__I was born in January, which meant my mother had the choice of whether to send me to kindergarten or directly into first grade. _ And Mom, like all other Italian mothers, somehow imagined that her son, who as it turned out, didn't know his own name yet, was gifted. _ Yes, she imagined me to be Leonardo Da Vinci, Guglielmo Marconi, Enrico Fermi and Michelangelo all rolled into one diaper. _ And so, at the tender age of about four, I was deposited into first grade in Catholic school with (gasp!) 'The Nuns.'
__And the conversation I had with my mother on that morning of my very first day of school in September of 1959 went like this:
__ "When the nun asks your name, you tell her 'Robert.'"
__ "But my name is Bobby."
__ "No it isn't. _ It's Robert."
__ "It's Bobby!"
__ "Well, you tell her it's Robert."
__ "And your last name is Coiro."
__ I didn't even know I had a middle name (I'll get to that part).
__It hadn't occurred to me to ask what a nun was. _ I had just assumed it was this cool, giant robot that would ask me my name. _
__ Turns out, I was only wrong about the cool part. _
__ My first encounter with the Catholic school system was memorable. _ I had entered the classroom full of children who were sitting bolt upright, with their hands folded on their desks, eyes straight ahead and their lips surgically shut (and whose last names either began with "Mc" or ended in a vowel). _ I twisted around in the seat which I had, in monumental ignorance, picked from the front row, and began speaking to the child behind me (Now, picking a seat in the front row of a Catholic school room is a little like sitting in the front row of a Don Rickles nightclub act). _ The child in the seat behind me had had, as I deduce in retrospect, the benefit of hard-won experience in a Catholic kindergarten and therefore knew better than to part his lips in response to my having committed the unpardonable sin of talking in class. _
__ Suddenly, the lock of hair just forward of my ear announced a sudden departure of roots from follicles, resulting in a heretofore unprecedented distress awareness of emergency magnitude. _ My four-and-one-half-year-old head spun around in response to the irresistible tractory force and, as my eyes were set in gimbals independent of my cervical spine, I gazed upward, upward, upward... _at a the acrimonious and shockingly pale countenance of a woman dressed like Dracula. _
__It was from this skyscraper of a woman that I learned my middle name. _ I also learned that the reason all Catholic children are given middle names is so they'll know when they're in trouble. _
__ Actually, there is also a second reason for the middle name. _ It is part of the mind-control incantation the nun chants when she locks her laser-beam, death-ray eyes with yours. _ At that point, something in your head goes 'clack' and you snap to rigid, eye-popping attention. _ And you do whatever she says. _ And as the nun over-elocutes orders which are intended for you to carry out in an act of self-humiliation, your mind is in a state of paralyzed terror.
__ "Robert - Joseph - Coiro! _You - will - take - the - gum - out - of - your - mouth - and - stick - it - on - your - nose." _ And you would stand there in a robotic trance, saying, "Yes, Sister."
__ And you'd do it.
__I've come to realize, in retrospect, that the nuns were, perhaps, not merely human. _ They were, in some way, technologically enhanced humans, probably from another world. _ Now, I'm not talking about modern nuns of the 21st century; I'm talking about those nuns who walked among us in the late 1950s/early 1960s; those early model Robocops whose faces and hands were human, but whose remaining, unseen, mysterious anatomy was concealed beneath black robes shockingly similar to the garb of Darth Vader. _ Think that's a little far-fetched? _Well, consider the following:
__ Nuns never went to the bathroom.
__ In all the time I attended Catholic school, I never ever saw a nun enter a ladies room. _ The reason for that was; any kind of waste material was taken away by some kind of science fiction matter-transporter mechanism. _ The control panel of this advanced technology was cleverly concealed beneath a heavily starched, white, bib-shaped breastplate which we Earthlings mistakenly assumed to be a modesty device. _ When the nun was in teaching mode and needed to produce the podium-mounted, unabridged library edition of Webster's dictionary, she would insert both hands beneath the breastplate, operate the transporter controls, then reach into one of her bottomless-pit pockets and withdraw the desired object. _ Thus, could she produce any number of volumes from the World Book Encyclopedia or, if need be, a Volkswagen. _ More often than not, the desired object was a brass measuring implement whose actual use was to permanently mark young Catholics so as to render them easily identifiable in later life. _ Such Catholics can also be identified by their ambidextrous penmanship. _
__The Nun of the 1950s did not have recognizable feet or knees. _ Okay, maybe I'm wrong there, but for sure, she didn't use them in the conventional manner of walking. _ Instead, she stood upon an anti-gravity platform which was concealed beneath her floor-length robes. _ This ingenious equipment, like the matter transporter, was also wired up to the control box hidden beneath the aforementioned white breastplate. _ Again, the nun would insert her hands beneath the breastplate to manipulate the anti-gravity controls (which is why you never saw a nun swinging her arms while "walking"); she would levitate about an inch off the floor, tilt ever so slightly forward, and glide about on a beam of invisible ultraviolet light. _
__As the matter-transporter and anti-gravity platform were advanced technology from another world, they were not powered by such mundane sources of energy as electricity or atomic power or anything like that. _ No, these amazing marvels were powered by a daily harvest of human, male hair. _ Female hair didn't work—that would be like trying to run a Pontiac GTO on diesel fuel. _ Regular hair grew on top and the hi-octane stuff grew as sideburns, so the nuns went for that first. _
__One other thing about nuns: They were educated. _ They could do mental arithmetic faster than Texas instruments and they were never ever wrong. _
__ About anything.
__ Ever. _
__ And they could teach. _ Oh, could they ever teach! _There was practically no school budget, no fancy computers in the classroom and there sure as hell were no pocket calculators allowed. _ You had your books and an old fashioned fountain pen (to which you graduated only after having first learned how to write in pencil). _ The nun had only a piece of chalk and a blackboard. _ She'd lock eyes with you, the twin, counter-rotating spirals would start to spin and somehow, that Friday, you passed the algebra mid-term. _ You didn't remember how your learned the material, but somehow, you did. _ Then, the nun would smile slyly and say something like, "See? I knew you could do it if you only applied yourself."
__Sister Mary Discipline. _ Sister Knuckles. _ The Executioner. _ Any one of them had the smarts, the education and the vinegar to be president of the United States, or, at the very least, filthy stinking rich. _ Instead, they lived simple lives of sacrifice and educated a generation of kids who, halfway through first grade, could add a column of figures in their heads and read an actual book. _ Don't count on that in today's public high-school graduates. _
__Some forty or so years after I'd left behind the tutelage of the Parochial education system, something within compelled me to drive back to the old neighborhood; back to Ascension School in Maspeth, Queens. _ I looked up at the old edifice which had recently been decommissioned due to a lack of students. _ Though empty, the silent building was still in excellent condition. _ The cornerstone simply stated, '1957'; it had been only two years old when I first walked through its doors. _
__ Across the street was the convent. _ I crossed over and rang the doorbell, not really knowing the reason for my action. _ Some mere human in a black, mid-length dress answered the door; she of the new generation, a child of maybe twenty-five years. _ I asked the novice about Sister Mary Elizabeth. _
__ "Yes, she still lives here. _ She's resting in the sitting room, asleep, I think."
__ "May I see her?"
__ "Well... _she's very old, you know. _ But, oh, I suppose I could go in and ask her if she feels up to it. _ What's your name?"
__ "Bob... _uh, Robert Coiro."
__ A couple of minutes later, the novice ushered me in and made the introduction, "Sister Elizabeth, this is Robert Coiro."
__ Sister Elizabeth rolled her gaze Heavenward and snapped a reply, "No. _ Get it right, young lady. _ This is Mister Robert Joseph Coiro. _ Show some respect for his age." _And she shut her eyes and shook her head, dismissing the novice with an impatient flick of a knobby, age-spotted hand. _
__ Then, the old lady smiled up at me through ancient, twinkling-blue Irish eyes, got out of her wheelchair, enveloped me in a flowing, nun-sleeved hug and said, "I've missed you, Bobby."
A fun read Bob, I'm glad Steve made you do it . . . But I don't think Sr. Elizabeth would buy that excuse ! ;- )
Just wait until Sister Mary Discipline gets to him...
So all this time you've been posting as "Bob Coiro" when you're really "Robert Coiro."
Hmmmmm. . . .
That was a really great posting, BTW.
As a graduate of St. Augustine's School in Troy NY, I want to thank you for sharing this and bringing back my memories of the Sisters of St. Joseph very similar to yours.
May they rest in peace.
Brings back memories of my second grade nun, Sr. Paula. She was really tall, even though at age 7 everyone is tall, but she really was. And young and thin. I think it was her first teaching assignment. And to make a very long story short about my lack of deportment, I think it was her last. I was so bad, I actually made her cry. She wasn't there the following year. I suspect I had a crush on her, and that was my way of getting her attention. I suspect she may have passed on by now. I would've loved to meet her again, and apologize! Thanks for the article Bob.
Bob, You are an EXCELLENT writer!!!! I really enjoyed that. Being a product of 12 years of Catholic schooling which included IHM, Dominican and Felician nuns AND Christian Brothers -- and the son of immigrant Italian parents, I can completely relate. You've put into wonderful words what anyone who has experienced this can understand and made it understandable to anyone who has not had the experience.
A quick story: In grade school, we had an IHM nun, Sister Mary Theodore, who was short and tough as nails. But, boy did we learn. Many, many years later, I had occasion to be at the IHM Mother House in Monroe, MI. I asked to see her and she was brought into the receiving room in wheelchair. She, of course, had retired decades before and was ancient! But, she remembered me -- and I was no stand-out kid. She could now be more herself and she was just the kindest, nicest person. She told me that her wealthy family had "promised" her to the convent and remembered being drive to the Mother House in the family's electric car. She, of course is long gone.
Thanks, Bob. Write more!!
Bob, I'm glad I made you do it, though I'm having a little trouble seeing to type this.
West Coast Nun's have all the Fun! St Mary's Girls Academe, Mt Angle Oregon maybe in the 50's. I have had this photo taken for a story by my Great Aunt for a few weeks waiting for a good reason to post it!
I never attended Catholic school, but for five years (1966-1971) I taught band in the Catholic school at Willowdale, Kansas. I was the only Protestant in the entire community and could tell a lot of stories about the experience. One of which I will share here. The nuns who taught there were very conservative and wore the traditional garb. One day I looked out the window of my room just in time to see the young nun who taught 1st grade, teaching her young students how to broad jump. She would hitch up her long skirt and go running toward the sand pit. when she reached the line, she would leap into the air and jump as far as possible. I don't know what her students thought of this, but I thought it was a hoot. If just one time she had failed to land on her feet, It would have been even more of a hoot. Ed
I enjoyed this. Thanks Bob/Robert ....
This brought back a lot of vivid memories for me Bob. Grades 1 thru 8 at Blessed Sacrament Cathedral School in Greensburg, Pennsylvania.....1960-1968. Taught by the Sisters of Charity my experience was very similar to yours. Sister Eileen Marie, Sister Mary Brice, Sister Camilla, Sister Eunice, Sister Mary Leo, Sister Kateri, Sister Josepha Marie and last but not least Sister Marie Vincent, who was also the schools first football coach. Thanks, enjoyed it very much.
I was in grade school in All Saints Parish and had similar experiences.
Bob, I'm a prostestant but I surely enjoyed your story. If it had been a hundred pages long I would have read them all. Thank you.
Good read, ROBERT!
Fun to visualize all the 'word pictures' that go along with it. Don't forget to share the memories with your family. Would suspect they might also have some of their own memories to share.
As the product (and sometimes victim...) of 12 years of Parochial education, I enjoyed this immensely. I look back with fondness to some of the nuns and lay teachers who had the unenviable task of teaching me while trying to save my wretched soul. Others, I wonder why the heck they ever stepped into a classroom. Fortunately they were in a minority. However, when I chose to enter the education field, it was in the public sector. I still enjoy seeing my old students and now get to interact with their children in my current role as an occasional substitute teacher. It just never gets old.
My wife who spent her first 12 years of education at a catholic school just read this. Her reply was one word, TRUTH
It was a different time. _Rare, for instance, was the occasion when I'd accompany my mother to the A&P (Remember the A&P?) and not witness some misbehaving little kid getting an open-handed whack on the can from his mother. _Nobody so much as batted an eye because that greatest of all generations had endured such hardship through the Great Depression and WWII, that a certain toughness had, for better of worse, taken root in their souls. _Applied with moderation and common sense, the kids seemed to come out the better for it.
This was an age when almost 70% of the population attended church (as opposed to today's approximate 7%) and in New York, where the Catholic Church in particular, was held in great esteem, people's lives were shaped around weekly confessions and a reminder of the clergy's authority in the form of—for whatever reason—the absolute abstention of meat on Fridays. _An admonishment from a priest was thought of as having come, albeit indirectly, from the throne room of the Almighty and for that reason, you had better take heed.
In some cases, yes, this authoritarian influence was abused and some children (mostly male) in parochial schools became the special victims of unjustifiable abuse, both psychological and physical. _I tolerate no argument here, for I went through the system and carry the literal scars of the experience and have earned the right to speak out about it. _There can be no excuse for some of the things I saw intentionally inflicted upon young children. _For the sake of those good and faithful frocked servants of The Lord who would take no part in such practice, I keep the details to myself, but for the sake of the children, at the very least, I have to state that yes, very bad things did happen and the adults in charge were aware and had no problem allowing it.
It's only fair that I conclude by saying that among the bad apples were highly gifted teachers, cloistered in convents, who denied themselves a normal existence and set about dedicating their lives, every single day, to the benefit and betterment of the children given into their charge. _They were indeed the very best school teachers in the world and the motivation of their love need be acknowledged with at least as much conviction as any criticism of the system.
I once saw a quote from a book called, I think, Growing Up Catholic, that said, "Listening to two people who attended Catholic school together as kids is like listening to two Army veterans reminiscing about the war."
My Aunt, Sr. Rose Bernadette VanOoteghem, IHM. A saint and a blessing on our family. Just a beautiful human being. I miss her every day. Every bit of good in me is due to my parents, my family and my Aunt, Sr. Rose. She is the one on the right. She was a novice here. She taught school in and around Detroit and did mission work in Grenada, West Indies.
Thank so much Bob C.
And which of these memorable characters honed your Creative Writing talents ?
I also survived Catholic school !
I think ?!?!??!?
Time will tell?
Learning to write with a pencil before you were allowed to use a pen. In the public school I attended you could not use a pen until 4th grade...something about ink stains. Loved it Bob.
Now they do not teach writing with anything I am convinced everyone is taught to use abbr B4 1st grade
I wish I could add some wisdom to this discussion.
My children grew up thinking we belonged to the "Church of Jesus Christ, Why won't this Car Start".
For that one, you MUST go to confession!!
(no, I'm not Catholic, but grew up with many of them)
Some of my best friends and T owners are Catholic also. I ran over a Mormon missionary with my Speedster once. He was a nice fellow also but that is a different story.
Politics and Religion are delicate subjects so I'm glad we have been tasteful so far.
Another masterful and truly enjoyable story Bob!
As another protestant who didn't attend Catholic lower schools, but did attend a Jesuit University for grad school and residency, I think the Nuns on campus were of the same mentality you speak of (OK, since I'm talking to a writer, "of which you speak" ). Maybe they graduated to higher classes like the students did?
I was 22 y/o, 6'5", 235#, non-Catholic and yet afraid to walk past the "Nunnery" (is that really a word?) on the way to class. I would actually cross the street. In Omaha, when the temperature was below 0 degrees, the procedure was to go from building to building when walking to class to give your lungs a chance to thaw out. NO ONE ever stopped at the "Nunnery"!
from another "Bobby"
Wow, memories come back! Rich, don't be sorry, it was really funny!
Bob, when I graduated from high school, I went to Immaculate Heart College (down in Hollywood-I only lasted there a semester!--you can take the boy out of the country, but some us can't stay in the city!), we had to walk through the Girl's High School to get to campus--NO STOPPING! One day I was with some friends and as we walked through, one of the High School girls called us "stuck up college kids!" I stopped and told the girl(s), "We're not stuck up, we were told your school is off-limits--we can't talk to you, so we want to keep out of trouble!" IHC, had been a girls college up until the year I went there--one of the reasons the Church was very unhappy with that order.
The girls understood immediately (there's that Catholic schooling showing!) and from then on we would wave at each other when passing through!
Unjustifiable abuse. Yeah, you got that right. Of course I realise now they were very old women who needed time off which they weren't going to get. Sorry but the one Catholic grade school teacher I recall fondly was Mrs. Q the only lay teacher in the place. She never picked up a hand or a ruler. Didn't need to. Gifted period.
I survived dating a girl that went to Catholic high school school.
So - with all that is wrong with the country's young citizens, what is the reason?
For me, it comes down to lack of discipline today...I wish there was more accountability for one's actions instead of the present belief -"I can do no wrong, it was the other person that made me do it".
Bring back the Nuns - let's have more discipline.
Some have a good opinion, while others pick out flaws . . .
I suppose if the statistic stated above, that nowadays only 7% of the U.S. population attends church regularly, that makes the majority "right". ?
You reap what you sow.
Great story Bob. I to went to a Catholic grade school. Our Principle of the school was a nun named Sister Finton, she was 8 feet tall with her tall habit and combat boots she wore every day. She left when I was in 2nd grade. Fast forword several years to when Derek and his sister and brothers were going to the same school. One of the old nuns at there school died, so Emily and I took the kids to the prayer service. The place was packed with nuns. My aunt Angie was there also and she was the head cook at the school the whole time I was there. She pointed to this little old nun about 4 foot 11 inches tall and said "that is Sister Finton" and I said "that can't be she has to be dead by now". About 15 minutes latter this little nun comes up to me and says "so I am supposed to be dead by now"? I looked at aunt Angie and said "you were't suppose to tell her what I said". I did eventually get it wright because she now is dead.
David Dufault said it right, we need more discipline through out our school systems. Discipline never hurt anyone if done right.
I went to Catholic schools for 11 of the 12 years. The year I went to public school our new high school wasn't built yet. Sister Mary Discipline - I think I had her, and Sister Mary Menopause too! My knees still hurt from kneeling on the hardwood floor for punishment.
Ha ha, Keith, you gave me a laugh. I know most of this post is very PRO to the "sisters," and I'm sure there are many, many great ones, but... I was the quietest kid who never caused a problem, and in 1960 I wrote "Nixon" (because my Dad was for him...) on my backpack (military surplus back then) That seems to be when my problems started. The nuns hated me. Flunked me in "religion" class, of all things... Then a couple of years later they flunked me for eighth grade. I was the only kid anyone ever knew who flunked eighth grade. Of all the nuns, there was only one who seemed to care, Sister Marie Delarossa. The rest of them, I imagine, eventually morphed into Darth Vader........
Ya, Joe, we poke fun at the Nuns, but the discipline made us better adults. There were some unfortunate experiences but overall the Nuns were good. As Bob C. said above:
"It's only fair that I conclude by saying that among the bad apples were highly gifted teachers, cloistered in convents, who denied themselves a normal existence and set about dedicating their lives, every single day, to the benefit and betterment of the children given into their charge. They were indeed the very best school teachers in the world and the motivation of their love need be acknowledged with at least as much conviction as any criticism of the system."
I agree with this completely.
There is not a day that goes by that I do not thank the United States Marine Corps
for the experience they gave me. Discipline and character, teamwork and sense of
duty, personal accountability, and above all, integrity.
A lifetime friend of mine chose to go Air Force. He served his 4 as a flightline tech,
prepping and loading C-130's and C-141's. He did everything he could to weasel
out of drills and missions, even asking me to cover for him as he "fell off the radar"
during ORI's and ORE's. I NEVER pushed out on mission and saw ANYONE try to
do less than they possibly could. You did not want to be THAT GUY ! It drove us
all to push hard. A matter of SELF-discipline, Duty and Honor.
A while back he was trying to tell me how all the service branches are the same, how
vets from one branch are no different than the others. I worked with all branches but
Coast Guard and found real go-to sombitches in each. But from my experience, the
level of sense of Duty and Honor in the USMC is on a whole different plane than it is
for most people. I was blessed that they would have me around, but it raised my
standards and makes dealing with slackers difficult.