When I think of September of my younger years, I think of going back to school after the long summer break.
School of course went beyond September, but September marked that important time of the year when summer was officially over and school began. I went to St. Anthony School and then Christopher Columbus, but I want to limit my thoughts here to St. Anthony’s, and save Columbus for another time.
Starting school in September meant that I would start a new walking routine. Leaving my “house” on Jackson Ave each weekday morning, I’d walk down along Charter Street, take a right on Salem street, and then a left onto North Bennet street to arrive in the St. Anthony’s playground, where most of the boys met before class.
I walked this same route every day, the only variation being that I sometimes met my friend Mario at the corner of Michelangelo St., and the two of us would walk together.
School would start with the ringing of the bell. When that happened, hundreds of kids would line up class by class to enter the building: the boys with our white shirts and ties, and the girls with their plaid dresses and knee socks. Once settled in, the first thing we did was to the Pledge of Allegiance and our morning prayers, after which we bowed to our teachers, saying: “Good Morning Sister/Mrs…..”
I remember most of my teachers: Mrs. Bocchino and Mrs. Amicangelo; Sisters Mary David, Gemma, Roasaia, Pascalis, and Kelly, though I’m forgetting at least two of them here. We seemed to get along better with the teachers than with the nuns – maybe because the teachers were all Italian and the nuns were Irish. The nuns certainly seemed stricter than the teachers.
I don’t remember the teachers hitting us with the ruler or pointer, but I remember the nuns doing that. I got it more than a few times, and not just on my hand. But I have to say that I usually got it when I deserved it. We were fresh kids, most of us: lively and energetic. In fact, I feel sympathy now more for the nuns than for us, when I think of some of the things we did.
I can tell you one story:
About a third of my classmates were kids from Italy. “We” called them “the greasers.” They were a little different from us in some things. For example, they played soccer, while we played stickball and punch and “errors” (or is it “eris”). But in the 7th grade soccer caught on with us for some reason, and all the boys started playing soccer at recess. One of the kids in the class – I’ll call him Frankie – stored the ball in his desk (it was not a full size soccer ball, but a smaller one). On this one particular day Frankie had to clean the blackboard before he went to recess – so, he took the ball and threw it to another kid – let’s call him Michael – who was going out to recess with the rest of us. This way we could get the game started.
Sister Pascalis saw this and thought we were playing ball in classroom. She demanded that we give it to her. We tried to tell her that Frankie was just giving the ball to Michael so he could take it out to recess, but she insisted that we give her the ball. We argued back that we knew the rules and we were not playing ball but just passing it along for recess. She refused to hear it.
Now the whole thing was too bad. We had been getting along unusually well with her the weeks prior, and it was unfortunate that an incident like this would ruin it. For our perspective, we didn’t do anything wrong: we were not playing with the ball in the class, but just passing it along. This put us in the right in our view, and so we refused to give her the ball. She tried to take it but each boy she approached would toss the ball to another. Around the room the ball went, and after it went Sister Pascalis. She finally gave up and did what all teachers do when they run into real trouble – she went to the Principal, who in our schools was known as the Mother Superior.
I don’t remember the name of the Mother Superior that year, but by the time she arrived in the classroom, with Sister Pascalis trailing her, we had hidden the ball out in the hall behind the statue of St. Anthony. On top of that we denied that a ball had ever even existed.
“Where is the ball?” the Mother Superior demanded.
“What ball sista’?” we responded.
“Give me the ball.”
“What ball sista’?”
Back and forth this went for a few minutes, until she realized we were not going to tell her. So then she tried to get the smartest girl in the class – let’s call her Janice – to tell her where the ball was. That put Janice in a very bad place and we did not like that.
“No Sista’” we said. “That is not right. It is not fair to ask her?”
She persisted until Janice started to cry and that put an end to it all.
We never gave up the ball, the whole class got detention, and we couldn’t play soccer anymore because we couldn’t show the ball again.
Now if this were a legend, I could end here with these words: “and that is why Italians in the United States play baseball and not soccer.” But of course, this is not a legend, and Italians most certainly play soccer in the United States – we [we?] are the ones who probably introduced it to the Americans –
But if the story shows anything it shows how we stuck together as a class, and this was I think one of the unintended (or perhaps it was intended) lessons of the nuns’ tough love: they taught us loyalty to one another.
And this was part of the bigger lesson I got from the nuns and teachers in Catholic school: to love and care for others. We eventually made up with Sister Pascalis and finished the year on good terms with her. And even in the midst of our ‘battle of the ball’ we knew that she cared for us and wanted the best for us. So I not only feel sympathy for the nuns who had us, but I also appreciate all that they did for us and all that they gave to us. They and the teachers and the priests of the parish….thank you all.
I have a lot of other memories of my years at St. Anthony’s. We had great food at lunch, cooked fresh every day by two kind and lovely women whose names I don’t remember but whose faces I can in front of me now as I write. I can also see and taste the peas and macaroni they made once a week. They cooked other things of course, but the peas and macaroni stand out. I remember Peter the janitor. Always hard at work, he was always there for us kids. I remember recess with hundreds of kids playing dozens of games in the small St. Anthony’s playground, all at once, all together, somehow without getting in each other’s way. And I remember the daily walk home after school, almost always with Mario, going first to Martini’s store on Hanover Street where I would buy an Il Progresso newspaper for my grandfather.
These are some of the things that I remember when September comes, “smiling gently” as I do.