Memories of punishment still linger
April 16, 2011
I loved Mrs. Butterfield. I loved her name, her smile, her sweet, caring attitude, the way she made me feel good about myself. I even loved Mrs. Butterfield after she walloped me so severely I remember it 64 years later.
It was a daily routine at the one-through-twelve Boardman schoolhouse outside Youngstown. My desk was near the tiny bookcase. Each day Karen would pick out a book and pretend to read it as she walked by. Each day I would extend my leg across the aisle and wait for Karen to stop and scold me.
One day Karen wasn’t pretending to read. One day Karen tripped over that leg, went sprawling against the wall and hit the floor in a heap of 7-year-old, girl-squealing terror. Mrs. Butterfield took me into the dimly lit hallway. Unable to summon a firing squad, she caught my innocent face in one of those two-handed wind up swings that start in left field and come swooping around until they sandwich the cheeks between hard palms. I am Fishface Boy for two days.
I never tripped Karen after that day. And, I might sadly add, my foolishness pretty much ended a budding romance.
One wonders if the Two-Handed Overhead Wind Up Face Squash wasn’t a mandatory course in teacher college back then. How else would you explain that two years later, at Sacred Heart School in Redlands, Calif., Sister Kevin Ann administered the exact same corporal punishment simply because she thought I was a “smart aleck?”
I wasn’t a smart aleck at all, of course, but when you keep getting your face squashed it makes you think. I worked hard to become a quiet, well-mannered boy. But here’s what I learned about Catholic education. Once you are unfairly branded a “smart aleck” it follows you from school to school. I think there may have been a Sister Josephine Twitter. Smrtalckalrt.
The principal at St. Bernardine’s High School in San Bernardino was a Marine boot camp drill sergeant who called herself “Sister Marie Therese” This stern nun always kept her hands folded under the robes. It was meant to affect an angelic look, but I secretly wondered if she was packing heat.
Sister Therese didn’t talk much but had “the look.” Sister Therese could wilt entire gardens of gladiolas with a single glance. She didn’t like me, and I never knew why, although in retrospect I could probably come up with a reason or two.
One of the rites of passage at St. Bernardine’s was the custom of taking our prom dates to the nunnery so the sisters could ooh and aah over how nice we all looked. The real reason, of course, was Cleavage Checkpoint.
Colleen was the prom queen and as I proudly presented her, Sister Therese unleashed “the look” so intense as to reduce Hulk Hogan to a quivering wimp. Colleen’s corsage, a floral extravaganza that had set me back $3.50, went limp on the spot. Colleen’s dress was modest even by 1956 standards, but, yes, the design was such that a close look suggested there might be a bulge of boob there.
Sister Therese eye-lasered me. “WHAT?” I wanted to protest, “I’m not going to peek!”
Too bad that three decades later, the Sunday morning breakfast buffet line after the Saturday night high school reunion, who should be standing beside me but The Look? “You know, Ned, you were a smart aleck 30 years ago and I suspect you are a smart aleck today.”
“Thank you, Sister,” I said, too old to endure yet another Two-Handed Overhead Wind Up Face Squash.
Gov. Susana Martinez has signed the law making it illegal to use corporal punishment in schools. I think that was the right thing to do. But I’ve got the nagging feeling there are bullies, and brats who trip girls, and lots of smart alecks in our schools. No physical punishment, agreed. But zero tolerance essential.