Catholic school bad girl

Why was I the only one at my grammar school reunion who didn't remember me as a bully?


Joan Walsh
December 19, 1997 11:20PM (UTC)

I love reunions. I go to all of them: family reunions on both sides, high school reunions, a reunion of the first newspaper I
worked for. No doubt that one of the reasons I like
them is because my parents are dead and I moved often, and consequently I lack a natural
sense of belonging and continuity. I've traveled thousands of miles to
reunions that people who live nearby blithely skip, just to feel like I'm
part of something bigger than myself.

But there were reasons for me to be ambivalent about going to Long Island for the reunion of
my Catholic grade school, which was held on the 25th anniversary of its closing in 1972,
the year I graduated. I told people I only went because I had to be in New
York for a business meeting, but I'm not sure that's true. I can't imagine
I would have missed it and passed up the rare chance to line up my
memories of grade school with everyone else's, like putting on corrective
lenses to bring the past into better focus.

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When I go back to Long Island -- we lived in working-class Oceanside, which was not by the ocean -- I get depressed, partly
because there was a lot of death and dysfunction in my family, but also, I
have to admit, because my inner snob hates to be reminded that I come from
such humble origins. Having gone to Catholic school is part of my inferiority complex. The fact
that today Catholic schools are among the strongest schools in urban
America obscures a historic fact: For years they offered a mediocre
education, mainly to immigrants unwilling to mix with the impious American
mainstream. In "Beyond the Melting Pot," Daniel Patrick
Moynihan blamed the failure of Irish Americans to achieve greatness in art,
business, science or scholarship -- anywhere outside of politics and the
police department -- on their allegiance to Catholic education, whose
mediocrity reached a "crisis," Moynihan said, in the early 1960s; exactly
when my school was founded. St. Anthony's closed after only 10 years
partly because of lack of money, but also, according to my father, because it was never very strong
academically.

I knew that weakness personally. I was the smartest girl in my class -- two boys
were allegedly smarter -- and in the seventh grade the three of us went to
a public school math contest, where we washed out on the second question.
They were doing algebra; I think we were still on fractions. It was so
humiliating we never talked about it again. When I went on to public high
school, I immediately plummeted from being a straight-A student to getting Bs and Cs.

Sometimes I think my school served mainly as a refuge from Jews -- who
outnumbered us in Oceanside and presided over its excellent public school
system -- and a little bit from blacks and Puerto Ricans, who were making
inroads on Long Island as the 1960s approached the 1970s. The racism was
fierce and reflexive. The darkest-skinned Italian boy in my class was
regularly called a nigger, all in good fun. In my best friend's graduation
autograph book, I found this clever chestnut: "Your mother will rant, your
father will rage, if you marry a boy the color of the next page," which
was, of course, black. (That there were no black people in our school to focus any prejudices upon didn't seem to matter.) We had one Puerto Rican boy in our class, sweet and funny and fairly
popular, as the "one" of any group must be to survive. We all liked him,
though none of the girls ever admitted to crushes on him, even though he
was good-looking and clever. We later learned he was beaten up by the
class bully every day after school his first year there.

Most of the time at St. Anthony's, though, I didn't think about racism or
the quality of my education, because I had nothing to compare it to. Going back, however, I had to
take it all in and marvel at the gulf between where I began and where I
wound up. Educationally I did well, and professionally I've succeeded
too. Socially, I doubted I'd have much in common with
anybody. Some of my Long Island cousins still tease me about marrying my
Jewish ex-husband; and I haven't told any of them that I'm dating someone
black.

So why did I go back? I keep asking myself that. I guess it's because, like it
or not, that was my childhood. I was often miserable there, but I was often
very happy. It's common today for big political thinkers to lament the loss
of "community" in America, and for better and worse I grew up with a strong
sense of community, of belonging. My brother and sister and 10 of my
cousins attended St. Anthony's, my godmother played the organ, my father
ran the parish council, my mother taught Sunday school. Everybody was
Catholic, almost everybody was Irish. As a young child I felt known,
loved and protected, though later I would feel the flip side of community:
misunderstood, disliked, even persecuted.

Community wasn't something I tragically "lost" but something I
actively worked to lose, the way you might leave a suitcase in a locker at
the Port Authority and throw away the key. The reunion was like finding
the key again, and getting to open the locker, and the suitcase, and sort
through it all as a grownup, to see if there was anything I wanted or
needed, all these years later.

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What I mainly remember about grade school is that I was a chubby know-it-all
who had no friends for the second half of fifth grade. I loved the first four
years of school. In first grade I wanted to be a nun. I was already
reading fluently, and my beloved teacher, Sister Patrick Kathleen, sent me
into my cousin's third grade class to read aloud, to show up the older
kids, because I read better than any of them. My cousin was mortified; I
was triumphant. School was a stage for my talents -- I won spelling bees,
math contests, tried to start a school paper in first grade. In those
four years I had only one nun who was sadistic, and she beat me up only
once. I was comparatively lucky.

Everything changed in fifth grade. That was the year big, tough Debi,
expelled from the public schools, joined our class to terrorize us for much
of the next three years. I was part of a clique of five girls -- me, my
best friend, my cousin and two nice-enough hangers-on we added late
because triangles don't work. We weren't bad, as cliques go, just
sharp-tongued and self-absorbed; but Debi turned us into a little girl gang.
Where once we might have teased other girls, now we were following them
into dark stairwells and threatening to push them down. And it wasn't just
threats. Debi beat up fat, lovable Rose Ann for the crime of being
uncool. We fought each other, too: Disputes that would have involved sharp
words now featured fists. Where we were starting to flirt with boys our age, Debi
was having make-out parties with teenagers and forcing us, at age 10
and 11, to join in. She wore a bra; we didn't. She needed one.

We began to get into real trouble at school, but the nuns seemed almost
powerless against our cruel girl energy, which was both exhilarating and
scary. After a few months, my friends and I decided we'd had
enough -- of fighting one another, terrorizing other girls, staying after
school. We decided that I'd write a note to Debi -- I was the writer even
then -- telling her we'd respectfully decided we didn't want to be her
friend anymore. Looking back, I guess we hurt her feelings. She took it
out on me. I gave her the note, she read it and she beat the shit out of
me. And within a few days she turned all of my friends -- including my best
friend and my own cousin -- against me. Now I was the one they cornered
in dark stairwells and followed home after school.

I can honestly say that this was the most formative experience of my life, more
crucial to my character than my mother dying when I was 17. During the first week
of sixth grade, we all became friends again, without even talking about what
had happened, but my identity was forged. I was the victim who, attempting
heroism, winds up isolated and pathetic. That's what I thought everybody
would remember about me, and I thought it was part of what I'd have to face
down, going back. Of course I turned out to be completely wrong.

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The reunion was held at our old grade school, now a parish community
center. Crepe paper and balloons couldn't really dress it up. I imagined
that in the cafeteria I could still smell stale milk, vomit and the sawdust
they threw on the vomit to mop it up. I went with my best friend, Betsy, whom
I hadn't seen in 18 years -- no time at all compared to the cousins, neighbors and teachers I
hadn't seen in 30.

Unfortunately, our lone Puerto Rican classmate declined to show. That made the reunion totally white, which still surprised
me. And there was another surprise: Four boys from our class
turned out to be gay, and sadly, three of them had died of AIDS. My classmates
grew up to be teachers, nurses, real estate agents, a TV cameraman, a
Marine, a rental car clerk. There were lots of housewives. But most people
talked less about what they did than about their spouses and kids. A few
of us were divorced, and I don't usually feel ashamed of that, but I did
there. I started to worry my dress was too short, my lipstick too bright,
a syndrome I observed in some of my fellow divorcees.

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Unlike high school,
which you left as a proto-adult, in grade school you had barely reached
adolescence, and at first it was hard to recognize these paunchy, middle-aged grownups as classmates. But then, after a short conversation, it
was easy to see the sweet small face buried under the middle-aged jowls.
Your mind would add the missing hair, subtract the wrinkles and suddenly
it's 1972 again, and you're giggling about the time Sister Marie William
lost her veil in a high wind and you got to see her hair.

It was all going well. And then it wasn't.

"You were mean to me, Joan Walsh!"

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My friend Betsy, looking slightly terrified, was escorting an old classmate
over to meet me, and the woman was weaving even though Betsy held her arm.
Drunk, her lipstick on crooked, she stood unsteadily before me and let me
have it.

"You teased me all the time, you and your friends. I was miserable for
eight years. I didn't have one single friend. I don't know why I even
came." I murmured apologies; she staggered back to the bar.

Betsy and I were devastated. Had we really been that mean? I remembered
myself as the victim; was I a bully, too? We joined a crowd of classmates
we'd been friendly with -- they hadn't been part of our clique, of course,
but we remembered them as friends -- and a boy I'd had a crush on shook his
head and laughed. "You teased me all the time," he recalled.

"You weren't that bad," said Laura, who always was kind. "It was mostly
Debi." I talked about my own persecution in fifth grade, but nobody
remembered that. "You had everything, Joan," Diane scoffed. "You were the
first person with your hand up when the teacher asked a question. You knew
all the answers. You were always popular."

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Why didn't I remember that? And why had we been so mean? Betsy and I put
our heads together later. "We were frustrated and unhappy," she ventured,
and that was true. Her mother died in the fourth grade, mine got breast
cancer in seventh grade; there was a lot of chaos and unhappiness in both
our homes. But that was also how we were treated -- harshly, a lot of the
time -- at home and in the classroom.
I remember the nuns especially, red-faced and screaming at us, out of
control, and they remind me of nobody more than my mother -- who, like the
nuns, was left alone all day to raise unruly children mostly by herself.
Now it seemed archetypal: The powerless female who finds power in cruelty.
My girl gang and I had internalized that lesson, but I had forgotten it.

And yet the biggest surprise of the reunion was that, having worried I'd have nothing in common with anybody, I found I had a
lot in common with one subgroup: the nuns who returned for the reunion.
No longer red-faced and screaming, they were calm and sweet and doing
interesting things with their lives. Most of them had retaken their own
names -- Sister Patrick Kathleen was now Sister Kathleen Sullivan -- and
wore regular clothes, not confining habits. Many were still teaching, now
in urban schools, or working with low-income families, and they all had a
sense of mission about their work. I write a lot about urban poverty
issues and it turned out that we knew many of the same people working on these
issues in New York. They were the only people at the party who asked me in
any detail what I did.

"Maybe I should have been a nun," I mused to my cousin after we said
goodbye to the still-sweet Sister Kathleen.

"Just one problem," he answered, grinning. "You've always liked men."

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Alas. But I'm glad I went to the reunion. I realized that the late 1960s was a
hard time to be a nun, a stay-at-home mother or a little girl. I also saw that
I got my sense of social mission from going to Catholic school. As
parochial and white and educationally mediocre as it was, it taught us to
care about the world outside the walls, and I internalized that lesson too.

As for the cruelty, I saw that I'm going to have to forgive everybody, including
myself.


Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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