SIC SEMPER TYRANNUS
Surviving Catholic Education
By Shaun Costello
This story is excerpted from my childhood memoir
THE LAST TIME I SAW JESUS
Surviving God and Elvis in the time of ‘Duck and Cover’
I suppose I could blame all subsequent events, and ill advised decisions I made in my life on the eight years I spent as a victim of the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, but I don’t. I sensed, even as a child, that they were no more or less than a necessary evil (at least my parents thought they were necessary) placed in my path to overcome by what whatever means was at my disposal. Back then little thought was given by Catholic families regarding their participation in the selection process available to them in choosing a primary school for their children. They just found the nearest Catholic school, packed a lunch, and off we went. Off to the welcoming arms of a sociopathetic cult of psychological misfits who had been cloistered away from the evils of an all too real world that, even on their best days, they seemed powerless to inhabit. During my eight years of ecclesiastical incarceration I never saw anyone who remotely resembled Ingrid Bergman, not to mention Father Crosby.
Early on, I came to the conclusion that the two most important elements in a Catholic education were penmanship, and lining up in silence. Ball point pens were strictly forbidden, because only a true fountain pen could produce the perfect script demanded by the good sisters. As for the silent line up, the merry cacophony of lunchtime playground mischief came to an abrupt halt the moment the dour penguin shook her hand bell. The shuffle of feet was the only sound as the children found their classmates and silently lined up, awaiting the signal to march off to an afternoon’s lesson in history, which probably included the torture and martyrdom of Saint Isaac Jogues at the hands of the evil Huron Indians. They pulled out his fingernails, and he would not renounce his faith. They pulled out his toenails, and he would not renounce his faith. They gouged out his eyes, and he still would not renounce his faith. Finally, an exasperated Big Chief Huron, fed up with Isaac’s saintliness, cut out his heart and ate it, hoping to ingest some of the holy man’s courage. And old Isaac stood there, bound and gagged, without fingernails or toenails, a big hole in his chest where his heart used to be, and Big Chief Huron, picking pieces of Isaac’s aorta from between his teeth, again demanded spiritual surrender. Not this time Tonto. The old man simply shook his head in a bold expression of saintly triumph over the heathen redskin. Tears in her eyes, Sister Immaculata stopped reading and put down the third grade American History text from which she had read this lesson in God’s victory over the great unwashed.
It was at this point that she noticed the behavior of three arch criminals; myself, Jim Freeney, and Joe Arrico, who had obviously paid no attention to this valuable lesson and instead, had been engaged in spitball wars in the back row. With these three felons in tow, Sister Immaculata made haste for the music room, where every afternoon the Fur Elise was played badly for hours. The music room doubled as punishment chamber during school hours, and was the only room in the building where nuns noticeably smiled. The young hooligans were instructed to lean against the wall with the backs of their legs extended, awaiting Sister’s caress. Reaching into the closet, Sister Immaculata took out a pointer. It was 36 inches long, round, and pointed at the tip, resembling almost exactly the canes used to administer corporal punishment in the third world, much to the horror of self righteous Americana. It came down with a loud whack on the back of poor Joe Arrico’s thigh, as he screamed in pain and begged her to stop. She ignored his screaming pleas and promises of good behavior, and the pointer came down again. I’m not sure how many times she hit him, but it was several, and all the time she smiled. Her screaming, pleading victim was nine years old. Jim Freeney was next with the same result. When it came my turn I was half way to the door before she caught on to the fact that I was not going to be this woman’s pointer fodder. Safely through the door I ran down the hall and all the way home.
Out of breath, I told my mother what had happened, and her reaction was puzzling. She told me that Sister was always right, and that I must have done something to deserve the punishment I had escaped, and that the only course open to me was to go right back to school, lean on that music room wall and take my punishment like the little criminal I undoubtedly was. I refused. This resulted in a tumultuous few days between my family and the school which, after some posturing, was legally bound to take me back, even though I had not behaved up to the standard of the church’s willing martyrs. Isaac, eat your heart out, or someone else will.
The daily routine at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs school began at 8:30AM, as children began assembling in the school’s playground. At precisely 8:45, each and every morning, Sister’s hand bell would announce the end of playground hi-jinks, and the beginning of the serious business of lining up in silence. The children lined up by class, and began the silent shuffle into the school building, with the little ones entering first, and the eighth graders bringing up the rear.
There was a uniform dress code at the school. Boys wore navy blue trousers, a white long sleeved shirt, and a navy blue tie, usually restrained by a tie clasp. Competition for the coolest tie clasp was intense. Girls wore blue jumpers, a white short sleeved blouse, and navy blue knee socks. The supreme beings at the school, the eighth graders, were distinguished from the rest of the lower flotsam by the addition of blue blazers for the boys, and some kind of pin, probably something like “The Order of the Eternal Virgin” for the girls. Eighth graders were looked up to by the rest of us as perfect examples of children who, through diligence and prayer, walked in lock step with the Holy Trinity. They were also bigger than we were and stole our baseball cards and lunch money, but I guess that’s another issue.
Children at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs were divided into three separate and distinct groups. The first were God’s favorites. These kids all had 98 academic averages, spotless uniforms, heavenly singing voices, inkless fingers, wrote in perfect script, got the best parts in the school play, made speeches at school assemblies, and were generally thought of by the faculty as, “Saints of the Future.” The second group were the kids that God tolerated. They were probably not heaven bound but, through hard work and sacrifice, they might just make it to the next level; even though they had ink stained fingers, couldn’t remember latin lyrics, spent too much time looking out the window, wrote illegibly, occasionally suffered from “ring around the collar”, were easily confused by the rituals of the Catholic Liturgy, and would probably wind up mowing the lawns of the “Saints of the Future.” Then there was the third group. These were the kids to whom God’s back was turned. The lepers of the Liturgy. They had no shot whatsoever at salvation, and were destined for the big barbeque, to burn in the fires of hell for all eternity. They had dirty finger nails, unkempt hair, ink stains covering their hands and clothes, had close relatives who spoke a foreign languge, ate paste in art class, threw up in hallways, had no reverence for the sainthood, and were to be generally pitied as hopeless creatures, destined for a life outside of God’s plan.
I guess that I was a member of group number two; tolerated by God, a distant possibility for salvation, a perpetrator of the ink stain, a barely average student, and a liturgical numbskull, but if I played my cards right I just might make it to the next level, wherever that was.
As kids filtered into their classrooms, the first stop was the Cloak Room. This was a large closet in the back, the full width of the classroom (about thirty feet) and about six feet deep, lined with shelves, under which were coat hooks, and plenty of space to deposit lunch boxes, galoshes, and whatever else kids brought to school. No one wore cloaks of course, but that’s what the sisters called it, so we did too. The hanging up of hats and coats was followed by a short but robust period of hair pulling, name calling, tripping, strangling, head locking, eye gouging, and general mayhem, after which the little innocents would emerge from the cloak room ready for a morning of inspiration and enlightenment, much to the delight of the good sisters.
The school building, a kind of quasi American gothic structure, had eight classrooms of identical size and layout. The classrooms were large, about 60×30, with three walls covered with blackboards and one with windows. About six rows of desks, ten deep, all faced Sister’s large wooden desk, which was centered in front of the class. A student/teacher ratio of 60 to 1. Tough numbers. The student’s desks had hinged tops, allowing for storage inside, an indentation at the front where pencils and pens could lie undisturbed, and a working inkwell. No one really used the inkwells, other than for pranks, but they had always been there, so there they would stay. Until the day when Petey Cataldo, a kid who didn’t talk much and threw up a lot, pissed in each and every inkwell in our class. Sixty inkwells is a lot of piss, and there were many versions of Petey’s triumph. One had Petey sneaking in after school and actually pissing in all our inkwells. The other, and generally accepted version, had Petey peeing in a container for a week. Then when he felt he had enough for the job at hand, he slipped into school after closing, and filled all the inkwells with the product of his efforts. Anyway, no one ever saw Petey again. The rumor was that he had been sent to some kind of special school for kids who threw up a lot. Another rumor had him incarcerated in an institution for recalcitrant Catholics, but no one really believed that. His image lived on in the folklore of the school as a revered personage, a crusader, the boy who had an answer. Of course none of us knew what the question had been, but that didn’t matter. Petey had guts, and for us that was enough.
Throughout the morning the subjects taught by Sister would change at Sister’s whim. In the middle of a History lesson, Sister would suddenly announce,” We will now take out our Arithmetic textbooks.” And this was sister’s segue to the world of mathematics. As the big institutional clock on the classroom wall neared 12 noon all eyes followed the second hand, until that magical moment that happened each and every school day at exactly noon, when the opening chords of the most famous of all John Philip Sousa Marches would play at a decible level that could have awakened the Saints from their eternal sleep, the classroom doors were thrown open and the lunchtime march of the children would begin. Three hundred little kiddies for Christ would stomp down the stairwells and hallways of the school until they were deposited, music still playing, outside the huge front doors, to the delight and chagrin of the terrified lunch counters of Austin Street.
Austin Street was the main commercial drag in Forest Hills. Supermarkets, clothing stores, Woolworths Five and Dime, the Cameo Bowling Alley, drug stores, florists, Pinsky’s Stationary, a travel agency, Glindermann’s German Delicatessen, Vincent’s Shoe Repair, and various spots where lunch could be had cheaply, if you knew what to order. Most kids brought their own lunch to school in little metal lunch boxes. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and a banana, or maybe a few cookies, was pretty typical. The school provided half pint containers of milk, free of charge, to kids who brought their own lunch. If you had some money in your pocket, Austin Street’s menu was varied. The Sutton Hall Pharmacy offered an order of rye toast for 10 cents which could be washed down with a lemon coke, also priced at 10 cents. The newly opened Pizza Prince offered a slice for 20 cents, but kids were still suspicious of pizza. The various lunch counters along the Street offered a variety of cheap filler. An order of french fries was 20 cents, cream cheese on date nut bread could be had for as much as 40 cents, a burger with a hole in the middle from White Tower was a quarter, and various other offerings were priced accordingly. If you were really flush, and I’m talking over a dollar here, and you were up for some serious adventure, Austin Street offered “Hamburger Express”. A huge success from the day it opened, “Hamburger Express” delivered your Burger DeLux Platter right to your hungry little face on the flatbed rolling stock of Lionel model trains. The walls were covered with train posters and train photographs, and along the inside part of the counter ran the tracks themselves. The tracks that carried the trains that towed the flatbed cars that brought your lunch. The waitresses wore little train engineer caps that said “Hamburger Express” across the brim, and train whistles and bells and authentic trainlike noises of all sorts could be heard throughout the place. If you could afford it “Hamburger Express” was definitely the lunchtime venue of choice.
The boys at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs knew about trains. They knew from their earlier days in The Painted Mountains, where they buried their compadres in the Cemetery of unnamed men. They lived without food and water, and became tempered like steel; sinewy leathery boys, whose sole purpose in life was blowing up trains for Pancho Villa, and the glory of the revolution. They knew just how many sticks of dynamite it took to blow a munitions train to hell and gone. And just how many toothpicks it took to cause a derailment that would dump a Cheeseburger DeLuxe into some unsuspecting woman’s lap. These boys knew about trains. And how to stop them.
Finally, “Hamburger Express”, in an effort to keep their trains on the tracks, and to put a stop to the mischief of the boys from the Painted Mountains, hired its own security guard. They dressed him up as a train engineer, and although he greeted customers as they came in, and his demeanor was friendly, even jovial, he was definitely railroad security. This new addition created a more challenging atmosphere. And if that wasn’t enough, possible anti railroad weaponry; ketchup, mustard, toothpicks, pickles, were all removed from the counter until the arrival of your meal, and scooped up the minute they were used. These, and other counter-revolutionary tactics were employed by management in an all-out effort to put a stop to the work of Pancho Villa’s little heros. Additional security didn’t stop Butch and Sundance, and by God it wouldn’t stop Villa’s boys. So, like their days back in the Painted Mountains, they simply brought their own stuff. Toothpicks, gum, silly putty, pencils were all imported from home. And with the advent of watchful railroad security, diversionary tactics were required, usually in the form of a vomiting boy. A kid throwing up in a restaurant was very bad for business, so the boy who was assigned the job of “Diversion Puker” was picked up by the railroad security guy the minute he pretended to throw up on the counter, and carried outside to the sidewalk. With security outside, the bedlam of the entire revolution was free to take place right there inside “Hamburger Express”. Four to five derailments could happen in a matter of seconds, with burgers, milkshakes, banana Splits, and lemon cokes all flying helter-skelter, from their respective flatbeds to the laps of unsuspecting and shrieking customers, as total chaos reigned supreme in the little restaurant. Villa’s vigilantes had struck again.
With the revolution going well, it was time to return to Our Lady Queen of Martyrs for an afternoon of guessing just how many arrows Saint Sebastian was stuck with, and what it all meant anyway. At exactly 3 PM the Sousa march would begin, the classroom doors would be thrown open and the afternoon version of “The March of the Children” would take place. The daily schedule at OLQM was identical except for Wednesdays. On Wednesdays class would end at 2:30 and the entire student body would be marched a short distance to the church, where something mysterious called Benediction took place. This was a wealthy parish and the church looked it. The building was a kind of neo gothic mini-cathedral, with pictures and statues of people with their internal organs revealed, and candles burning everywhere. The shared public Catholic ritual is a theatrical assault on the senses, and Benediction was a perfect example. The church’s altar was fronted by a large proscenium, pretty much like the stage at Radio City Music Hall, where men wearing colorful satin outfits spoke, chanted, and sang in a dead language, and shook ornate little balls filled with incense (usually frankincense or myrrh), as the organ began the prelude to yet another hymn in Latin. I have no more clue today, than I did back then, as to the meaning or significance of Benediction, but I never forgot the music. The main hymn was something called “Tantum Ergo” and, although, at the time, I have no idea what it meant, it was a catchy tune that seemed to go well with the accompanying visuals and incense. In Latin (the only way I ever heard it) it went like this:
“Tantum ergo Sacramentum Ve-ne-remur cernu-I
Et antiquum documentum Novo cedat ri-tu-I
Praestat fi-des supplementum sensu-um de fectu-I”
(exotically entertaining in a dead language kind of way)
The English translation of this stanza goes like this:
“So great a sacrament, therefore let us worship
Bowed down; And let the ancient example give way
To a new rite; Let faith bestow a support
To the defect of the senses.”
Not much better in English, is it? Anyway that was Benediction, and when it was over we silently filed out of the church and back into the community.
I want to go on record here as having hated Richard O’Leary. I hated him then and I probably still do. In between the end of the afternoon March of the Children and the beginning of whatever came next, there was a certain amount of after school lingering. I was never privy to what girls talked about, but boys talked about gory stuff like beheadings and general human dismemberment, fights they had heard about that were really bloody, movie star suicides they learned about listening to their parents, local gossip like somebody’s mother who was arrested for shoplifting, and when they ran out of the juicy stuff there was always sports. Richard O’Leary was one of these kids who wanted you to think that no matter what you knew, he knew more. He always knew more, and it really didn’t matter about what. I liked sports. I liked to watch sports on TV. I liked to go Yankee games. But I was just not one of these kids who memorized stats. I knew that Whitey Ford was a good pitcher, but I didn’t know his lifetime record against lefty hitting. And, for the record, I have to confess to not caring. But Richard O’Leary knew, or at least pretended he did. Anyway, on this particular afternoon I had been accidentally equipped with a valuable statistic, Willie Mays’ career batting average. I read it in a magazine the day before, and knew that it was 321. Valuable information to have at my disposal, in between beheadings and shop lifting arrests. So when the opportunity presented itself, and I spoke right up, “Mays has got to be the best pure hitter in baseball, his career batting average is 321.” And without skipping a beat that rotten Richard O’Leary jumped right in. “Not against right handed pitching it’s not. Against righties he only hits 289. The man is a loser.” I had suffered a moment of psychological castration. I went from a kid who knew something to a kid who knew nothing. And not only that, but Willie Mays was now a loser. By the time I was wondering if I had anything in my pocket sharp enough to gouge out O’leary’s eyes he was already correcting some other kid on some other statistic. Another psychological castration. Another disappointed kid. Another triumph for that little weasel. Later that night, in between the light’s going out in my room and falling asleep, I fantasized about a proper vengeance. About an appropriate fate for that little know it all. About justice.
Death Row at Sing Sing Prison is in a separate and cloistered part of the facility. A long dark hallway where only one cell is lit. Outside the cell is the head guard and Father Spinelli, the prison Chaplain. Inside that one lit cell is a kid in striped prison garb, shackled hands and feet, and a terrified look on his face. It’s Richard O’Leary.
The guard speaks as he puts a key in the door, “Its Time son. Get a hold of yourself. Father Spinelli is here to hear your confession.”
“Son, are you sorry for all the sins of your past life and……”
“What confession? I’m not confessing anything. This is someboby’s dream. I’m a kid. You can’t execute kids. You can’t do anything to me.”
“Et ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis in nomine…..”
“Te absolvo a peccatis tuis….”
“I’m a kid, you jerk. You can’t do anything to me.”
“Ordinarily I’d agree with you son, but not after what you said in court.”
“Deus Pater misericordiarum…..”
“What do you mean? What are you talking about? What did I say in court?”
“About Willie Mays.”
“In nomine Patris, et filii………”
The guard, the Priest, and O’Leary are now slowly walking down the long dark hallway toward the brightly lit execution chamber, where the Warden stands, with a paper in his hand.
“About Willie Mays being a loser. About his average against right handed pitching.”
“ego te absolvo a peccatis….”
“So?….I’m right. He IS a loser.”
“You forgot about the judge son. Big Giants fan. Huge. Big Mays fan. You shouldn’t have said that son.”
“In deus Pater nostrum tuum…….”
“I’m a kid. I can say anything I want.”
“The Warden will ask you if you want your head shaved, son. I’d do it. The last kid, Old Sparky set his hair on fire. That was just before his head melted. What a stink. Two of the witnesses puked.”
“In Nomine Patris, et filii, et spiritus sancti……..”
The threesome is now passing the Tombstone Shop on their way to the Execution Chamber, and O’Leary’s eyes are as big as half dollars as he sees the worker carving an epitaph on a Tombstone that reads; “HERE LIES RICHARD O’LEARY WHO KNEW WILLIE MAYS’ BATTING AVERAGE AGAINST RIGHT HANDED PITCHING. LOOK WHERE IT GOT HIM.”
“Te absolvo a peccatis….”
“Mommie……I want my Mommie………Mommieeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee..”
“You Richard O’Leary, having been found guilty of crimes beyond the pale, are heretofore to be put to death by means of electrocution, on this day……
In excelsis deo ordo paenitintiae…..”
“Get a hold of yourself son……..Ohhhhhh, he pooped his pants, What a stink…….”
As the clock strikes midnight the Warden nods to the Executioner, who throws the switch that sends the room into a tumult of buzzes and screams and shrieks and stinking hair, while outside house lights all over Dutchess County dim slightly as the life is fried out of Richard O’Leary’s melting body, leaving his lifeless form hanging, suspended by “Old Sparky’s” leather straps. Dead, and finally silent.
My bedroom ceiling never looked so good. Smiling, I could feel my lips moving before I heard the words. Those appropriate words. Those final words – “Sic semper tyrannus”.
© 2008 Shaun Costello