Posts tagged: Moments in Montclair
Part 2Sr. Kenneth Mary lived in the convent across the street from the school on the corner of Munn St. and Cottage Pl. When I passed it, I would walk quickly. It may have been a plain brick building, but it held mystery. It made my palms sweat. We had all seen Sr. Kenneth and the other Sisters of Charity go in and come out from to time, but for the life of us, we could not figure out what went on in there. Rumor had it that the sisters were on lockdown between the hours of 4:00 PM and 7:00 AM. They weren’t allowed to leave, and they never ate. Maybe they were allowed to sleep but they wore their full habits. Just trying to picture Sr. Kenneth in a flannel nightgown made us queasy. Not once did I ever see one of the Sisters around town, and believe me, I looked for them. Besides teaching us perfect penmanship, Sr. Kenneth loved tests. Not just spelling and math, though you could tell she thought they were thrilling by the way her voice went up an octave when she gave directions. She loved to trick us with tests of courage and moral rectitude, and we wouldn’t know she was doing it until someone was busted. The first time she pulled it on us was after a morning recess. She sat quietly behind her desk with a stenographer's notebook and a Bic pen. The rule was that we were to come in and fold our arms on our desk and put our heads down until the class was calm. Then she would give us the next direction. On this seemingly regular Thursday morning, we came in and put our heads down, but she didn’t say a word. The silence dragged on to an alarming extent, at least five minutes. Though no one was bold enough to raise his/her head to see what was amiss, I could see frantic eyeballs rolling in every direction. What was going on here? Kathy, a sweet girl with brown pigtails to my left, began to whisper to those of us within earshot that she had a few of those chocolate “Ice Cube” candies left over from her snack. She swore that they tasted really cold. The more she whispered the more I wanted to taste one to see if it really was as frosty as something that comes from a freezer. As Sr. Kenneth sat staring opaquely from her chair, Kathy began to slip them to her friends. My mother never bought such frivolous things for our lunch bags, so I slipped my hand across the aisle in a stealth-like fashion making sure that the rest of my body and head did not move. Kathy placed the Ice Cube, wrapped in shiny gold foil, in my hand. Continuing my stealth move to my lap, I promptly unwrapped the candy and slipped into my mouth as I fake coughed the way I had seen my brother Timmy do when he would sneak ribbon candy from a bowl at my grandmother’s house. Just as I silently declared that there was nothing even remotely cold about this chocolate, Sr. Kenneth announced, “If I call your name please stand.” “Kathy.” “Maureen.” “John.” “MIchael” “Susan.” One by one we stood, shaking and swallowing. Then she went on to deliver a lengthy sermon about the importance of trust and rule following and the reality of evil and its whispers all around us. Kathy and I exchanged shocked looks. Evil? The only whisper I had heard was Kathy’s. Then later that afternoon, Sr. Kenneth entered after lunch in an even more morose mood, if that was even possible. When an hour of The Palmer Method ceased to enliven her, she asked us to sit with our hands folded at our desks. There was nothing odd about that as this was our “go to” posture between subjects. After this morning’s humiliation I sat up straight and placed my palms together in the holiest way possible, lining up my fingers perfectly with those on the other hand the way she showed us. I didn’t move a muscle and refused to listen to any evil whispers that might be swirling about. After a few long, silent minutes she asked, “Is there anyone in the class that can tell time?” I had no idea how to read a clock, but when a dozen other hands shot up I joined them. Heck, I wanted to be seen as savvy and advanced. I wanted to redeem myself. There was no clock on our wall, and it wasn’t like she was asking anyone to prove it. She looked around the room slowly, searching the faces of the proud few of us time-tellers and said, “Susan, why don’t you go out to the hallway, see what time it is, and come back in and tell us.” “Okay,” I whispered. I stood up, gulped, smoothed my blue plaid jumper, pulled up my navy knee socks and started up the aisle. Faces of classmates loomed and smiled, growing distorted like those in a funhouse mirror. I was screwed, again. There was nothing I could do but leave the classroom and figure it out. I slipped out the door and leaned against the wall, afraid to move. I had never been in the hallway alone, and, suddenly it was the biggest space I had ever seen. Pale green walls the color of mucous punctuated here and there by varnished wood doors. Only a few steps to my left was THE OFFICE. I’d never been in there either, and I hoped I never would. My brother Todd had told me all sorts of scary tales about the principal, Sr. Maria Michael. She had something he called “a hairy eyeball” that she was always giving him. Todd spent a fair share of time in this hallway ‘gathering’ himself before Mrs. Docken would let him come back into their second grade classroom. As a matter of fact I knew he was sitting behind the last door on the left right now. The clock was a huge white orb that clung to the wall near the ceiling, its thin black arms like those of a traffic cop when he signals the lanes in front of him to stop. I looked around in a panic. Though I knew that time was ticking away, I had no idea how to name it. The whole class was waiting for me to come back and enlighten them. If I said the wrong thing, I would be doomed forever. I searched the hall for help. Nothing, not a soul. My heart pounded in my ears, I stepped toward the wall clock as if closer proximity would reveal the answer. I watched the second hand travel. I bent my head back and looked to the ceiling so the tears in my eyes could pool at the corners rather than roll down my cheeks. Things were not going well for me in First Grade either. I had such high hopes when I started. And then, just as I was about to pull the classroom door open in shame, an angel appeared. An honest to goodness eighth grader on her way to THE OFFICE with a note. “Excuse me,” I asked timidly, my voice but a squeak in the vast emptiness. “Can you tell me what time it is?” She stopped, her kindness like a welcome mist in the desert, and said, “Why, it’s twelve past one.” “Thank you,” I replied as I watched her sashay past me and disappear in a blonde swish into THE OFFICE. Obviously, my holy hands had not been for naught. I dried my tears with the hem of my jumper and opened the classroom door. Then I stepped before the class and announced, “Twelve past one.” Sr. Kenneth looked at me over her spectacles, checked her watch and said, “Thirteen past. But close enough. Fine work.” “Thank you.” These were the moments that made God real to a six year old. I walked back down the row, careful not to appear too proud, and resumed my seated position. Left hand against the right, lining up the fingers in the holiest way possible. ************************************************************************************************************************* Dear Readers: After this post I will be posting all Moments in Montclair pieces on my other WP blog called Moments that Matter. Please come over and join my mailing list if you'd like to continue receiving them. I am composing them for fun, nostalgia, and as a way to force myself to create memoir pieces that my children will both treasure and, as one of my present students said to me last week, read back to me at the end of my life when I may not be able to remember the rich and blessed life I have lead. (Her statement stopped our whole class in our tracks. In a good way.) The stories of our lives are important to share. In this busy world, it is a priceless gift to carve out the time to record them. This blog gives me a deadline. One tale every two weeks. Anyone can do that. I hope to inspire all of you to do the same. Please feel free to share your nostalgia with us as well! Susan~
The Palmer MethodThen, she’d call five or six lucky students to the board and show them how to correctly hold chalk, four fingers on one side, thumb on the other, so that the arm would be free to move about in a wide circle. (If you had the unfortunate “condition” of being a lefty, you were asked to take your seat. Bumping elbows or opposite motions were not allowed.) The rest of us at our seats would practice in our Palmer books. “Okay people, place the point of your pencil on the black line and proceed,” she would say, a tiny spray of saliva visible with each P. As she floated up and down the rows, she’d chant a three beat rhythm to which we were supposed to draw perfect circles with tops and bottoms that just barely touched the black lines above and below them. “One, two, three. One, two, three. One, two, three.” The kids at the board, like happy window washers, would draw circles upon circles that would eventually resemble Slinkies stretched to the limit. We, at our seats, would fill page after page as Sr. Kenneth would stop here and there to lightly press our pinkies to the paper (Pinkies were made by God to anchor and guide the hand!) or wonder aloud if perhaps poor Paul would end up repeating first grade if his penmanship did not improve. (Poor Paul being one of those leftys who never got to stand at the board.) Weeks turned into months and practiced these circles endlessly until poor Paul had the nerve, one Tuesday morning, to ask (without raising his hand first!) when we might possibly be able to advance to an actual letter. The room fell to a dead quiet as we collectively held our breaths to see what Sr. Kenneth would do. A bit shocked, herself, at the audacity of such a break in our routine, she strode over to Paul, rosary beads jangling somewhere in the navy folds, and peered down at him over her rimless glasses. “And what letter do you propose?” she asked plainly. “Well,” thought Paul as he chewed on his pencil and pondered. “I can write my name real well. How about a "P"?” Sr. Kenneth actually smiled a half-smile, and the rest of us exhaled when it was apparent that Paul would would live to see another day. She picked up Paul’s Palmer book, thumbed through a few pages, sighed, and then replaced it on his desk slanted to the right to suit his left-handed technique and said, “We’ll start with "A" next Monday. Now, please, pupils, pick up your pencils and proceed with your practice.”
Kindergarten Can Be a Tough Place
Grove St. SchoolThere are plenty of folks who claim that their first memories reach all the way back to the womb or at the very least, toddlerhood. I am not one of them. Squeezing my eyes shut and searching my inner filing cabinet, I thumb through the folders and land squarely in Mrs. Kreager’s kindergarten class at Grove Street School. There are three memories to be exact, and I find it interesting that they were seared into the hippocampus of my brain by the driving emotions of anger, fear, and power. It all started with my white jewelry box. Adorned with pink roses and a golden latch, it set a tulle dressed ballerina a-twirl every time I opened it. She danced in a circle on her satin toe shoes before an oval mirror and guarded the rings and necklaces that lay perfectly arranged below her. It was my most precious possession and I had brought it in for Show-and-Tell. Dutifully, I placed it on the Special Shelf reserved for Show-and-Tell treasures that was off-limits to the class. Mid-morning, as I carefully inserted a half-circle shaped block inside a larger one to complete a block tower of architectural excellence, I heard the familiar tinkling of a music box. I turned my head and saw two boys, Tommy and Robert, trying on two of my rings. As I charged toward them, Tommy slammed the top shut and they both ducked into the corner playhouse. Incensed, I gently opened the box to make sure all was okay, and to my horror, my lovely ballerina laid sideways, limp and broken at her slender ankles. I carried it, sobbing, to Mrs. Kreager who decided, in the end, that there simply was not enough evidence to convict Tommy and Robert of wrongdoing. The weight of injustice and the accompanying anger covered me like my electric blanket when I turned the control dial-up to number ten. Tommy and Robert, however, were not happy that I would have the gall to tell on them. So during lunch hour they cornered me by the jungle gym and proceeded to scream in my face and push me to the ground. I curled into a ball and protected my head as I imagined my own legs bent sideways forever like the ballerina’s. To make matters worse, they followed me as I walked home pushing me into pricker bushes and threatening death if I told anyone. In 1964 we didn't know about bullying, I didn't have words for what was happening. Petrified, I endured these attacks for a week until Mrs. Powers, our neighbor, drove by one afternoon and witnessed it. A few phone calls later, Tommy and Robert were doomed. Suspiciously, they went missing from class for a few days so I was able to regain my composure. When they returned, Mrs. Kreager reseated them on the opposite side of the patchwork gathering carpet that everyone knew was just a bunch of samples from the rug store across the street. I saw them whispering throughout the morning and I felt that familiar panic rise though me as we lined up for recess. As we streamed out the door onto the black top, I ran for a swing thinking I could kick one in the face if I pumped hard enough. Then, the most curious thing happened. To this day I wonder about the dynamic of it all as it surprised me as much as anyone else. How easy it was to indoctrinate a mild-mannered five-year-old girl into a life of crime. Tommy and Robert grabbed my arm and then stood on either side of me creating an uncomfortable bully sandwich. Instead of pummeling me, Tommy said, “We’re sorry. To make it up to you, we will beat up anyone you want us to.” “Yeah,” added Robert, his fists pumping, “just point ‘em out.” Now, I was not the aggressive type and had no other enemies that I knew of. The last thing I wanted to do was beat anyone up. “No, that’s okay,” I said, shaking my head. “I said point ‘em out,” Robert repeated through gritted teeth. “Come on,” said Tommy,”recess is only ten minutes.” They started to squeeze against my ribs and visions of the broken ballerina began to swirl around me. The memory of pricker bushes and the taste of raw fear bubbled into the back of my throat. This was survival of the fittest. “If you don’t pick someone we’ll do it for ya,” said Robert. "We might even pick you again." And then I heard these words come out of my mouth, “That kid in the red jacket.” And off they ran. Seconds later the kid in the red jacket, whom I had never seen before, had a mouth full of dirt. This scenario played itself out every day until it started to feel good. It was like I was the queen of the playground. All I needed to do was point, and the girl who had taken the last snack that morning was shoved into a tree trunk, the boy who had hogged all of the Lincoln Logs was pressed against the chain link fence until diamond shapes imprinted on his cheek. I was suddenly drunk with power. I felt like a player, a somebody, a contender. I had no idea I had become a bully myself until Tommy and Robert were apprehended once again and sang like canaries in the principal’s office. Then the three of us disappeared for a few days to learn a few lessons about kindness and how to control base human behavior. Upon our return, the patchwork gathering carpet had been divided into three sections and each of us sat at a different one. Looking back on this I realize the power of human emotion to override what we innately know to be harmful to others. Powerful, instinctual emotions can rise up, like flood waters, and carry us to a place we never wanted to end up. Anger, fear, and power rule our decisions and our world in many ways. It takes patient and loving guidance from parents, teachers and friends to help us understand ourselves and develop empathy for others. Our schools have come a long way in educating us and our children in the arena of bullying, but I dare to say that as a nation, we have a ways to go.
More Moments in MontclairMy older brother, Todd, wrote a book one year and gave it to the family for Christmas. It is a treasure. A small, unassuming book titled Moments in Montclair, it lists various memories of our childhood in random order. I can’t read it without laughing myself to tears or crying myself into a fit of giggles. I don’t assume that our childhood was any better or more magical than anyone else’s but I do know that the mere fact that I grew up with five brothers and no sisters provided much entertainment, physical activity, and subterfuge. In honor of my family, whom I continue to adore beyond words, I am feeling pulled to those years more than ever. Perhaps it is because my own children are now off on their own, or perhaps I am feeling that summertime nostalgia that hits me this time of year. And part of me would like to do put my reminiscing down on paper so that when I am moved into a nursing home, hopefully some time far in the future, I can whip it out and read it to the kindly nurses and candy stripers who feign interest or, in the dim light of evening they can read it to me. My childhood spanned the 1960’s and 1970’s. Our family of eight shared a modest four bedroom house in Montclair, NJ. It was pre-computer, pre-cell phone, pre-everything digital. Looking back, I would argue that this “Pre Era” had a power all its own. A magic that surpassed anything one can purchase at Best Buy or the Apple Store. It was an era that demanded creativity and initiative, when kids had to work issues out on their own and parents rarely stormed the principal’s office except to agree that their kid was a schmuck. As an experiment I am going to write a short memory every other Monday. Please feel free to share this backward journey with me as it just may stir up wonderful memories of your own. Comments and personal sharing are encouraged and welcomed! Let the trip begin~
Our House Looked Like a Yellow Version of ThisLet me introduce you to my family: My dad’s name is Harry. Back then, we referred to him amongst ourselves as H-Bomb since he was a force to be reckoned with. The quintessential Wonder Years Dad, he left every morning in a slate grey suit carrying a briefcase and drove to a place called Kearfott. We had no idea where that was or what happened there, but it was important. He returned precisely at 6:00 PM. The air in the house changed when he walked through the door. Our steps became lighter, our words more carefully chosen. Six PM was the time to straighten up, set the table, and get washed up for dinner. He’s the one who taught us all to “have a little class for God’s sakes.” Lois, our mother, won a Shirley Temple contest when she was five years old for two reasons: she looked like Shirly Temple and she sang Red Sails in the Sunset on the radio. None of us could get over this. Who else had a mother who sang on the radio? In our eyes she had experience with fame. She also was voted Homecoming Queen in High School and went on to become a nurse in a white hat. Luckily none of this went to her head. First and foremost she was our MOM. A whirling dervish of cooking, cleaning, washing, shopping, nursing, and confidant when we needed one. For one half hour a day she sat and read The Star Ledger with an open-faced PB&J. No one was allowed to to talk to her during that time unless there was blood involved. David was the oldest. The only one of us too cool to have a nickname, unless you regard ‘Dave’ as a nickname. He was the Greg Brady of the family only more mysterious. He wore his hair down over his eyes to the horror of my father, had his own pool cue in a narrow faux leather protective case that zipped, and dated an older women who had a driver’s license. My parents cleaned out the attic so he could have his own space. I can still feel the delight of parting the hippie beads that hung in the doorway to enter his groovy pad. A bit of an artist, he hammered numerous nails into the paneled wall and created a mural of string art that remains to this day. Timothy, Timmy, Timbo, Tim was the opposite of Dave. He was the all-American kid who loved sports and girls. He played football, hockey, and baseball during various seasons but boxed and wrestled with David all year long. Sometimes my dad would order them into the backyard to “figure things out”. Once I had to disturb my mother during her half-hour break because blood was involved. I think this all had something to do with David getting his own space. Todd, Toddio, Toddio Potatio, Odd Todd Half Turtle and Half Frog, was a year older than me. He was our Eddie Haskell with wiry blond hair and an innocent face. If there was something amiss, if we could smell smoke, hear firecrackers, or hear a friendly game ending in an explosion of “not fair’s!” Todd was usually involved. After he got in trouble he would always invite us into his bedroom to tell us about it and then laugh as hard as he could. Susan, Susan Boosan, Sue, is me. I was the only girl and thus the only one with my own room. No one thought this was fair except for me. The only thing that I thought was NOT fair was that I was not allowed to put a lock on the door. My parents assured us that we needed to learn to respect other’s property and privacy by exercising self control. That never happened. I was the perfect follower. When you are surrounded by brothers who are ready at any moment to give you red ears, a dead arm, a charlie horse, an indian rub, a purple nurple, or pin you down so they can drip saliva over your face, you learn to do what you are told and not to tattle under any circumstances. The only place I could exert any power was during board games when the rules were written on plain white paper so no one could take over by making up his/her own rules on the spot. We went through three Trouble games one year because we wore out the pop-o-matic dice popper. Eventually we had to move to Hand’s Down. Kevin, Kev, Kevvy Baby, Devon, Devonport Chesterfield, was two years behind me. He was the brother who always (and still does) make us all laugh. He was emotional, funny, and the constant brunt of Todd’s mischief. He had the misfortune of being born with a huge freckle on his cheek that we all claimed was a beauty mark. The teasing was relentless and that premature dead front tooth the color of a stormy sky didn’t help matters for him. Joseph, Joe, Hobart, Hoey, Hoey Joey Come and Mow My Lawn, was born when I was seven. Cute and docile, he was our real life doll that we loved and stuffed into various costumes. He was especially useful at Christmas that first year when we put on a play about the Nativity in our basement. For the first five years of his life he probably thought he had two mothers. He was the first one I was able to boss around. But I did it with love. With five older siblings, Joe grew to be good natured, creative and wise beyond his years with the diplomatic savvy of the leader of the UN. Outside of Todd and Kevin’s salamanders, geckos, gerbils, guinea pigs, fish and rabbits, we had two dogs and cat at various times... but we’ll get to them later.