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A Million Little Pieces Of My Mind

Welcome to Cathedral Parish School

By: Paul S. Cilwa Viewed: 3/4/2024
Occurred: 4/22/1962
Posted: 8/29/2022
Page Views: 512
Topics: #Florida #St.Augustine #Louise
Changing schools can be daunting. Changing cultures, even more so.
School:Cathedral Parish School
Teacher:Sister Saint Michael

So, in addition to having moved into the second new house in Florida after leaving the home we loved in Vermont, my sisters and I had to deal with going to, not only a new school, but a new kind of school as well: a religious one. Cathedral Parish School on St. George Street was an easy walk from our new house. Dealing with new students, new teachers and new rules and rituals was a bit more challenging.

To start with, we boys had to wear ties to school. I had never worn a tie. And, technically, I didn't now as my mom gave me a clip-on tie. It seemed silly to me to wear something that looked like it was holding my collar closed, but couldn't really, and didn't need to since my collar had a button.

Besides, compared to Vermont, Florida was hot and sticky: the worst sort of place for ties, not to mentioned closed collar buttons.

Mom had also warned us about the political differences we'd have to deal with. Remember, Mom's previous time in St Augustine was in the 1920s, when many survivors of the Civil War were still alive.

"Whatever you do," my Mom warned my sisters and me, "don't talk about the Civil War!" I was in the first months of fifth grade, and didn't know there'd been a Civil War. It sounded like a poor idea to me. "And don't talk about slaves, or colored people, or Yankees or Rebels." I had no idea what she was talking about; and I, being a ten-year-old sponge, simply absorbed all these warnings without question.

So, imagine my reaction when, walking to my new school, I was met by one of my new classmates outside the fence. "Are you the new boy?" she asked.

"I guess so," I replied.

She nodded in grim satisfaction. "So," she queried in a Southern drawl one could cut with a knife, "are you a Yankee or a Rebel?"

My breath froze. Mother had given no advice on what to say if someone else brought up the forbidden subjects. "Neither," I answered finally. "I'm from the planet Krypton."

One can only get away with that sort of thing in fifth grade. Although I suspect some of my former classmates might still think I came from another planet.

Then there was the fact that my teacher was a nun. I'd been taught by nuns before, in kindergarten. They were okay, but the principal was also a nun who hit me in the face with a conductor's wand and then told my mother I had an attitude.

The fifth grade teacher was Sister Saint Michael. I don't happen to have taken a photo of her, but for context, here's a photo of Sister Mary John, the first grade teacher. Sister Saint Michael looked just like her, except she was somewhat older, had darker eyebrows, and a slight moustache. She was nice enough, but had little encouragement for my story writing.

She was no Mrs. Howe, my beloved teacher left behind in Vermont.

However, she did allow me to run a device called a duplicator Descendent of the earlier mimeograph machine and forerunner of yesterday's Xerox machine and today's scanner/printer, this was (although I didn't know it) my introduction to the world of nerdhood.

But being a nerd isn't just about operating the equipment. It's understanding how it works. And I found the idea of being able to take one's words and, basically, send them out to the masses, fascinating. I learned that duplicator masters were available in colors other than the blue that the schools used. (Blue was cheaper. I experimented with using different color sheets to create a multicolor master.)

I was faced with about forty new faces and it took time to get them straight. One was a young man named Gary Drake. Our relationship started out well enough. If allowed to do so, I preferred to remain in the classroom during recess. It was more fun for me to draw or write than to try to play ball. Gary saw me drawing something and said, "You should talk to Tommy Tutten. He's a really good artist."

So, I made an effort to talk to Tommy. He was a good artist, better than me. His drawings were beautifully shaded in pencil; mine were more comic book style.

But then I blew any hope of continuing my friendship with Gary.

I overheard our teacher telling Gary that his grades were low and he wasn't trying. I certainly wasn't intended to overhear this, and, having done so, should never had indicated I had. But the energies that shape our lives will not be denied. One day shortly after, Gary and I were again alone in the classroom and I brought up the subject of his grades. His grades! I didn't even do it nicely. I could have offered to help, for example. But I did no such thing. I insulted him, baited him. For some reason I thought this would help galvanize his desire to learn. I have no idea why I thought that; no one had ever tried such a method on me. I don't even know why I thought it was my duty to fix him. Maybe it's a trait of people from Krypton.

All I know is, I made an enemy that day. And, the next day, Gary challenged me to a schoolyard fight.

I had been in a sort-of fight once before. I was in first grade, waiting for the school bus, and an older boy—probably third grade—started pushing me into the path of oncoming cars for no apparent reason. I grabbed hold of his sweater, so that when he pushed me, he was dragged along. That rather spoiled the fun for him, and he abandoned the attack.

At home, I told my parents. My father was plainly pleased, but my mother was not. No boy of hers was going to be involved in a schoolyard brawl! It didn't matter to her who had started it or what the consequences might have been had I not defended myself. Mother lived in a simplistic, black-and-white world. Fighting was wrong. My father, trying to hide his proud grin behind a stern expression, immediately agreed with her. So that was that.

Now, here I was, about to be drawn into another of these forbidden battles.

At lunchtime, Tommy was sent to fetch me. I followed him to the back of the schoolyard where the nuns never went. I had no idea what to expect. We didn't own a TV; I didn't even have the example of Beaver Cleaver or Ricky Nelson or Opie Taylor to draw on. There was a small crowd of boys waiting for me. Gary was already there. He pushed me. Someone else had sneaked behind me on hands and knees; I fell over him and landed on my butt on the hot Florida gravel. I got to my feet and was pushed again. I was not going to hit Gary back. That would be fighting. I couldn't stop what he was doing, but I didn't have to do it back.

On the other hand, I didn't have to stick around for it, either. I saw an opening and took off, running. My house was just about three blocks away. I raced to it, my feet seldom touching the pavement. By the time I got there, I was so out of breath I almost threw up. I told my mother I was sick and had to stay home for the rest of the day.

The next day I dreaded going back but couldn't convince my mother I was still ill. All the kids knew that I had run from a fight and made sure I knew they knew it. I kept a stoic demeanor, refusing to discuss the matter. Gary didn't hassle me the rest of the school year, partly because I stayed inside during recess and went home as quickly as possible after school.

But he was always there. And I was to encounter him again later that year, after school was out.

Then there were nuns. My fifth-grade teacher was Sister Saint Michael. Nuns looked weird to me, as I'd never seen one of those, either. And the outfits were kind of intimidating. We also spent an awful lot of time walking to the Cathedral and wasting hours there in prayer (which for me, was mostly making up stories in my head). We went every First Friday of the month, and every Holy Day and some less holy days.

What we then called the Cathedral of St. Augustine, but is now called the Cathedral Basilica, had not yet been restored (as it would be in 1965); so it was old, smelly, and free of air conditioning; so time spent there was not something I looked forward to.

And of course my curriculum now included Religion class (which was called Catechism when I attended the church version of the class in Vermont). Since the Catholic catechism consists of rules and dogma, without any training whatsoever for the complex social issues that arise in real life, I had no problem memorizing all of it. It was simple, and I was still too young to be able to spot the inconsistencies lurking even there.

The older of my two sisters and I had attended our First Communions in Vermont. Our younger sister, Louise, had not but her time had arrived.

For something this exciting, we even had our late father's eldest sister and her husband come for the occasion.

Uncle Frank, Aunt Al, Mom, Grandpa, Gramma, Louise

My sisters and I fell into the groove of our new school fairly well, I suppose. Note, though, that, a few years later, given a choice, both my sisters chose to attend public high school.