I Went to School – Sometimes

Realizing that I have written a few things about my ability to question authority, I began to think many readers might want to know why I am, and why I have been somewhat of a maverick. 

The first memory I have that may lead one to think I was born a radical was in grade school.  I can remember where I sat in Sister Mark’s class when she showed us something in which Chinese children were saluting an image of Mao; arms out in unison and directed toward a big red flag with Chairman Mao larger than life in front of it.  I doubt it was a video or a movie.  It must have been an overhead projector.  Anyway, she made a comment that sounded like “how would you feel having to wear a grey uniform in school and proclaim yourself to a dictator?”  She was trying to make communism scary.

I was embarrassed to speak out and bring up the similarity of standing in a parochial school where the girls had to wear jumpers, we said the Pledge of Allegiance before class with our hands over our hearts, and later in class proclaimed ourselves to Jesus.  I was confused.  It became worse in high school when the girls still wore jumpers with white blouses, but now, the boys had to wear dress slacks and shirts that buttoned down the middle.  We still said “The Pledge.”

High school was a great place to challenge authority.  The first Friday of every month was called “dress-up day”.  Instead of the jumper and blouse staple of daily HS living, the girls were allowed to wear any dress, outfit, or skirt/blouse ensemble of their choice, as long as the hem was even with the knee, and the bodice was not revealing, or even close.  The guys had to wear a suit, or a sports coat with the dress pants, and a tie.  You received demerits for being “out of uniform”; not just on dress-up day, but every day.

One particular dress up day, I wore a Nehru jacket as a sports jacket, my corduroy pants with the cords running horizontal rather than the usual vertical, and a piece of rope as a belt.  My tie must have been okay because I don’t remember getting any flack for that.  I got 5 demerits for not having a belt.  Actually, I got the idea from Jethro on the Beverly Hillbillies.  I should have received more demerits since I had asked, “just what IS a belt?”

The late Jim Schulte and I would walk around the perimeter of the school during lunch hour.  Since it was forbidden to leave the curb, we would take turns tapping one foot on the road to see if school authorities would run out with the demerit slips.  A few times we did walk off the curb and run to a small neighborhood grocery store up the street.  There were two of these stores in the area.  Spaens was the most popular.  Those of us who were looked upon as trouble-makers hung out at Spaens before school to smoke cigarettes, buy gum and candy, and the usual pen because you didn’t have one and everybody was weary of lending one to you.  The neighborhood groceries were no bigger than a living room, and they were part of the front of the house.

We avoided Spaens.  The authorities would think obviously that we might scamper off to it – only ½ block away to the west.  No, we often went to the one east of the school.  It was the backside of the school and the escape and return path were protected by overgrown evergreen trees.  However, we did get caught once.  That cost more than demerits.

After a 3-day suspension, we had to be admitted back to school by our parents.  My mother came with me one morning to reenroll me in classes.  I love my mom.  Like me, she couldn’t see why you would suspend a kid from school for the crime of self-suspension by the kid.

“Mrs. Wolf,” the priest would say, “we have reviewed Marty’s file and discovered an absent note that looks different from the rest.”  Oh, shit, I thought.  I knew what was coming.  Mom asked, “What’s wrong with this?” 

“Is that your handwriting, Mrs. Wolf?” 

“Yes,” she replied.

“Well then, whose handwriting is this?” he said, holding a stack of excuses. 

Mom didn’t hesitate: “That’s Carol’s handwriting,” she said matter-of-factly.

I rode home with Mom.  Three more days of suspension.  She didn’t think it was funny.  Neither did I.  Nothing was done to Carol.  She was a grade ahead of me and did no wrong, at least, as far as school authorities and Mom was concerned. 

The first time I was called to Room 207 (no one wanted to be paged to Room 207), Mr. Galatich asked if I was Kathleen’s brother.  He never mentioned Carol.  I was doomed from the beginning, having to be compared to Kathleen rather than Carol. 

I may be the first and only student at Kuemper Catholic High School in Carroll, Iowa, to flunk shop.  Industrial Arts class had a teacher whose nickname was Gomer, but not to his face.  Gomer would take attendance and then have us disperse to other areas of the huge classroom.  I remember it looking like an oversized garage.  There was a door in the back.  I used it a lot.  I was counted as being in attendance, why not?

Electricity and I are not good friends.  I have been wary of it for a long time.  So, when it came time to be graded on our welding projects, Gomer showed my piece to the class and explained how beautiful it was.  “Ryan, show the class how you did this?”  I didn’t even know how to plug the welder into the socket.  I made a fool of myself, and that was Gomer’s goal.  I had paid Ray Julich $10 to do my project.  He was the best damned welder I’ve ever seen.  My bad.  I should have paid someone $5 to do a mediocre job.  See, I did learn in high school.

Out-of-class activity included being an altar boy.  This paragraph comes right from our website where this blog is posted:

He first questioned authority when an old-fashioned priest insisted that he cut his hair or he couldn’t be an altar boy.  Marty realized he had a choice and opted for the latter.  A cadre of altar boys that numbered close to 40 soon diminished to less than 20.  Not only did he learn that he could question Catholic dogma (altar boys must have short hair), he discovered that he had the ability to lead.  Fortunately, Marty was not excommunicated and graduated from Kuemper Catholic High School in Carroll with a thirst for social justice.

Because I worked after school and on weekends, it was only natural that I might be tired at times.  Putting my head on my arms and trying to sleep was an occasional distraction to teachers.  One afternoon, I popped my head up during the class, Contemporary Problems, to ask a question.  Mr. Galatich, yeah, that guy, made a big deal out of me rising from the dead – or something like that.  But he was glad I had a question that pertained to the class.  “What does ‘Contemporary Problems’ mean?”  The class laughed, but Galatich looked around and said, “good question.  Who can answer that?”  He asked several know-it-alls who failed to answer properly.  Finally, Ann Malloy gave a description of the class that pleased Galatich.  He told me I could put my head back on the desk. 

I did learn a lot from high school, but it wasn’t the one I wanted to attend.  My desire was to go to public school.  I may be better off having gone to high school where I did.  Catholic school taught me to push the envelope, to challenge that which may not seem right, and to challenge myself. 

Since leaving high school, I no longer stand or recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the American Flag.  And I rarely leave anything early or skip out.  But I still question authority.

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