Feet to the Fire Writers’ Workshop – Evansville
March 17, 2019
Before I tell you about my first day of school, I’d like to tell you about the first day I met my teacher. Having a week or so before school would begin, the first graders “to be” were getting registered in the school cafeteria of Christ the King Parochial School. Once that was taken care of, Mom and I walked up the stairs that led to the hallways, which led to the classroom I would be learning in for the next nine months. The door was barely opened and the teacher, Sister Diane, invited us in.
Sister Diane was as pretty as she was saintly, and I instantly considered her to be my new crush, passing up Shirley Temple and Haley Mills. There were two first grade rooms that year. Remember, we were part of the baby boomers, and even the Catholic schools were overcrowded. I was so glad to be in Sister Diane’s class instead of the class with Sister Hortense.
Sister Diane sat at her desk and Mom and I sat in the two chairs provided. I forget most of what she asked me, probably something about being a Catholic I’m sure. But there was one question that she asked that I will never forget. She asked me if I knew how to make the sign of the cross. The sign of the cross! What was that? I had no idea. So I just stood there staring at the giant clock that was suddenly much louder than when we first came in to be seated.
Tick, tock. Tick, tock. Tick, tock.
Could somebody throw me a bone?
Tick, tock. Tick, tock.
My face was blood red. Sister Diane looked at me with compassion. She decided to start saying it to see if that would cause some action on my part. She softly whispered, “In the name of the Father,” and then I jumped in “and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost! Amen!” She then said, “Now that’s the saying part of it, what are you supposed to be doing with your hands? “
“Forehead, belly button, left shoulder, right shoulder,” I told her and showed her.
“Okay, thank you David,” said Sister Diane. “I am looking forward to being your teacher.” I nodded and agreed that the sentiment was mutual.
While walking back to the parking lot my mom asked me “How come you had trouble with the sign of the cross?”
“I don’t know” I said, scratching my head. “What is the sign of the cross anyway?”
“Well honey, it is what you were doing at the end there with Sister Diane.”
“That’s the sign of the cross!? I yelled in disappointment.
“That’s the sign of the cross” said mom. “We say it at every meal and every time we go to Mass.”
“I feel awful. Sister Diane probably thinks I’m an idiot and I wouldn’t argue with her if she did.”
I don’t remember walking into school or the classroom. As far as I can remember I am already sitting down at my desk. I was the first desk in the third row. Sister Diane had put a small container on every person’s desk. I opened the container to find that it was filled with about 25 letters of the alphabet. They were the size of my thumbnail and the letters were black on a yellow background. I thought they were really cool looking and I couldn’t wait to start forming words.
I particularly liked the font. Now I didn’t know what a font was back then but I could tell these letters looked snappier than letters that I was used to seeing. I didn’t know how to spell yet. I knew a few words like cat, dog, stop and my name, David, but it was enough information that I could start playing with them.
Sister Diane was sitting at her desk and kids were taking turns singing their ABC’s to her and then she would mark in her book whether they sang all of them or not. She was doing several things all at once: She was calling children to come up to her desk and say their ABCs, telling children to find their seats, greeting parents and welcoming children as they came into the classroom, consoling children who “want their mommies!” etc.
But what was coming, what was by far the main event of the morning was the ordering of donuts before Mass. Mom had given me a nickel and that would get you a donut and a small container of milk.
I grew up in the church at the tail end of Vatican ll. So I was taught everything Pre Vatican ll and then told to forget what I was told. Here is what you should learn now. I remember mom and my brother, Wayne, who was a freshman at Memorial High School arguing round and round about the new laws that the church was making and the old laws that now were obsolete. The argument always ended up with mom asking Wayne “What are they teaching you over there at Memorial, anyway?” At the time I couldn’t care less about what was going on. I was just glad that we could start eating cheeseburgers on Fridays with the rest of the world.
Back to the donuts. Before we started reading and writing, every Catholic child had to go to Mass. That plus Sunday meant that we kids went to Mass six days a week. And if you were an altar boy and served Father at the 5:00 am Mass that meant you went to Mass 11 times a week. “I’m just saying.”
If you were going to Mass, you had to plan ahead if you were wanting to receive Holy Communion the next day. You had to fast. Fasting in this case meant if I wanted to receive the Eucharist on Wednesday I could not eat anything from 12 midnight on Tuesday until after Communion Wednesday.
But the wait was worth it if it meant eating a chocolate long john during class. That’s right, I don’t know what the others classes did, but as soon as the donuts were all passed out Sister Diane started teaching. She did not wait for anybody. Which meant sticky hands, spilled milk and icing face and hair, but that didn’t bother Sister Diane. She wanted all of the time necessary to teach us what we needed to learn. She was dedicated.
That was the beginning of a very “Sweet” year.