Friday, December 29, 2006

Why Smoke-Free Restaurants Remind Me
Of Switching from Catholic to Public School

As anyone who attended Catholic grade school in its heyday (the '50s and '60s) will attest, the experience leaves its lifetime mark on you. Like a youthful stint in the Marines, the experience of having survived Catholic grade school's baroque institutional rituals shapes the personality in ways that become increasingly more obvious over time. The perceived injustices that were once a source of youthful complaint and resentment progressively grow more endearing as they recede further in time.

I happened to shave a single year off the prescribed rituals. After attending St. Clare elementary from kindergarten to seventh grade (where my classmates included future stockbroker Frank Gruttadauria, now serving a term in federal prison for having perpetrated one of the biggest investment frauds in American history), I decided to leave the place for eighth grade. I wanted to play hoops, you see, and in those days there wasn't much in the way of organized sports in Catholic grade schools (hard to imagine today). And so for a brief time I found myself in one of those unspeakably bizarre places known as American public junior high schools, where there was no dress code, and the girls actually got away with smoking in the bathroom. Generally, it went well, except for one memorable twist.

In Catholic school in those days, when the teacher called on you, you stood up to deliver your answer. It wasn't so much drilled into us as it was like a form of breathing. We may have learned to do it once, but I can't for the life of me remember learning it. We just always did it on cue. Anyway, the habit proved hard to break in public school. For at least the first three or four months of eighth grade, I could never remember not to stand up when called upon. My classmates found it hilarious. It was as if I was performing a cartwheel before spitting into a jar every time the teacher called on me.

I hadn't thought of that episode for years, at least not until I walked into a downtown restaurant the other day, and asked for a no-smoking section. "Oh, you must not be from around here," the young host said. "We're all non-smoking now." Indeed, I had forgotten that the new law banning smoking in public places has now taken effect. Once again, I think it's going to take me some months to remember to break that deeply ingrained habit.


At 2:32 PM, Blogger Greta Garbo said...

I like this story. I never did Catholic schooling, but my mother did, and even now interesting stories seem to have come out of it. I think my father saw these stories as a combination of absurd and hypocritical (like how my mother stole money from her parents because the nun felt she wasn't dontating enough to save a pagan baby), and was a staunch supporter or public schools. (He also did a lot of work for public schools.)

Hope your holidays are going well. Thanks for having stopped by my newest blog.
Debbie Pecis

At 5:38 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Great to see your name here. We miss you in Cleveland, and I know the west side writers miss you greatly. But your spirit remains.

In a very real sense, I think if your mom went to Catholic grade school, you got some residual "benefits." Of course, nuns (in all their operatic highs and lows, some as heroes others as sexually frustrated demons) were at the heart of the experience, though few remain today. Which is one of the main reasons the experience is qualitatively different than in my era (that, and the near-collapse of American Catholicism as an institution given the automatic benefit of the doubt).

I'll be returning often to read about your life, so please keep writing. Your voice grows increasingly stronger and more interesting. I can even hear you beginning to make sense of the formerly overwhelming experience of motherhood.

I hope some of my readers might have an interest in occasionally wandering over to your blog, at:

May you have a truly blessed new year, my friend.


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