Saturday, March 16, 2019

Self Indulgent Nostalgia (No. 2.1)

If you're new here, this is a weekly column consisting of letters written to my (eventual) grandchildren (who exist) and my great-grandchildren (who don't yet, aka the Stickies) to haunt them after they become grups and/or I'm dead.


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                                                 Glossary  

                                  Who The Hell Is This Guy?


Irregularly Appearing Imaginary Guest Stars 
Marie-Louise -- My beautiful muse  
Iggy -- My imaginary Sticky
Dana -- My imaginary Gentlereader

"I don't like nostalgia unless it's mine." -Lou Reed


Dear (eventual) Grandstickies & Great-Grandstickies (& Gentlereaders),

S.I.N #2 ended with yours truly about to start eighth grade, my eighth and last year of Catholic grade school. I had previously attended two other Catholic grade schools in Pittsburgh (with an h), one large, one small. I barely remember the large one, Epiphany. I only went there for first and second grade.

A beautiful church is still there, the school is not.

Yes, Virginia, It was once possible to avoid formal education till the first grade. I was fortunate enough to have avoided daycare, pre-school & kindergarten. I was about to explain why I think this was a blessing but it occurs to me that in the Age of the Victim that what I think is a blessing might be worth some dough eventually if the country keeps lurching to the left, so, nevermind.

The small one was St. John the Evangelist, on the Sahside of Pittsburgh (with an h). Tiny, blue collar, everyone knew everyone. The priests, the nuns, and the janitor all lived on the grounds. I played basketball in the church hall and dodge ball in the playground that was across the street.

The playground's still there, the school is not.


Anyways, it was the first day of eighth grade. For the previous seven years, everyone I went to school with walked there. St. Ursula's was (emphasis on was) a fairly large school and kids were bussed there from all over Pittsburgh's (with an h) Northern burbs. I still walked. In fact, I lived two doors and one large grass-covered field (that served as the school playground) away.

Nowadays, according to what I just found on the web, there are only 122 students, and the bulk of those are pre-K and Kindergarten. There are 6 kids in the eighth grade. Six.

On my first day of eighth grade, it took two classrooms of about thirty kids each to hold all the eighth graders. Therein lies a tale, beyond the obvious demographic one I mean.


I was directed to report to the top floor and told where I could find the eighth grade(s). There was a nun standing in front of both doors with a list and I was asked what my name was. It wasn't on either list; they conferred. I don't remember exactly what words were used but the jist of the decision rendered was, "Well, let's try him in your class, if he can't handle it, we'll move him to mine later."

Not the sort of thing a shy, blue-collar kid from the inner city who never liked school to begin with wanted to hear. What does she mean? Can't handle what?

I was introduced to the class and assigned a seat next to a kid named Ed who was wearing a red pullover corduroy shirt with leather strings at the throat that was about a hundred times cooler than the dress shirts and clip-on ties I had been wearing for the last seven years.

He immediately befriended me, at least partly out of pity I suspect, and I immediately befriended him out of desperation, in search of a lifeline. Something was very different here. I couldn't quite put my finger on it yet and I needed a guide.

In whispered conversations between having our books assigned to us and being reminded that we would be killed -- or at least excommunicated -- if we lost or damaged a book (that wasn't different), Ed told me that eighth graders could get away with not wearing a tie. It was not technically legal but an unspoken decriminalization policy was in effect.

I removed my tie when the nun wasn't looking and slipped it into my desk.

Sweet.

Sorry, Ster, I can't remember your name. (At the time, deliberately slurring your words and saying yesster or noster -- instead of yes sister or no sister -- was a weapon we yielded mercilessly in the endless psychological warfare we fought with the nuns. It made 'em nuts.) However, you have my thanks. While, at the time, I was too stupid to appreciate it, you taught me how to appear smarter than I actually am.


As it turned out, there were two things going on that were the reason for the something different going on here feeling mentioned above. This was the "smart" eighth grade. These kids were the ones that got better grades and who were taught at a higher level than the kids next door, whose grades ranged from average to um, problematic.

Your's truly came from an environment where everyone was piled into the same class and taught at the same level. Hating school, and being one of the seven kids of a very blue-collar couple, it was easy for me to do just enough to get by without attracting much attention.

To survive, to "handle it," to keep from getting moved to the other eighth grade -- and based on my performance the previous seven years that's where I belonged -- I had to take school seriously (well...) for the first time. And Sister Anonymous was teaching us at a level designed to enable us to thrive in a rigorous Catholic high school.

Although I wound up at the local public high school due to a combination of factors to be detailed anon (a shortage of funds being the primary one), Ster taught me that if you're motivated, you'd be surprised what you can do.

I was motivated because of the other reason I had intuited -- and which by lunchtime of that first day I nailed down -- that something different was going on. The majority of my classmates came from families that my dad would describe as rich. That is to say, middle-middle and upper-middle class. There was only one, that I knew of, that might be considered actually richish, the son of a VP of Pepsi. We had all the free Pepsi we could drink at school functions.

But it wasn't their money I was impressed by. The thing is, in defiance of the stereotypes you might expect, they welcomed me with open arms and provided a glimpse of a world I thought only existed on TV.

While I wasn't a grade getter, I was fairly well read for an eighth grader, and I was as enthralled as they were with the revolution that was being documented in the pages of Life and Look magazine. We were gonna save the world in the long term and revolutionize the Catholic church in the meantime.

Recess was spent discussing current events, books, Pop Art, and Rock n' Roll (and avoiding certain males from the other eighth grade who were remarkably similar to the "friends" I had left behind).

And, of course, who was "going with" who, and were you going to the next dance at the church social hall? I confess I never went. I was too shy and too aware of my mail order catalog clothes and too aware I was lacking in something they took for granted.

Still, In the course of one summer, I went from perpetual pissing contests with the boys I ran with back in the Burgh (with an h) to enjoying school (and a tiny bit of civilized social life) for the first time since first grade. It wasn't till the following September that things got stupid again. Poppa loves you.

To be continued...

Have an OK day. 
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©2019 Mark Mehlmauer

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