Home > Childhood Memories, Culture, Lessons, Life > Confessions of a Catholic School Survivor

Confessions of a Catholic School Survivor

Bless the beasts and the children
For in this world they have no voice
They have no choice

Bless the beasts and the children
For the world can never be
The world they see

She was tucking the light-yellow and blue plastic container of Vaseline Intensive Care back into a drawer of her desk and we had barely returned to the hardwood chair that uncomfortably attached itself to our desks, when over the PA system came the voice of doom. The announcement demanded that all the girls who’d been to the third floor bathroom in the last ten-minutes come to the school’s auditorium, immediately!

The pock-marked, red-faced teacher who’d just finished slathering cream all over her angry face and whose first words to me after reading my name on the roster for the first time in her 7th grade math class were,Oh, no! Not another one. You’d better not be like your sister!” eyed us suspiciously. Without a word she nodded toward the classroom door and myself and the girl I’d just been excused with immediately rose.

I will never understand why teachers who don’t like children teach. They seem to enjoy being mean or hurtful. It’s sadistic and kids can always tell who they are.

This girl and I were quite different and while I wouldn’t say we were the best of friends, we were, friendly. Confusion and fear ran through my 12-year-old body as we came upon the two fifth-graders whose entry into the girl’s room only minutes ago, prompted us to quickly discard the evidence. My heart was racing and my brain was in overdrive. Did they say something? They couldn’t have. They wouldn’t be called here with us if they did. Besides, like two little kittens cornered by a pit bull, they were clearly shaking with fear. It was all I could do to keep my fear from being as transparent as theirs.

The auditorium was dark and empty of people although we stood at the back of what seemed like endless rows of gray, metal folding chairs that stopped right in front of the big black piano that rested itself off to the side of the stage. In the distance came the echoing of footsteps clapping steadily over the hard, cold, stone floors. The door swung open and she walked in. With an ever present “gotcha” attitude and a permanently stern look on her face, she glanced us over in one terse swoop as we stood nervously in a row, all wearing the same white collared blouses beneath regulation sweaters and plaid skirts that varied in length, above and below the knee.

I think you know why you are here, she said, confidently. Can anyone tell me what was going on in the third floor bathroom? Does anyone have anything to say?

No one spoke.

Okay, maybe this will help, she said and she pulled from her pocket as only a vice principal in charge of being the heavy can, a white tissue, neatly folded into a rectangle. Do you know what this is? She asked.

Of course we didn’t know! How could we know? We were scared, witless to her antics and worried about our fates for crying-out-loud! We stood there gaping at her treasure as she slowly and quite dramatically unfolded the tissue. In her Perry Mason moment she revealed the evidence we had discarded only minutes ago.

Full props for her unexpected display of shock and awe. Her quick reaction and immediate response brought the perpetrators directly to her lair.

We had immediately discarded the evidence. Actually, my friend threw it out the window in a panic when we heard the bathroom door opening and the two fifth graders came in. Now, here it was before us, stained with the glaring, red markings that obviously pointed to at least one of us. I wasn’t allowed to wear make-up to school and the fifth graders were too young, but there she stood, my friendly schoolmate, smiling her deep, red, shiny smile, as we viewed the incredible, half-smoked cigarette butt that held the imprint of my friend’s lipstick-laden, lips.

Unbelievable! How was this possible? What are the chances of throwing a half-smoked cigarette butt out of a third floor bathroom window only to have it land on the concrete ledge of the vice principal’s open window, while she was sitting in her office?

A gazillion to one, maybe?

Evidently pleased with herself, she carefully re-folded her prize and in another dramatic moment, told us she was going to leave us alone for a few minutes and let us talk it over.

Slaughter to the altar.

I can’t speak to Catholic School these days but the one I went to thirty-years ago reveled in discipline and there was without doubt, a constant, underlying movement to instill the fear to behave in otherwise good kids. As a child functioning under those conditions, you tend to find yourself in a perpetual state of “survival-mode” knowing that anything you do or say could be deemed bad. When it’s evident that the truth will not set you free but possibly get you expelled or left with a permanent mark on your record or worse, a tarnished reputation, you make another choice.

For right or for wrong and without a single word being uttered between us, in her two-minute absence, collectively, we made a decision on how this was going to go. When she returned, it was apparent that she fully expected the culprit(s) to have cracked and step forward or be offered up by the others so that she could swoop down and usher the fallen-soul to the next level of punishment.

Instead however, we presented her with a force she was clearly unprepared for.

There was no crying or finger-pointing. On the contrary, she was met with silence.

Well?  She said, impatiently

Nothing.

We said nothing. We were silent, the four of us and the vice principal who sometimes wore two different shoes to school and whose forehead was now growing red with frustration, didn’t know what to do. Clearly the evidence pointed to at least one of us but there were in fact four of us in that bathroom and no one was giving the other up.

After several minutes of agonizing silence, she reluctantly dismissed us and never a word was spoken about it again, by anyone.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t step up and take responsibility for your actions but I don’t regret the decision we made that day not to speak up. We were all pretty good kids who were often treated in a not-so-good way by some of the adults in our lives.This was after all, the same school that called my parents in to convey their concern for my then six-year old brother after he drew a black Jesus Christ. Aside from the fact that because of the climate we know Jesus lived in there’s no doubt he was a brown-skinned man, when asked by my parents why he drew Jesus black, he said it was the only crayon he could find.

Bless the beasts and the children
Give them shelter from the storm
Keep them safe
Keep them warm

~ Richard Carpenter & John Bettis

Photo Credits #1-4 Google Images

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  1. anita
    March 4, 2012 at 11:23 am

    Karen, I too have Catholic School experiences that raise the hair on the back of my neck now. It was a rough ride for a dyslexic girl with marginally educated first generation parents. Leaves one to wonder, doesn’t it.

    Like

  2. March 4, 2012 at 11:49 am

    Interesting, Anita. My parents were both from Europe. I am the first generation-American. I know my parents did the best they could and sacrificed a lot to give us the education they did. In many ways it was a good education and I am grateful but I also remember certain things and am just glad I was as strong as I was…as a kid. Thanks so much for reading & commenting.

    Like

  3. March 4, 2012 at 1:14 pm

    Vivid and well written. I attended a Protestant parochial schook (K-2nd grade). I definitely can see the correlation.

    Like

  4. March 4, 2012 at 1:42 pm

    Thanks, Karl! Peace.

    Like

  5. March 5, 2012 at 1:36 am

    Wow, this leaves me with visions as vivid as those I’ve seen in the movies, from which is the only portrayal I’ve witnessed from the Catholic school scene. However, I did have a VERY SCARY 6th grade teacher who, just as you described, did not seem to love or even remotely like children, but she most certainly loved herself. And, the worst part was her last name was Clark, my maiden name, and she had us all call her “Ms. (Mizzzzzz) Clark”. She had the staunchest rude voice imaginable and would belittle her students at any chance. I, being a shy and fairly high performing student, never experienced her wrath personally, I only watched in silence and told my folks about it at home. Then, there was the corporal punishment that took place at my junior high-back in the mid ’80s. Today the principal would be put in jail in a heartbeat, but when I was in 7th grade, if anyone got caught doing such acts as mentioned above, it was paddle time in front of the entire school. He’d bring the student into the courtyard that was on ground level in the center of a second-story building with a balcony, and we’d all be brought outside to watch the swat. It only happened once while I was there-but geez louise-what a horrible event that I will never forget.

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    • March 6, 2012 at 5:59 pm

      That swatting thing in the middle of the courtyard baffles me. He’d probably be jumped today by half the kids watching him. Unbelievable, Kasey. I witnessed many other unfortunate events including male teachers hurling 12 year old boys against the wall in anger and a very sadistic 3rd grade teacher enjoyed digging her ring into kids hands, arms, etc. Oh, well. Thankfully, it’s a different time/era. Thanks for reading as always my far-away friend….one day soon I hope to catch up on emails & other things to keep in better touch! Hope you & your lovely gal are well. 🙂

      Like

  6. March 5, 2012 at 1:40 am

    Oh, and way to go keeping your mouths shut and staying calm! Taking responsibility is a good thing, no doubt, but sometimes the rules that are thought to determine “responsible” behavior are subjective to say the least! Great post! 🙂

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  7. March 5, 2012 at 10:00 pm

    Good for you and your crew. In a completely unrelated event from my youth that left them speechless, after studying my parents prior to me getting spankings with a wooden board, I first told myself I was not going to cry, which kinda made them want to try harder. so then I stood up and turned around and thanked them. I said thank you. I never got another spanking after that. ~I got grounded instead.

    ~Great story. I will never understand the Catholic Boarding School concept.

    Like

    • March 6, 2012 at 5:53 pm

      Thanks, Andy – I ran from many a wooden spoon in my day…..wish I’d of figured out your tactic long ago! Good for you! Thanks for reading & commenting!

      Like

  8. CIndy
    March 6, 2012 at 4:58 pm

    My palms are sweaty and my heart is racing as I picture Miss O’Brien marching down the hall to the auditorium. I can recall how her face would turn beat red when she was angry! When Sheila and I were caught cutting school in 8th grade I was “sentenced” to several days of in-school suspension with Miss O’Brien. Thanks for the memories, Karen, but I’m not sure if I’ll sleep well tonight!

    Like

    • March 6, 2012 at 5:52 pm

      Ha, Ha…you got that marching down the hall thing right, Cindy! Sorry to bring these images back into your brain after being dormant for so long! I had to get them out of my head & on paper! I remember when you & Sheila got caught cutting!! Thanks for reading & commenting!

      Like

  9. March 7, 2012 at 8:26 pm

    I love this story!!! Its hilarious!!!!
    I love you,
    Hannah kiss kiss

    Like

    • March 7, 2012 at 8:28 pm

      oh and I love the pics!!
      I love ya,
      Hannah

      Like

    • March 7, 2012 at 8:31 pm

      I love you. You are HILARIOUS!
      Kiss* Kiss* Hug* Hug*

      Like

  10. Colleen Chase
    April 5, 2014 at 2:47 am

    Hi Karen. I ran across this page while looking for other Catholic school survivors. I have been unable to shake the trauma I experienced in 8 years of Catholic school. I can’t even begin to tell you the things that I and some of my classmates were put through. I’d really like to just move on – and sometimes I think I did move on, but that pain and fear rears its ugly head every now and then and I feel so much resentment.

    Your story really nailed the experience. I have tried (through the internet) to find out what was going on with the church at that time (57 years ago) and why some of these nuns all had that meanness and cruelty in common. Was this type of discipline required to be used? In my school the punishment was always public humiliation. Being made to stand in front of the class and smile for 15 minutes because you were caught laughing while eating your lunch (a big no-no in my school). When a nun found out that a boy had given me a candy heart in 6th grade we were both forced to stand in front of a priest on the playground holding hands feeling horribly shamed. I had no clue why that was such a bad thing. I had no clue about boys and sex at that age.

    In class, God forbid, if you did not have the correct answer when you were called on. Another shaming took place. A boy in our class was constantly shamed for being stupid and many times was forced walked the playground holding on to the nuns skirt wearing a sign around his neck saying “I am a baby.” That’s because he would cry while being called stupid in class. He went through this kind of humiliation all of the years we attended that school.

    In 2nd grade…if you acted* up you were put in a coat closet and told there were rats in the closet.

    By the time I reached 8th grade there came a day when I had forgotten to throw away gum I had been chewing before I came into the classroom (omg..the wrath of God was on me). It was when the nun noticed I had gum in my mouth and taunted me screaming in my face for more than 20 minutes to put that wad of gum on my nose…..but, something happened then. I wasn’t going to do it. I wasn’t going to be humiliated anymore. I didn’t care. I sat there for 20 minutes saying no with tears rolling down my face followed by uncontrollable sobbing while a class of 50 kids watched while she had her ugly red mean and sweaty face in mine yelling at me to put that gum on my nose. She finally gave up and sent me to the Principal’s office.

    It was that day that paved a different road in my life. I was given that “permanent mark on my record”, thrown out of the choir and not allowed to participate in any fun activities in school. After graduation and applying and interviewing to attend a local Catholic High School for girls, I was the only one in my class who applied for that school who not accepted.

    All was well for me after going into the public school system. It was a shock to walk into a classroom and not feel that dread and fear of what might happen that day. For the first time in my life school was a safe place to be.

    A year later, one day I went back to that all girls Catholic High School to visit a friend. We were sitting outside on a bench talking when I looked over and noticed one of the students (a young lady in uniform) heavily making out with a boy on a nearby bench. I never noticed that behavior going on at the public school I was going to. I realized then that it was I that was too good for that school.

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    • August 10, 2015 at 8:21 am

      Colleen, thank you so much for sharing your story! Shame, guilt, humiliation and fear seem to have been a common denominator among catholic nuns and priests back in our day. How sad for them that these were motivators for their livelihood. Kudos for listening to your inner self and being brave enough to say “NO”. What a wonderful turning point for YOU!

      Like

  11. August 9, 2015 at 3:16 pm

    Hi Karen,
    I loved your essay. I am a survivor of catholic school, too. Although my grammar school education was excellent, I was a victim of emotional abuse and excessive abuse and torture in the lives of students at Immaculata High school Class of 1991 in Somerville, New Jersey. I was in the hospital for my asthma and allergies, and on the ventilator. I stayed after for extra math help in Algebra 9th grade by Sister Mary Ann Bestika. She told me she thought it was a joke that I would ever be there and would never learn Algebra. I was not learning disabled but I did have extra problems with math. I worked hard all that year with the students in NHS who made me feel stupid. I took Biology with this nun in 9th grade and she made my life a living hell. The kids sent me letters and passed notes, ( in the days before phones and texting) in my textbooks was written freak and go and die. As a result, I have PTSD for the rest of my life. I do not like Immaculata High school in Somerville because the faculty did nothing to stop the bullying of the teachers and nuns. As a result I stuffer from severe PTSD, and severe emotional problems with general anxiety. I have had nightmares ever since, 2 suicide attempts, ect, and everything. Unfortunately after high school I had a terrible experience with college. (It took me 5 times to pass out of remedial algebra and I got a C in biology.) I wanted to become a teacher because of all the emotional abuse I went through. But I thought I would make a difference. Instead, I found that public school is the same way. There are tenured teachers who do not want to be there, they abuse and emotionally desecrate the students. The teacher’s union who is supposed to be there for the kids does nothing but yell at people and take peoples’ dues. The truth is there is evil everywhere. I would hope that people take the time to get rid of people who work with children that are abusive. They destroy them for life.

    Like

    • August 10, 2015 at 8:27 am

      CrabbyPatty…..thank you so much for reading and commenting on this essay. I applaud your tenacity despite the treatment that was unjustly hurled your way time and time again, you persevered! You overcame! You took passed algebra and biology! You did it! There are schools out there that really care about kids, the whole child, their social and emotional well being. I know because I work in a progressive school that treats children with respect and love. If it is your dream to help children and be a teacher, do it! You may be just what they need!

      Like

  1. March 11, 2012 at 12:39 am

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