Back To School In The '70s: From Public To Catholic

In the summer of 1977, I moved to another suburb, and had to start seventh grade at a new school. I was 12 years old and well into the awkward years. Moving and starting at a new school is always tough, and being the new kid in seventh grade was especially challenging. At that age, the lines are already drawn, the cliques formed. Most of the kids knew each other since kindergarten.

On top of that, I was switching from a public school to a private Catholic school, St. Damian. I found this endlessly amusing, as the movie The Omen was released in 1976 and the name of the child -- who was the literal Antichrist -- was named Damien.

I was raised Catholic, and attended catechism classes on Saturdays (or CCD as we called it) when I was in public school. I was already familiar with the religion, so I didn't think it was going to be much of a difference going to a Catholic school.

Just one of the countless times I have been wrong in my life.

I was used to wearing whatever (Mom-approved) clothes I wanted when I went to school. Now I had to wear a uniform of a ridiculously uncomfortable and ugly gold/yellow synthetic shirt, brown corduroy pants and dress or "street" shoes. No more sneakers or tennis shoes. Not cool.

My teacher was a nun, or on her way to becoming one. At least she was young and pretty cool, as nuns go. Her name was Sister Geralyn. I just Googled the name and it says the meaning is "spear ruler." Although there were a number of nuns I could easily picture chucking spears at unruly students, thankfully she wasn't one of them.

There was a commercial that was always on Chicago TV at the time. It was for a men's clothing store, and the gist of it was "Don't be a One Suit Stanley." By the end of the first week, I called Sister Geralyn "One Suit Sister" since she was required to wear her habit every day. All the kids laughed, but apparently nuns don't watch a lot of TV, because she wasn't pleased and I had to explain myself. I wasn't impaled by a spear, or sent to the principal's office -- yet.

During lunch time, all the kids went outside and played on the parking lot in front of the school. This made no sense to me. Why would we be on the pavement, when there was a perfectly good baseball diamond and actual grass behind the church? Just as someone was explaining that we were only allowed to play baseball during the annual school picnic, an ambulance pulled into the parking lot, with lights flashing and siren wailing. There was a little building on school grounds where the nuns stayed, and the ambulance pulled up to the entrance. Soon an extremely old nun, who looked like she not only had thrown spears, but might have invented them, was wheeled out and put in the ambulance.

It looked pretty serious to me. I asked some fellow students if they thought she might die.

"Doubtful. It's Friday," replied one.

My mind raced to review everything I had learned about Catholicism. Was there some rule that 107-year-old nuns can't die on Fridays?

"What do you mean?" I finally asked.

"That's Sister So-and-So. She thinks she's dying every Friday. You'll see," they answered.

And you know, for at least the next 6 weeks that ambulance showed up every Friday. I'm not sure if she finally died, or the other nuns just stopped calling the ambulance.

In the second week, a big change in the Catholic mass was announced. You could now accept the "Body of Christ" (the little wafer, or host) in your hands, instead of the traditional way. The established way was to open your mouth and stick out your tongue, on which the priest would place the host. Not a pleasant experience for either party. Sister Geralyn was explaining this new concept to our class, and holding a question and answer session so we were prepared before it officially went into effect.

I was fairly amazed at the questions asked. I thought this was pretty cut and dried, but evidently some kids worried about how exactly to place their hands, and other topics that would have never occurred to me. Finally, someone asked a sensible question. What happens if the host gets dropped?

"Fumble -- Priests recover!" I yelled out. It was football season, after all.

I got the big class laugh, a thousand spears emanating from the eyes of a furious Sister Geralyn, and my first trip to see the principal, Sister Lucinia.

Geez, at least I didn't bring up the whole St. Damian/Antichrist thing.

Earlier on Huff/Post50:

The War Days Of My Youth