Chapter Twenty One
The difference between school and life? In school, you’re taught a lesson and then given a test. In life, you’re given a test that teaches you a lesson. -Tom Bodett
Some schoolwork was a nightmare for me. I excelled on the social side, but I was failing my schoolwork and failing miserably. The problem was simple. I couldn’t read. I had learned to bluff my way through the academic day by paying close attention to everything, I mean absolutely everything, that everybody said regarding the lesson. And, for the most part, it worked. The other part of the problem was my unwillingness to memorize things that I found to be useless because if you really needed to know them again, you could look them up. Teachers don’t see things that way, unfortunately.
I knew something was wrong with me because I was a failure in the classroom, but outside the classroom I was a leader and an organizer. But even in the classroom, I wasn’t a complete failure. In spite of the reading issues, I excelled at history, geography, and theater. I failed in those subjects that requires logic with no room for creativity, mathematics, or motor skills like penmanship. If I could have had my way, penmanship and math would have been outlawed because they humiliate so many kids.
It was the same thing with sports. Although I failed at most sports, especially organized sports that involved cooperation and teamwork, in the sports that I could handle, wrestling and track, I became a better than average player.
I knew something was wrong but didn’t let it trouble me. I taught myself to be upbeat by always remembering what I was good at and improving myself in those areas. “I can’t do this,” I would say to myself, “but I can do that.”
One day, along came Sister Emmarentia, my fourth-grade teacher. I was the best thing that ever happened to her reputation and she was the best thing that ever happened to my intellect. I didn’t know her real name. Her spiritual name was Emmarentia, taken by her to venerate Saint Emmarentia, said to be the mother of Saint Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary.
In her late seventies, she had experienced three near-fatal strokes that had distorted her face into a monstrous appearance. Her lower right lip curved down deeply and she wiped away a constant flow of spittle with a white cloth handkerchief. The left side of her upper lip was twisted towards the right side of her face and her right eye was closed.
When she walked, she dragged her right leg, and the work involved in moving her body made her breathe deeply. She was tall, made to appear even taller by her black uniform, and all that, combined with her thick Eastern European accent, made for quite an impression, especially among children. We believed her to be older than time itself and were all terrified of her. As a result, her class was the best-behaved class in the school.
One of the strokes had left her fingers badly mangled and twisted, and on the rare occasion when there was whispering between the students, she stood and pointed her twisted fingers, which went in every direction, and yelled, “You! Be still!” Since there was no accurate way of determining which finger was pointing to whom, the entire class would fall silent.
It was part of Sister Emmarentia’s schedule to have each of the children stand and read a sentence from our English book, The Daily Catholic Reader for Children. Nobody in the room read well, but they could read. I couldn’t read. I didn’t care about that. What I cared about was sticking out in the crowd, because I was two years older than my classmates and tall for a boy my age. My two front teeth stuck out and I was convinced I looked like a half-rabbit, half Creature from the Black Lagoon, and I lived with people who weren’t my parents. It’s embarrassing to be a foster child, and the last thing I wanted was to stand up in front of that room and be further humiliated.
“Jesus,” I prayed silently, “please fix it so that my turn to read won’t come around.”
And then the nun called my name, but before I stood I thought, “I’ll bet you think this is funny, huh, Jesus?”
I stood and stared at the sentence assigned to me and believed that, through some miracle, I would suddenly be able to read it and not be humiliated. I stood there and stared at it until the children started giggling and snickering and Sister told me to sit down.
That night, she sent me home with a sealed note which Walter read after dinner. He sat at his chair at the head of the table and made me stand beside him. He pointed to the letter that the nun had sent.
“That nun says you won’t read and it’s our fault.” He stopped and drew his lips tight and poked me in the chest with his finger. “I come home, I’m tired. I don’t have time for this shit. Go get the book she’s complaining about.”
I got the book and he opened it to the page highlighted in the letter. My affliction set in and I started frantically rubbing the tips of my thumbs on the tips of my index finger to soothe myself.
Walter pointed to several words and told me to recite them aloud. But I couldn’t, because I couldn’t read. I had no idea what letters were or how they sounded or what the word was. He might as well have been asking me to recite Chinese.
“What’s that word?” he asked me again and again. He was getting angry. My stomach knotted because I knew what was coming next.
“I don’t know,” I said, my voice quivering.
Whack! He slapped me hard across the left cheek. It always came to this. I turned and looked at Helen for help. She lowered her eyes, collected the supper dishes, and took them to the sink to wash.
I pressed my palms together and rubbed them—it’s another part of my affliction—but Walter slapped my hands down. “And knock that off, you crazy little bastard, you look like a nut when you do that. Now, what’s that word?”
“I don’t know,” I said, terrified, and shook my head to make him believe me. He didn’t. Whack! He slapped me harder across the left cheek.
“What’s that word?” he said. “I swear to God, you say ‘I don’t know’ again, I’ll smack your eyeballs out of your head!”
I froze. All I could envision was my eyeballs flying out of my head. I took a stab at the word. The TV was on in the next room and the radio was on in the kitchen and part of my affliction is that I have a difficult time blocking out noise; it’s almost impossible for me to focus on one thing and not hear everything else that is going on. And what was going on now was that word, that goddamned word, started with an O.
“House?” I said. House had an O in it. I knew that. Automatically, my affliction made my fingers bend as if I were clinging onto the edge of a tall building.
The next slap knocked me across the room.
“You dumb jerk! Look at it! Look at it!” He grabbed me around the neck and slammed my head down on the book, hard. “You better know that word tomorrow, I’ll tell you that.” Satisfied, he stormed away.
The next morning I looked in the mirror and saw that the slaps he had given me left a long red welt across my cheek. Helen put alcohol on it, which did nothing, and then some ice, which did even less. She told me that if anyone asked what happened I was to tell them I fell down the stairs. Of course, when it comes to abuse you can’t fool children. They knew what happened. And the fact that they knew what happened made my affliction kick in and I spent the day fighting to control my affliction, which this time decided it would make an appearance as an eye-blinking problem.
Adding to my woes, Sister Emmarentia decided to have me stand again and read to the class. I didn’t even try this time. The children started snickering. The nun glared at me. I felt myself starting to shake with anger and humiliation and I threw up my arm and said, “I don’t know. I don’t know what it says and I don’t care either. So leave me alone,” and sat back down.
I don’t know if it was because I shouted the words or because of what the words meant, but the class fell deathly silent. The children lowered their eyes to their desks and slowly, one by one, raised a cautious eye toward Sister Emmarentia, who was leaning forward in her chair, staring at me. She hissed two words: “Stay after.”
At three o’clock the school emptied, and, as ordered, I stayed after, sitting in my seat, waiting for the worst of it.
Sister Emmarentia limped back into the room after seeing the children out, looked at me, and said in her thick Eastern European accent, “You are here.”
My affliction decided to join us, forcing me to push my toes on the floor as though I were trying to eject myself from the chair. I prayed she didn’t notice what the affliction was making me do. I half expected to be eaten alive or murdered and buried out back in the school yard.
“I’m not afraid of you, ya know,” I said, although I was terrified of her. The words hurt her, but that wasn’t my intent. She turned her face and looked out the window into North Cliff Street. She knew what her face and twisted body looked like, and she probably knew what the kids said about her. It was probably an open wound for her and I had just tossed salt into it.
I was instantly ashamed of what I done and tried to correct myself. I didn’t mean to be hurtful, because I knew what it was like to be ridiculed for something that was beyond one’s control, such as my affliction, and how it made me afraid to touch the chalk because the feel of chalk to people like me is overwhelming. If I had to write on the blackboard, I held the chalk with the cuff of my shirt and the class laughed.
“You look good in a nun’s suit,” I said. It was a stupid thing to say, but I meant well by it. She looked down at the black robe as if she were seeing it for the first time.
”Do you know why we wear black robes?” she asked me.
My first thought was, “Because you’re all a little nuts,” but I thought the better of it and answered that I didn’t know.
“Simplicity and modesty,” she said, “and to celebrate our poverty and embrace the poverty of others. Our Lord lived a life of poverty.” She limped back to her chair and sat down with a sigh of relief and continued, “He too was an orphan.”
“I’m not an orphan,” I snapped. She had touched the wrong button. “I’m a foster kid.” When confrontation showed itself, its equally evil twin, my affliction, always joined it on the scene and I frantically rubbed my fingers together until the anxiousness of the moment passed.
She had lost me, and she reached out to bring me back. “You know,” she said, “in Europe, long, long ago, black was an easy dye to make and to maintain. So that’s why we have this color, too.”
I understood that the last words were a peace offering and I responded in kind.
Every boy in the school was fascinated to know what was under the nuns’ habits. Were they really bald? There was a schoolyard legend that one brave but foolhardy older boy took matters into his own hands and actually yanked the habit off some nun’s head one day, but that’s all anybody knew. I considered asking her if she was bald and if that was why she became a nun, but since I had already busted the poor women’s ego to hell, I passed and went for an easy one.
“Do you wear pajamas?” I asked “The eighth-graders say you don’t. They say you sleep in those clothes.”
“That’s because the eighth-graders are idiots,” she said. “Yes, I wear a night robe. It’s wool, because I am very old and I get the chills at night time. ”
We fell into a comfortable silence. My affliction went away, defeated by simple human kindness.
“I like the New York Yankees,” she said. “I think we are going to go all the way this year.”
“I love the Yankees,” I said. “Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra.”
It was pleasant small talk and when it was over, she said, “Come here,” and I walked across the room to her enormous desk that sat under the large framed pictures of John F. Kennedy, Pope John, and the new guy, Pope Paul.
She raised a twisted finger towards my face and I flinched and she quickly placed her hand on her lap to show me she meant no harm. She looked at the welt on the side of my face. “What happened there?”
“Nothing, Sister,” I lied, forcing my lips tightly together against my will.
“Do you think you should tell lies to a Sister of the Holy Orders?”
“Should you ever tell lies to anyone?”
“Why not telling the lies?” she asked.
“It is an offense to our Lord Jesus Christ who loves and cherishes us.” This was literally a textbook answer.
She raised her index finger and smiled. “See? You can learn when you want to.” She lowered her finger and said, “You was hit in the face?”
“By a boy? By a child boy?”
“Your foster father hitted you?”
“I don’t know, Sister,” I lied, because I was the one who would have to go home to him, not her. She understood that.
“Why did he hitted you like this?”
“I can’t read and he gets mad really fast.” I took a breath and added hesitantly, “And because you sent home that note.”
I didn’t want to say the last part because it seemed mean. My affliction made me squeeze my teeth together very hard.
Growing up in the bars of Waterbury, some of the toughest dives in America, I had heard just about every foul word known in the English language and some not known in any language, so not much could shock me. That is, until the nun said, “That goddamned son of a bitch.”
A part of me, the Pond Street part of me, wanted to slap her on the back and say, “Well said, goddamn it,” but I didn’t because the other part of me, the North Cliff Street part, knew better.
We agreed to meet after school and work on my reading. Every so often she would send glowing notes home to Helen and Walter about what a fine student I was. One afternoon, after school, she was explaining the rule of vowels to me and drew a picture of a car and filled it with the letters R, T, Y, P, and so on.
“What is this car missing?” she asked.
“Wheels, Sister,” I said.
“How many wheels does a car have?”
“Why does the car have wheels?”
“To make it go places?”
“Of course; to make it go places. Without wheels, it cannot go to places. What if the car had only three wheels?”
“It wouldn’t go so fast?”
“That’s right. It would still go places but it would go there slow. What if this car had five wheels?”
“It would go really fast.”
She drew five circles: four where the wheels would go and the fifth in the front. Inside the circles, she drew the letters A, E, I, O and U.
“These letters,” she explained, “A, E, I, O, and U, are what are called vowels. There are only five of them and if you can master them, if you remember them and what they do, they will work hard for you. Each vowel has a sound.” She sounded out each vowel and pulled back her chair and pretended to start a car, placing her hands on an invisible steering wheel. She slid over in her chair and patted it for me to sit next to her. “For the ride we will go,” she said.
“Can you drive a car, Sister?”
“This is not a real car,” she answered, straight-faced.
“I know, Sister, but can nuns drive cars?”
She thought about it for a second and said, “Sure. Why not?”
“I just can’t picture a nun driving a car,” I said.
“Sure, we drive cars, we go to the bathroom, we watch TV—but you should never do all those things at one time.” She threw her habit back and roared at her own joke and whipped some spittle from her jaw. She reached over and slammed my invisible car door shut. “Okay, let’s go. I’ll drive; you change the gears.” She pointed to an invisible gearshift between us.
She made the sound of a car rolling down the road and then yelled, “Let’s go faster, throw her into A and make her sound.” I threw the invisible gearshift into A and made the A sound, New England style: “Aaaarrrhhhh.”
“Yeah, this good, throw her into second,” she said. “What is second?”
I glanced at the wheels drawn on the car. “E, Sister,” I answered.
“Good. Now throw her into E and make that sound,” and I did. After we had gone through the vowels once, I knew them and their sounds. The old nun leaped to her feet and, without letting go of her invisible steering wheel, shouted over her engine roar, “Let’s go!”
We ran around the classroom throwing our invisible word cars into invisible vowel gears.
“First gear!” she yelled.
“Ahahahahahahahah,” I answered.
“Second gear.” “Eeeeeee.”
“Third gear! Really fast!” she shouted.
“Iiiiii!” “Fourth gear!”
“Oooooo,” I called back.
“Fifth gear! We’re flying!”
She slammed her invisible brake, opened her invisible door, shut it and asked me, “What are the vowels?”
“A, E, I, O, U, Sister,” I answered shifting into gear with every vowel.
“What are the vowel sounds?” she asked.
“Aha, Eee, Iiii, Ooo and Uuuuu,” I answered, again throwing the invisible stick with each sound.
She wrote the word “SOUND” on the blackboard and asked, “What is this word?”
When I hesitated, she said, “Sound it out.” She pointed to the O and asked, “What sound is that?”
“Ooooo,” I replied.
“And this?” she asked, pointing to the U.
“Uuuuuuuu,” I answered.
“Put it together.”
“So-un-d” I said. “Soo-uuuunnnn-dee.”
“Put it together faster,” she said.
“Sound,” I said, and then lighting hit. “Ahh! ‘Sound’! That word is ‘sound’.”
Within a week, I had it nailed and moved on to increasingly difficult words and actually volunteered to read aloud to the class. If I got lost in a word, Sister Emmarentia shouted out “Five gear!” or “Take that baby to second gear,” and I closed my eyes and found the vowel that was fifth or second gear, and soon I didn’t need to do even that.
I stayed after school with her several times a week, sometimes to take a reading lesson, sometimes to wash the blackboards because she couldn’t reach very high, and sometimes just to hang around and listen to her stories about Europe and all the wars they had over there. On Fridays she handed me all of the baseball cards she had taken from the boys who had dared to trade them in class. Not only was it a good haul, it was free. Because she was a fellow Yankees fan and I had grown to like her so much, I offered to split my baseball card collection with her, but she declined, probably finding it unethical to seize cards in class only to add them to a personal collection.
The friendship we had developed after school spilled over into the classroom, and the other children were amazed that I could ask her questions about virtually anything and get an answer. She particularly enjoyed talking about her childhood in Europe and how she had once seen an actual king of someplace ride by her in a coach and four. When she strolled out into the playground at recess, I walked with her. Other kids, curious about the woman who was said to be so mean that she killed children and buried them under the convent, began to walk with us and ask her questions as well.
She taught me to read and I made her, as they say in New England, way wicked cool. One afternoon when I was washing the blackboard for her, she told me that she had been a nurse in the First World War and had worked in a field hospital so close to the front that one time a bullet flew in through a window and a killed a fellow nurse.
“They were such young men, boys, they were just boys. Some of them were in such terrible pain and we had nothing for them. They begged me to pray to God, that he would kill them.”
“Did you, Sister?” I asked.
She looked up at the crucifix in the center of the room and then down at me and said,
“So I decided to enter the convent and dedicate my life to peace, and”—she paused—“The New York Yankees.”
She lit a fire in me and reading became my passion. I became a familiar figure around the children’s reading room at the wonderful old Ansonia library. It was built in 1891 as a gift of the fabulously rich Phelps family.
A large building by Ansonia standards, the library was made of local granite and unglazed red Spanish tiles, with three towers, natural quartered oak, and stone mosaic floors with representations of Pegasus and Bellerophon, a Greek hero who specialized in killing monsters. It had a large fireplace with a chimneypiece of rubbed red Lake Superior freestone, ribbed barrel-vault ceilings and two tiers of leaded glass windows. Minerva, the goddess of wisdom and knowledge, rested in the gable end of the roof above the heavy oak doors of the entrance.
I spent hours in the children’s reading room, perusing the titles, meticulously making my way through picture books meant for children five years younger than I. But there in the wonderful quiet security of the library, this place dedicated to learning and reason and knowledge, where Walter couldn’t lean over my shoulder and berate me, I could take ten or fifteen minutes to figure out what a word spelled by breaking it apart, sounding out the parts and putting it all back together again. It didn’t matter that I was reading baby books.
When I was done dissecting a difficult word, I went back to the top of the paragraph and read the story, giving myself a great sense of victory. I was winning the war of words, and, to my joy and amazement, words weren’t my enemy. Words liked me and I liked them. They taught me things, and they were witnesses when I won those tiny victories.
When I finally figured out how to read—that is, when the words somehow registered without conscious effort—I began reading everything, no matter what it was or what it was about. It was exciting, as though I had learned a new language and was famished for words. I devoured books from the Hardy Boys mysteries to biographies of Ben Franklin.
By year’s end I moved on the next grade. Sister Emmarentia suffered another stroke, her fourth in as many years, and was sent into retirement. Once in a while that summer , I saw her in the enormous schoolyard, made even more enormous by its emptiness and silence. She was contemplating or reciting her rosary, as she walked, frailly, around the perimeter of the convent. It would have been rude to interrupt her, so I passed in silence. But more than once she looked up at me, winked and gave me the thumbs up, because, as she told me once, “that’s what regular American people do.”
In the fall, she grew ill again and was sent to the order’s retirement home by ambulance. I never saw her again. It pains me now that I never said “thank you” to her. I never got to say, “Thank you for not believing that I was stupid,” and “Thank you for not smacking me around when I got it wrong over and over and over and again,” and “Thank you for giving the finest, noblest and richest gift of all, the gift of words.”
It was about that time that Helen signed up Denny and me to be altar boys. We considered the position an honor, and it was, really. There was some training, but not much. Our grasp of the Latin needed on the altar was tested and we were assigned to serve the morning Mass, which began at seven a.m. sharp . That meant we had to be up by six and at the church by six forty-five, and be prepared to speak Latin while flawlessly walking through the intricate, centuries-old steps of assisting at Mass.
Denny and I were called on to serve Mass regularly because we lived within walking distance of the church. At first, serving Mass was a novelty and we enjoyed it. But after a few weeks we had had enough. We wanted to sleep in, and were in no rush to dash out into the cold New England morning air. Within two months we dreaded everything about being altar boys.
The Lenten season in the Catholic church is marked by its solemnity, and during that time, bells, which are normally a part of the service, are replaced by sticks, something akin to long drumsticks. The altar boy lightly hits the sticks together during the most sacred parts of the mass.
So it was that during the Lenten season that the priest, a French Canadian aptly named Father Prayer, along with Denny and I, were about to leave the sacristy for the altar when I saw the altar bell resting in its place on the preparation table. I called to Denny, “Get the bell on the way out,” and we entered onto the main altar.
The mass went on uneventfully until the Confiteor, the prayer of confession. Denny and I were kneeling in front of the altar, our back to the pews, and on the cue “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa,” Denny let loose with the bell.
“No bells,” the priest whispered with a shake of his index finger.
Confused, Denny looked over at me and shrugged.
“You’re supposed to clap the sticks,” I whispered.
“Why didn’t you tell me to get the sticks?” he hissed back.
“You should have thought of that,” I whispered over folded hands. The priest looked at us from across the altar without interrupting the flow of Latin words he was muttering over the unblessed host before him.
Silence fell between us for five or six seconds.
“You said,” Denny continued, “‘‛get the bell’.’”
I stared straight ahead. Denny stared at me and the priest stared at both of us and again we fell into silence.
“You are such a jerk,” Denny said loudly.
“You are on the altar,” the priest said, just as loudly.
“If God—like—if Jesus over there,” Denny said, turning his head to the massive crucifix that hung on the wall in back of the altar, “if Jesus comes down from the cross and goes, ‘Hey John, I’m Jesus, I need a dime to call heaven and talk to God,’ you know what he would go?”
“This is not the time,” Father Prayer said.
“John would go,” Denny said, continuing his rant, “‛No, Jesus, you can’t have a dime because you should have thought of that before you climbed up on the cross over there’.”
“You know what?” I asked. “Why don’t you go to church, get up on the altar and make fun of God; there’s a good idea. That’s a good way to start the day, ya cross-eyed retard.”
The priest had now gone pale. Denny said, “See how he is? He wouldn’t even give God a dime. I hate him. God hates him. If God was here, if God was in this church—”
“God is here,” the priest said indignantly, and then looked to his left and right.
“—he’d spit on him,” Denny continued. “That’s how much of a jerk John is. God would spit on him.”
Then, for several tense seconds, no one spoke. Denny and I faced the altar and placed our hands together in the prayer position. We weren’t praying. We were stewing.
The priest continued the mass: “Pax in terra et in terra pax hominibus.” “Peace on earth and peace to his people on earth.”
“I hope you choke,” I said. To which Denny answered by slipping off his shoe, throwing it, and hitting me squarely in the forehead with it. I tried to get up to hit him but I was wearing a cassock, which is the same as saying I was wearing a dress, and I stepped on its hem, lost my footing and tumbled down the altar stairs. Denny leapt at the opportunity, literally. He threw himself at me and we commenced raining blows down on each other just above the marble floor with the word “PAX” carved into it.
Our careers on the altar ended that day.