Catholic School in the 60s: Much more than education

25 Aug
In the 50s and 60s, almost all Catholic school in and around east coast cities looked like this.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

NOTE: I wrote this piece in 2010 for the Philadelphia Inquirer. It was probably the most controversial thing I ever wrote, eliciting an onslaught of reaction — both positive and negative — and causing the publisher of the Inquirer to condemn it in a letter-to-the-editor of his own paper. With nostalgia in my heart of late, repost it here.

I read recently that Saint John Bosco Elementary School is closing due to low enrollment. Although the school teaches grades kindergarten through 8th, it has only 152 students. This startled me because when I attended, 1957-1965, there often were 100 kids in a class – a single, zoo-like class.

Where did everyone go?

Bosco opened in 1953 in Hatboro near the height of the baby boom. It was housed in a non-descript, cheaply constructed building. I received a miserable education, although I came out with good penmanship and an ability to diagram sentences. There was much to hate at Bosco. My top source of unhappiness was eating from brown bags at our desks because we had no lunchroom.

Odd, since the more logical choice might be those face slaps, hair pulls and rulers across knuckles … all administered by nuns. But to the victims, this perpetual combat was perversely welcomed and actually made class interesting. My most compelling contribution occurred one day when the nun ran down the aisle and yanked me out of my seat by the shirt. It must have been a cheap shirt because it ripped. The nun’s hand flew off and hit me in the nose, which began to gush.

She backed off and I stood before her, a little guy with a mangled, blood-covered, regulation white dress shirt. There was a pause, a long one, and she said, “Get out and fix yourself.”

In the empty hallway I considered going home. Instead, I went into the bathroom and washed the shirt in the sink. The blood actually came out. I put the wet shirt back on and reentered the classroom. Not another word was said on the subject. For a limited time I felt a sense of immunity, which made me proud and happy.

I imagine I had a reputation as a trouble maker, although it seemed all the boys did. In my final day there I was blamed for something I did not do. The nun, knowing I was graduating, sent me off as if I were a criminal, saying, “One day I’m going to see your name in the newspaper. You just watch.”

After college I became a reporter and for years fulfilled her prophesy. Well into that career I learned the school’s namesake – which we always associated with a chocolate drink – was the patron saint of journalists. Of all we were told, we were never told this.

We were told, however, of the greatness of John F. Kennedy, a Catholic and therefore our earthly savior. During the presidential campaign of 1960, a boy much bolder than I came to class wearing a large Nixon button. The nun ordered him to remove it and he refused. She took it from him and with her black nun shoe stomped it once, twice … maybe five or six times … then threw it in the trash. The next day he wore 10 of the pins, and was beaten.

I remember thinking this act represented true heroism, the first I had ever seen from someone my age. It saddened me because I knew that in my life I would never, ever, have that much courage.

Three years later when Kennedy was shot, I was being punished. Temporarily banished from the classroom, I was sent outside to clap blackboard erasers … to remove the chalk by smacking them together. When I returned everyone was on their knees.

I was flabbergasted and looked at the nun for an answer.

There was no explanation. Forcefully, she ordered, “Get down and pray.”

As Kennedy lay dying somewhere in Dallas, I was asking God to save him and I didn’t even know it.

There was so much I didn’t know at Bosco. I can’t remember learning much of anything. Once, during Geography, a small and mysterious country near India was being ignored and I stood up (you had to) and asked, “What’s Neepal?”

There was that familiar deadly pause, then the response: “Sit down or I’ll give you a knee, pal.”

As a wise guy, I actually respected this.

Soon there will be nothing left to respect. They’ll probably knock the place down. It must seem so big with only 152 students. Each one must have been valuable, treated like an angel. What a contrast to the Malthusian mess of me and my 99 compatriots, all in a single room, boys in front, girls in back, holding ancient textbooks and hiding damaged self-esteem, with baloney sandwiches wilting in the cloakroom and a single, unsympathetic, septuagenarian sister using something called a catechism to teach us that – above all –heaven is within our grasp and God loves us.

How could the pope have allowed this?

Goodbye, Saint John Bosco. I’m sorry for telling tales out of school.

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