Best Place T Take Mom Out Around Fashion Square The Sound of Taps

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The Sound of Taps

The classrooms downstairs at my Catholic elementary school were painted in different colors. All the walls were the same uneven stucco, a bump here or there begging me to run my hand over them. Sometimes in the rush to line up for morning prayer, an overzealous classmate would push me into the wall and a sharp stucco ball would stab me in the arm. The classrooms in the lower grades below were each painted in a primary color. The first grade classroom was the garish yellow of yield signs. The second class room was a flat tomato red, and so on. Upstairs, where the upper classes were located, the walls were painted in soft pastels, the colors of baby rooms long forgotten.

I suppose the point was to stimulate your thoughts in the low grades and calm you down once you hit the teenage years. I was in fourth grade, a year away from the prized, magical transformation that everyone thought happened the moment you set foot in the upstairs classrooms. The children who had been downstairs with us the year before were now admired from afar because they became part of the “top floor”. Last year we played on the playground with them, sat together during the fair, shopped for brown lunch boxes, gagged together over the snot-like tendencies of the cafeteria’s turkey gravy. But now, now they were the mythical residents of the second floor. They seemed surrounded by a glowing aura of maturity. How I longed to be one of them.

This was my second school year at St. Agnes. I was not Catholic and neither was any of my family. But my mother, disgusted by the state of the public system after my former elementary school was decorated with used maxi pillows, wrote a borderline bad check for the first year of school and sat me down in these halls dedicated to Mary, Mother of God. I had cried for two weeks right on arrival. My plaid uniform was strange and itchy. I was fascinated by the single thread of neon green that ran through the otherwise gloomy gray plaid. All the other children in this school seemed to start each day with a heartfelt Lord’s Prayer and the Apostle’s Creed. I had no idea what they were talking about. Unaware of my higher reading level in second grade, the nun who was my teacher put me in the slow reading corner. This nun, when reading, pronounced the letter “a” in a word as “ah,” as in “Jack had ah ball.

At my old school it was pronounced with a long sound, like “ay”. I burst into tears over my frustration with the two of them and my mother was called into the school for a meeting. She was called back when the nuns became displeased with my slanted handwriting and the messy state of my cubicle table. How on earth was I even supposed to fit thick spelling, math, handwriting, and religion books into the small desk? My mother did not show up for that meeting, sending a note with me instead of informing the nuns of the migraine that prevented her from attending. The nuns kind of gave up on me after that.

I was always at the end of the line when the classes lined up for Wednesday and Friday mass. We had to line up partners. I was consistently paired with the only other non-Catholic in the class. Her name was Ling and she was a refugee from Cambodia. The church had taken in her family. When she and her family first arrived, our school held a clothing drive because Ling’s family had left Cambodia with only the clothes on their backs. Ling didn’t speak a word of English and I was sure she was the only one next to me who had no idea who Art was and why he was with Our Father in Heaven.

In my first years at St. Agnes’, girls were required to cover their heads when entering the church. Some girls wore lace mantillas, delicate head scarves with bobby pins that clipped it to the head. One girl had an antique mantilla that had been her grandmother’s when she attended St. Agnes. The girl’s name was Roberta, but everyone called her Robbie, the ultimate cool nickname. She was always chosen to play Mary during the Christmas play. Her hair was long and fell over her shoulders under the headdress. My hair had been this long until last year when my mother cut it off in frustration at my lack of brushing. My hair was now short and my mother always forgot to give me back the one mantilla I had after she washed it. Sometimes, when I forgot, the teacher would let me stay back in the classroom while the others went to mass.

But my third grade teacher, aptly named Mrs. Hunn, felt it her personal duty to fill the churches of St. Agnes with as many young minds as possible. Mrs. Hunn was small and dusty, but she was strong through the Lord, she liked to say. The two times I forgot my head covering, she made me use a Kleenex. I had to stand at the front of the class while she unfolded it and tried to get it to stay on my head. It kept coming off so she doubled up the scotch tape and stuck it on the Kleenex and then stuck it in my hair. Once she accidentally put her finger through the Kleenex and made a big hole. So not only did I have a Kleenex on my head, but the Kleenex had a big hole in it, which to me doesn’t really cover my head, so what’s the point?

The uniforms for St. Agnes were so thick and hard that I longed for the comfort of a sack. In the hot summer time, these boiled wool uniforms would stand alone, regardless of whether they had a body inside. Until fifth grade, girls were required to wear a pinafore jumper skirt, which had a breast flap to cover up the idea of ​​breast potential. In the fifth grade, the pinafore was dropped, and the girls wore only skirts and blouses. Breast potential became more of a reality after fifth grade, so I never understood the point of taking off the pinafore. The standard issue blue uniform blouse had a rounded collar and was consistently paper thin. Repeated washings made them even more so that by the end of the school year the girls were walking around almost topless. But in the name of modesty, girls were required to wear thick white socks pulled up to the knee. The only outlet for creativity was shoes. The children expressed themselves through colored Converse high tops or Nikes with bright swooshes.

One year, bright white Nikes with a flaming red stripe were all the rage. I so wanted a pair. I begged for them for three months and finally my dad took me to the store to get some. But they were sold out. Instead, he bought me a pair of cheap white canvas shoes and a red magic marker and told me to be creative.

One year it was fashionable to put metal taps on the soles of your winter boots. The taps made a delicious clicking sound on St. Agnes’ cold, waxed stone floors, and at lunchtime it sounded like a symphony of percussion reverberating through the halls. In our class, Robbie was the first to get cocks, and the rest of us quickly followed suit. My dad just tried to stick RC Cola bottle caps into the rubber soles of my shoes, but they kept falling out at the least opportune moments. After much begging and pleading, he finally took my shoes into town to the shoe store and had them put on real taps.

It was the same year that I had Sister Mary Margaret as my homeroom teacher. She was an old nun and still wore a sissy. Sometimes you could see her hair, and it was gray and stringy. She looked a lot like the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz. Sister Mary Margaret was not a bad teacher, but you could tell she had been around since the first Pope John Paul. However, it was always considered lucky to have Sister Mary Margaret as a teacher because Sister Mary Margaret had narcolepsy. She dozed off with a small hat and slept for a good fifteen minutes at a time. The headmistress, Sister Catherine Patience, told us to simply continue with our lesson until Sister Mary Margaret woke up, or, failing that, to get out our rosaries and let Robbie the beautiful and perfect lead the class for a round Hail Marys.

One beautiful spring day, just as Sister Mary Margaret was starting a lesson in prepositions, her head fell on the desk and the snoring began. It was her longest nap yet and the classroom became restless. When it became apparent that Sister Mary Margaret might be out for a while, the children got up from their desks and went around visiting each other. One of the most popular boys in our class, Matt Thompson, decided to sneak along the floor under Robbie’s desk and get a look up her uniform skirt. He was under her desk gesturing wildly to his friends when Robbie reacted. Her shoe, with the metal cock attached, swung up and caught Matt square on the mouth. The metal cock stuck to his lip. He frantically tried to get it undone, but Robbie thought he was just being obscene. She screamed and yanked her foot away as hard as she could, taking Matt’s upper lip with her. Blood splashed in a high arc across the room, spraying a red mist over Sister Mary Margaret’s white smock. Children were shouting, Robbie was crying and Matt was gasping in a heap on the floor, both hands covering his massacred mouth. Sister Mary Margaret awoke with a sense of fate, surveyed the scene of blood and panic before her, and immediately passed out.

For the rest of that school year, the tap and mouth incident was all anyone could talk about. It was rumored that Robbie’s parents threatened to sue Matt’s parents, and then Matt’s parents sued Robbie’s family for medical expenses. I think it would have been a great ending to the story of Matt and Robbie and the tape and the lip if they had grown up and gotten married. What a story to tell the grandchildren. But I have no idea what happened to Matt and Robbie, or anyone else at St. Agnes’. The following school year, my mother, disgusted by the state of the Catholic schools, put me right back into the public school system. I never wore a uniform again.

I visited a Catholic school a few years ago when I was researching schools for my own children. Driven, like my mother twenty years ago, by the sad state of the local elementary school. I was surprised to learn that now only one in ten families there are actually Catholic. No one covered their heads during mass. Some people even wore jeans. When I knelt down, the kneepads were padded and thick, unlike my brief Catholic school days where the kneepads were solid wood and extra splintered. The children were still in uniform, but they wore navy trousers and white button down shirts. I laughed by looking down and noticing their brightly colored Converse sneakers. But no roosters. They were probably banned.

It’s amazing how the smell of a Catholic church never changes, no matter where you are in the world. The thick scent of incense, wax and age. I decided to stay for the entire fair. Nothing had changed in all those years. I still watched as the parishioners filed before me and went to the altar to receive Holy Communion. I felt both peace and nervousness about being in a place where I don’t belong. First I spoke during the Apostles’ Creed and then I realized I still remembered all the words.

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