Being not only older than us, but powerfully built, Eddie had some type of seizure, picked the guy up over his head and hurled him into the bushes in front of my house. That day we saw a side of Eddie that scared the hell out of us, and although he was immediately contrite and afraid he had hurt his tormentor, we treated him a whole lot better after that. Unlike most of the memories in this blog, this one pains me because of the way I acted toward a sweet, harmless man.

One of my favorite scenes from the great holiday movie Christmas Story is when little Ralphie, frustrated to tears after years of torment at the hands of the neighborhood bully Scut Farkas, just snaps and pounds him to a pulp amid the cheers of his friends and fellow victims. Almost any Hollywood movie where the little guy stands up to the bully and wins is guaranteed box office. Trouble is life is not always black and white and sometimes it's hard to tell who the bullies are. I think there's a little bully in all of us trying to get out. I hope the schools and parents can do something about this problem. With video cams, texting and the Internet, today's cyber-bullies don't even have to risk a punch in the nose to do their dirty work.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association