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“It is fast-moving and often downright funny.”—New York Times
“He has recaptured childish innocence and presented it with adult enlightenment—plus a touch of cynicism—yet never with irreverence.”
—Book-of-the-Month Club News
First confession and its terrors. Eighty-four first graders in a classroom ruled by just one nun. The agony and the ecstasy of Lent. The dubious honor of being declared the worst altar server ever. Dinah Shore...
“It is fast-moving and often downright funny.”—New York Times
“He has recaptured childish innocence and presented it with adult enlightenment—plus a touch of cynicism—yet never with irreverence.”
—Book-of-the-Month Club News
First confession and its terrors. Eighty-four first graders in a classroom ruled by just one nun. The agony and the ecstasy of Lent. The dubious honor of being declared the worst altar server ever. Dinah Shore and the Blessed Virgin haunting your dreams. This is Eddie Ryan’s world as he grows up in the intensely Catholic world of South-Side Chicago’s St. Bastion’s parish in the 1950s. In this classic coming-of-age novel, John Powers draws readers into Eddie Ryan’s world with deep affection and bittersweet humor.
Subtitled A Fictional Memoir, this is a funny look back at the author's years spent in a parochial school in Chicago.
Introduction Andrew Greeley
The invitation to write an introduction for a new edition of John R. Powers’s The Last Catholic in America, to be included in a series of “classics” astonished me. How long did it take for a Catholic novel to become a classic? Dr. Powers had written the book only a couple of years ago, had he not? My astonishment turned to dismay when I saw the 1973 copyright date—more than enough time to become a classic!
I devoured the book again just as I had more than thirty years ago, enjoying it just as much as I had then, perhaps even more. Back in 1973, it was one of the first of the now extensive literature of Catholic nostalgia, which includes memoirs, fiction, and drama. The Last Catholic in America paved the way for the rest and is, far and away, the most humane of the lot.
Powers’s novels are indeed nostalgic. They are also wise, hilarious, biting, and observant. They are fine examples of the coming-of-age tale, written with a pitch-perfect balance between the innocence of the child and the bittersweet knowledge of the adult. For beyond our relief at getting beyond all of what we laugh at, sometimes incredulously, haunts a suspicion that something meaningful has been lost. That’s where the nostalgia enters—for the pains and joys of Catholic life before the Second Vatican Council.
What’s amazing is that The Last Catholic in America was published less than ten years after the close of the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), the massive gathering of all Roman Catholic bishops convened by Pope John XXIII, and that ten years made all the difference—to the world of Eddie Ryan, that is. For no doubt, if St. Bastion’s were a real parish, and you’d gone there in 1973, you’d find a far different place than Eddie Ryan knew in the 1950s or even in 1965. There’d be no Latin Masses; the nuns who were left would have changed their long habits for something more practical; the Baltimore Catechism and its neat formulas would be just a memory. The priests still would have power to wield, but the laity would have a great deal more say about it than the hapless “Concerned Parents for a Better St. Bastion’s Parish” who go to war with the pastor over the eviction of Garbage Lady Annie from property next to the new church (they’re for it; he’s against it).
Eddie Ryan couldn’t have seen it. Father O’Reilly couldn’t have seen it. Even Sister Eleanor, who could see you even when she was out of the classroom, couldn’t have foretold the massive changes that occurred in the wake of the Council, some intentionally, others as unintended consequences.
That’s the reason for the nostalgia that made this novel and its sequels (Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up? in 1975 and The Unoriginal Sinner and the Ice-Cream God in 1977) so popular when they were first published. The people who read them knew Eddie Ryan’s world. Like him, they’d left a lot of it behind, but also like him, they sometimes wondered if they’d left too much.
I have a special interest in The Last Catholic in America because it’s about my neighborhood. I am West Side Irish but during the time about which Powers writes, I was living in exile on the South Side in a parish close to the parish of John Powers’s childhood. I knew the territory. I had to fight off invaders from “St. Bastion” who tried repeatedly to crash our high club “dances” (at which no one danced until the very end of the evening). I even knew the Swank Roller Rink, which John Powers has immortalized. If anything, his description of what went on at the Swank is restrained.
The teens in my parish insisted that we must go there one night, even though I couldn’t skate. So a few hundred of us showed up along with some innocent adult chaperones. Newly ordained priest that I was, I could hardly claim adult status. I think only two of our mob had to be taken over to Little Company of Mary Hospital with injuries. Maybe it was three. We never went again. I’ve often wondered whether John Powers was there that night or whether perhaps he might have been among the Friday evening raiding parties from “Seven Holy Tombs.” He denies it. But then of course he would!
So I know the culture and the neighborhood of which he writes. It is South Side Chicago Irish in the middle of the twentieth century, a generation after James Farrell’s Studs Lonigan and a generation before the sexual-abuse crisis. Powers is gentler and wittier than Farrell, and not nearly so angry. Both Farrell and Powers understand the power and the poignancy of love on the far outer edge of adolescence, although Powers sees more comedy in the dance than Farrell did.
Much of the Catholic world they both portrayed is gone now, caught up in the structural changes that came in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, which were, as I believe, fully intended by the Holy Spirit. The world may have changed, but the pains of early adolescence are still the same and probably always will be. Many of the Catholic schools in the neighborhood continue to exist. No one gets beat up anymore by the nuns; alas, there are not many nuns left. Yet the schools remain not only excellent educational institutions, but also places where human dignity is recognized and nurtured.
Whatever the new Catholic Church will look like in the years ahead, there will still be Catholic schools, which will continue to cope firmly and affectionately with those in the early years of adolescence. I suspect that eighth graders in such schools will read Powers and Farrell and marvel about how different things were in the old days—and how similar, even if there are no longer such temples of recreation as the Swank.
Years ago—maybe ten, maybe twenty—I led a crew of ex-teenagers to the Summit Theater in Chicago to attend the play based on Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up? In the first act, the second graders sang “Bring Flowers of the Rarest” for their May Crowning. The whole audience—I almost said “congregation”—joined in the refrain “O Mary we crown thee with blossoms today.”
I asked John Powers in the lobby whether he had arranged that for my benefit. “No,” he replied. “That’s happened every night since we opened.”
They don’t sing “Mary we crown you with blossoms today” in Catholic schools much, if at all, anymore. But it echoes from St. Bastion’s, through the pages of The Last Catholic in America, a classic tale for today’s church, which is slowly rediscovering what it must retrieve from its past.
Andrew Greeley is a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago. He teaches, does sociological research, and writes.
The Last Catholic in America
To my parents, June R. and John F. Powers,
without whose love I would not have been possible.
Randy. Margo Powers, for that night at the roller rink. Gay and Dr. Joseph V. Gioioso for their contributions. Dr. Martion J. Maloney of Northwestern University, John Fink of the Chicago Tribune Magazine, and Bill Wright, for both their professional and personal assistance.
Q.: Why did God make you?
A.: God made me to know Him, to love Him and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in the next.
Question 150 from the Baltimore Catechism
Morning flight. Cross-country from New York with but one thought in mind: to sell a few million paper cups to a lavatory firm in Los Angeles.
Talking to the fellow next to me, a law student from Harvard University. It is the usual pitter-patter conversation that often ferments between passengers of adjoining seats: dribblings of dialogue spaced by half hours of silent negligence.
I ask him where he’s from.
“Pittsburgh,” he replies.
“Oh,” I say. That’s all I can think of to say about Pittsburgh. “Oh.” But it’s the type of inquiry that must be reciprocated. He complies somewhat blandly.
“Oh.” He knows as much about Chicago as I do about Pittsburgh.
I ask him if he knows anyone from Chicago. I say it as if I’m on a first-name basis with all four million of the city’s inhabitants.
“Only one person,” he says, “a gentleman who used to be a night security guard at my father’s department store. His name was . . . ah . . .” He looks up at the ceiling of the plane for the answer. “Ah, Alex Rummersfold, I believe.”
“Alex Rummersfold! I know him!” I am almost shouting. Whenever I get excited, I always talk louder than I should. The Harvard law student, who is sitting next to the window, kind of turns his back on me and begins looking out at the cloudless sky.
A stewardess walking by is somewhat startled by my verbal explosion. She stares at me vacantly for a moment, then smiles weakly and moves on. I’m sure that if my head had just fallen off, she would have done the same thing. Stewardesses are like that.
“Alex Rummersfold,” I say quietly to myself, “Jesus Christ, I forgot all about him. I turn in my seat toward the Harvard law student. “He’s a short, squatty guy with huge shoulder blades, right?”
The Harvard law student continues to gaze out the window. “Yes, as I recall,” he says.
“And he had a very odd, disgusting odor about him, right?”
That brings the Harvard law student away from his window. “Why yes, yes he did.”
“That’s because he has overdeveloped armpits. He’s always smelled like that. He even smelled like that on his first day of school. He was the only six-year-old I knew who had fully mature sweat glands. He was an altar boy, too. Used to serve Friday night novenas all the time.”
I relate the facts of Alex Rummersfold smugly. It’s always a pleasure to drop a little history on the ignorant.
The Harvard law student isn’t impressed. He goes back to staring out the window.
Thirty thousand feet over Ohio and thoughts of Alex Rummersfold don’t mix very well in one’s head, so I try to think of other things. But it doesn’t work. My mind keeps drifting back to Alex Rummersfold, hundreds of other people as weird as him including me, and that world we all share together.
By the time the plane reaches Chicago for a stopover, I am more interested in tracing my umbilical cord back to its origin than in sticking some guy in Los Angeles with two million four-ounce paper cups.
Taking a cab from O’Hare Airport to the far South Side of Chicago. The cab is approaching a small hill that is topped by cemeteries on either side of the street. As the cab begins crawling up the hill. I yell at the cab driver to stop.
“Right here?” he asks.
“Right here.” I hand him the fare, climb out of the cab, and begin walking up the remainder of the hill. I don’t dare go into my old neighborhood in a cab. In all the years I lived there, I never once saw a cab on one of its streets.
It is a good day to be alive in Chicago. I have never been a big fan of Chicago’s weather. The city’s winters are unbelievably cold and piled with snow. Between the frigidity of winter and the torrid heat of summer are two days called spring. But Chicago’s autumns make up for all of it. They are cool days with clear complexions, flavored by crispy brown leaves and mellowed by a summer-aged sun. Today is such a day.
Looking through the wrought-iron fence as I approach the top of the hill. Grave markers and ground alike are speckled with leaves, many turned brown by the eons of summer.
There are a few newly dug graves. One is so fresh that leaves have yet to fall upon it.
An older friend of mine once told me that, although you may live in many places, “home” will always be the one you grew up in. As I reached the top of the hill, I realize that he is right. Below me lies the main street of my old neighborhood.
It’s a different neighborhood than most, if for no other reason than the fact that more than half of its inhabitants are dead and have been for years. Although the neighborhood is legally part of Chicago, it is isolated from the rest of the city by grave markers and evergreens. The area is entirely surrounded by cemeteries, seven of them to be exact. The neighborhood is named after the largest of these cemeteries. Seven Holy Tombs.
Seven Holy Tombs was originally a small town that was annexed into the city of Chicago sometime during the 1920s. The founder of Seven Holy Tombs was supposedly a gravedigger. But it wasn’t until the late 1940s and early 1950s that the area really began to grow.
The men who came to Seven Holy Tombs were those who had fought, and won, World War II and who had used the GI Bill to buy their homes. Their wives were girls who had spent a few years after high school working for the telephone company and were now content to grind out the rest of their existences as mothers and housewives.
During those years, the white-frame two-flats and chocolate-brown brick bungalows of Seven Holy Tombs supported two VFW halls, a Moose lodge, a Knights of Columbus chapter, seven music stores all of which exclusively specialized in teaching the accordion, a three-story hobby shop, four dime stores, two custard stands, the world’s largest Little League organization, a dozen gas stations, and about four thousand corner food stores.
Although most of the men of Seven Holy Tombs worked in other parts of Chicago, the vast majority of residents thought you needed a visa in order to get out of the neighborhood for more than one day at a time. It was customary for the natives, upon reaching puberty, to marry the girl next door and then move two blocks away. We children of Seven Holy Tombs believed that the edge of the earth lay two blocks beyond the cemeteries. Most of the adults felt that it was somewhat farther than that.
The young couples who had come to Seven Holy Tombs in the late 1940s and early 1950s were part of the fuse that ignited the postwar baby boom. Long engagements were their only form of birth control and that didn’t always prove successful either. Through their endeavors, Seven Holy Tombs became the fastest-growing community in the country. It was during this time of her adolescence that I, and thousands like me, were born and grew older in Seven Holy Tombs.
Then, there were two major religions in the world, Catholic and “Public.” Catholics went to St. Bastion Grammar School, had long summer vacations, had to get off the sidewalks when a Public kid told them to since the sidewalks belonged to the Publics, and were constantly yelled at by adults who would say, “I expected better behavior from you Catholic kids, with all those nuns watching over you.”
Publics went to Seven Holy Tombs Public School, had shorter summer vacations, were often subjected to “what can you expect from Public school kids” glares from adults, and went to a number of different churches in the neighborhood, which, according to the Catholics, were all the same anyway.
I notice few changes as I walk down the main street. It’s a quarter to one. Almost the end of lunch period. Kids are streaming out of the various dime stores, their arms loaded down with packs of loose-leaf paper, pencil sharpeners, and new, unblemished notebooks.
In many of the boys’ eyes, you can see that good old September enthusiasm. “Yes sir, this year is going to be different. I’m going to do my homework every day as soon as I get home from school. And no goofing around either. This is the year I show them what kind of student I can really be.” Such enthusiasm inevitably dies within two weeks of the current campaign.
Some of their faces look familiar. Probably younger brothers and sisters of kids I grew up with.
Since I’m heading in the same direction, I walk along with them, but my step is not as fast as theirs. I don’t have to be in my classroom before the bell rings.
With their accelerated pace, they shortly desert me. By the time I reach the St. Bastion Parish complex, which includes the school, convent, the old church, which has been converted into classrooms, the new church, and the rectory, the school bell has rung. The playground is clear. The streets are no longer soaked with sound.
Directly across from St. Bastion’s is the neighborhood’s major park, named quite appropriately Seven Holy Tombs Park. Being a baseball fanatic, I spent a good part of my youth chasing grounders and fly balls, most of which evaded me, across its various diamonds. With the kids in school, the park is virtually empty except for an occasional young mother pushing a baby carriage and a few old men cluttering up some of the park benches.
I get a long drink of water from the fountain, then pick out an empty bench that overlooks the park. Resting my arms along the back of the bench and stretching my crossed legs, getting all the wrinkles out. Relaxing while my body saturates the easy breathing of Seven Holy Tombs. Thinking.
II According to My Permanent Records
I didn’t say good-bye to all my imaginary friends or do anything stupid like that before I went off to my first day of school. Not that I didn’t have imaginary friends. At that time I had two, Joe Brown and Pete Brown. By the time I was fifteen, I had forty imaginary friends. I still hang around with a few of them.
Joe Brown was the bartender in the upstairs bathroom. Joe was the owner and Pete was his assistant. Pete Brown got his own place when we put in a bathroom downstairs.
The only place I ever sat long enough to do any serious thinking was in the bathroom. Sometimes it’s easier to do serious thinking if you have someone to talk things over with. Not all the time because it’s nice to be alone, too. But sometimes.
After watching all those Sunday afternoon Westerns with their sympathetic bartenders, more and more often Joe Brown would just happen to be in my bathroom when I was there. Sometime later, Pete Brown started coming around to help Joe out. After a while, I started running into Joe Brown and Pete Brown all over the house. Gradually, more imaginary friends kept coming to stay. “Friends” really isn’t the proper word to use. I didn’t like all of them. Bill Doodle, for instance, was a very tough guy to get to know and an impossible person to get along with. Most of them were okay, though.
It was kind of nice having all those people around. The house was like a town in itself. The upstairs hall was sometimes a street and sometimes the hallway of the hotel many of us lived in. The stairs emptied out into the living room, which, with the dining room, was the rest of the neighborhood. The kitchen wasn’t anything because one of my parents or my older sister was in there most of the time. Imaginary friends and family don’t mix.
I would have never considered saying good-bye to my imaginary friends before I went to school that first morning. They were adults and so was I. Like any kid, I might be a cowboy one day and the next day be a major-league ballplayer,
and they would change right along with me. But we were always adults. So why the hell would a bartender like Joe Brown care about some kid starting school?
With a quart of hair oil seeping through my fifty-cent haircut from Angelo’s Barbershop, the clip-on bow tie gouging my Adam’s apple with every swallow, the suspenders constantly slipping off the three-dollar corduroy pants that scraped and scratched with every step, three unsharpened pencils wrapped in my fist, and my feet encased in Buster Brown shoes “Made Just for You,” I stumbled along the streets of Seven Holy Tombs, following the early morning school crowd to St. Bastion Catholic Grammar School, wondering what God had in store for me.
St. Bastion School had no guidance counselors, televisions, gym, school nurse, faculty room, cafeteria, or field trips. St. Bastion’s had classrooms. Lots of them. And each classroom had kids. Lots of them. Through the combined efforts of the parents of St. Bastion’s, the parish had the largest student body of any elementary school in the city of Chicago.
A nun stood in front of the large red double doors, her arms folded and her eyes peering down at me as I cautiously began to climb, for the first of many thousands of times, the steps of St. Bastion School.
I had met nuns a few times before when I had gone to Sunday Mass with my parents. The nuns were sweet to me, then. Hugging me and saying what a sweet little fellow I was and all of that. They probably just said that because I was with my parents. Nuns are always very nice to you when you’re with your parents. But if you’re alone, look out.
“You, what grade you in?”
“I’m not in any grade, Sister, I’m just starting school today.”
“Hey, what are you? Some kind of wise guy? Downstairs in the basement with the other first graders.”
The walls of the school basement were lined with smooth yellow brick. At the back of the basement was a stage with the curtain closed. The curtain was crowded with squares of advertisements advocating the patronage of local businesses. “Georgi’s Jewelry Shop—When you think of Mother, your priceless jewel, think of Georgi, he’s a real gem, too.” “Don’s Donut Shop, food good for the HOLE family.” “Everrest Cemetery, We care. Free water cans.”
A couple of hundred wooden and metal folding chairs had been set up in front of the stage with a space left in the center of them for an aisle. All the boys were on one side and all the girls were on the other. Angelo the barber had done a good week’s business. He had even got some of the girls.
Everyone was sitting as if they had been painted into their folding chairs. The nuns swished along in their black-and-white habits, patrolling the outskirts of the chairs. No one talked.
A few minutes later, all the nuns began mumbling, “Good morning Father, good morning Father, good morning Father.” Down the center aisle came a huge, balding, black-cassocked priest with a bloated belly so big it was outdistancing his head to the stage by two or three feet. His hands clasped each other behind his back, in silent agreement that there wasn’t enough room for them up front with all that abdominal flesh.
He didn’t answer the nuns but simply nodded in their direction as he inched up the aisle, slowly shifting the weight from one foot to the other. The nod seemed to be enough for the nuns. They went nuts over it.
If it had been a Bing Crosby movie, the priest would have been smiling and he would have said, “Greetings, children. It’s certainly nice to see all your happy faces today. My name is Father O’Reilly and I would like to welcome you to St. Bastion Grammar School. We have a lovely school here, which I’m sure you will enjoy. We at St. Bastion’s believe that children should study hard, pray hard, and play hard, though not necessarily in that order.” Then he’d throw in a few phony “heh heh heh’s” and we’d all phony “heh heh heh” him right back. Then he’d say, “I’m sure if you listen to the good sisters, obey the rules, and cooperate with your classmates, you will come to love St. Bastion School almost as much as it loves you.”
That’s not the way it was. Father O’Reilly didn’t introduce himself. He didn’t have to. Through his years of self-sacrifice, hard work, determination, hell preaching, and pure intimidation, parishioners had come to fear Father O’Reilly even more than they feared God. Although we first graders believed there was a God, we knew there was a Father O’Reilly.
He didn’t smile. He didn’t “heh heh heh” us and we didn’t “heh heh heh” him back. His actual talk took about three dozen words and lasted less than thirty seconds.
First, Father O’Reilly led us through about ten minutes of prayers, Hail Marys, Our Fathers, Glory Be’s, the usual stuff. Then he said to us, “Obey the nuns and you won’t get into any trouble. Now, I don’t want to hear a sound when you leave this basement. And remember, from now on, everything you do for the rest of your life goes down on your permanent records.”
After another ten minutes of prayers, we lined up, boys on the right side, girls on the left, and filed out of the basement to our classroom upstairs. Without making a sound.
My first-grade classroom had eighty-five kids in it. The nun, Sister Eleanor, spent half that first day bragging how she had over ninety kids the year before. Since at the time I couldn’t count past four, neither number impressed me.
Sister Eleanor repeated Father O’Reilly’s warning: everything that we did from this day forward would be etched eternally in our permanent records. She told us about how some former graduate of St. Bastion Grammar School had applied for a very important job in a steel company somewhere downtown. Sister Eleanor said that the prospective employer called the school and asked the principal to check the guy’s permanent records and see how well the guy did in first grade, especially in reading. We believed her.
Sister Eleanor also informed us that God did not like people who chewed gum in school, talked in line, or who insisted on going to the bathroom more than five times a day.
There were two other first grade classrooms but the one I was in was a split classroom, half first graders and half second graders. In a few weeks it became apparent that Sister Eleanor felt the world of academia lay in rows four through eight, the rows of the second grade. She was always yelling at more of us than of them and she was always slugging more of us than them.
It must be admitted that, in fact, the second graders did have a lot of class. Sister Eleanor would tell them to take out their English workbooks and they would know which book to take out. She’d tell them to take out their catechisms and they’d know which book that was, too. Instead of buckles, many of them wore tie shoes. They had to be taken to the washroom only four times a day. Vomiting among the second graders was a rarity.
On the first-grade side of the room, someone was always goofing it up. We’d be lucky if we got through morning prayers without one of us getting clouted. Richard Dumple most often messed things up.
At the beginning of morning prayers, when he began making the sign of the cross, his fingertips stood a fifty-fifty chance of landing either on his forehead or in his eyes.
Usually a kid who constantly gets in trouble goes out of his way for it, at least in the beginning. Not Richard Dumple. He was different from the rest of us kids and we knew it, though we weren’t quite sure in what way. He was very hairy. A few years later, he would be the only fourth grader with a five o’clock shadow.
In a class of only thirty or forty kids, you’ll usually find a couple who are social outcasts and have no friends for one reason or another. But in a class of eighty-five, there are so many kids that even the weirdos have other weirdos to hang around with. But no one was as weird as Richard Dumple so he always ate lunch alone, walked home alone, or did whatever he was doing, alone.
It wasn’t until I was in high school that I realized the reason Richard Dumple was different from the rest of us kids was that he was emotionally disturbed. And it wasn’t until a few years later that I realized it was the other way around.
In catechism class we memorized the answers to such questions as “Who is God?” “Who made the world?” and “What is man?” We were learning to “defend” our faith, though no one ever bothered to tell us who was attacking it.
The answer to the question “Where is God?” was “Everywhere.” Sister Eleanor, my first-grade nun, loved to remind us of the fact.
“You may be able to fool your parents,” she’d tell us, “and sometimes even the good sisters. But never God. He is everywhere. He sees everything. He hears everything. No matter where you go, God is watching you. Remember, children, you can never put anything over on God because he is everywhere, everywhere, everywhere.”
Besides being under God’s constant surveillance, Sister Eleanor told the class that each one of us had his own personal guardian angel who had been assigned by God to do nothing but watch every move that was made by the kid whom he was told to guard. I already had double coverage and I hadn’t even reached the age of reason yet.
On the days that Sister Eleanor was feeling a little fruity, she’d tell us to sit on one side of our desk seats so that our guardian angels would have room to sit down. We’d do it, too. We were as crazy as she was.
Life at St. Bastion Grammar School quickly settled into a routine that varied little for the eight years I was there. The mornings would start off with catechism followed by math, more commonly called arithmetic. Then English, reading, and right before lunch, spelling. Spelling period was held just before lunch because it wasn’t that important, so we could always cut it short if the necessity arose. History and geography were in the afternoon.
We didn’t have all those subjects in the first grade, of course. All we did that year was try to remember how to get back and forth to school.
Reading period at St. Bastion’s was always good for a fair amount of groin tugging. I groin tugged a lot during reading period mainly because the nuns would never let you know exactly when you were going to be called on.
Normally a nun would tell a kid to stand and read a few lines from his reader out loud. After he finished, she’d ask the next kid in the row to do the same thing and so on down the row.
On occasion, however, the nun would suddenly ask a kid on the other side of the room to start reading, hoping she’d discover that he wasn’t paying attention and had lost his place.
Actually, it wasn’t a case of not paying attention that would cause you to lose your place but the fact that even the dumbest person could read faster silently than the kid who was standing up and reading out loud. To protect yourself from being caught off guard, you would teach your finger to read. As the kid read out loud, your finger would travel along the page of the book at the appropriate speed, underlining the words that were being read. Meanwhile, your eyes could race ahead a few pages to reveal the end of the story. If you were suddenly called on to read, your finger would save you.
The nuns always aimed such unexpected maneuvers at certain kids and never at a sugar cube such as Mary Kenny.
Mary Kenny was the top bootlicker in my class, managing to hold the title against all sorts of competition for the entire duration of grammar school. When attendance was taken each morning, she was the one who would answer “present” instead of “here.” There were other teacher’s pets but she was the teacher’s pet. Mary Kenny had such a nauseating smile that she could turn your mouth inside out with disgust. Mary Kenny always sat in the front seat nearest the door, ostensibly because she was short (most bootlickers are short) and had to sit in a front-row seat in order to see the blackboard. The real reason was because, sitting in the seat closest to the door, Mary Kenny was the “natural” one to send on all errands. And if there was a fire, she could be the first one out the door. St. Bastion’s could afford to lose a few ordinary kids. The school had too many anyway. But you could never have too many Mary Kennys.
All the bootlickers were like Mary Kenny. Girls, short, with very soft voices. I felt sorry for this one girl, Alice Blazer. You could tell she wanted to be a teacher’s pet. Most of the girls did. But Alice Blazer was a very tall girl. She never had a chance. She was just too tall to put in a front seat.
About every two months we spent an hour in the afternoon doing art or music. It wouldn’t have bothered me if we never had art or music. I never liked art. During art class, I always ended up sitting next to Virginia Leer, who ate her crayons and then got the runs in four different colors.
I like to sing but not the songs we sang at St. Bastion’s. All we ever sang about was the Virgin Mary, except around Christmas when we sang about the infant Jesus, too. We used to sing songs like “Queen of the May.” “O Mary we crown thee with blossoms today, queen of the angels, queen of the May. . . .” Singing that kind of stuff for eight successive years can get to you.
Singing, like most things at St. Bastion’s, was for the girls. The nuns always sang the songs at least twelve octaves too high for any boy. Whenever we boys tried to sing that high, it sounded like a hoe was being dragged across our throats. The major cause of hernias at St. Bastion’s was “Queen of the May.”
St. Bastion’s believed in lines. In the morning, we came into school in a line and in the afternoon we left school in a line. We went to the washrooms, the playground, the coatroom, and up to the blackboard in line. If you felt like throwing up, there was a line for that, too. One was rarely allowed to walk around unless he was looking at the back of someone else’s head. There were patrol boys stationed every ten feet who made sure we stayed in line, and there were always the nuns hanging over us, daring us not to stay in line.
Lines were usually made up of double rows that were segregated: boys on the right side, girls on the left. It was considered capital punishment to put a person in the row of the opposite sex.
St. Bastion Grammar School was eight years of meandering through workbooks, praying, writing English essays that no one read, listening to the pope on the radio, praying, standing up and telling the nun why you didn’t do your homework—the excuse usually falling into one of five categories: “I forgot what the assignment was,” “I left it at home,” “My little brother ate it,” “I can’t find it,” and “Uh,” doing arithmetic on the blackboard and trying not to screech the chalk or trying to screech the chalk depending on the situation, coming up with nickels of mission money, praying, raising your hand to go to the washroom even though you didn’t have to go—you just wanted to get out of your lousy desk for a while—making a hurried sign of the cross under orders of your nun because an ambulance siren wailed by the school, praying, reading from your book out loud to the class, praying, and watching the clock crawl around to three o’clock and summer. All of it, we were warned, went on our permanent records.
One day in the first months of first grade, I was walking home from school with Mike Depki. Depki was the only kid in the first grade who wore his hair in a “Detroit,” a crew cut on top and long hair combed back on the sides. He lived at the end of my block in a large, clumsy brown frame house that looked like an old farmhouse. According to the neighborhood oral tradition, that’s exactly what it was at one time, a farmhouse. Supposedly, the Depki family owned the entire neighborhood when it was still farmland. The only reason, claimed the oral tradition, that the Depki family didn’t become wealthy after selling all the land for development was that they drank up all the profits. Since Seven Holy Tombs has never been worth more than a six-pack, it wouldn’t have taken much drinking.
There were dozens of people in the Depki family, maybe even hundreds. They all lived in that one farmhouse. No one knew how many Depkis there actually were because the family was never seen together. Since there were so many of them living in the old farmhouse, they had to do everything in shifts.
At different times of the day, certain Depkis would be in the house eating and sleeping while other Depkis would be outside working or doing whatever they did. On blistering August afternoons, when the air was too hot even to breathe, Mike Depki would be the only kid on the street simply because it was his shift not to be in the house.
Mike Depki lived on Pepsis and Hostess Twinkies. He was every mother’s example to her child of what not to eat. Yet Depki was the strongest kid in the neighborhood. And that was before the sixteen-ounce bottle.
No one in the Depki family had ever finished high school. An upper-grade nun told Mr. Depki, at the only parent–teacher conference that he had ever shown up for, that she was sorry to tell him that she thought he had a socially maladjusted child in his family. Mr. Depki said he thought so, too. He asked her if she knew which one it was.
Mike Depki had a very logical mind, which was one reason why he did so poorly in school. He was one of those guys who in class was a nominal nitwit but the moment he cleared the school door, he became the neighborhood Nietzsche.
On this particular afternoon, both Depki and I had been kept after school. I for not doing my homework and Depki for being Depki. He was telling me about the conversation he had with one of his older brothers—the one who worked as a butcher during the day and as a bail bondsman at night.
“My brother says that the first four years of grammar school are a waste of time,” said Depki. “All they teach you to do is to read and write and do arithmetic. According to my brother, you don’t need any of that stuff until you’re at least ten. Right?” Depki looked at me for confirmation.
“Right, Mike,” I said. I didn’t know what he was driving at, but I wasn’t about to disagree with him. As I have mentioned, Mike Depki was the strongest kid in the neighborhood and, like most intellectuals, he didn’t tolerate dissent from his views. Depki continued.
“Remember how Eleanor tried to tell us if we studied hard we’d be able to read street signs, be able to count our change from the store, and be able to write letters to our friends.”
“Yeah, I remember that, Mike.”
“It kinda made sense to me at the time. But last night I told my brother what she said and he said that was a lot of shit.”
That Depki sure was intelligent. He talked just like my father.
“‘Look, Mike,’ my brother says to me, ‘you know the names of the streets for four blocks in each direction and that’s as far as you’re allowed to go anyway. After that, you deserve to get lost. And what change do you have to count from the store? Twinkies and Pepsis are a dime each. You don’t have to count a dime. You see a dime. And as far as writing letters to your friends, that’s a lot of shit, kid. You haven’t got a friend that lives more than five doors away. Why the hell would you want to write them a letter.’ Then my brother puts his arm around my shoulder and he says to me, ‘Mike, why don’t you skip school until you’re ten and then see if it’s any use to you. Speaking from my own personal experience, I really can’t see why you need those first four years.’ You see, Ryan,” Depki said to me, “these first four years are a waste of time.”
It was the only instance I can recall where Mike Depki’s mind went astray. The first four years of grammar school weren’t a waste of time. The first eight were.
According to my permanent records.