Dressed by Nuns

by Anthony Buccino

'There was God, we learned, then the Pope, then the priests, and then the nuns. So, the nuns were fourth from God and always knew what he wanted us to do. That's what our nuns taught us in catholic school.'

In catholic school, our seats were used for many things besides sitting. It was in these seats with swivel back rests that fourth grade boys discovered a penny inserted into the swivel 'just so' would bend President Lincoln into a C.

Penny benders got in trouble. When caught, they were warned that if the damage to government property continued, "God, help you, the Federal Bureau of Investigation would come and haul you away and lock you up for defacing government property."

We didn't know what defacing meant but we could picture Eliot Ness and his Untouchables bursting through the front and rear fourth grade doors, Tommy guns flashing and hauling away the bad boys.

Returning from spring recess we sat in our newly shellacked seats and felt tacky grips on the seats of our charcoal gray slacks. Our white shirts similarly seemed seared to the backrests. We were assured by our nun/teacher, who only told truths, that the tackiness was only a slight inconvenience compared to the newly improved and longer lasting seats. No more complaints.

PM catechism class kids always messed up our desks. The public school kids touched our books, those few we didn't pack in briefcases and carry home for homework. And they borrowed our pencils and didn't put them back in the same place. And inside our desks they turned our books askew enough that we'd know they had been touched. If it was a girl who sat in your desk at PM catechism, then you'd never know anyone had sat there.

We catholic school kids got religion every day. It was first class in the morning, after the sing-song of mostly Italian surnames in a familiar roll call drone. The public school kids only got it once a week. After regular school they came to our school, our classrooms and sat in our freshly shellacked seats. We catholic school kids couldn't imagine spending all day in school, then getting out and then spending another hour or so -- even just once a week -- in a classroom, with our nun, no less!

In kindergarten, our teacher, who was not a nun, told little boys who wandered out of their seats that she would toss the rowdy lads onto the chandelier until their mothers came in to get them down.

There was God, we learned, then the Pope, then the priests, and then the nuns. So, the nuns were fourth from God and always knew what he wanted us to do. That's what our nuns taught us in catholic school.

Sisters instilled the fear of God into little boys. If we got out of line, for whatever reason - perhaps dropping a pencil on the floor, or not saying, "Thank you" when someone said "God bless you," after you sneezed * our nuns would enforce the will of God.

Sister This or Sister That, or God, help you, Sister Superior, would call the offensive boy to the back of the classroom. The rest of the class faced forward. We heard  no noise but sister. "Touch your toes!" WHACK!

"Did I say, 'Stand up,'? . . . "Touch your toes!" WHACK!

At the end, Sister Superior was fond of saying to crying little boys, "And those were just love taps!"

In first grade reading class with the other first grade's nun, I sat dutifully in my seat bawling.  "Why are you crying?"

Between sobs, I told her I dropped my pencil on the floor.

"Pick it up." She said calmly. I did, then stopped crying.

We learned another use for our seats. When we were rather boisterous, or when Sister was in a foul mood, Sister ordered us to put our hands, palm down on our seats and sit on our hands. It seemed like centuries but was until Sister's headache passed. 

A slight variation was when Sister made us sit with our hands folded, as if in prayer, on our desk tops, sitting still, face forward and absolutely, "So help you, God!" quiet.

In second grade, my Gless Avenue neighbor Gary and I were brought to the big kids bathroom during a recess. He went into one stall and I into the next.

"Knock, knock," he said.

"Who's there?" I said.

"Your Aunt Tilly's girdle," he answered, bursting out in laughter. I joined in, laughing wildly.

Before we knew what happened, Sister Genevieve had whirled us into Sister Superior's office. The dreaded, round-faced, round-bodied, stout principal demanded in tones leveled to splinter her flat oaken paddle, and trepidate children,  "What was so funny in the boys' lavatory."

When no answer was forthcoming, she made clear to us in no uncertain terms, "That, God help you, the lavatory is no place for fun or  laughter." We had learned our lesson.

In Third Grade, our nun chided a dark-haired boy who was sitting with half his butt off his seat. She told him to sit correctly. Over his protest, she explained there was no need to leave room on his seat for his guardian angel. When it was time for our class play, she walked around the room as we were singing our hearts out and individually told me and many others not to sing, just mouth the words.

On gym days, instead of white blouse and maroon cravat, girls in our catholic school wore gym uniforms under their maroon or, depending on the year, plaid jumpers. Boys wore gym shorts under charcoal gray trousers and stripped down from white shirt and school tie to a white tee-shirt. Our gym trousers had one pocket on one cheek, that, said Mr. W our giant, crew-cutted gym teacher, was for our hankie. We must each have a hankie when we come to gym class. He told us this as soon as we were old enough to skip recess and take phys. ed. in the gymnasium- bingo hall-auditorium.

Mr. W brooked no-nonsense. And why not? He stood taller than the saint statues in our sacred hallways, and seemed even stronger than Sister Superior. Instead of rushing to be first, he told us we should be glad to be wherever we were. It had worked out well for him in the Army, he said, because all guys in front of the alphabet got KP and he, being at the end, under "W", somehow endured service to his country without a KP hitch.

When Mr. W was finished running us around the gym in left-face, right-face, about-face drills, or kickball, we returned, sweaty, thirsty and out of breath to Sister in an empty class. The girls were gone, gone to gym class with Mr. W.

In each classroom, the boys were dressed by nuns. Sister told the boys to first put on their trousers over their gym shorts. Then she told them to put on their shirt, and button it. Then the boys took their neckties from the seat backs, still tied in Windsor knots their mothers had tied in the morning or their fathers tied on Sunday night, and slipped them over their head and under white shirt collars.

As early as first grade, groups of students from each of our 60-plus classes A and B switched to seats in the other class for reading. In each class there were three reading groups. In third grade, my group went to the other classroom for reading, and one group from the other class came to our room.

In third grade, my reading group left Sister JoAnn and went in with Sister Lenore (or was it Eleanor?)

Sister JoAnn had a tan, soft Mother Mary face, round soft cheeks, dark eyes and a large nose that seemed small only when next to Sister Lenore (or was it Eleanor?) Sister Lenore (or was it Eleanor?) had a thinner face with sharp contrasting cheekbones and bigger eyes than Sister JoAnn. Sister JoAnn seemed to be the sweeter teacher and Sister Lenore (or was it Eleanor?) had a reputation of swift, fierce coercion with a paddle of solid oak, or her stand-by yard long pointer with the chalk-covered rubber tip.

 One time I called Sister Lenore (or was it Eleanor?) Sister Eleanor (or was it Sister Lenore that I called her?) and she let me know I called her incorrectly so that I would never forget her name was Sister Lenore (or was it Eleanor?) She made it clear, in no uncertain terms to this third grader that "God help you," her name was Sister Lenore (or was it Eleanor?) I swiftly promised never again, "God help me," to call her the wrong name.

The fourth grade kids who had had Sister Lenore (or was it Eleanor?) a year earlier told us what a great teacher she was when they had her in third grade. They said she used to put a "testing" sign on the closed door to her classroom and then let the kids watch cartoons on the black/white TV permanently mounted in the classroom. They also said the statues in the church came alive and danced the Twist like Chubby Checkers.

When it was time for reading, Sister JoAnn told my group to get our "Think and Do" books, pencils and notebooks ready because we were going next door. Our group, about 20 or so, filed into the hall and a like group from Sister Lenore's (or was it Eleanor's) class did the same thing next door. We waited in the hall while the other group filed out of their classroom and into our empty seats.

 One day while my group was waiting in the hall to switch over, or was it back into, our own classroom, there arose from our midst a smell as of a soiled diaper. Sister JoAnn may have noticed it first and using a sixth sense given to all nuns by God, she knew instantly that someone in the group of twenty students standing in the hall waiting to go back into her classroom after completing the day's reading lesson from our "Think and Do" books in Sister Lenore's (or was it Eleanor's) classroom, one of us urchins had soiled that day's underwear. Using her prominent Roman nose on an otherwise pretty face, she sent some of our group into her classroom to resume their seats and get ready for the next lesson, be it geography, mathematics, or "His" story.

Not all from our group were released from the stench in the hallway to contemplate more knowledge and please God by our learning. One girl, MaryAnn, wheedled her way to Sister JoAnn or Sister Lenore (or was it Eleanor?) and confided her problem to an understanding Sister. The sisters sent in the rest of the girls into the class and left standing in the hall four boys who had the misfortune of standing next to MaryAnn on the day she had her self-containment accident in the hallway outside the two third grade classrooms.

 Each Sister in her turn set her class to some sort of busywork while they decided how to deal with the four boys in the hall. MaryAnn was whisked away to God-knows-where for fresh laundry, and the Sisters decided how to deal with the four boys in the hall. The boys had been standing next to MaryAnn and now that MaryAnn was gone from the hall, the stench hung like a toxic cloud over the four boys in the hall.

The Sisters did not take long to decide that the four boys standing in the hall near the aromatic MaryAnn, had, in some sort of boyish sympathy, soiled their slacks. They must have, the Sisters reasoned, why else would the hall still smell so foul.

In turn, the Sisters asked each boy, standing before God in the sacred hall of this Roman Catholic school, which of them had soiled his pants. Sister knew a boy had done it in sympathy of  someone else.

The boys, the Sisters said, "God, help you," could tell their teacher, and it would be okay. None of the four boys standing in the hallway, neither Kevin, nor Frank, nor Thomas, nor Anthony, none of the four boys standing in the hallway while the other more than 110 classmates sat at desks in class doing busywork, none of the boys in the hall would admit that he had soiled his pants.

Irked at the boys' failure to come forward with what they had done in their Fruit of the Loom briefs in their charcoal gray slacks, the Sisters herded the four boys down the hallway without allowing the boys a quick prayer to any of the sacred statues in the hall. They were led as sheep by a shepherd towards the boys' lavatory. Sister JoAnn stayed behind, just outside the two classrooms to ensure their peaceful, if curious study, while Sister Lenore (or was it Eleanor?) directed the trembling boys into the boys' lavatory. She ordered them to stand facing the urinals, one for each of the four boys who had been standing in the hallway next to MaryAnn who had soiled her delicate unmentionables.

The boys trembled, first at a woman in the boys' lavatory, then at a nun in the boys' lavatory, and then when Sister Lenore (or was it Eleanor?) ordered, "Drop your trousers."

"God, help the boy who fouled up the hallway," she inveighed.

Shyly, each boy, not understanding the trouble each boy was in because of what one of the other three must have done, looked aside at the other boys.

"No talking. Eyes straight ahead," Sister Lenore barked, her scream echoing against the tile like a doo-wop group's tune.

With her nose, Sister Lenore's tried to head off the incident by discovering which of the boys had soiled his trousers before the boys would have to do what she had ordered.

Bashfully, the boys in front of other boys for the first time in their lives began to unbuckle their belts, one boy after the other, then all at the same time. One pair of trousers fell, then another, and another and another.

"No! Enough!" Sister Lenore called curtly when one boy began to drop his lily white Fruit Of The Loom briefs.

Using her strong Roman nose to sniff out evil-doings in little third grade boys, Sister Lenore inspected the back of the boys' white underwear from several feet away. In their white cotton briefs, the boys stood facing cold white urinals.

Perhaps it was the smell of this place, or the white disks near the urinal drains, or the smell of cold, hard fear like the cold hard urinal enamel that set the little boys trembling, trying so hard not to cry in front of each other.

Terror flushed inside their racing hearts. They waited to hear the clicking wisp of black rosaries when Sister whisked a solid oak paddle from beneath her long black habit. Sacred fear as the martyrs themselves must have known roiled within the boys as they awaited the "Thwack!" and someone else's sobbing scream and tears.

None of the four boys who had been left standing alone in the hall had soiled his garments in boyish sympathy for poor MaryAnn whose stomach had momentarily taken control of her muscles. Sister Lenore (or was it Eleanor?) ordered the boys to pull up their trousers and get back to class.

Sister JoAnn, in her most authoritative voice ordered the full class of more than 60 third graders to never again mention what had happened in the hallway or "God, help you," there would certainly be Hell to pay. And to this day, no one ever said a word about MaryAnn's mishap in the hall. Nor has anyone said a word of the four boys in the hall who pulled down their pants for Sister Lenore (or was it Eleanor?) in the boys' lavatory which was "God, help you," no place for fun or laughter.

Dressed by Nuns adapted from Sister Dressed Me Funny. Read the unexpurgated text in the book.

Copyright © 1995-2017 by Anthony Buccino

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New Jersey author Anthony Buccino's stories of the 1960s, transit coverage and other writings earned four Society of Professional Journalists Excellence in Journalism awards. The Pushcart Prize-nominated writer has been called ' “New Jersey’s ‘Garrison Keillor” or something to that effect.’

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