Tag Archives: education

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.

Canada – not flashy but likeable, and with an example to follow.

23 Jun

By Lanny Morgnanesi

Gerry always tried to be funny. He’d introduce himself this way: “Hi, I’m Gerry, a Canadian, bland and inoffensive.”

Like his country, Gerry was neither.

It was during the Vietnam War that I first realized Canada was different, hardly bland and willing to offend. Without fear of U.S. retribution, it welcomed Americans dodging the war, coming off like some hippie outlaw country. Later, in another context, I remember people talking disparagingly about “Canadian socialism.” They made Canada sound evil when I think it was just trying to be nice to its people.

More recently, comedian Dave Chappell used a satirical sketch to show at least one difference between Canada and the U.S. In the sketch, he posed as a political candidate with a solution to expensive American health care: Fake Canadian ID.

Canada is the country where people have lots of guns but don’t use them on each other. Canadians seem to be more comfortable with life, more at peace with themselves and each other, and less stressed. Their cordial mantra is the simple: Eh?

Internationally, they have few enemies.

While traveling, Gerry and I once met two young women from Eastern Europe, which then was Communist. President Reagan recently had taken a strong stance against their patron, the Soviet Union, calling it the Evil Empire.

Nothing like that had occurred in Canada.

The two women were strikingly beautiful but cold and dead serious. We tried to start a conversation. It didn’t take long before I noticed they would speak to Gerry but not to me. I asked why and they said they could not understand me because I wasn’t speaking Oxford English. So Gerry, in his inoffensive way, began acted as a translator, taking my English and “translating” it into — English. He did the same for them.

Funny, eh? We had recreated a bit from the film “Bananas,” but the Eastern Europeans didn’t get it.

But back to Canada.

In Montreal this spring, thousands of students took to the streets to protest an 80 percent increase in college tuition.

According to a newspaper report, tuition for higher education in the province of Quebec was to go from $2,611 a year to $4,700. It would be instituted gradually, $254 a year over seven years.

I was sorry to hear this. My sympathies, however, were not with the Canadian students but with American students, who must pay so much more. My concern was not with the Canadian government but with the American government, which clearly doesn’t value education as much as its northern neighbor.

While I haven’t done the math, and don’t want to do the math, I’m guessing one less war a year would provide more than enough funding to make college affordable; or the end of a subsidy to one or two highly profitable industries; or – dare it be said – taxing a bit more, or just cutting a few loopholes or simply being fairer about the whole process.

The goal would be to put money where it pays national dividends, and educating the populace tends to do this.

The U.S., by its own design, finds itself in the precarious and costly position of having to police the world. Meanwhile, nations that benefit from this use their money to build vibrant economies, keeping their infrastructure modern and their industries competitive . And some allow college students to sit in a  classroom for less than it cost to go to the movies.

If this pattern continues, the natural outcome is they will get stronger and we will get weaker. In time, the great American military won’t have much of a country left to protect.

A strong defense is important. What I find of questionable value is a strong offense.

Somehow, by someone, balance will have to be restored. The richest and most powerful country on Earth should be able to educate itself. Only when we have fallen from that top position will it be easier to understand that fending for one self must be the norm.

Then fake Canadian ID will really be important. I hope they don’t put up a fence.

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