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Elementary School

My elementary school days at St. Ladislaus on Reeb Avenue were fairly unremarkable. Our classes were taught by members of the order of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, Kentucky. They wore black robes and mostly starched pure white habits. In the 1950’s that headgear would resemble a stiff chef’s toque. Sometimes an ill-fitting habit would reveal a strand of hair down the back of her neck. I didn’t know whether to keep looking or turn my head. That short peek made her more human I guess and I didn’t know if that was right or wrong. Like knowing that under Darth Vader’s hard shell of a helmet there was only a person like you and me, crying “ me take this mask off”. None the less, many of the order would gird themselves with oversized rosaries and like a workman’s toolbelt, their crucifix and beads ever-at-the-ready. The costumes worn by the duly ordained were designed to set them apart from the street clothes-wearing laity but it failed to hide their individual personalities. Peering out from beyond the snug habits were a mix of happy, angry, smiling and worn faces. Some stood tall, others bent with worry but together all were facing the changing attitudes of the “Baby Boom” class whose members sat in desks blanketing the room from the blackboard to the back wall. These women had never dealt with something like this, no one from the placid 50’s had. At St. Lad’s, classroom space was at a premium. By 1960 I was in a classroom being held in the school basement which had a year or two earlier served as our cafeteria. Our “walls” were dark, floor to ceiling theatrical curtains, which would wave back and forth when someone walked down the hall on the other side. They became solid concrete block as I was leaving for high school.

Our grade school education was laced with what felt like invisible particles of religion. Like multicolored sprinkles atop the chocolate icing of a cupcake. It had a rich satisfying taste and it was filling too. Practically every society adds sprinkles to nourish their young. The colors and the amount depend on the parent who was raised in that society. There has to be a base, a foundation on which to grow and while no one’s journey is the same, that glorious burden of living life is solely on us.

My classmates would soon be confronting a world that didn’t make much sense to them and they would m ake their feelings known. We were doing things and going places our parents didn’t. We would soon be carving out a space in society of seismic proportions. At home we spent mornings listening to The Early Worm or Don McNeill’s Breakfast Club on the radio, before being off to study our geography and vocabulary. Our immigrant grandparents hoped for the best, our fathers had won the war and we were about to reweave the fabric of a nation. It was the 1950’s in America.

Chunks of Mary

One day those crowded classrooms at St. Lads would be responsible for sending a revered plaster icon smashing to the floor. My third-grade teacher Miss Rentz, who always seemed to have it “in” for the boys, was attempting to return to the front of the classroom from the back. She chose to take a slim path between an end row of desks and the radiator situated along the window wall. As she slowly shimmied down toward the front of the room in the half-jacket of the business suit she was wearing, she grazed a tall blue and gold painted statue of the Virgin Mary, hands folded in prayer. No one could catch the figurine as it teetered atop the radiator and went head first on to the linoleumed concrete floor. The silence in the room turned into a constrained buzz as the class gazed at the chunks of Mary which now covered a large area of the plaster powdered surface. My immediate thoughts went to disciplinary action against Miss Rentz, possibly being called to the principal’s office and handed a pink slip.

I thought for sure there was no way a teacher could survive in a Catholic school after butt-brushing the Holy Mother to pieces. The smile on my face disappeared after recess though, when I returned to my seat and The Lady Killer herself walked back in to resume the day’s studies with us. To me it was resonant demonstration of power on her part. Because of her hawk-like eagerness to watch over every little move in our class, she single-handedly destroyed an icon that stood straight and tall, all day (and I presume all night) in our class. I mean this was not some third-tier tonsured headed saint, who ministered to man and beast alike. This was Jesus’ mom! Is there nothing that can bring this teacher down?

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