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Growing Up Catholic

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).

Review of “A Life So Far” (a writing exercise)

Location: The set of a local access TV show 

Welcome to ”Back in the Stacks “the show that reviews books that are long forgotten or still in development. Yes I know we don’t get many books that meet that latter criteria but we’re on local access for a reason.

I’m William Parchemine the former book reviewer for  “Slush Pile”  the Semi-Periodic about lost books.  Joining me is Frederic Scribner the author of  “Dusty Stacks – The Reader’s Guide to Books you didn’t know you owned”. Today we are actually reviewing a  book still in development entitled “Tommy Szybinski – A Life So Far”.

“So Fred what is your take on “A Life So Far” so far?”

“Well William, as I have mentioned since the beginning of this show four years ago I prefer Frederick. As for the book, I think the beginning was predictable with the birth of Tommy Szybinski but it drew me in as it moved along.”

The early years showed lots of promise in priming him for the life of a Renaissance Man. It emphasizes Tommie’s Catholic upbringing on the Polish streets of Chicago. Now here is my first problem with the early chapters Bill.  It does not explain the difference between a Polish street or any other one in Chicago. Does that mean there is a Kielbasa vender on every street corner?”

“Fred , I think it  means the street he lived on was in a Polish neighborhood.”

“Could be Bill but I wish he would have explained that.”

“You say Its only been four years Fred? Sorry, please continue.”

“Well Bill, as I said the early years laid the groundwork for the pursuit of several interests in Tommie’s  life thus the term Renaissance Man.”

“Yes I think the audience got that Fred. Please go on.”

“Well after a period of Catholic schooling long enough to mess up any kid, his father is transferred to Topeka Kansas, talk about a culture shift Bill. The next few chapters deal with the effect of the move on Tommie’s later years. This is where I had another problem with the book Bill. There was no mention as to how Tommie’s life had been affected by the lack of Kielbasa in Topeka. I mean, I don’t know anything about Topeka but It doesn’t strike me as a place you can get good Kielbasa.”

“ I don’t know about that Fred but my take on your Kielbasa controversy is that it is not germane to the story.”

“Oh there you go with your fancy words Bill. I take it you mean it’s not important to the story but I disagree.  I kept wondering how Tommy was going to feed his polish sausage habit but that was never addressed.”

“Fred, there was no indication that Tommie had a Kielbasa habit and I would like to drop this line of discussion.”

“To each his own Bill. The book did address how Tommy dealt with being the only Polish kid in a Smith and Jones world. You liked how I put that?”

“I liked how you took that from the book.  This is the part of the show where I cut in to make a dramatic point.  Do you mind if I take over here Fred?”

“If you stop calling me Fred I wouldn’t mind if you dated my wife Bill”.

“Ha ha, Good to hear that Frederick,  really , I am.  We have come to my favorite part of the story, the moment when Tommy’s fifth grade teacher explains to him that projectile textbooks are not part of the approved methods of the Topeka school districts.”

“Projectile Textbooks Bill?”

“Yes, the technique of throwing books at the student to correct chalkboard math mistakes. This was a favorite technique of one of the Chicago nuns.”

“Oh yes, now I recall.”

“Yes Fred you should, that was also from the book. This comes as a relief to Tommy and he soon gets rid of the case of chalkboard shoulder he had developed in Chicago. “

“Yes Bill, I like that term he coined to describe the pain he developed from holding up his non writing arm to block incoming books”.

“I’m glad you liked it Fred. Where was I? Oh yes, now that Tommy has no reason to fear school, learning becomes enjoyable. It was at this point that his parents buy a set of encyclopedias. You remember those Fred?”

“Oh yes I do Bill.  Misty water-color memories.”

“That’s special Fred. Anyway this is convenient timing because Tommy is slow to make friends in Kansas. Instead of friends he turns to the encyclopedia set, all 26 volumes.”

“ I believe that was 28 including the yearbooks Bill.”

“Sharp as a tack Fred, sharp as a tack.  In lieu of friendships, Tommy reads all 28 volumes, including the yearbooks, to fill his time. This fuels a thirst for knowledge that drives him the rest of his life. It also makes him great at trivia games.”

“ I’ll take it from here if you don’t mind Bill. Well there are events that fuel Tommie’s interest in science but I will leave those for the reader. Lets skip to the college years where Tommy has no particular major in mind.  I like the foreshadowing that occurred when a writing instructor suggests that he has the talent to become a writer. We get a nice view into his mindset at this point when he says “not until I have lived enough”.  Tommy, influenced by his dads work in data processing, decides to major in computer science. This is a perfect outlet for Tommie’s scientific propensities.”

“Oh now who’s talking fancy Fred”.

“I’m just try to keep up Bill. Upon graduation Tommy gets a dream job writing real-time operating systems. The problem I had here Bill is that I have no idea what that means.”

“No surprise there Fred.”

“Anyway, at this point in Tommie’s life his career is going along nicely.”

“And this is where I have a problem with the book Fred.”

“How so Bill.”

“Well his love life at this point has not set the world on fire let alone causing smoke anywhere.”

“I disagree with that Bill. There were mentions of a few girlfriends along the way. There was also the reference to the girl who Tommy let get away in college and the occasional allusion to regret.”

“That’s true but I would have loved to have seen things end differently with that one.”

“Yes but Tommy let that go Bill. Why can’t you?”

“Well put.  So what do you think of how the books third act is shaping up Fred?”

“Well Bill , I had hoped the growth that Tommy had shown in the previous chapters would  set him up for a rousing third act. Being honest though , I just don’t see it. He relocates from the east coast to Colorado and while this change has made him much happier his love life is still an empty wasteland”.

“Ok Fred I hate to cut you off here but I am not really sure you really payed attention to the last part of the book.”

“You caught me Bill. I admit it . It just looked like an intellectual type book that would impress the ladies at the pool.”

“I thought so Fred,  let’s get back to Tommy who has rediscovered writing. Finding it quite fulfilling he takes classes and eventually begins writing a book of fiction”.

“How does it turn out Bill?”

“Well Fred this is where the book leaves off”

“Leaves off?”

“Yes Fred. That’s why we called it an unfinished story”

“Oh, that makes sense. If you were to ask me, I would say I don’t think it’s going to end well.”

“Good thing I didn’t ask you Fred. Unlike you, Tommy is a glass half full kind of guy. I think his positive outlook will carry him through life. If he continues his dedication to becoming a good writer I have to believe his story is only going to get better.”

“I hope you’re right Bill, In the meantime this is Frederick Scribner”

“And this is William Parchemine hoping you find a few treasures in your book stacks”

“Book Stacks?”

“Its a figure of speech. Say good night Fred”.

“Good night Fred.”

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