Monday, August 29, 2011


As a diversion in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, we watched the movie "Doubt" set in the Bronx in the 1960s. It's about a Sister of Charity (Meryl Streep) who squares off against a Catholic priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) over the nun's suspicions of an improper relationship between the priest and a young boy who attends St. Nicholas School where the nun presides as Principal with an iron fist. The movie was wonderfully written and acted, but more to the point of this blog, it released a flood of memories for me about life inside the walls of a Catholic grammar school. Life was much less complicated then; we never knew what lay ahead like the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Kennedy assassination, the exploration of space, and race riots in our streets. My biggest daily worry was not getting smacked around by the screws (Franciscan brothers, Sisters of St. Joseph, and lay teachers) who ruthlessly patrolled the halls of Our Lady of Lourdes School.

Watching "Doubt" was as if someone flipped a switch in my head and I was back in those classrooms. Don't get me wrong...I loved school in spite of the daily threat of bodily harm, but it was an ongoing battle between a boy's temptation to do what you were told not to do (like talking in class) and the consequences of getting caught, as Brother Jude advanced down that classroom aisle with murder in his eyes, always careful to remove his watch lest he damage it on your skull. There were never any hard feelings involved in administering discipline; it was just business. Brother Jude would eagerly join in a game of Triangle (schoolyard baseball) at lunch time and act as if he had never boxed your ears an hour before. The screenwriter for the movie had to experience that world to write a script that so exactly captured the mood of that place and time.

I always say I'm not a big Meryl Streep fan, yet she's been brilliant in every movie I've ever seen her in; Doubt was no exception. She plays Sister Aloysius, a hard-case nun who treats change like the plague. She bemoans the decline in penmanship, and attributes it in part to the introduction of ball point pens. "You have to press down so hard, it makes you write like a monkey" she pronounces. "I'm so sorry I ever even allowed them to use cartridge fountain pens."  The scenes at Sunday Mass were also spot on, as a vigilant nun patrols the aisles of the church administering a sharp smack to the back of the head of any foolish child who dares to talk or fall asleep. Sister Aloysius metes out justice from her school office with malice for all and mercy for none. To a boy caught listening to a transistor radio in class: "Write out the multiplication tables ten times each, and make sure they're legible." No transgression will ever pass Sister Aloysius unpunished.

Father Flynn, played beautifully by Philip Seymour Hoffman, is a victim of Sister Aloysius when her accusing mind and relentless persecution cause him to transfer out of the parish. He so reminded me of some of the more approachable priests from my old church like Father Schaeffer, who looked like JFK and made a real effort to reach out to the young boys of the parish. I saw him once take on a group of punks from outside the neighborhood who tried to crash a school dance. We followed him outside to help, but he needed none as he soon had the tough guys licking their wounds and on the run. It dawned on me that his interest in us, when viewed through the eyes of a Sister Aloysius, might have well ended his career as a priest. I know the Catholic Church had its problems with abusive priests, but the movie left me conflicted about the line between genuine priestly affection and child abuse.

At some point in the film, Father Flynn gives a sermon about gossip. A woman confides to her confessor that she is guilty of gossiping. For her penance he tells her to cut a pillow, go to the roof of her house, and empty all the feathers into the air, then come back to him. She does as she is told, and the priest says to her: "Now go and retrieve all those feathers and put them back into the pillow." That's impossible she says, they are in the air and cannot be retrieved. "And that is gossip" says Father Flynn.  Even the pious and always certain Sister Aloysius tearfully admits to doubts at the end of the movie. A good lesson for us all. Matthew 7:1 Judge Not Lest Ye Be Judged.


Children's Craniofacial Association 

Friday, August 12, 2011

Ma, I'm Sick

I want to get something off my chest. When I didn't feel like going to school, I would take advantage of my mother's love for me by feigning illness. I was basically a very healthy kid, so I was rarely genuinely sick. That helped my credibility because when I said I felt sick,  Mom believed me. She would always gauge whether I had a fever by kissing my forehead. Then she'd say: "You don't feel warm, let me get the thermometer." Trusting soul that she was, Mom would always stick it under my tongue and go off to do something. This gave me time to rub the bulb of the thermometer rapidly back and forth across the bed sheet, thereby creating enough heat friction to produce a temperature. Once I overdid it and Mom nearly fell over when she read 105 degrees!

Staying home sick from school was one of the best boondoggles of childhood. I was pampered beyond belief. I felt a little guilty when poor Mom fussed over me, cutting the crusts off my sandwiches, bringing up a stack of comics for me to read, and later on, when we got our first television, fluffing up the pillows on the sofa while I watched mindless cartoons like Junior Frolics, Felix the Cat and Koko the Clown who always crawled out of the inkwell of his creator and onto the screen. Getting control of the TV was a real perk of feigned illness; my sister never got to watch what she wanted. Even if it was a show I enjoyed, I refused to put on any channel she wanted just for spite. Yes, I was a real dick.

Like most Italian and Jewish mothers, the number one remedy for anything that ailed you was chicken soup. This is not a myth but a sacred truth. If there was no other reason to fake illness, getting to eat Mom's chicken soup was reason enough. She made it from scratch with celery, carrots, and rice or small pasta like Orzo. The chicken fat you could skim off the top of the pot was thick enough to lubricate a small battleship, but that's what gave this soup its curative properties. I ate bowl after bowl topped off with Oysterette crackers. If Mom had any suspicions about how a kid who was so sick could have such a voracious appetite, she never let on.

I think by the time I was in high school, Mom had wised up. She packed me off to school no matter how much I whined. This called for a strategy shift; how could I dupe the school nurse into sending me home sick? There were a few "sure-fire" tricks that would get the job done according to some of the seasoned delinquents in my class. One was to put a penny under your tongue along with the thermometer. Other than satisfying any curiosity about what a penny tastes like, this never worked. Another was to put an ink blotter in your shoe. In the days before ballpoint pens, we used ink blotters to keep the blue-black ink in our fountain pens from smearing. Another bust. Finally, I took to just playing hooky and writing excuse notes from home to cover my absences. Yes, I know, a dick.

As a teen, I had a promising career as a forger. For instance, I could draw great replicas of  bus or subway passes and would sell them to kids who had lost their real ones. I could also imitate my mother's handwriting perfectly, and so writing excuse notes was a breeze. This ruse went swimmingly until one time when I made a spelling error on a note, realized it and stuck it in one of my text books. I wrote out another note and it was accepted as usual. Unfortunately, the first note slipped from the pages of my book and some do-gooder found and turned it in. Somehow the attendance office matched up the two notes and the jig was up. My parents were called to school and my poor mother was shocked to find out how many excuse notes she had written. This little caper prompted the guidance counsellor to suggest (demand) that I transfer to another school.

Once in a while I'd stay home sick from work, and found that the thrill of getting away with something had not diminished. I finally wised up and gave up my criminal ways, in fact, later in my career I prided myself on getting to work no matter how lousy I felt. I only wish Mom had been around to witness my redemption.


Children's Craniofacial Association

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Juxtaposition of the Incongruous

A couple of weeks ago I taught a three-day writing class for my old company. Nothing really creative, just a refresher in basic grammar, punctuation and structure for an audience of customer service representatives who are in training to become senior customer service representatives. One of the new duties they will pick up if they earn the senior title is writing original letters to customers. Over the years, the company has found a disappointing lack of writing skill in its employees including those in management positions. After day one of the class I heard one student say to another: "So that's what an adverb is." Miss Baumann would be horrified.

I've written before about my fourth grade teacher, Miss Baumann. (We never knew her first name because we would never dream of addressing her so informally) She was one of a group of dedicated teachers at Our Lady of Lourdes School who, for far too little money, took scruffy street urchins and taught them the King's English. Not just enough to get by, but grammatically correct, properly spelled, punctuated, and capitalized English. Our class was not filled with "gifted and talented" kids to merit such a thorough grounding in our native tongue, but in fact, it was expected that every student who graduated that school could write good English. The Catholic school system had never lowered expectations for us just because we were poor or descended from immigrants; there was one high standard and everyone was pushed to meet it.

Trying to teach these skills now, to adults,  is very difficult. It's impossible to do in a three day class what wasn't accomplished in 12 years of formal schooling. These students are not dumb, but their basic elementary and high school education was so fundamentally flawed in that it did not place enough stress on English. What good is math and science if you can't communicate your ideas in writing. The English and writing curriculum have been terribly diluted over the years. People now get college degrees who can't compose a decent resume. As expectations spiral lower and lower, such idiotic books like "Handwriting Without Tears" find their way into our school libraries. We have ourselves to blame for tolerating this erosion; we don't ask enough of our kids, and the result is sadly apparent.

Compounding the schools' failure to teach proper English is the tendency for parents to park their kids in front of a TV or computer and take no interest in their education. Reading to and with kids can be a tremendous help in developing their ear. Listening to our language being spoken properly helps children know what good English sounds like by training their ear. They may not be able to cite the rule that makes a sentence grammatically incorrect, but it will clank on their ear when spoken aloud, and they will know to give it a second look. As it is, they enter adulthood blithely unaware of their inability to write correctly, and become frustrated when the deficiency is called to their attention. Trying to fix it now is nearly impossible, especially in the age of e-mail and "textspeak".

To impress on you just how well those Lourdes English drills sank in, let me relate a little story. I attended college at night while working days to support my family. I was always the oldest in class, but I didn't care. The wonderful gift of English that I had been given by teachers like Miss Baumann served me well. Even in classes in which I wasn't that strong, the professors were so impressed by papers that weren't full of typos, misspellings and grammatical errors that I usually got better grades than I probably deserved. In one class, an instructor asked if anyone knew the literary term for the placement of very dissiimilar elements side by side in the same sentence. Somewhere from the deep recesses of my memory came the answer: "Juxtaposition of the incongruous" I volunteered.

The students turned in their seats staring at me as if I had spoken Swahili. My instructor's jaw dropped a little as he nodded his head to indicate that my answer was correct. The only one who would not have been surprised by my answer was dear Miss Baumann.


Children's Craniofacial Association