Thursday, January 20, 2011

Catholic school, uniforms, reputations and explosives

I sat in the eighth grade Holy Rosary Catholic school class in Tacoma, WA, wearing my Catholic school uniform, and wondered; how had I gotten here? I had been abused by these "nice" kids, beaten by the ancient Nun who was our teacher and Principle and abused by the alter boys (no, not in that way, either, nor did the Priests, ever).

I looked around the room. Everyone wore the standard dress, dark blue sweater, black slacks (or immensely ugly skirts for girls, except for their length which a few of the more attractive girls were always trying to raise the hem on), black patent leather shoes, white shirt.

It was supposed to be the great equalizer, wearing the same clothing throughout the entire school. No one was better than anyone else. It was a grand design, a wonderful concept. There was no concern about gang violence back then, in our Parish anyway. No concern about someone getting killed over what they were wearing. Just that thought that no one was better than anyone else. Someone should have told those kids though. Because it was quite apparent some kids were better than other, or thought they were, or most certainly, had more money than others.

Of course, the rich kids, all had about five or six complete outfits; when their clothing got worn out, it got replaced. The poor kids all had but one set of the uniform, which they wore every day of the school year, if at all possible, and year after year until it was either too out sized or you were told you could no longer wear it, wherein it was given away, sold, or handed down to the next sibling line in line, again, if at all possible. Those kids were easy to spot. Their shoes were scuffed, their sweaters had holes in them, which the kids tended to keep their hands over in order to hide their poverty, and which usually made the holes grow even bigger with time.

In reality, there really was no equalizing accomplished by way of wearing a uniform. It only ended up making us all look like dweebs. And embarrassed the more poor kids in that they couldn't adjust their wardrobe with whatever they had available, or whatever hand-me-down they could acquire from an older sibling.

I'm not going to argue the use of uniforms relaxes the issues with gang signs, or physical abuse. I had plenty of physical abuse in that uniformed school.

I had been in seventh grade, having gone through public school from the beginning. But my little brother, five years my junior, started in Catholic school (I have no idea why) from the beginning. When I had problems in public school we gave thought to my moving to a Catholic school where I'd be more protected and comfortable.

I had gotten in a little bit of trouble in public school, you see.

A guy in 7th grade gave me a few firecrackers. Seems his dad went over to Idaho to pick up illegal fireworks for the 4th of July. So, bright one I was, a friend and I went out into the football field, to the other side, by the street, away from the school building, at lunch, no one around, and we lit the device, threw it into a pile of sawdust and it went bang. We laughed. Walked back to the school building, an old brick thing from the medieval times.

As we were walking up the stairs, the Vice Principle was coming out the huge, double, thick wooden doors. We said, "Hi." Trying to be nice. He said, "Hi boys." We all took a few steps, continuing on. Suddenly, he stopped, I think he made the connection, explosion, no one in the field, two boys walking in off the field, kind of a no brainer now that I think about it, but back then, we were amazed at his super powers of reasoning.

He drug us both back to the office. He went through our lockers. He talked to the other guy first who walked out looking dejected and I assumed he gave me up. I was escorted in to his office. Now, the Vice Principle, was a hard assed kind of guy, I liked the Principle far more. He pressured me, used all kinds of weird techniques, like asking me where I got the firecracker. He said, "You know firecrackers are against the law, right?"

I said, "No, I didn't. They aren't against the law." I assumed acting stupid would help my case. He said, "You don't believe me? Would you like to hear it from a police officer?" I thought, cool, yeah, I'd prefer to get this kind of information from a direct source. Really, that was what I was thinking, I had the best of intentions. He said, "Okay, I'll call them." He did.

"Hello? This is the Vice Principle of Stewart Jr. High school (I was there 1967-70). I have a young man here who does not believe that firecrackers are against the law. He wanted to talk with a policeman about it. Okay, here you go." He handed me the phone.
Stewart Jr. High School, Tacoma, WA (5/47)
"H-Hello?" I said, hesitantly. The cop went on to tell me the law. I thought, I was being very nice. I thanked him and said goodbye and gave the Vice Principle the phone. He talked to the cop. He said something about the cop thinking I was a smart ass (how insightful). I was shocked. Then I was more shocked at how this went after he hung up.

"The officer said we have a real trouble maker here." My face dropped. "WHAT?" I thought. 'Here is what we will do, you tell me where you got the fireworks from, and that will be the end of it. Of course, I will want you to tell your mother to expect a phone call from." He drilled me until I gave up a name. And that, was the end of my Jr High school career in public school. Until, I had earned my way back from the abyss, that is.

The next day I got to school and was told by several kids my life was forfeit. They said if the kid I got the firecracker from, if his dad got in trouble with the law over this, over my giving him up (of course I tried to put blame on the other kid as the snitch, but it didn't work), they were going to beat me up every day of my life from then on. After a few altercations, and my being increasingly stressed out about going to school day after day, my mother asked me if I wanted to leave school. 'Oh yes,' I thought.

Speaking of my mother. The day that happened with the Vice Principle, I went home and no one was there. My mother called pretty soon to say she was at her girlfriend Virginia's house. So I told her what happened. Honestly. That the VP said he'd be calling her. So she recounted what I had done that was so terrible. She verified that I was careful. She understood my reasoning, then she broke up laughing.

'I thought, how cool. My mom is so cool.' Then she caught herself and said Mom stuff, like oh I suppose I shouldn't laugh, but you were careful, still, you shouldn't have done that  and don't do it again, okay? I said, no problem, no more explosives at school. That was the end of it. Other than my waiting on the VP to call.

Well, finally, he did. A week later and was he pissed. I got home from school and my mom told me what happened. He called and said he had told me for my mom to call him (he didn't say that). She told him I had immediately told him and that she had been waiting on his phone call; that what I did, really wasn't that big a deal and they made far too much over it, and proceeded to read him the infamous riot act.

My mom had always said that if her kid were wrong in something, she'd be the first to admit it; but if her kid wasn't wrong, or was being treated badly, she'd be right in somebody's face over it. I thought the VP had treated me underhandedly. Seems my mom thought so too.. So should she have punished me? Well, I never did it again. Isn't that the purpose of the punishment? I felt more loyal to my mom and was willing to not do whatever she wanted.

I never did anything like that again. Until High School, but I didn't blow off anything at school ever again.
Lincoln High School, Tacoma, WA
As I said, my mom asked if I wanted out of that school. She meant the Catholic school my little brother went to. Which I never wanted to go to, although I was head alter boy at our tiny Slovak church, St. Joe's, a few blocks from the more massive, Holy Rosary Parish Church which had far more money and resources. But I had served at old, kindly Father Joe's funeral and was loyal to the small underdog of a church. And wearing a uniform? Uh, no.
Holy Rosary Catholic Church, Tacoma, WA

But my life was on the line and I was tired of being stressed out every single day so I said, yes, finally. She called. I was there. They asked, is he a good boy, we only take on good children. I was starting to feel good about this. She made sure from my mom I would promise to be good and on my best behavior. And I tried.

But, my experience was, I never had as many fights in school, ever again. Thank God, I had been fighting Karate tournaments for a couple of years. So I got the uniform, started going to the same school as little brother. And duly got teased, abused, battered, set up, and berated for a solid 8th grade year of school. I was resented and rejected by the alter boys because I refused to join them as I was head alter boy at St. Joe's, something they never understood. So when the alter boys, all the 8th grade boys, got a day off from school for a field trip, I had to stay with the girls, who either wanted nothing to do with me, or vice versa.
St. Joseph's Catholic Church, Tacoma, WA
Once, I was by the corner of the school, two of the boys came up to me, one hung back by the corner, kept looking around the corner, the other boy, harassed me into pushing him, then he fell, on purpose, I didn't push him hard enough, just as the head Nun, our Teacher, the Principle, Sister Rogers, an old and hardened old bat. As she came around the corner, they both immediately started saying I push that kid down for no reason. I tried to tell her what happened, but hey, two against one. Right?

Legend tells it, by the way, that years later was carried kicking and screaming out of the home the Nuns lived at, to go to the old Nuns home. She, my friends, was really odd.

One time, the boys all go in a circle around me, about twenty feet across, and took turns throwing the basketball at my head until I was so sick and in pain I was going to throw up. They wouldn't stop, so finally I said, "That's it, I've had it, I'm outta here." I walked off to walk home. They yelled at me in fear, "HEY, you can't leave, you'll get in trouble!" I said, "Oh yeah, watch me." I walked home.

Another time, my mother came to pick me up, there must have been about six inches of slush on the ground. My mother pulled the car up in the school yard as it was all part of the parking area. My little brother got in. The kids were all about, milling around, heading out, waiting for rides. I was about to get in the car, my mother standing by the driver's side door, when a big old slushball hit the seat and exploded all through the car. I turned around, everyone was laughing. I felt at the time, like I will put up with all the abuse, all the humiliation, but once you bring my family into it, that's it!

Little did I know, one of the two kids involved in the pushing incident, had been riding by on a bike, and he threw it. But with all the kids laughing and jeering, boys and girls, I simply grabbed the closest kid. I started yelling at him, "Who did it!" He responded by taking a swing at me. I grabbed both his shoulders by his shirt. He took another swing, I couldn't believe how bad he was at fighting (remember I'd been going to the dojo for years, nearly every day of the week sometimes). He hit my shoulder, sad really. Then he did something stupid, he tried to trip me. I was very good at not getting tripped in a tournament fight. So I showed him how to do it.

But when he hit the ground, I was so pissed off, and this was the only time this ever happened in my life, I was so mad that I hit him in the head while he was down. It felt so good, the release, that I hit him in the head again, and six more times, before I could realize I was counting my hits and not going to stop. It scared me so bad, all that year of abuse by these kids, that it all flooded out into this one kid that wasn't the sole reason for all of my woes. I stopped. Stood up, looked around, everyone was quiet, not a sound.

I walked away. I got three steps and heard him get up. Now, tournament fighting gives you a 6th sense. And I knew, he was about to jump me, so I threw a back kick, directly into his center, taking out his testicles perfectly and he went down again like a wet rag. After a few moments, he got up, and yelled at my mom: "Your son is a dirty fighter!" And he shambled off behind the church, where I heard later by a kid that went to him, that 1) he was going to jump me, and 2) I got him really good with that last kick. From then on these kids backed off from me a bit and my reputation for years to come was sealed.

By time I graduated, I had their respect and fear. Rather than go to an all boys Catholic Prep school, Bellarmine Prep, I opted for 9th grade back at the same Jr. High school. But things were different. I had a rep now. Once I hit High School the following year, more of the boys from 8th grade were there and told people, "Don't mess with him, I've seen him do damage repeatedly" and so was born, my reputation that followed me through High School and beyond. Thanks guys.

As I said before, I never blew off any more fireworks at school, ever again. I only possessed; a couple of Black kids, our school was half black and the lowest income ranking in Tacoma, picked me up as I was leaving the student lounge (which only they year before you were allowed to smoke in, you could see the burn marks on furniture), carried me to the back wall of the lounge, slammed me against the wall up off my feet and said, "We hear you have fireworks, give us some." So...I did, but told them, brazenly, do NOT use them on campus; I've had bad experiences with that."

When I came to school the next day, I was called into the Principle's office. I had no idea why. I sat there for a while, then Principle Willie came in. I didn't like our VP; I had known him from the Jr High experience, so I was pretty happy it wasn't him, regardless what was going on. Willie (who had a great Flip Wilson act and did it at every reasonable chance, and very well, indeed) sat across his desk, folded his hands, smiled and said, "Okay Murdock, what is it this time." I liked this guy, everyone liked this guy.

"I said, I have no idea."

He said, "Something about fireworks?" I thought, "Oh, crap, not again. And I didn't even do anything this time.' He said, 'Two young men were caught blowing off firecrackers on campus yesterday and they said they got them from you." I sighed. Then I told him exactly what happened. But I said I found them, this time. No one to tell on; no matter what, after my last experience, I wasn't snitching on anyone. I told him they forced them from me, and I was only taking them home, that I told them not not use them on campus.

He was cool, as always and said, "Tell you what, gather up all remaining firecrackers and turn them in to me tomorrow and we'll just forget this ever happened, okay?" See, he was the coolest, and really, that's all it needed. He had far worse things to deal with at that school. We had a guy pulled from gym class, from the locker room, for robbing the bank across the street once. I feared for my life walking down a hallway alone. I'd had some run ins with the Black kids who all seemed to "have attitude".

So, I gathered up what was left from people (none) and gave him half of what I had left, the next day. He looked in the brown paper bag and said, wow, that's a lot; and looked at me like I wasn't a lost cause after all. He was always such a gentleman when we had dealings and we grew to respect one another. As for the VP, he always sucked. Straight laced, hard assed, tall, thin like a Doberman Pincher.

So, do uniforms help? I don't know. Are explosives at school bad? Yes. Can Catholic private schools suck just like public schools? Yes, but Catholic school can really help one's reputation.

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