San Diego Stories by Salvatore Filippone

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April 10, 2005

Catholic School, part I

I was a chubby kid in catholic school. Not popular, very naïve, I was a daydreamer. It was all about GI Joe, the Transformers, and Choose your own Adventure books for me. Friends were never a problem, but it was the overall environment that wasn’t so hot. The girls snubbed me, and I was in and out with the more popular kids. In spite of it all, I survived, but not without a few scars.

Ulysses S. Grant Elementary didn’t know it yet, but in the fall of 1983, it would lose a gaggle of young students to St. Charles Borromeo Catholic School. That year, my parents decided to yank us out of “evil” public school and send my sisters and I to get “a better education”. It was a sign of the times. Also, if all the Italian families in the neighborhood were doing it, then our family was going along for the ride, too.

One of the last recollections I have of Grant School was a cop, Officer Thompson (or something like that), coming in to read off a list of ‘satanic bands’. As he went down the list, he mentioned a few bands that I was familiar with, even in the fourth grade. Van Halen, Judas Priest, AC/DC and Led Zeppelin were considered ‘satanic’, because they mentioned the devil or hell in their music. I didn’t see the connection, but my parents didn’t like for me to listen to any of it. I was able to hang on to Led Zeppelin III, which became an impromptu soundtrack to my childhood. Imagine a fourth grader singing along to ‘The Immigrant Song’. While you’re at it, imagine that fourth grader playing air guitar, too.

If Zeppelin was in with my folks, since the songs on that album were mostly acoustic, then Ozzy was out of the question. It was about that time that he had bitten the head off the bat, and there was a myth/rumor that if you listened to Ozzy and looked in the mirror, the devil would ‘pop out’. No way, man. I was a God-fearing Catholic kid that believed in ghosts, zombies and Michael Myers (Halloween). I was terrified that the rumor was true, so I avoided that music (and the bathroom mirror) like the plague. So, being the daydreamer that I was, I kind of tripped out when I first tried on the St. Charles uniform. That’s when it hit home that I wouldn’t be at Grant the next year. I was bummed.

The uniform was basic. For us boys, it was brown corduroy jeans and a white shirt. The girls had to wear brown plaid skirts with white shirts. The spiffier students wore a brown v-neck sweater or cardigan over the shirt. On one hand, the uniform was good, because it allowed my folks to save money on wardrobe for three kids, but I can tell you that Mervyn’s had some steady business, especially from families with boys. Those corduroys lasted 3 months at best. I tore holes in the knees within days, which prompted protests from my mom, who had a stack of brown iron-on patches just to make the jeans last.

I started St. Charles in the fifth grade, and left after the eighth. The first days were weird and full of anxiety, having never really left my neighborhood for one, and then having to be the new kid at a new school where most everything was different, except for the bullies. They were worse. There were about 25-30 kids to a grade, which meant that the same group progressed through each grade together. My class never changed, except for a few new kids here and there. So if anyone went missing, we knew and the rumors would swirl.

That first year was rough. My teacher, Mrs. Catano, was really cool, or started out that way. She made us kids laugh, always goofing around while teaching. The goofing around stopped after Christmas break, when we were introduced to sex for the first time. Things got really serious, because in Catholic school, sex was no laughing matter. She’d get really pissed if we giggled and snickered, which we did, every time the word ‘penis’ or ‘vagina’ came up. Names were written on the board, and hundred of rules were written after school.

The most mortifying aspect of sex education was the improvised diagram of the vagina that Mrs. Catano drew on the board. My fellow pre-pubescent classmates and I sat silently, anticipating (what for some would be the only accurate view of a vagina for years) the ‘sexy’ drawing. My mind conjured up images of centerfolds that I had seen before the fifth grade. Our next-door neighbor at the time had thrown out a stack of Playboys from the seventies, which the boys in the neighborhood swooped down on and stole away to their bedrooms and other places to enjoy. I had caught a glimpse of a few fully nude centerfolds, one complete with a plaid blazer, before my dad caught me and smacked me upside the head. Too late, the image had already tattooed itself on my young brain. But, I kept wondering about something. Let’s just say it has to do with popularity of hair in the seventies.

And so I sat there, anticipating something like the Playboy centerfold. What we got instead was something that looked like a cartoon cow’s head. Think Gary Larson, and there you go. Instead of giggles, this time there was puzzlement. Most of boys sat there, probably with a confused look on our faces. I think it’s fair to say that we all felt gypped and disappointed. Sex education sucked.

Well, as the fifth grade year progressed, Mrs. Catano got bitchier. She assigned unrealistic amounts of homework. Each day, I’d drag home all the textbooks from my desk, which barely fit into my backpack. I looked like a damn pack-mule. At one point, as I walked to the station wagon to go home, my pack ripped open, spraying books, papers and pencils all over the asphalt. I was so frustrated that I flipped out and started kicking my books around. Then, I cried as I picked it all up.

My other teachers were bearable and better as I continued in my “spiritual” education. There were a few good ones in there. Mr. Campbell was from Long Island and had the accent, too. He was a great teacher, very positive and didn’t take shit from anyone, especially snotty rich kids and pushy nuns. Mr. Ward was from “Dooblin”, Ireland. He was the soccer coach and taught classes, too. He was definitely a teacher you didn’t want to piss off. His voice boomed, and if he yelled, the whole school would hear him! If you were screwing around, he’d stare at you with steel blue eyes and yell, “DOHN’T MESS!” It was enough to make you pee your pants.

to be continued...

Posted by sfilippone at 11:10 PM | Comments (6)