I Can’t Get It Out of My Head

Every once in a while life hands you something you can’t let go of. About a month ago I began singing a tune I heard in a movie. The refrain is simply Amen, amen, amen. The song is from Lilies Of the Field a movie I saw in 1963. Somehow, that refrain comes back to me, and when it does I cannot get it out of my head. This time it was so strong I decided it time to re-watch the film. Last week Peg and I found it at our library and we watched it together. I loved it as much on this viewing as I did fifty-one years ago. I’ll take that hymn to my grave., so much so that this morning I told Peg I would like the hymn sung at my funeral. Her response was classic, “Are you dying now?”

I won’t go into the story, but it is beautiful. The characters are simple but powerful. The message is one of faith in God, and the power of positive thinking.

I couldn’t help but think of how this story put two religions on showcase, and showed how beautiful both were living together in harmony. Compare that to today’s scenario of Christians and Muslims living at odds with each other so much so they can be likened to good versus evil.

Here is a video of the song in its entirety from the last scene.

What School Was Like Before a Teacher’s Union

My grammar school was special; it was small, and it was across the street from our home.  It was a typical Catholic school, except; the classrooms were above the church.  The building was dull compared to European churches.  Some Catholic schools were separate from the church.  Those parishes had a typical European style church with ceilings that stretched toward the sky, choir lofts and arched stain glass windows. Our pastor built a cost effective, utilitarian building.

On the second floor were four classrooms; grades 1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8 doubled up in a single room.  There was not room for kindergarten or preschool. The nuns lived on the same floor in the space of two classrooms.

A single nun taught in each room.  An aisle divided the grade levels. Each room had six rows of seven desks mounted to wooden slats. The seven desks all moved together, and room set-up was easy to do.  The seat back of one desk formed the front of the desk behind it.  The desktop slanted down to make it easy to read and write.  At the very top of the desk surface was an inkwell with a glass bottle.  No ink was kept in the well unless we were doing a writing exercise. The desktop lifted up to reveal a compartment for books.

Each classroom had between 30 and 36 kids. The school population was between 120 and 144 kids. Perry School, a public school nearby, was much larger.

Having two grades in a room always gave the lower grade an opportunity to see what the upper grade was doing, and the upper grade could review last year’s material.  The nun assigned work to one grade, and taught the other.  Our assignments were solving problems, practicing our writing, or reading. She could only leave a group on it’s own for a short time before someone would start talking or picking on a classmate.

A nun was very good at dispensing justice.  Punishments varied from standing in the corner to getting a whack across the hands with a ruler. If a student did something very bad, she sent him to the principal’s office.  Sometimes she held a culprit after school to clean up the room.  Cleaning up was a gift.  A worse punishment was staying after and just sitting quietly reading an assignment. I had my share of detentions, knuckle whacks, and corner facing.

Every day, school began with mass at eight o’clock.  I could never get there on time, but neither did many others.  I just marched down the center aisle to my class, and joined them in the pew.  Our nun sat with the class.  After mass everyone filed out of church up the stairs to the classroom. We had a fifteen-minute recess in the morning. Our lunch was one hour. The afternoon recess was also fifteen-minutes. Classes ended at 3:00 P.M., except on Wednesday when we got out at noon.  That’s when the public school kids came to OLH for Religious Education.

Every day, class started with a prayer, and the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag.  Our rooms all had a blackboard across the front with a set of maps hanging on rollers. The Sister could pull a map down when needed.  Above the blackboard was a line of cards with the alphabet shown in cursive capitals and lowercase letters.  The street side was a wall of windows and the center wall had a closet for our coats.

We could buy milk daily, or by the week.  A milkman delivered the milk in special racks filled with half-pint cartons.  Most kids brought a lunch. Those of us who lived very close went home for lunch.

Attending a Catholic school gave us many excuses for getting out of class.  For the boys who were altar servers, it was serving at a funeral.  The girls got off to sing. During funerals, we had to be extra quiet in the classroom. We didn’t want to wake the dead or disturb the mourners.

The eighth-graders always got called on to be messengers. They went from room to room to hand the nun an announcement.  The older boys served on the safety patrol. “Patrol Boys,” stood at the corners on the way to school. Their job was to warn kids from crossing when a car was coming. That was a good duty because I got to come in a little later and leave a few minutes earlier to stand on my corner.  Patrols got to wear a white belt that crossed over our shoulder to our waist. Today, only adults are crossing guards, and they get paid for their duty.

The nuns sent report cards home to our parents four times a year.  They used a number system to grade us. Each subject had a number.  For instance, Religion – 85, meant I scored 85 percent on all my work in religion. Our parents had to sign the cards. We got them on Friday and had to return them on Monday.  God forbid that I got a check mark on anything, especially, obedience.  A check mark in an area was a signal to my parents. It meant they were failing to keep me under control.  Whenever I got a check mark, it was a guaranteed lecture from Mom.  Dad never said anything.

Neither Mom nor Dad went past the fourth grade, but it never showed.  What they lacked in formal education, they made up for with experience and common sense.  They never doubted or challenged a nun on any issue.  A nun was always right. She was a saint. The priest was Jesus with a black robe and white collar.

As a Catholic, we believe that we are the one true church. Back then associating with Protestants was not appropriate.  Hanging around with a protestant person was the same as wanting to be friends with the devil. Mom always wanted us to speak Hungarian at home and we did until we started school.  One year, she learned about a summer school that taught kids to read and write Hungarian.  The people of the Hungarian Reformed Church taught Hungarian during the summer. Their church was near Tuley Park.  Mom registered Sis and me. We went to the first class. It was fun, and I looked forward to learning to read and write.  For some reason after the first session mom told us we weren’t going any more. Many years later I learned that she felt guilty about sending us to the Reformed church. She talked to Father Horvath about it.  He didn’t make Mom feel any better. He advised her not to send us back.  Back then the Catholic Church made the current Islamic Fundamentalists look like amateurs.  The reason for keeping us out was a fear that the protestant teacher would convert us to their beliefs.

Our nuns always helped by tutoring us.  My worst subject was English Grammar; it still is (Thank you Bill Gates for Microsoft Word grammar check). I never got the idea of sentence structure, and diagraming sentences was gibberish to me.  During the exam to get out of fifth grade, I got stuck on those questions. I wound up being the last one in the room.  Sister Clementine came to my desk. She sat next to me and started asking questions to try to give me hints.  She did everything but give me the answer.  It was embarrassing, and I was afraid to death that I was going to flunk.  It terrified me to think of repeating a grade like my friend Georgie. Worse, I feared what Mom and Dad would say. It seemed like she sat with me for an hour coaching me through the exam.  To this day I feel she promoted me to the next grade out of sympathy.

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