The 7th grade happened to me among other 1967 happenings. For the first time Saint Luke’s School hired a lay teacher, Mr. Merck, who told us on day one: “The nuns love you but I don’t. You can burn in hell for all I care.” So we knew where we stood. This fucker would flunk us, and he did, me and my friend Bobby Heinz flunked 7th grade. But so did Mother Gonzaga who’d been with us since grade one. I almost feel sorry for her. It was a diocese decision to go lay, to go male, to hire Merck, an ex-Peace Corps teacher. Things like that happened in 1967. Mother Gonzaga wasn’t ready for it.
In 2007, when I tell my daughter, who is also about to flunk the 7th grade, that she may not wear a chrome pentangle the size of a hubcap around her neck, she hands me a copy of her school’s Human Dignity Policy: Students and teachers will express mutual respect for others regardless of individual differences including but not limited to race, gender, age, disability, sexual orientation, ethnic group, religion.
I’m not a student or a teacher, I say. I’m your father. She shrugs. Everything is an issue now. Everything comes down to policy over parenting. Everything is decided by The Handbook.
In 1967 there was no handbook. The policy was Mother Gonzaga lurking in the corridor like a vulture, arms folded under her black habit, elbows stuck out like the tips of wings. Her leathery face pointed toward the floor like a sharp beak. The policy was Gonzaga’s wooden pointer that she kept holstered in her wide leather belt, a saber against sin. Often we didn’t know which sin. Talking in the corridor, not walking in a straight line, looking lethargic, these were sins worthy of her attention.
She drew the pointer, it sang through the air and cracked across my buttocks.
Teachers at my daughter’s school are so afraid of lawsuits they carry insurance policies. At parent/teacher nights I see NO GO areas in classrooms. Barriers that indicate the neutral zone between student and teacher: yellow police tape, painted floor lines, battlements of desks and filing cabinets, bulwarks of computer banks, in one case I saw an actual snow fence with a gate. The teachers, conscious of their space, retreat when approached; they keep their backs to the wall.
My daughter dresses for school in a short black dress, spaghetti straps, jagged hemline cut well above mid-thigh. “That dress is way out of line,” I say. She hands me her school’s Sexual Harassment Policy: Comments, innuendos, rumors, compliments, cartoons, jokes, pranks and/or other verbal, visual or physical advances or unwanted gestures specific to an individual's gender are prohibited.
I fight back with her School Dress Code. “Look here,” I say, “it specifically states that underwear must be worn under the clothes.” She shrugs.
Coming in from recess in ’67, stinking of cigarette smoke, our hair down on our foreheads, me and Bobby Heinz, shirttails flapping from our pants, maroon ties loose and askew, we’d spot Gonzaga too late. Her voice like road-grading equipment: “Halt! What is the meaning of this?” That was her favorite question because she knew we didn’t know the meaning of anything.
“What!” She attacked our intrinsic traits. Latched onto my thick curly locks, her knotty fingers as strong as C-clamps. “Why is your hair a mess? President Kennedy parted his hair on the right. Why have you no part?”
“I don’t know, Mother.”
“You don’t know!” Pinching a knot of my hair between her claw-like thumb and forefinger she jerked my head in the four directions. “Haven’t I told you…?” Push, pull, yank, jerk. “How many times do I have to say…?”
“Why are you so short?”
“God made me this way?”
“God made you so you could smoke cigarettes and stunt your growth?”
My daughter and her friends smoke cigarettes and pot and do other drugs that I don’t know about. They have new drugs now that I can’t keep up with. The “Substance Control Policy” from the school lists: Designer drugs, rape drugs, drugs with call letters: DMX, MDMA, GHB. Drugs named for innocent breakfast cereals like Special K.
Bobby Heinz and I sit in my kitchen drinking beer, talking about our lousy lives, our rotten ex-wives, and those strange creatures that live in our homes and call us Dad when they want money.
My daughter comes in wearing jeans that cover all of her feet and only half of her butt. Her face is paled with powder and both eyes outlined with black pencil and mascara. “You look like a Halloween ghoul,” I say. She poses anguish and cites her school Policy on Ridicule and Humiliation. Derogatory remarks which demean the race, ethnic background, gender, or individuality (e.g. character, sexual orientation, physical appearance) of a person, are prohibited.
When her friends stay over they all sleep in the same bed. In the morning they pound around the house in thongs and tattoos. They go to school wearing fake leopard-skin tops and pushup bras. They have ball bearings in their mouths and steel studs poked through their bellybuttons, black spider-web stockings and knee-high Nazi boots, plenty of chrome jewelry. I have no idea where this stuff comes from, I don’t buy it, and my daughter has no money. When I say: “Where does this stuff come from?” She shrugs.
By 1967, Gonzaga had to reach up for our hair and couldn’t get the leverage to really knock us about. Mr. Merck said times had changed. He said if she hit us our parents could sue, which would never happen. But it was the knowledge that gave us power. For seven years she told us we would burn in hell for all eternity—that’s forever children. For seven years she monitored our spiritual and physical well being by pulling our hair, boxing our ears, slapping our faces. By ‘67 we weren’t kids anymore. Soon we’d be gone—Saint Luke’s only went up to 8th grade. Gonzaga was still scary, but more and more she started looking like a very old woman in a medieval outfit.
The last time we saw her was at a class party. Christmas, Easter, All Saints Day—who knows? We were allowed to bring in records and potato chips, push the desks back and boogie, our version of it, girls dancing together, boys huddled to one side. Gonzaga made rounds to make sure we were having a good time within reason. The record player was up front on Merck’s desk with albums lined up on the chalk ledge beneath the blackboard. The Beatles, The Stones, Bob Dylan, we had everybody. Some of us had older siblings who were more musically astute than we were. Bobby Heinz brought in an album that was the prize procession of his older brother, Jack. The album was Hendrix’s Are You Experienced? We’d never heard of Hendrix. I’m sure Merck had never heard of him. But I’m not sure people like Merck distinguished between say, Herman’s Hermits and Hendrix. To him it all sounded like Yeah, Yeah, Yeah.
To Mother Gonzaga, Hendrix sounded like The Devil. I happened to be standing by the door when she stepped into our room during the opening bars of Purple Haze. She stood frowning at the record player. Hendrix was about through with the opening verse …excuse me while I kiss the sky... I saw Gonzaga’s face go coal black, as if she’d been caught in an exhaust fan from hell. I saw her mouth moving, she was getting old, and her hearing wasn’t what it was. I saw her grim lips mouthing what she thought Hendrix said. Then she flew toward the record player. In seven years I’d come to know something about her, about all nuns, how they always assume the worst. Mother Gonzaga thought Hendrix said: Excuse me while I kiss this guy. And that, sent her cup over teakettle, as Merck would say. Gonzaga screamed his name. He was on his feet, his face white, arms open. What? He was afraid of her too. She bore down hard on the needle arm and scratched it deep off the album and took up the record and slammed it to the floor. Heinz howled. “No, no”. Gonzaga ignored him and drove her killer nun shoes down on the record. We watched dumbfounded as she tried repeatedly to crack the offensive disc to smithereens. But it wouldn’t crack. Gonzaga didn’t know that vinyl, like much else, had come a long way baby; things weren’t as breakable as they used to be, still she was ruining the record, scratching and gouging it on the hard gritty floor. Heinz crouched before her holding his head. I was laughing and trying to tell him what she thought Hendrix said. Then Gonzaga’s heel hit the album at a bad angle and shot out from under her and the record fired across the floor and Gonzaga slammed down hard on her hip. There was a sharp crack and it wasn’t the record album. Gonzaga was flat on her back, eyes closed, stiff as a board, only her grim lips moving.
“Call an ambulance.”
He ran from the room.
“Children, take your seats.” She stared straight up toward heaven. “Let us pray.”
We did some fake praying. Heinz begged God to save him from the wrath of his older brother, Jack, who would surely kill him.
He didn’t. Heinz survived and regularly sits in my kitchen drinking beer and arguing with me over stories like this.
The news that my daughter passed 7th grade arrives in the mail along with a bill for lunches she never paid for with the daily lunch money I gave her. I congratulate her. “You’re smarter than we were,” I say. She shrugs. She says school is stupid, she knows enough. She wants to quit and go to a special lesbian art school in Florida where she will study the poetry of Sappho and spend her time drumming on the beach.
We never saw Gonzaga again after the paramedics carried her out. She’d broken her hip, which meant six months in a body cast. We loved it. Gonzaga immobile in plaster for half a year. We wanted her encased for all eternity (that’s forever children).
After failing the 7th grade I left Saint Luke’s for public school so I wasn’t there to see the new Mother Superior. The story was Mother Gonzaga would retire. The fit over the Hendrix album, the six months in the hospital which turned into a year—an infection or something—maybe me and Heinz, maybe Mr. Merck, maybe 1967, something had been too much for the old warrior, something in her brain sizzled and wouldn’t stop and she had to spend the rest of her days at a retreat for whacked-out nuns. The diocese decided she was not longer fit to deal with children. We chuckle over it now, drink beer and shake our heads.
“She was a real bitch,” Heinz says.
“Yeah, I say, a real bitch.”
You can see how I might feel sorry for her.