Posted by: M. J. Arcangelini | August 30, 2009

THE WORLD ENDED ONE DAY IN 8TH GRADE, Cleveland, Ohio (1965)

For grades four through eight (fall, 1961-spring, 1966) I attended Annunciation Catholic elementary school, just off W.130th Street in Cleveland, Ohio. There I was taught by a mixture of lay teachers and Sisters of the Order of St. Joseph.

Sr. Theophane, who we kids predictably referred to among ourselves as “Sr. Windowpane,” taught the 5th grade. She was also the mother superior at the parish convent. Even among nuns, she had some peculiar methods of discipline. Having spent my entire elementary education in catholic schools I was very familiar with the ruler as an instrument of discipline, but Sr. Theophane used a stiff flyswatter in her attempts to beat good penmanship into our hands. (An attempt which, in my case at least, utterly failed. As anyone who has tried to read my handwriting will tell you.) Because of the holes in that fly swatter, it was rumored to deliver an especially sharp attention-getting sensation. It did.

Even more unusual though was an occasional ritual which would take place on Friday afternoons just before we were dismissed for the weekend. Sister would pick out the 3 or 4 kids who had behaved the worst that week and line them up along the wall faces to the blackboard. Then she would choose a matching number of kids who had been especially good that week and line them up some distance away from the blackboard. The good kids were then instructed to throw erasers at the backs of the bad kids. The erasers being soft, this wouldn’t hurt anyone but the chalk marks left behind by the erasers would show up bright white against dark jackets all the way home. Thus would the targets be marked as bad children.

It was a touchy thing to ride the line so as not to be picked for either side. If you were a bad kid you got teased and ridiculed all the way home and would have to explain those marks on your back to your parents, if you hadn’t been able to wipe them off. But if you were a good kid you stood a chance of getting beat up by one of the bad kids at whom you’d been forced to toss an eraser or two. It was a no-win situation no matter how you looked at it. That was 5th grade.

On the 8th grade end of things stood Sr. Maurita. Rumor was that she was the oldest nun in the convent, as well as the meanest, and that was why she got to teach the 8th grade. She sure seemed pretty old by the time my class moved into her room. We were the seniors – the oldest kids in the school and undisputed kings and queens of the campus. And we were certain that we had the meanest nun on earth to deal with. Sr. Maurita was a small frail appearing woman who swam in the voluminous layers of black gowns that made up the order’s habit. Layer after layer of black cloth, some of it translucent, that moved around with her like a liquid armor plating. Their habits made whispering sounds when any of the nuns moved. When there were several of them in the room at once, moving around, and the room was otherwise quiet, it sounded like angels whispering in a language I would never understand.

Sr. Maurita did not trust us. At all. She wouldn’t even let us guys pull down the blinds when she showed movies, out of fear we would pull too hard and pull them down. So of course one day she was pulling down the blinds and one of them broke loose and fell on top of her. She was convinced that somehow we had done it. That one or more of us had booby trapped it to fall on her. To my knowledge none of us had done anything. She got mad though and when Sister got mad she would clench her fists and her entire body seemed to follow suit – every muscle clenched like those pale translucent fists and you could see the veins in the backs of her hands swell purple and blue. Then, when she was real mad, she would jump up and down for emphasis as she spoke. The jumping would happen entirely within the folds of her habit. We could see her moving, but the habit itself appeared nearly still, as though it were a structure housing her and we were watching through the window formed by her starched wimple.

In what is called by people on both coasts “the mid-west,” of which we in Cleveland were on the eastern edge, storms would move in across the flat lands from Indiana with stealth and speed such that one minute it could be warm, bright and sunny and a mere few minutes later it would be cold, dark and windy. One early autumn morning such a storm came in during our morning classes.

Sr. Maurita noticed the swiftly growing darkness outside, the shifts in temperature and wind and came to the only conclusion available to her at that moment: The Second Coming was at hand. It was the end of the world.

All lessons stopped.

In a voice wavering between awe and terror we were instructed to kneel on the floor next to our desks. She led us in enthusiastic prayer for the salvation of our souls and those of our families, and for our acceptance directly into heaven. To say the least, we were stunned. It was probably the quietest that class was capable of being and would ever be again. We didn’t know whether to dismiss her as the nut case we basically already suspected her to be, or to believe her. I mean, she was a nun right? With some kind of direct line to God, right?

Then, after a pause as though she didn’t quite know what to do next, she told us all to get up and rush home so we could be with our families for the end. Holding in a cheer at getting let out of school unexpectedly early was not easy, but without need for consultation with each other we all knew we’d best just play along and get out of there quick before she changed her mind.

A few of the girls were crying, or barely holding back tears, as we all jostled each other to retrieve our coats from the cloakroom pegs and get out the door. Some of them, and even some of the boys, actually thought the world might be ending, or at least had enough doubt to be concerned. A few of my classmates were worried about Sister, who had obviously thrown a rod in her already shaky mental engine. Of course, none of these concerns slowed down our exit.

Our classroom had its own door to the outside world and through it we marched, trying to be as dignified as our haste would allow. After all one did not want be stuck still in the classroom if Sister should come to her senses and change her mind. But she didn’t.

Some kids in the other classes, and their teachers as well, saw us through the large classroom windows as we were leaving. The kids made faces at us and signed questions about what was going on. Any doubts we might of had about it really being the end of the world were relieved by the sight of everyone else still stuck in school.

It wasn’t long before kids in the classrooms on that side of the building were lined up and chattering at all the windows watching our escape, their teachers no doubt already on their way to the 8th grade room to find out what was going on. As for myself, I felt like Steve McQueen riding his motorcycle up the ramp, through the air and over that barbed wire fence in “The Great Escape.”

When I explained to my mother why I was home way too early for lunch she did not at first believe me, even though it was much too outrageous of a story for even me to make up. She called the school.

After talking to the office she told me, in a very serious voice, that Sr. Maurita was not feeling well, and that I would not have to go back to school until the next morning.

The ominous storm which had so spooked Sr. Maurita never really arrived. A strong gusty wind blew the early fallen leaves around the streets and yanked more of them off the trees. The darkness lingered for a while, but before noon it had all passed over us without raining a drop.

The next day we had a substitute teacher who told us that Sr. Maurita was sick and might be out for awhile. She tried to explain to us, the oldest and presumably most mature students in the school, that sister had been under a lot of pressure lately. There was an official hint, just a hint, that this was somehow our, the entire 8th grade class’s, fault. The implication was that we had somehow managed to succeed where earlier classes had failed, and driven her right over the edge. When word of this got around the school we 8th graders were treated with a new respect. We had saved the younger classes from the dreaded experience of Sr. Maurita. They owed us one.

Sr. Maurita never did come back to the 8th grade, and we had a permanent substitute for the rest of the year. Rumor was that sister had been packed off to a home for bewildered clerics, somewhere in western Canada. This seemed reasonable and no one questioned it.

07/29/06 – 08/30/09
Sebastopol, CA

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Responses

  1. Classic!
    What long-suffering, Catholic school educated human couldn’t relate to that one nun, that solitary, penguin-like figure, with madness in her eyes and terror in her heart–you know, that cold dark thing sitting in her chest right next to the Holy Trinity–We all had ‘One’ crazy-assed parochial school teacher that sticks out in the fists of our our being-raised-catholic memory bank, like the proverbial sore thumb. They were an unforgetable breed all their own.
    Classic truth, Joe. Really. You can’t make this shit up.

  2. Oh my, I’m so glad I only had one year of Parochial school in San Bernardino at Sacred Heart Elementary School. On the very first day a little girl in my 2nd grade class, fearing for my soul told me I was going to hell for stealing money from St. Mary. I had found all this change laying around all over the garden…….. Loved the story Joe, Joe B.

  3. I was a student at Annunciation School also and Sr Theophane was the principle then and also had her for a teacher. I am so sorry to read of your experience, I never remember anything like that. Nuns were very hard on children though. My favorite nun was Sr Kevin. My 8th grade year was 60-61.

    • thank you for your comment – I don’t remember Sr. Kevin – do you remember Miss Schwartz? a good teacher who wouldn’t take any guff from the tough kids, 7th grade I think she taught – I was there for five years and these were just the most colorful stories I can remember, the rest of the time was pretty standard grade school stuff – it looks like you graduated the semester before I started there – do you remember Father Farrell? He was scary – and I remember a priest who was there for just one year named Father Hackman who was a lot of fun – I remember him telling us altar boys what was probably an only slightly off-color joke one time and one of the boys asked him, “but Father isn’t it a sin to tell a dirty joke?” And Father Hackman looked at the boy very seriously and said, “it may be a sin to tell one and I’ll worry about that, but there’s no harm in the listening” – we thought he was way cool –

  4. I stumbled across this wonderful story and comments while, on a whim, I was searching for Sr. Maurita. I, too, was a “student” at Annunciation around the same time as the author. For that matter, so were my four brothers and two sisters. They mostly liked the school and the nuns, with Sr. Kevin certainly being a favorite, as well as Sr. Grace Ann.

    I didn’t. Education and life experience purged the pure hatred I had for that school and the nuns, but for a good 25 years I truly despised both. Eventually I did realize these women were not trained to be teachers, being nuns knew little to nothing about children and certainly lacked any maternal instincts. So I’ve forgiven them…it wasn’t their fault.

    Even Sr. Maurita. Make that especially Sr. Maurita, because she made my life hell. I helped it along, of course.

    Sr. Maurita was my teacher in sixth grade. She took an instant dislike to a bored, somewhat reclusive child whose mind wandered and rarely paid attention to his studies. I recall her technique of discipline involved public shaming that Hester Prynne of the Scarlet Letter would understand.

    For example–and I’m not making this up–on one occasion a boy in my class who consistently failed to tuck in his shirt was brought to the front of the room. Under the good sister’s instructions, several of the boys manhandled a girl’s dress on him, which he wore the rest of the day.

    The boy already was shunned by his peers and the worst student in class. We all loved watching him get this treatment. Today he’d be diagnostic, most likely, as autistic.

    The great joy at the end of the school year was that I’d be done with Sr. Maurita as I moved on to seventh grade. Surprise: She taught that class the next year and I was in it. Double surprise: She moved up to eighth grade the following year, 1963-1964, and I had her again. I felt “God’s special plan” for me was mental and emotional torture.

    Yes, she had to be the oldest teacher in the school. She loved to play the piano as we sang “O Antiphons,” a type of religious song/chant dating to the 4th century. We figured she helped write them. Oh, but if we messed them up–group punishment was the norm, and singular punishment involved a firm wooden pointer.

    Another time Sr. Maurita told us if we worked very hard and behaved well, she would teach us a “modern” song. Leaving the dark ages of music was a great opportunity and the class was on its best behavior. And the good sister delivered–we learned “It’s A Long Way to Tipperary,” the popular World War I song written in 1912. I kid you not.

    I could go on and on, but I’ll just relate one more tale about Sr. Maurita.

    The ideal for all the students at this Catholic grade school was to be accepted at one of the Catholic high schools. There was lots of competition for those slots at the all-boys St. Ignatius, the gold standard, as well as St. Edward, Padua and a few Cleveland east side schools.

    My grades, of course, were awful. I consistently performed below the “red line,” the level at which the IQ tests declared I should be. No way I was getting into a Catholic boys school.

    Ah, but I had an edge. A distant relative had an important position in the diocese, At the request of my parents, he pulled some strings and I was accepted into St. Edward.

    On the last day at Annunciation Sr. Maurita talked to each student individually, asking where they would attend high school. Those going to public schools got a look of disappointment and an admonition to attend some sort of post-grade school religious classes to save them from the sad, secular path upon which they were about to embark. She promised to pray for them.

    But if you were on your way to a Catholic school–and these were the best students in the class–Lord be praised!

    I was one of the last students Sr, Maurita talked to. She asked the question, and when I told her I was accepted into St. Edward she almost had a heart attack. She just couldn’t believe it–I was marked for public school and a life of utter failure. She sputtered that she couldn’t understand this, it had to be a mistake. I told her nope, it’s true, goin’ to St. Ed’s.

    The last thing she said was I was doomed for failure at St. Edward. I grew to hate that place, too, but for better reasons than just bad teachers and my own immaturity. But I did squeak through. She would be shocked at the type of adult I became and my success professionally and in life.

    Sr. Maurita was right about my penmanship, though. It still sucks.

    I also would like to mention I loved the telling of Sr. Maurita’s last days; and that I remember Sr. Theophane and cranky old Father Farrell. Once my younger brother, as a server at mass filling the “bell” role, was daydreaming and failed to ring the bell when the priest was raising the host. Fr. Farrell turned to him and loudly grunted “ring that bell, you Episcopalian.”

    A great family legend. Another priest, Fr. Gallagher, always wanted “more wine” when the server was pouring wine and water into his chalice, skipping the water, at the early morning mass. And youngish and very popular Fr. Kline came into the school one day in a sweatshirt and not wearing a collar. Sr. Theophane ripped into him in front of all the students and threw him out.

    Ah memories. Thanks for sparking some.

    • Thank you so much for such a wonderful and extensive comment. You really added to the story beautifully. I hope that people who might read this story in the future continue on to read your comments. If my math is right you would have been two years ahead of me so we may have encountered each other at some point, although I too was kind of bookish and tended to keep to myself. I don’t know why I don’t remember Sr. Kevin, someone else mentioned her in a comment as well. Fr. Gallagher sounds vaguely familiar but besides the scary Fr. Farrell the only other priest I clearly remember is Fr. Hackman. He once told a small group of us altar boys a slightly off-color joke which really shocked one of the boys. He said “but father, isn’t it a sin to tell a dirty joke?” To which Fr. Hackman replied: “Well it may be a sin to tell one, you let me worry about that. But there’s no harm in the listening.” Now that you have mentioned it I remember Sr. Maurita playing piano and leading us in religious songs. Thank you for reawakening that memory. The other teacher I remember very well was Miss Schwartz, a lay teacher who I had for the seventh grade. She was on the short side but she wouldn’t take any shit from anybody. I remember one day she grabbed the biggest boy in the class, she was about up to his shoulders, by the front of his shirt and slammed him up against the blackboard to get a point across about his behavior. Teachers sure can’t do that sort of thing these days. Looking back on it I think it likely that she was a dyke but I never saw or heard her do anything inappropriate. I really wanted to go to a Catholic high school. The nuns had pretty much indoctrinated me with the idea that public schools were utterly inferior institutions where it was impossible to get a decent education. But my family couldn’t afford the tuition for a Catholic high school so, after Annunciation, I went to Carl Schuler for 9th grade, John Marshall for 10th and 11th and then, because we moved, I finished 12th grade at Midpark. I apologize for not responding to your delightful reminiscences sooner. I thought I had responded but when I went back to look at it I saw it isn’t there. I must’ve done something wrong or forgotten to do something and it didn’t get posted. So this is my second try. Thank you again I really enjoyed what you wrote.

  5. Well MJ, I MUST’VE been in your class, if not your room. I was at ANNUNCIATION 57-64 GRADES 1-7. I am Ed Noga’s brother. I have the honor of being the most mischevious of 7 kids, 5 who attended Annunciation. In the 2nd gr I USED TO REGULARLY throw out bad notes I was supposed to take home. They got on to it and sister would make me take them to my oldest bro’s class so he could give them to my parents. One time I BROUGHT a note over, to give him and sister Kevin proceeded to bang my head into the wall as I kept saying,”but sister” She finally hesitated and I SAID, “It’s a good note” Then, she got in one more smack saying, “That’s for the times you didn’t get caught.” I have lots of stories from the old gradeschool and have tried to find old classmates w/o success. I was the smallest boy in class until the 7th grade when a boy named boocher came. I used to have a speech defect and George Sopuck and I would fight at least once every yr because he’d mock me. So I got to know Sr THEOPHANE and Father Farrell well.Despite regular beatings for various mischief I feel very good re my catholic education. I just retired from 42 yrs of serving people w/various handicaps, 26 teaching in Cleveland. So I think I turned out ok. I always enjoyed telling my daughters of the strictness of the nuns, that I needed it and then giving them money to put in the collection for the retired nuns. They would give me a puzzled look and I’D smile.If you wish I can be reached on facebook. Perhaps, we’d remember each other.

    • Thank you for posting a comment, I love it when people do that it can spark additional memories and fill out the past a little bit. From the dates it does sound like we must’ve been in the same class. I don’t remember the names of too many students from my class, only two really: John Hollingsworth, who used to beat me up and torment me regularly; and, Deirdre McEwen on whom I had a major crush. My name at school was Michael, the nuns weren’t going to let Michael the little Archangel get away from them, but at home I was Joey – these days I’m Joe. Most of my memories from Annunciation are not from the school itself but are of always trying to avoid being harassed or hit. I imagine if you had some kind of speech defect you got picked on quite a bit too. I was an altar boy for a short time, that’s when I got to know father Hackman, and I was captain of the school crossing guards in eighth grade – I still have my badge. The teachers usually seemed to like me because I was kind of bookish, I read a lot and started writing poetry when I was 11. Because I got picked on I withdrew and was kind of quiet. I remember one of the nuns being very encouraging about my writing poetry, but I don’t remember which one – I wish I did. And I remember when a kid named John May transferred into the school. He was immediately the biggest kid in the class, he’d probably been held back at some point, but he got picked on because he was new, just like me. We became friends and he would protect and defend me from the others. But his family moved a lot and he was gone before the year was out. I really caught it from the other kids after he left. I was never much of a fighter so I would just get beat up. I do remember two sisters named Bernadette and Claudia, they used to beat me up from time to time too. Actually I don’t remember much about what I was like as a kid, memory can be so tricky, manipulated to serve a contemporary agenda, and I’m afraid to ask any adults who were around then and might remember. Maybe I was an obnoxious little kid who deserved to be beat up, guess I’ll never know now. I went to grades 1-3 @ St. Coleman’s on 65th St. I was kind of a troublemaker there, getting into trouble a lot with the teachers, a wise ass but I had friends. Then I came back from summer in Pennsylvania to go to the fourth grade and my parents had bought a house on Bennington and moved while I was gone. I suddenly found myself in a new school, Annunciation, with nobody that I knew. I’d lost all my friends in the move. That was when I started getting picked on. I don’t remember having many friends in that class at Annunciation. My closest friends were the brothers Mikey and Kenny Powell who lived next door to us, they went to public school, and Mark Costanzo who lived across the street, he was a year or two ahead of me, might have been in your brother’s class. So if you only went to Annunciation through seventh grade you missed out on having Sr. Marita for eighth grade. Do you remember Miss Schwartz in seventh grade? I remember the school used to give us regular eye and ear exams and that was how I found out that I needed glasses. My story is just about a couple of incidents that I remember but overall the nuns were not that bad. I will try looking you up on Facebook – perhaps we did know each other. It would be interesting to find out.

    • i looked on facebook but only found an Al Noga who appears to live in Louisiana – is that you? try looking for me Michael Joseph Arcangelini

  6. Yes, Al was the black sheep in our family, and it is amazing he succeeded in college–he holds a couple of degrees–professionally and in life in general. He’d agree.

    Our class once combined with his for a sing-a-long or some other sort of nonsense. After his class had exited, the nuns noticed someone had taken a piece of chalk and ran it all the way across the chalkboard! A mortal sin! No one would fess up and my class had to stay after class for an entire week until the nuns gave up the hunt.

    Decades later I was relating the story and Al said “Oh yeah, I did it.”

    We lived on Crossburn, just a couple of blocks from school. I found an old report card that indicated I was late for class something like 30 times in a 35-day period. Yeah, I hated Annunciation.

    Our older brother Rich was the family genius and the nuns loved him. Younger sisters Jeanne and Mike also attended Annunciation, and perhaps the twins, Kevin and Karen. We move to North Royalton and I completely lost touch with the people in that neighborhood and church. I’m hoping my other siblings contribute to this string.

    I once took my children to the “old neighborhood” and showed them the school, which I always said was prison-like. They sat quietly in the car until my oldest son said, “you’re right, Dad. It does look like a prison.” However, it today is a charter school and seems to have been extensively renovated, Doesn’t look bad.

    A few years back I read they were closing the church. The Cleveland diocese was reeling over a decline in membership and the lawsuits over the priests pedophile scandals, and closed a number of churches. The Annunciation neighborhood had become quite Hispanic, and while Catholic, they migrated to another Hispanic church.

    I probably was the last person one would expect would suggest this, but I rallied my family to make one last trek to the church. The place looked very good, renovated, many seats removed. A woman involved with the church introduced herself to us, hoping we were new parishioners. Ah, no…but we had a nice chat.


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