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Stories for the Long Silk Road

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Donal Mahoney: School Days

Now that Danny McCarthy had grandchildren in grammar school, he knew up from experience there were problems in education in the 21st century. When his own kids were in school, in the Seventies and Eighties, there were problems but nothing like the problems of today. And when Danny himself was in school back in the Forties and Fifties, almost all the problems in and out of the classroom were manageable as far as Danny could recall. 

In the Forties and Fifties, problems in school were largely behavioral, not academic. Danny and his classmates learned the basics of grammar and mathematics in grammar school, did well enough in high school, and then joined the Army or the Marines unless they were one of the few whose families had enough money to send them to college. Going to college in Danny's neighborhood wasn't really held in high esteem. The goal was to get a good job, maybe with the police force or the fire department or to catch on with one of the trades. If that didn’t work out, you joined the service and hoped you didn’t get sent to Korea.

Behavioral problems, as far as Danny remembered, were handled far more effectively back in those good old days. The methods back then may not have been politically correct by the standards of today but Danny himself was proof positive that the ancient methods worked. He was retired now and could boast that he had raised a large family and had never been arrested when he was an adolescent or an adult. Not all of his grandchildren, sadly, could say the same thing. Times had changed and they were still changing. 

It's not that Danny had been a goody-goody when he went to school. Indeed, something had been ajar in Danny from birth, that much he knew. At the very least he was hyperkinetic as a kid but back in the Forties and Fifties, hyperkinesis was a disease the nuns in his grammar school knew how to remedy. The medicine was a three-cornered ruler waved over a student's head while the nun explained up close and personal whatever rule the misbehaving student had broken. 

Back in those days, the student was guilty until proven innocent and that never happened as far as he could recall. He and his classmates were always involved in shenanigans of one kind or other but never anything illegal except maybe for dumping garbage cans in alleys on the eve of Halloween. No kid would dump them on Halloween itself because adults stayed up late on that night to watch their property. 

Danny's father certainly didn't think Danny was innocent the evening his teacher called the house and asked his father to come over to the convent to discuss Danny's latest incident. He was in fourth grade at the time and he remembers his father and him walking the six blocks over to the convent in silence, his father still in his smudged work clothes after having spent another day in the alleys climbing poles to fix electrical problems for people on the South Side of Chicago. 

An immigrant from Ireland, his father was fortunate to have a trade which put him at the higher end of their lower-middle class neighborhood. Danny had never wanted for anything but he had no luxuries either. He got a baseball mitt at the proper age and a brand-new Schwinn bike when he was old enough to ride one. A Schwinn bike back then was the Cadillac of bicycles. You rode right past all those kids stuck with Monarchs, which were not that bad bikes but lacked the panache of a Schwinn. 

Danny cannot recall the particular offense that brought his father to the convent that evening. It could have been any one of a number of things in that Danny was eclectic in how he chose to act out. But he remembers sitting in a chair in the convent living room, hands folded in his lap, while the nun took his father to another room to inform him of what Danny had done. 

"Sister," he heard his father bellow through the closed door, "if that boy does it again or does anything like it, you give him a good wallop and then call me and I'll give him another one--maybe a couple--when he gets home. He's not here to make trouble. He's here to learn so he can go to college and not have to work in the alleys like me."

After hearing that conversation, Danny straightened out quite a bit because although the nuns didn't scare him, his father certainly did. After all, his father had been expelled from Ireland by the British at age 18 after he had been caught running guns for the Irish Republican Army. They caught him at 16 and kept him in prison until 18 and then put him on a boat for America. His first job in America was as a gravedigger and later as a boxer. When he finally caught on with Commonwealth Edison in Chicago, he had an opportunity to learn electricity as a trade. For the next 40 years he earned a good living. 

Danny, as a result of his father's employment and frugality, had the benefit of a good education--19 years of it, in fact--in good private schools. It didn't hurt, either, that they were Catholic schools because although Danny was never a holy roller, it helped in the formation of his character to know that there was a Being who knew more about life than the nuns or his father.

In time Danny learned just how far he could go in creating commotion in the classroom before the nun would call his father to come down to the convent. Certain acts only required that he leave the classroom and go kneel in the middle of the hall outside the classroom door, not far from the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which stood at the end of the hall. The nuns and the students didn't worship Mary, as Catholics were so often accused of doing. But when Danny had to kneel in the hall he would always ask Mary to talk to Jesus in his behalf about a possible pardon. 

Once Danny was kneeling in the hall and staring at the statue, he knew it wouldn't be long before he would hear beads clicking on rosary hanging from the principal's habit as she came down the hall from the rear. She made her rounds of the halls several times a day to "converse" with boys--they were always boys--made to kneel in the hall. 

Danny was straight A's through the first three grades of grammar school, but in fourth grade he noticed something different about Florence Puppo as she walked up the aisle to the blackboard. Florence had begun to develop early, if you will, and so had Danny, much to his surprise. 

Suddenly Florence looked good to him in a way girls had never looked good to him before. Soon, other girls started looking good as well, and Danny began acting up a bit more. And although he still got good grades, he found himself kneeling in the hall more often, waiting to hear the click of the rosary beads and then the conversation with the principal that would always ensue. He remembers those conversations, all of them similar, clearly to this day, some six decades later.

"And what are we doing out here, Danny, kneeling in the hall on this fine morning," Sister Marie Patrick, an immigrant from Ireland herself, would always ask, having swooped around so she could stand in front of him, slapping the ruler against her palm. 

"Sister Lorraine said I should kneel out here," Danny would say, looking up at her with his altar boy face.

"And why did she ask you to do that, may I ask, Danny? Surely there must be a reason for you to be kneeling out here when you should be in the classroom learning all that you don't know."

"I was rolling marbles down the middle aisle," he would confess, "while Sister Lorraine was writing problems on the blackboard. I thought she'd blame Fred Hamm who did that last week but she knew it was me."

The principal in the school was always the toughest sounding nun in the convent. The principal had to be tough because the students were largely sons of European immigrants. Fathers and sons, although not dumb, were a bit coarse, if you will. Some of the girls may have been given piano lessons but the boys were largely left to their own devices until they had an opportunity to play sports. 

There were no Little League competitions back when Danny was in grammar school. A kid just tried his best to make the school team and then went with the team to different neighborhoods to play against teams from other schools. There was no adult to manage the team, although parents would sometimes show up for a home game.

Delinquency and vandalism were not a problem, but fist fights between kids from different schools often occurred and the fights had to be fair. If one kid kicked his opponent, kids from both teams would jump on him and the cheater's reputation would be lost for life. There was no way to repair it. Decades later now, Danny remembers the kid who kicked him. Even better, he remembers what happened to him. Fair is fair, on a ball field and in life, Danny always believed.

To this day, Danny can't remember ever getting thumped with the ruler Sr. Marie Patrick carried through the hallways. Usually their conversation would end with her telling him which room to report to after school. Then she would lift him off his knees by the ear and lead him back into the classroom and usher him to his desk and drop him in it. He can still see the other kids smiling, some with approval for the commotion he had created, others with disdain for what he had done. Usually the boys were unanimous in their approval and the girls far less so. 

Today, as he looks at his grandchildren and their classmates, Danny has absolutely no bad feelings about the discipline he experienced when he was in school. Any punishment he received he absolutely deserved. Except for the day in 1952 when a nun put his bicycle in the basement of the convent because he had been riding it around the small playground during the lunch hour, endangering, she said, the children in kindergarten playing tag. 

The nuns held his bike hostage for three days. Danny  had a paper route after school and he needed that bike. Not every eighth grader had a paper route down 63rd Street from St. Louis Ave. to Kedzie Ave. Just Danny. He gave it up the summer after 8th grade to wash dishes for 40 cents an hour in Crilly's Diner. He also got two cheeseburgers every shift, bigger and better than anything served today at McDonald's. 

Looking back after all these years, Danny knows now that working in Crilly's Diner was one of the best jobs he ever had. And having those nuns leading him by the ear through grammar school was a real boon. They prepared him for college and the real world. But now there are hardly any nuns teaching school, he reminded his wife last night. If there were, he told her, he doubts that he'd have to go downtown this afternoon and get his grandson, Rory, out of juvenile detention. 

Danny's retired and he's willing to take care of the matter because Rory's parents say they can't get off work. They have jobs at least, he reminded his wife who said she thought Rory’s father should be the one to go get him. That's what fathers do, she said.

Danny reminded his wife that having a job in today’s economy is a very good thing. Other young parents in the neighborhood had been looking for work for a long time. What Rory needed, Danny said, was Sr. Marie Patrick to lead him through life by the ear for a couple of years. 

"Forget about all this 'Time Out' stuff," Danny said. It would never have worked with him. His wife, who knew him in grammar school, stifled a laugh and agreed. 

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by Suchoon Mo

bury me not

in the lone Silk Road

I go and go

from west to east

I go and go

from east to west

bury me not

in the lone Silk Road


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