Thursday, December 4, 2008

Sister Anne Patricia (A Late Thanksgiving)

Memory can be a tricky mistress, becoming whatever you want her to be—whether it is Truth or Deception. If you remember something as bad, it will be bad. If good, then good. Memory will never contradict your wishes. Nothing shoots that point home like a twentieth high school reunion. Someone else’s reminiscences I thought were mine, stories about me I had no recollection of, stories ending up differently than I remembered them. Times like this past Thanksgiving weekend make me realize that memory is less an arbiter of truth than an enabler of one’s vision of oneself.

Anybody who knows me or has read My Booty Novel knows I didn’t really enjoy growing up in Pittsburgh. I guess you could say I was a bit of an outcast. My memories pretty much conform to this view of myself. When I do remember back to my youth (and I doubt I’m alone here), I generally harp on the bad instead of the good—my former enemies as opposed to my friends.

While talking to Waxman (with whom I went to Catholic elementary and public high school) during the reunion, I was reminded of my childhood’s unlikeliest ally whom Waxman remembers as an enemy: our elementary school’s principal.

Sister Ann Patricia was a big wart of a no-nonsense woman, fiercely waddling along in the grey skirt and blue sweater vest of a Vatican II nun. She struck terror in all the kids’ hearts—mine, too—but I couldn’t help but defend the woman to Waxman.

See, my journey to Catholic school was neither a matter of birth nor conversion but desperation—on my mother’s part. I spent first and second grades in public school in a small town that specializes in cheesy, old pop singers and delicious chocolate-covered pretzels. Those were in the days of tracking, and I was thrust into the “dumb track.” I failed miserably. My mother was horrified. She couldn’t understand my placement nor my failure.

She sent me to the University of Pittsburgh for a three-day battery of IQ tests. They found that it was boredom that caused my low grades and recommended that I go from second grade to fifth (yes, what promising beginnings for the unknown writer). My mother refused but at least wanted me tracked properly. The principal got all gangster, and basically told her, “I don’t give a fuck.” He felt I was predestined to be stupid.

The next school year I found myself plunged into a new town, a new school, and a new religion. I also integrated the school. Not even the janitor nor kitchen staff had ever seen a black face. These Catholics dealt strictly in Polish, Irish, Italian, etc.

Sister Ann Patricia tried to make me feel at home. She gave me a subscription to the South African nature magazine, Panorama, in the hopes of making me feel more at home. (Yeah, I know.) She also felt that if I got into a fight, it would probably be racially-motivated and that I should defend myself.

One such time came in the fourth grade with Seamus Murphy, a big, fathead bully who used to give me constant shit. The year before, I had been constantly harassed by his eighth-grade brother, Padraic, even after I fought him on the bus, pulling his hair hoping to slam his face into the bus seats. I failed. I only had third-grade muscles. But, after Padraic graduated, his “little” brother took up the cause.

One day, we were all gathered inside on the stairwell waiting for the buses to arrive. Seamus had been intimating all year that he thought my levels of melanin were excessive, but that day he’d gone and done it and called me a “nigger.” I was a few stairs up and launched into him. We both fell into the corner, and I wailed on him with all I had. He outweighed me by way too much. If he’d have gotten up, I was done for. So, I swung like my life depended on it until the teachers pulled us apart.

We were called into the principal’s office, missing our buses home. I was terrified. I knew I was in trouble for starting a fight. But, little did I know then, Catholics do believe in “just war,” and it was Seamus who was in trouble. She had him near tears looking up “nigger” in the dictionary and forcing him to concede that I was not one at all (that damned Webster’s and its damned PC, liberal agenda). He pretty much left me alone after that.

But don’t get me wrong, I also ran afoul of the Sister. She broke a paddle over my black ass once for riding on a stranger’s car. A bunch of other kids did it, too, but two other boys and I were the ones who got caught. Sister Ann Patricia also gave me a C in religion because non-Catholics could not possibly master the subject.

So, it wasn’t as though this little black boy got special treatment. It was more along the lines that Sister Ann Patricia made it a point to make sure I got a fair shake. I didn’t realize how much of a point she made it until much later in my adulthood.

My fifth grade teacher had an especially big bug up her bonnet for yours truly. She would constantly bring in articles about tales of black, ghetto woe and tell the other kids in class how fortunate I was to be among white civilization. Or else, who knew what kind of trouble and misery I would’ve been subjected to. Mrs. Costellano also saw fit to fail me in every subject she taught me. Like my second-grade principal, she was an amateur phrenologist who believed my black skull was too small to contain a brain. So, I would get As in my two other classes, but in hers, I constantly failed.

It got to the point that I actually would get tests returned to me, I’d go into the books, re-correct my tests, and hand them back to her, demanding my rightful A. She would then give me Fs for my insubordination. Then we’d start arguing in class and in the hallways. I became that poor, black, troubled child.

It took me awhile to convince my mother what was happening. After I did, she went on the warpath. She teamed up with the mother of a Filipino kid in the class, and the next year Mrs. Costellano was gone.

What impresses me most (aside from being fortunate enough to have a mother who’d fought so strenuously for my education) was that Sister Ann Patricia actually did have the woman fired. She didn’t have to do it. It was the right thing to do, but how many times do people do the right thing? And it’s not as though the Catholic Church is some egalitarian institution that encourages dissent. It is the most hierarchical institution in the history of the world. My principal probably had to go through other parents (?), nuns, priests, bishops, monseigneurs, cardinals, who the hell knows? All because some racist teacher had it out for me? All behind the principles of fairness?


Now, in our everlasting struggle against the various isms that oppress us, we like to paint our stark pictures in (forgive me) black and white. One side is evil, the other good. But it’s never been that simple. Even among the enemy there are allies. We refuse to believe it, and Hollywood’s constant conflation of that fact (Mississippi Burning, all these new interracial sports films) makes us even more skeptical. But those allies always have, always do, and always will exist. I’ve had several throughout my lifetime. Sister Anne Patricia was one. And for her, I am forever grateful.

(My alma mater after the Hurricane Ivan flood--2004)


Grant said...

Our school demographics were very similar. Despite that, I don't know of any teacher from my K-12 years, discriminating against me due to race. Sure, I had been called nigger by a couple of students but I can count that on my left hand.

I guess that's why I grew up so damn naive. Perhaps if I hadn't been known to have 10 older siblings who all did well in school, the story would be different.

boukman70 said...

I remember back to when I was living in Atlanta, talking to someone from your native city. That guy often talked glowingly of your father. I'm guessing your clan was held in high esteem--which was rightly deserved, of course.