Thursday, January 6, 2011

France Is Falling


    To start with, every classroom contained a stark reminder of what could happen if we didn’t buckle down.  We just couldn’t help fretting we’d end up like that guy on the crucifix if we failed to diagram a sentence properly.
    Youthful hijinks and cutting up in class weren’t to be tolerated.  Not only was the foul miscreant punished with a yardstick slash that would do a samurai proud, he (or she) was assured  an extra thousand years in Purgatory, Heaven’s Waiting Room (I’ve often wondered how many kids were sentenced there for making armpit fart noises).
    We were also subjected to an exceptionally strict dress code.  This struck me as odd, because our arbiters of fashion were themselves always clad in head-to-toe black (in fact, it wasn’t until the early 70s that I realized nuns even had hair).
    As bad as we boys had it, with our white shirts and clip-on plaid ties, the girls had it worse.  Especially as acne and hormones kicked in, skirt length became an issue.  Presided over by a dour sister armed with a ruler (naturally), the girls were made to kneel as the gap between floor and hem was solemnly measured.
    Heaven help the Jezebel whose skirt was too short.  Immediately sent home to change, a reservation in Purgatory was made for her and she was forced to write a 500-word essay, “St. Joan:  Chastity in Chain Mail”.      
    It was no surprise that faith influenced everything we did from why seesaws were the work of Satan to that time when our 4th Grade teacher, Sister Caligula (for the life of me, I can’t remember her real name), told us during Geography class that “France was falling.”
    For years, I thought that centrifugal force was going to fling the French right off the planet (as if that would be a bad thing).  It wasn’t until much later that I learned the good sister was speaking figuratively; France was “falling” away from the Roman Catholic Church, not into outer space.
    Ohhhhhhhhh.  But, seriously, would you miss them?
    As we got older, we were treated to weekly sex education classes.  As youngsters, we never realized how patently ridiculous it was for a nun to teach anyone about sex.  I mean, you may as well hire Keith Richards to teach Health. 
    Thinking back, I remember how uncomfortable it was for Sister Mary Something-or-Other to fumble through the lesson topic.  She did pretty well when it came to clinical descriptions of the human reproductive system.  Where the wheels came off the bus was when she had to explain how the sexes were supposed to interact.  With about as much skill as a goldfish building a beaver lodge, she usually fell back on the old reliable, “It’s God’s will.”
    Unfortunately, invoking the deity never seemed to help me in high school.
    Luckily, we were shielded from that most terrifying element of society:  the public school system.  Populated by delinquents, hooligans, and Protestants, we were admonished to give them a wide berth, lest we be tainted by their blaspheming thuggery.
    In fact, it was so important to keep us apart that we were let out of school a full 30 minutes before the public school did.  That way, we could scurry away to the safety of our homes before the “great unwashed” could give us Indian burns and wedgies.
    A little less vexing to our lives, but nonetheless annoying, was the existence of what we called “CCD Kids.”  CCD, or “Confraternity of Christian Doctrine,” is a program of education for those unfortunate enough to attend public school, whether because of financial constraints or some crazy notion that children shouldn’t be taught by joyless, ruler-wielding women.
    Thinking ourselves superior that we didn’t need to go to school at night to get the same thing we got all day, we both pitied and scorned the CCD Kids.
    Pity because they didn’t know the power of prayer before a math test and scorn because they made a shambles out of our desks every time they came to our classrooms.
    In our minds, they deserved having to go to school with Presbyterians.
    Like all things, though, our time at Holy Name came to an end.  Like Adam and Eve, we were banished from the comforting (if strict) arms of the only school we’d known since childhood.
    Armed with an education firmly rooted in Catholic dogma, we confidently, if nervously, set forth on an idealistic journey into the world.  Despite being thrust into the lions’ den of the public school system, we nonetheless possessed a superior education and a solid moral foundation.
    Of course, if my parents chose to take out a second mortgage on the house, I could have very easily gone to that swanky Jesuit High School across town, Saint Jerome the Flagellant (which we, of course, pronounced it as “St. Jerry the Flatulent”).
    However, since great-grandma had recently gone to that Casino Night in the sky and was no longer available to foot the bill, I traded in my uniform for blue jeans and a tee shirt.
    I vividly recall my first few days in high school.  Even though in many ways it was bedlam, I was relieved the regimentation I’d experienced over the last seven years was replaced by an almost laissez-faire approach to learning. 
    I’m not saying my teachers didn’t care; of course they did.  It was just refreshing that they didn’t obsess over skirt lengths nor fret over armpit noise.
    Be that as it may, I was dismayed during my first class in World History.  My teacher, a middle-aged man who sported a goofy set of sideburns juxtaposed against an equally silly comb-over, pulled down a wall chart of Europe one day.
    As he proceeded to launch into a pedantic discussion of Europe’s transformation from the economic and political status quo, I was mortified that he failed to mention a most disturbing fact:
    France is falling.

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