I learned a lot in second grade. I learned how to ride a bike. A two-wheeler. It was a hand-me-down. It went to my big brother John first, then to Pat. Finally to me. I painted it so it sort of looked like new.
I learned how to sing. I was in the second grade choir for a couple of months.
I learned how to shoot a basketball into a ten-foot goal. The real deal.
I also learned how to play the clarinet. At least I was beginning to learn. My mom told me that all the girls went for clarinet players. At the time I thought girls were yucky so that didn’t have much bearing on my ambitions as a musician.
I learned a lot about human nature that year. I was quiet in second grade. I was a good student. I was afraid not to be.
My brothers and I went to Saints Peter and Paul Elementary School. It was a big Catholic school in Merrillville, Indiana, just outside of Gary. We may have had a Gary mailing address back then. I was born in 1957, so I was in the second grade in 1964 and 1965. It was a strange time in our history. JFK was assassinated the year before. The US was becoming involved in Vietnam. The Beatles were just beginning to be huge.
Sister Rachael Marie was my second grade teacher. She was not a big woman but she was a terror to me. There were some tough kids in that school but everyone was afraid of her. Beginning in second grade, I was one of those children.
Sister Rachael Marie pulled hair for talking out of turn and slapped faces when boys forgot their ties or the girls forgot their beanies. Sister Rachael Marie tipped over desks if they were too messy to suit her. She would accompany the tipping with shouting and in-your-face intensity. One could miss a lot of recess time for having a messy desk.
Sister Rachael Marie knew how to make kids cry. It was kind of her specialty. It was harder to make some kids cry than others. Me? I cried when she just gave me the evil eye for forgetting an assignment. I was easy. I was rarely hit, rarely had my hair pulled and I learned quickly to keep my desk clean. I cried quickly as a way of defending myself. Sister seemed to go easier on you if you could bring on the water works.
My friend James was a boy who would not cry easily. I had seen him slide into second base on the asphalt playground, ripping his trousers and skinning his knee, thigh and hip. I mean I could actually see him bleeding through his tattered pants. I would have been bawling at the sight of my own blood let alone the pain. Not James. He was tough. He was also safe at the base.
James was cool too. He had shoes that you could slip on with no laces. His hair was considerably longer than the rest of the boys. He had a brother in the public school junior high who was into the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. James’ brother was kicked out of Peter and Paul, I never knew the reason. That’s why he went to Merrillville Jr. High.
James usually had his hair slicked back. This bothered Sister Rachael Marie. She ridiculed him about his hair. She questioned how his family could even send him to a Catholic school looking like that. She tried to embarrass him by saying that he looked like a girl. James didn’t care what she thought. That must have been what really bothered her about him. I thought James was cool. I wanted to be like him. We played together at school and once he even came over to my house. Nowadays we would call that a play date.
His brother wore Brylcream in his hair. Brylcream is the equivalent to today’s styling gel. Sister called it grease and thought it was disgraceful. Sister despised him and often picked on him. He didn’t care.
James was likable. We all sort of looked up to him. He was a nice kid. He was tough. He was my neighbor in school, that is, we sat next to each other.
There was this time when Sister was walking up and down the aisles while we were busy doing seatwork. She had the most beautiful cursive handwriting I had ever seen. She even offered to give my father handwriting lessons after he sent in a written excuse for my having missed school once.
On that day, Sister Rachael Marie stopped by my desk. She sniffed. “What on earth is that smell?” she demanded. She glanced at me accusingly. I shrugged my innocence, getting ready to cry if she interrogated me any further. Body language was the best strategy with Sister. Words often got you into trouble.
She looked to her right. James looked up shrugging innocently. She bent over him and sniffed again. She turned to me. I shuddered. Then she snapped back to James. “It’s you!” she shrieked, grabbing James by the neck. He dropped the fat black pencil he was holding onto the floor. That pencil, with its chewed end just rolled down the aisle.
“What did you put in your hair?” Each of her words made me cower lower in my seat. He didn’t speak. “Answer me!” she yelled.
“Bacon grease, Sister,” James choked out. “I’m sorry.”
“What on earth were you thinking? To the office!” By this time she had jerked him out of his seat by the ear. James winced in pain as he rose to his feet. But he did not cry. That boy had a high threshold of pain. I would have been blubbering like a baby and begging for forgiveness, for release. He simply wouldn’t or couldn’t cry. Then she pulled his hair...