Catholic School Mobile
My first school was St. Thomas the Apostle Elementary School. In every classroom there hung:
a map of the world colored mostly in pink which designated the countries of the Commonwealth.
a picture of Queen Elizabeth II, head of the Commonwealth
a cross with a mostly naked Jesus hanging limply and dying for bad little boys
a portrait of “zombie” Jesus beatifically staring right at us with his chest open and his heart exposed.
My friend Paul, with a furrowed brow that looked obscene on a nine-year-old, studied the picture of the Queen.
“Mrs. Amell,” he said sincerely, “the Queen looks exactly like my mother.”
As if. We all laughed at him, even Mrs. Amell.
I liked the picture of the Queen, she seems nice.
I did not like the portrait of Jesus-with-the-exposed heart. This portrait was also a fixture in the homes of many of my classmates, and it unnerved us to play near it because it was rumoured that the eyes of Jesus-of-the-exposed heart would magically follow you around the room. It’s rude to stare. I knew this because I stared all the time and was told not to.
My parents were still drunk. We lived three blocks from the school in a two-bedroom apartment on Raglan Street in Renfrew, a small town in the Ottawa Valley. Often, I went downstairs to visit our neighbours, Mamie and M. J., who were old. Mamie wore a light blue house dress and had frizzy hair. Their apartment was really clean.
Once when my mom was drunk, she locked herself out of the house. She called the school and had them send me home. I was excited to be away from school. Mom told me I was the only one small enough to climb through the bedroom window and unlock the apartment door. It was a ground-floor apartment but the window was high. M. J. drove his car up to the apartment, then stood on the hood and boosted me up through the window. I was proud because Mom and M. J. made a fuss about how helpful I was. For the rest of the day, I played in a ditch by the graveyard on Thompson Hill. I met a man on my way home and he carried me down the hill on his shoulders.
* * *
Lisa, my friend from next door, and I would visit the graveyard on Thompson Hill. We liked the feel of the headstones: the fronts were shimmering and cold like zambonied ice and the tops were rough and tickly like bread left too long out of the bag. We were careful not to walk on top of where the bodies lay. We’d find the graves of children our own age (Lisa was a couple of years older, so she could do the math) and talk to them. Kneeling at the edge of the grave, we’d tell them who we were and what we were up to. Lisa would read the engravings on tombstones belonging to grown-ups, and we’d make up stories about the people. Pretending they were a friend or relative, we’d say, “Oh, yes. I remember him . . . ” and we’d try to tell a story from the words on the stone. If we were really lucky, we’d find a freshly dug open grave. Then we didn’t say anything at all, we’d just hold hands and stare into that hole that would soon have a coffin. It was like looking at magic.
Sometimes we’d go to Sydney’s, a drugstore on Raglan Street, and we’d shoplift. I had a big green coat and Lisa would stuff it with candy and yoyos.
Lisa’s older brother Tony was deaf. We’d hide and spy on him. I’d never seen a deaf person before.
While I was walking home from school, a big blue car pulled up. I was in front of Bonnechere Manor, the old age home.
“Hey, kid,” said a man who leaned out the passenger window, “you like sandwiches?”
I thought about it.
“Yeah,” I said.
“You like peanut butter sandwiches?” He smiled when he asked this.
“No,” I yelled, and ran fast in the other direction.
I lied, though. I liked peanut butter sandwiches. When I’d get home from school, if no one was home and I was hungry, I’d make sugar sandwiches. I ended up with a form of scurvy that turned my teeth black and rotten. Most had to be pulled.
I liked to sit on the blue circle on the floor of the kindergarten room. We played duck, duck, goose. I could run really fast. I recited the alphabet for the teacher but I left some of the letters out just because I could.
Donny was the crossing guard. He was tall and thin with large glasses that had brown plastic frames. I waited till all the kids had safely crossed Raglan Street, and I asked Donny if I could go to his house for something to eat. I often went to the homes of strangers and asked them for food. Donny and I walked together down Raglan Street to his house. He was a quiet man who lived with his mother. He warmed up a can of Spaghettios and it was the greatest food I had ever tasted. I licked the bowl. After we ate, Donny told me to call home and let my parents know where I was.
He never touched me in a bad way.
My father came and got me but this was for show and not concern. I visited Donny several more times and eventually he and my father became friends.
Old McDonald Had Some Pliers
My dentist is Dr. McDonald. He doesn’t put the needle in my mouth. That means no freezing. He starts to pull out my molars and it hurts. I scream and scream. Dr. McDonald gets mad.
“Shut up and take it like a man,” he yells into my face.
I don’t take it like a man, and keep screaming.
The dental hygienist is fed up. “Stop being such a baby,” she yells at me, and then slaps my face.
I keep on screaming, though, because it hurts. I’m not a man.
My mother sits in the waiting room. She takes about forty 222’s a day; her pills come in a container the size of a cookie jar. She is drunk and stoned all the time. She cannot help me.
I don’t remember the rest of the year.
My parents had stopped being drunk by this time. I think. My father got a job managing a sheltered workshop for handicapped adults. After school I would walk along the train tracks to where my father worked and he would drive me home. My mother would sometimes be there as well. Mary, one of the clients, a fat woman, liked to hold my mother’s hand. They stood in front of the workshop hand in hand. It didn’t look right for grown-ups to hold hands. On the way home my mother asked my father, “Did you see how she held onto my hand? They’re just like children.” I detected a hint of alarm in my mother’s voice. I too was scared of these children who had grown to the size of adults. Eventually, though, Mary, Walter, Bill, and Garnet became my friends.
Mr. Windle was enormous. He had to have been at least seven feet tall with curly reddish-brown hair and a bushy red moustache. He always wore reddish-brown polyester slacks and a white shirt. I thought of him as an angry pirate. He’d yell and gesture to his tiny crew but we were green and not versed in all that sailor talk, so we sat, or stood, looking up into the sky where Mr. Windle’s head met the clouds, and stared dumbly as the giant raged. It was rumoured that he wore a girdle. They were popular in 1975.
We learned to do our letters in grade two. After the lesson we were to try it on our own to see . . . to see . . . well, I guess to see if we were getting it or not. I tried, but not terribly hard. I spent most of the time looking outside at the playground, daydreaming. We lined up in front of his desk so he could see our work. Like shame-filled old ladies waiting outside the confessional, worrying our workbooks like rosaries, we stared at our feet, mumbled, looked around nervously, as Mr. Windle dealt harshly with each of our sins.
My turn: I handed him my workbook. It was filled with shaky pencil marks that barely looked like letters. They more resembled a stroke victim’s attempt to get back the use of his arm. Mr. Windle looked at my workbook and his breathing became heavier and faster. I imagined he was a kettle ready to shoot steam through his moustache. He looked at me for an instant and I foolishly thought I was going to skate on this one. Nope. He wrapped his arm around my eight-year-old neck and slammed my head down on his desk. My face was pressed against my workbook to better emphasize the lesson.
“Backwards,” he shouted, and with a red pen he circled my attempt at printing a capital P.
“Backwards.” He quickly moved to the letter D.
“Backwards.” He made an angry circle around my attempt at B.
“Backwards, backwards, backwards.” Every third letter was circled in a furious red. When he finally let me up I stood frozen and ashamed. I don’t know why he felt it necessary to pin me to the desk.
“John, almost all of these letters are backwards. What is wrong with you?” I had no answer because, well, because I was EIGHT. I wasn’t dyslexic. I just liked to write letters backwards, I guess. He took it so personally. The question, though, “What is wrong with you?” would be the theme of my educational experience.
I would sit at my desk and pee my pants. Once I found an abandoned (I think it was abandoned) birds’ nest and I brought it to school for show and tell. But before I could bring it to the front of the class, I peed my pants. Yellow rivulets trickled from my chair and onto the nest, creating a smelly pile of mud and twigs. I looked forward to showing that nest all morning, and even as I knew I was destroying it with my own filth, I could not stop myself.
After a month of this Mr. Windle asked me to stay in at recess. He wasn’t mad. He said, “John, if you need to use the bathroom, for any reason, just go. You don’t have to put up your hand, you don’t have to ask, just go. I don’t even care how many times you go.”
He was using a gentle, concerned voice. What he offered was unprecedented. No one had that kind of freedom. My friend Kevin, desperate to pee, would have to hold it until the regularly scheduled bathroom break, crossing his legs and holding his crotch, and finally contorting his body down the hall to the toilet. I never took Mr. Windle up on his offer to access the toilet by my own free will. Instead, I sat at my desk, mute with fear, leaking dirty tears that pooled under my desk and stained the front of my pants.
“Did you hear about what happened to John’s dad?” Scott asked me. He was referring to a John that was not me, a quiet kid with a buzz cut who was in our class.
“What happened?” I asked with some doubt because Scott was always making things up. He told the whole class he met Steve Austin, the Six Million Dollar Man, on the street in Toronto. He was always running into celebrities and claiming he had become great friends with them. It got so bad that when he told a whopper the whole class would shout in unison, “There goes Scott again,” and we would all laugh, even Scott.
“His dad was riding a snowmobile. He rode really fast in a ditch and wasn’t watching where he was going and drove right into the open part of a sharp metal pipe and had his head cut off. His body drove around for a while without any head,” Scott said, sucking some drool back up into his mouth.
“Fuck off,” I said.
“No, it’s true, he’s dead.”
“Well, I’m gonna go ask him.”
I asked John if his dad was dead but he didn’t answer me. Somehow we ended up in a fight. When he was down on the ground I kicked him in the head and he started crying. I got in trouble for fighting.
* * *
Our desks were a chair attached to a metal rectangular box about six inches deep with a lid of lacquered press board designed to look like wood. We were supposed to keep our desks tidy but mine was always a mess of pencil shavings, workbooks, comics, and pieces of crumpled paper. Sometime the lid needed to be bullied into closing.
After recess I ran into the classroom, screaming for joy at I don’t know what. I grabbed the lid of my desk and with all my strength I ripped it off its hinges. I stood there with the lid in my hand, feeling like Animal from The Muppets. The other kids couldn’t believe it.
Mrs. Amell had just returned to the classroom. “Now why would you do that?” She sounded tired and exasperated.
“I don’t know,” I said, shrugging my tiny shoulders with the desk lid still in my hands. I felt bad, like I had betrayed Mrs. Amell. She was always trying to help me understand lessons I should have grasped but couldn’t. She was always patient and never made me feel stupid.
“Well, John, for the rest of the year you’ll use that desk without a top,” she declared. I made the best of it and pretended I had a convertible. I spent the rest of the year sitting on the floor writing lessons using my chair as a desktop with my mess exposed to the class. The rest of the time I drove my desk to places where I was not stupid and had enough to eat.
Puttin’ on the Witch
Things I was supposed to be able to do in grade three but could not:
simple math, like adding and subtracting
spelling basic words.
Because of these shortcomings, my borderline reading ability, and my lack of interest in learning anything, I, along with Sean and Scott, had to attend remedial classes with Mrs. Ritz. Of course no one called these classes remedial; they were known as the “retard classes.” Remedial was a world only used when grown-ups were near.
For at least an hour every day, we three stooges would leave the normal class to make our way to retard village, often panic-stricken because we hadn’t done one of lick of homework that Mrs. Witch (her nickname) had assigned us. We would make desperate attempts to do some of the assignment on the way to her room, using the stippled wall as a hard surface for writing on. The answers usually looked like illegible, palsied etchings, and wrong.
Mrs. Ritz was a hawk-like creature with tightly permed salt-and-pepper hair. She was tall and wore long skirts. She was angry all the time–I never once saw her smile. When we three wise men would enter her tiny classroom, she would ask, “Did you do your homework?”
“No,” we’d reply, slightly panicked.
She would shriek and then slash the back of our necks with fingernails that felt like talons. I’d try to shrink down or dodge the rake but she was too fast. I spent most of grade three with long, red, raised scratches on my neck. Despite this I was unable to do my homework. Once I left school for the day I honestly forgot, I mean I completely forgot, any and all homework due for the next day.
At Christmastime Mrs. Ritz put up a large cut-out of a Christmas tree on the wall outside her class, and all her students were to put their names on it. I stood on a stool with a big green marker in my hand. I wrote my first name without much difficulty but I couldn’t remember how to spell my last name. I got as far as “Ca” and then realized I had no idea how to spell “Callaghan.” I stood and stared at what I had already printed, hoping to divine from those letters the rest of my name, but it didn’t come to me.
I turned on the stool to face Mrs. Ritz, who was looking at me expectantly.
“I don’t know how to spell my last name, ” I mewled.
Her face became a gathering of angry storm clouds. “You mean to tell me John Callaghan that you are nine years old and you don’t even know how to spell your own name?”
I didn’t answer her because I knew this was the kind of question that really didn’t need to be answered. I just stared at the marker as the Witch burned and simmered. Scott and Sean were standing on each side of her doing their best to suppress giggles. I wasn’t mad at them for this because I’d do the same to them if I had the chance. Finally Mrs. Witch, in a fit of spastic violence, snatched the marker from my hand and denounced me: “You Are Stupid.” And as she wrote my last name on the Christmas tree, she repeated, “You Are A Stupid Boy.” I am a stupid boy. I am still nine years old and standing on a stool. Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.
I had to go to a hospital in Ottawa for tests. Both my parents came with me. One of the tests had me fitting blocks into the correct holes. My favourite test was a three-dimensional metal maze that was two feet by two feet. The walls of the maze were about half an inch high. I was given a metal rod the size of a pen, and the woman giving the test asked me to try to complete the maze without touching the rod to the sides of the walls. She demonstrated that if I did, sparks would fly off the end of the rod and an obnoxious, sharp buzzer would go off. I snatched the rod from her hand and ran it up and down the walls, sending out a comet of sparks, and I screamed and laughed over the top of the sharp, painful sound the machine was making. The instructor was startled and jumped back, dropping her clipboard and screaming, “Don’t do that, don’t do that.” She was really mad. She tried not to show it but I could tell.
After the testing was done I sat in a waiting room while my parents consulted with the doctors and nurses. There was another boy, about my age, sitting across from me. I assumed he was in for the same reason. We became fast friends. Soon we were running up and down the halls, screaming and spitting on the walls. A nurse came out from behind a door, saying, “You kids quiet down. Go and sit quietly ’til your parents come get you.”
We both gave her the finger and ran down the hall laughing. We found some stairs and practiced spitting on each other’s head.
* * *
Years later my father told me, “The doctors and nurses, they sat me down and with sad faces and told me you were a hyperactive child. Well, geez, tell me something I don’t know. All those tests and that’s what they come up with. I coulda told them that.”
They put me on Ritalin for a while but apparently it caused me to drool excessively, mouth hanging open, so my dad took me off it. Instead, a couple of months later, my parents would put me on a no-sugar diet, and I couldn’t eat or drink anything red. Supposedly, red dye made me mental.
Mrs. Amell asked the class to be quiet; she had something important to talk about. It was June.
“I want you all to listen very carefully to what I’m saying. John Callaghan, Scott, and Sean are going to be repeating the third grade, and I don’t want to hear one iota of teasing or name-calling. Do you understand me, class?”
“Yes, Mrs. Amell,” the class sing-songed.
I sat in my convertible, stunned. No one had told me I failed grade three. Why didn’t anyone tell me? How could I not know this? On the last day of school I was turned into a leper.
I walked home extra slowly, and alone, that day. I stared at the cracks in the sidewalk. Not even the sight of a dead bird could lighten my spirits. I didn’t want to go home to empty rooms and empty cupboards; I wanted to understand what was happening. But even as I wondered, I knew. The words kept bouncing in my head, the pieces of school I did remember. As I walked the three blocks from school, it felt as though I was filling up with absence, like a mouthful of freshly pulled teeth, and not the Queen, or Jesus-of-the-exposed-heart, or a map of the world could stop these words from being recited over and over like a Hail Mary or a Nicene Creed:
Take It Like A Man.
What Is Wrong With You?
You Are A Stupid Boy.
These are the Holy Words I held in my stomach, floating in the absence, preserved and kept safe, my relics of St. Thomas. With a sigh, and the gait of a little old man, I walked home to an empty apartment to make myself a sugar sandwich.