Friday, October 25, 2013

Chapter Seven: Nuns and Brochures

          The first summer of the mist tents came and went, along with the previously mentioned visit to the Catskills, with the tents and all the combined accouterments that went with them.
         As you can probably guess, this is quite a project just in and of itself. It involved dismantling the tents, folding up all of the plastic, disconnecting all the bottles and various other parts with their accessories, packing them in the car, and then reassembling them again once we were upstate.
         This became a summer ritual; and it never got easy. One year, my mother was so focused on getting all the equipment into the car that she accidentally left one of our suitcases on the street, and we drove off leaving it behind. Luckily, my father noticed that the trunk was making a lot of noise, because of many things bouncing around inside. Realizing that with everything that we had should be packed so tight that that would probably be impossible, he pulled over to check and realize we had left the bag behind. We drove back and retrieved it before anyone decided to make away with it.
         At any rate, the summer was over and it was back to school for Maureen and myself. I was to start First grade, which was all together a new school experience for me. Kindergarten had been at P.S. 20, and really was nothing more than organized babysitting. There was finger-painting, making hand-turkeys, cutting with safe scissors, school glue and story books.
During one of our visits to the CF center at Columbia Presbyterian in upper Manhattan, we were given brochures by Dr. Denning to give to our teachers telling them exactly what CF was and how they should deal with it. It informed them that the child would do a lot of coughing but CF was not contagious. It also explained some of the therapies that the child had to contend with, and how he or she might miss some school because of the disease causing a lung infection exacerbation.
So, armed with our brochures and a new sense of feeling the odd outsider, we headed off to my first day at St. Michael School.
         St. Michael's had a schoolyard at the back of the building, which was surrounded by a black wrought iron fence. Parts of the yard were invisibly divided into sections, according to a grade. Right from first grade on you learned the rules: stay in your section, never straying into another grades’ space less an older, bigger child make short work of you. The youngest classes lined up towards the front of the yard. The deeper you got into the yard, the higher the grade would go. The seventh and eighth grade had a yard all their own on the side of the building, and only an insane first to sixth grade child would dare to venture into that territory.
         The principle, Sister Constantia, had a window in her office from which she could look down and survey all the first to sixth graders, and there was always a nun present to prevent the seventh to eighth graders from getting out of hand. Below Sister Constantia’s window was a large outdoor speaker, part of the PA system that echoed orders down on the yard below.
This was 1965, when a nun was a NUN, and they looked every bit the part. They wore long flowing black robes, and when they walked the seemed almost to float over the ground, as we rarely saw their feet. The habit also came with a giant set of Rosary beads hanging on their side, big enough to choke the life out of a delinquent child that misbehaved. They wore a rounded bib on their chest, starched and brilliant white. A large silver crucifix hung around their necks, with the chain just long enough for the cross to stick out below the bib. Lastly, a black veil covered the Sisters heads, with another starched white cowl covering all but their face. For all we knew, they could be bald, because we never saw any hair. If their habit was designed to intimidate, it worked. I, for one, was terrified of them.
         The convent, where the nuns lived, was a massive building across the street, from which the sisters floated in and out as we all gathered in the morning. We had no idea which nun we would get as a teacher, so we surreptitiously observed them all as they glided into the yard. The clue was they would head for the part of the yard nearest to their grade, so we anxiously watched where they would float.
         The maddening din of a yard full of children would reduce in steps as the nuns entered the yard, especially on this first day of school. Who you got as a teacher was something you would have to live with for the coming year, therefore it was an all-important factor in deciding your level of agony to come.
Suddenly all our attention jumped to Sister Constantia’s window, where she now stood ringing a large, shiny brass bell.
With what today would be considered unbelievable precision, we all ran to our yard section, and quickly formed 3 lines per grade. First graders like myself looked to the older grades for this positioning, and copied it as quickly as humanly possible. Just as quickly, the nuns glided to the front of the grade lines. I scanned the sister in front of our row, and what little I could see (which was just her face) she was young, with a pleasant smile. I was encouraged. Some of the nuns were older looking than my Great Aunt Susan, and she seemed ancient.
Sister Constantia raised a large, silver microphone to he mouth and began to speak, her voice booming out of the speaker below her window. “Welcome to the first day of the new year at St. Michael’s school…”, she began.
“It is our hope that you will work diligently and hard at your studies, and conduct yourself in a manner that will bring pride to our school. Poor behavior will not be tolerated, in the classroom as well as this schoolyard. Understand at all times…” (She then paused for added drama), “we WILL be watching.” I stood there, shaking in my shoes. It was as if God Himself were booming orders from on high, and I took it all very seriously. None of this was what I signed up for. I could feel my breakfast wanting to come up.
Sister Constantia continued, “We will now all face the flag and say the Pledge of Allegiance. I remembered this from kindergarten, but that was just said facing a small flag in the classroom. This was a bigger deal all around. Here there was a large flag on a pole that was just outside the schoolyard. I noticed our nun placed her hand on her chest, and I copied her. Being a lefty, I used my left hand. “Right hand, dummy,” a boy in line next to me said after poking me in the ribs with his elbow. I quickly switched hands.
Sister Constantia’s voiced boomed out again, the whole yard following in unison, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic of which it stands, one nation under GOD (special emphasis on the “God”), indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.”
The pledge finished, we put our hand down and again turned to face what I figured to be our nun. I scanned our line for a familiar face, and found some; two or three from P.S. 20. We all were in uniform… the boys in blue navy pants, dress shoes, a starched white shirt, and a plaid blue tie. Mine, as was the case with many other boys, was a clip-on. The girls wore a one-piece plaid skirt and top, with a white shirt underneath, and a black tie that crossed at an angle with a snap in the middle.
The troublemakers were already making their dress statements… like the boy wearing an actual tie that was not pulled all the way up with an open collar on his shirt. I had to watch out for him, such flagrant disregard for the norm made him an obvious radical.
Suddenly the entire yard reverberated with the music of a John Phillip Sousa march, and the rows closest to the school door orderly began to orderly march (literally) into the school. We were the last to enter the building. I shot a look back at the yard, as the school doors closed behind us. We were trapped, and I felt the hair stand up on the back of my neck.
Then the tears came, and kept coming. Some the other kids looked at me with distain, a few others with sympathy.
I just wanted to go home, but that was not in the cards. All of this regimentation was terrifying; at least it was for me. This was nothing like Kindergarten. Our nun gave me a look, and I believe it had a hint of compassion. That made me feel better, but only a little.
We marched into our classroom, which was on the first floor, and all stood in the back as the roll was called. We were seated in alphabetical order; I ended up in the second row, third from the front. I had never seen a desk like this before. It was obviously very old; made of a dark wood, with a top that tiled open, which revealed a well where you would keep books, a indentation for a pencil or pen and a round 2 inch hole drilled into the desk top on the right corner. Years later I learned that was the place for the ink-bottle where children of generations back dipped their fountain pens. I rubbed my eyes, I was still sobbing, but now almost silently.
Mom had bought me a little leather book bag, which contained a pencil case and the brochures Dr. Denning had given us. I had no idea how or when I should give it to the nun, I was frozen in my seat.
I started to cough, partly from all the crying and also because with CF, that’s what you do a lot of… cough. I started to really hack, and felt a tap on my shoulder from the little black girl sitting behind me. I then turned around; I was a total mess.
“What is WRONG with you?” She asked me pointedly. I had no answer to her question, so I sheepishly turned back around.
We all sat with our hands folded in front of us, quietly squirming in our seats. Finally the nun walked to the center of the room and began to speak.
“Hello to the first day of first grade…” she said. My name is Sister Muriel Ignacia, and you should address me as Sister Muriel or just Sister. There are a few rules that you should follow while you are in my classroom. First off, no one speaks unless first spoken to. You are to pay attention at all times to your lessons; wandering eyes will be dealt with immediately. If we are doing a lesson and you finish before the other children, you should put your head down on your desk.”
There were other rules that Sister gave us, but I had a hard time paying attention, I was still crying and just wanted my Mom to come and get me and to take me home.
It was then I realized I was the only child in the classroom crying, and I felt embarrassed. Sister seemed to notice this too, and she walked down the isle toward me, holding something on her hand. I did my best to stop and I braced myself for whatever punishment was coming my way.
Instead, Sister Muriel handed me a composition book, the type that had a black speckled cover, and a sheet of stickers, all with a fall theme… leaves of various fall covers, pumpkins, scarecrows and other stuff.
“You’re John Cotter, is that correct?” she questioned. I just wiped my eyes and nodded in agreement.
“Would you do me a favor, Sister continued, “Could you put all these stickers on the first page of this book so it makes a fall picture? If you do a good job, I’ll hang it up, okay?” I sniffled, and nodded. She seemed very nice, and I liked stickers, so I wiped my eyes with my sleeves, and started my project. Maybe this would be okay after all.
I don’t remember a lot of the rest of the day. At one point I remember we practiced putting handles on the pictures of umbrellas that were in the workbooks we were given (actually practicing making letter Js), along with our other books.  
But true to her word Sister did take my art, and stuck it up with a thumbtack on the corkboard that was on the wall next to the cloakroom. In the coming days, whenever I felt the tears coming on, I looked at my sticker picture and felt better.
At the end of the day, a bell rang, and we were told to form a line again, and we were to march out of the school, to our parents who would be waiting outside the big wooden doors of the building.
I had still not managed to find the right time (or the courage) to go up to Sister and give her the informational brochure about CF the doctor had given to me. As we filed out of the classroom, I pulled it from my schoolbag, and as we passed Sister at the front door, I handed it to her.
“My Mom said I should give this to you…,” I said as I placed it in her hand.
“Oh, what,” Sister said, looking at the folded piece of paper. Before she could say much more, I was down the line of march and out the door.
Mom was waiting for me outside, along with my sister Maureen, and my younger sister Helene in her stroller. Being in the third grade, Maureen was out before me as we all left the school in the same order we went in; the littlest kids in and out last.
After giving me a hug, Mom asked, “So… how was your first day?”
“It was okay, I guess,” I muttered.
“He cried like a baby,” Maureen said to my mom. I was shocked she knew about that, but I guess gossip travels around a school pretty fast, and someone must have blabbed about me in the schoolyard at lunchtime. Anyway, I was busted.
“Well,” Mom said, “it’s a little scary your first day in a new place. Tomorrow will be better.”
I shot my sister Maureen a look that could kill for squealing
on my baby-like behavior, but she just wrinkled her nose back at me. We turned to leave the school and suddenly I realized a large shadow was behind us, I turned around and realized Sister Muriel had followed us out to the street.
         “Mrs. Cotter, may I speak with you a minute please?” Sister Muriel questioned my mother.
         “Of course, Sister.” my mom replied. “Stay here, I’ll be back in a minute…” Mom said to Maureen and I.
The two of them walked off away from our prying ears. I would have loved to hear what they were saying. But between the distance and the unrelenting din of kids just released from school, there was not a chance of catching a single word. Occasionally Mom or Sister would look our way, or point at a page of the brochure, but that’s all I could get from the conversation.
After a few minutes, Mom and Sister split up, and Mom came back to us, and the stroller.
“Was she mad?” I asked my mom when she came back.
“Mad? Of course not, she wasn’t mad, just concerned. I had to explain that it was something we all had to deal with, and that Maureen had CF too,” Mom said.
“Okay, as long as she wasn’t mad,” I said. I looked Sisters way, and she looked back and gave me a finger wave. I felt better, and we turned for home.
The next day would be different, I vowed myself the next morning. No crying today, I would act less like a baby. As Maureen and I walked to school, I kept repeating in my mind “no crying, do NOT cry…no crying…” As we turned the corner for the school, I suddenly had a strange feeling, and I grabbed the iron fence and promptly threw up onto the dirt outside the Convent grounds.
“Eew, are you alright?”,  Maureen asked, as her face crinkled up in disgust.
I am now, I guess,” I replied. I had made myself so nervous about not crying that I had made myself sick… literally. I wiped my mouth with my coat sleeve and got back on the sidewalk. I did feel better. I guess I needed some outlet. If it wasn’t tears, I guess this was the next thing my body could think of. It became a regular thing for the next couple of weeks; I’d throw up on the way to school every morning. Eventually, after a time, it stopped, as mysteriously as it started. I guess I was a high-strung kid.
We got to the schoolyard and split up, Maureen off to the third graders and I to my first grade class. Sister Muriel showed up minutes later and walked over to me. I felt awkward; the last thing I wanted after my crying fit yesterday was to stand out from the crowd again.
“How are you feeling today, John?” Sister asked crouching down to face me.
“Fine, I feel fine Sister,” I replied. I hoped she did not have a great sense of smell, I still felt she might notice my ‘incident’ from just a few minutes ago.
“Good, that’s good,” Sister smiled and patted me on the back. I smiled and walked over to the fence, leaned on it and stayed there until Sister Constantia rang the bell. The morning ritual was repeated and we marched into the school.
I settled into my seat, which made me feel good. Even after only one day it felt familiar, and I hadn’t cried at all. Everything was looking up.
Then suddenly the brown wooden P.A. speaker above the coat closet sprang to life, and I think we all jumped in our seats. Sister Constantia’s voice boomed from the speaker.
“Will first grader John Cotter and third grader Maureen Cotter please come to the Principal’s office? Thank you.”
I was frozen, I’d even go as far as saying I was petrified. Sister Muriel looked at me and said, “John, do you know where the Principals office is?” I just slowly shook my head. What had I done? Is crying so bad that I’m to be punished for it? Was I in trouble for throwing up on convent grounds? That explanation made no sense, Maureen was in trouble too. What would punishment entail? My mind raced.
“Wait here,” Sister said and left the room. I could see she went down the hall to another classroom and disappeared into it. A moment later she re-emerged, and with her was a large boy, he had to be from the fifth grade at the very least.
“This is Tommy, John, and he’ll escort you to the Principal’s office.” said Sister.
I just nodded and got out of my seat. “This way,” Tommy said, looking down on me, in more ways than one. When we got to the bottom of the first floor stairs, Tommy spoke, “What did you DO?”, was all he asked.
“I don’t know, I cried and threw up…” was all I could respond. Tommy just shook his head and we headed up the stairs. On the second landing, we went through a set of double doors and I realized we were in some sort of balcony that overlooked the gym floor.
“Come on, move,” Tommy urged me on. We went through a second set of double doors and found ourselves just outside the Principals office. There was a wooden bench outside the door, and Maureen was already there, squirming in the seat.
“Good luck, kid,” Tommy smirked and went back through the double doors from which we had come.
“What did we do?” I asked Maureen.
“I didn’t do anything, this must be YOUR fault,” Maureen answered. “I’ve never had to come HERE before.”
Sister Constantia was on the phone, and I peeked a look into her office. There sat the big brass bell, and the big slilver microphone attached to what looked like a radio. Also hanging on the wall, in a very conspicuous spot was a large, wooden paddle, with a word burned into it. I nudged Maureen and asked, “What does that say?”
Maureen eyes grew wide when she looked at the paddle. It says PENANCE,” she answered. I was kind of sure I knew what that meant, and I felt the tears coming up again. NO,! I said to myself and forced them back down.
Just then Sister Constantia got off the phone. “Cotter children, come here, I need to talk with you.” Maureen jumped off the bench and I followed.
Sister took her seat at her desk, which sat perpendicular to the office window she spoke from each morning. I braced myself for the worst.
“I just want the let you both know that I’ve had a conversation with both your teachers, Sister Muriel and Mrs. Sager, and I am aware of your condition. We hope we will be able to work with you and both your parents to do all we can to help. “ I was still braced, but then she simply said, “That’s all, go back to your classrooms and continue your studies. Maureen, escort your brother back to his room before you go to yours.” We both just stood there.
Sister Constantia smiled, probably figuring what had gone on in our minds. “That’s all, now, off with you both!” She just shook her head and quietly laughed to herself.
You didn’t have to ask us twice, we got out of there, and fast. It was like seeing God Himself and surviving the burning bush, It seemed that we would live to see another day.
And oh boy, did we have some days to come.

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