I was raised Catholic in a Polish Neighborhood in Chicago. I also went to a parochial school of the Catholic variety. What occurred at the school was most of the major trauma that would shape the rest of my life.
I fell in love with reading from the minute I was exposed to the perils of Dick and Jane. That series soon lost its luster due to the thin plot lines and it was not long before I graduated to reading more sophisticated material. When my reading level had reached to two years beyond my grade I was inducted into the Great Books Club. It was a national program designed to encourage excellence in reading. The club was like any other book club in that its activities consisted of reading assigned selections and then analyzing them. What was unique is that the reading material was purposefully beyond the traditional level of its participants. I was a member in my first year of eligibility as a second grader and the next year as a third grader. I was looking forward to making it my fourth year.
Sister Leonard Ann* had been teaching fourth grade at my school since forever. She had actually taught my father and his brothers. I am not sure I ever heard a good story about her. She was a hateful soul from year 1 and by that I actually mean the first year after Christ died. She was that old. I think Jesus sensed she was on her way and feeling the futility of the future turned himself in.
I entered the fourth grade looking forward to the fifth grade. I just had to survive Sister Leonard Ann. It soon became apparent that for that to happen I had to have luck on my side. It also became apparent that I was not lucky.
I had heard about the sister’s teaching technique from my father and uncles but nothing can really prepare you for the book throwing, knuckle smacking and ear pulling she employed. Well nothing short of a 3 Stooges marathon in 3D. The one thing I had not heard about her was her ability to psychologically break a kid down. I soon became convinced she must have been used to interrogate prisoners during the wars. Yes its plural, I meant all wars.
It was after the first month of school that the Great Books Club members for the year would be announced. I expected this year to be no different. “.. Walter Praczek, Susan Shirzinski and Alan Vostek. Well congratulations children.” My face matched the writing paper on my brand new Big Chief Notebook, pale and blank. I had no idea why my name was not called and I was losing a battle to prevent tears from flowing. Glancing around the room the Sister’s shark like gaze fell upon me. “So tell me Mr. Szybinski. Why did you not make the club this year?” “I, uh, I don’t know.” Then the dam broke and I could see nothing through the refraction of the tears. A few moments but what seemed like hours later the Sister announced that I had indeed made the Club. I first felt relief but that quickly morphed into anger.
Why had the bitch humiliated me? Well, I would have thought, “bitch”, if I used the word. The vocabulary of a nine-year-old Catholic schoolboy in 1970 Chicago generally did not consist of the word bitch. The only word I had at my disposal was wench. A strange word for a nine year old boy but I read a lot. Maybe it was Nathaniel Hawthorne. The author did not matter; the point was she was a wench.
That experience has stayed with me all of my life but time has helped smooth that wound over. I had told this story to my mother a few years back and she was surprised I did not tell her and dad, “Your father would have marched right over to that school and straightened her out.” I bet he would have. I would have loved to have seen it. I had never considered telling my parents at the time. The “good” Sister was a nun and an authority figure and I just figured I had done something wrong. The experience now is pretty much just a story to tell although from time to time I find when something good happens I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. I guess this experience is not done with me or I it. I sense the need for a cathartic book in my future.
*The name has been changed to protect the innocent (me).