As each year’s educational cycle begins, I always spend some time thinking about my own school beginnings. You see, as a former educator who logged 32 years in the classroom, I had a lot of school beginnings, from kindergarten through graduate school before those 32 years seated at the big desk. But the school beginnings I remember the most are the ones from my early days as an elementary school pupil, and they are beginnings when my parents certainly played co-starring roles.
Despite its having been 55 years ago, I do have some recollection of my mother’s walking me down the long hall of St. Symphorosa toward my first-grade classroom in my birth town of Chicago, so I could get started on that quest to eat as much paste as I could in a single sitting.
While I don’t remember the first visit to the large church beside the downtown school named for the saint that no first-grader had any legitimate shot at pronouncing correctly, I’ll rely on my mom’s version.
As I sat in the pew beside her along with my classmates and their mothers, I kept looking up at the large crucifix, and according to Mom’s version of this tale, furrowing my brow and shaking my head from side to side. When she asked me what was the matter, her story goes, I jerked my thumb in the direction of the cross and said to her in a voice that cut through the stillness of the cavernous sanctity of the church, “Boy, how’d you like to be that guy?”
While it wasn’t a very good moment for Mom as far as beginnings when it came to school Masses, it became a favorite story of hers years later after she could laugh about such embarrassing moments.
After our move to Lima during the summer before my second-grade year, I began the year with St. Charles’ Sister (of Charity) Joseph Andre, a nice lady who couldn’t quite understand why I had a compulsion to hum in class during times we were supposed to be working silently, or as silently as second-graders are capable.
When my first of several nuns who tried their best to teach someone who, no doubt, would have been classified as having attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder had such a label existed back in those days, asked my mom during an open house just days after the start of the school year for some clarity into this humming thing. She got none.
Rightfully, my mother could only respond that I certainly wasn’t humming at home. When asked by Mom to provide some assurance to the good sister that I would stop the irksome habit, I stood mutely, offering no assurances either through words or a nod of the head.
When we got out in the car, my more-than-perturbed mom sternly asked me, “Why didn’t you tell Sister that you wouldn’t hum anymore?” Through the tears of a young Catholic boy who’d already begun to take on the guilt that those in my sect assume for a lifetime, I said, “Because I thought I might do it again and didn’t want to lie!”
Just as my school Mass beginning back in Chicago, my open-house beginning certainly wasn’t funny to her at the time, but it became a story my mom would later tell over and over.
Another school beginning I remember well is my first experience with school bullying when I was in the fourth grade. With the incident there came an early lesson of a famous statement I would not know for many years, the statement of a man, Martin Niemoller, whose name has been largely forgotten but not what he said.
It was he who lived in Nazi Germany that spoke of the passive acceptance of many Germans during the Nazi’s persecution of various groups, and it is a statement many know as the “First-they-came-for” speech. Niemoller said he did nothing when the Nazis came for groups such as trade unionists and Jews and ends with the line, “Then, they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out for me.”
I remember the bully, a really big seventh-grader named Peter, started with others, humiliating little children and coercing them to do dumb stuff for his amusement. Others would laugh as well, especially the day he made one of my classmates, Greg, eat a dog biscuit.
When I became the target of the bullying, especially when Peter began knocking me around a little in the far back corners of Green Bus No. 1, suddenly it became personal.
In far simpler times when bullying was an on-site problem and the term “cyberbullying” could never have even been be imagined, it ended when, tired of my sister Joan’s nagging that I tell my dad after I swore her to secrecy because I didn’t want to convey any notion that I couldn’t take it, I did indeed tell my father.
Before I knew it, he and I were standing in Peter’s front room on Latham Avenue, one block down from my home, with Peter and his mountain of a father, who towered over all of us.
With Peter cowering before his father as he listened to the mandate that began with “If you EVER pick on this boy or any other boy again …” I watched as someone I feared became totally impotent. The next day began a new chapter for all of us on Green Bus No. 1, a chapter that featured Peter sitting in his seat with hands folded on his lap, staring straight ahead and saying not a word to anyone. His reign of terror was over.
No matter the age of all heading back to yet another school year, I wish you nothing but the best with your beginnings. While they may be somewhat discomforting for you and potentially embarrassing for your parents as well, years from now, when viewed through the ultimate prism, time, my guess is you’ll be able to laugh at them.