Catholic School Blues
It was 1973 when my mother took me out of the dreaded Modern School, a Black private academy that I loathed, and placed me in St. Catherine of Genoa. After enduring the pretentiousness of the Modern School for three years, where my third grade teacher Miss Williams had a crooked wig and played the same Mozart record everyday during lunch, mom thought it best to stop wasting her money (I pretended to be sick a lot) and transfered me.
Unlike friends who have told me parochial school horror stories, I loved going to St. Catherine. The nuns, for the most part were actually nice (except for Avon selling Sister Regis, who got on my nerves), the lay teachers were exciting and the priests were not molesters.
Entering the school in fourth-grade I was soon christened and became an alter boy. It was something straight out of Bing Crosby, kind of corny and cool. To this day, I think back to those early morning masses and badass Tom Lowe sneaking wine in the rectory; a few tears ago I heard Tom had been in jail for years.
Ironically, though I’d discovered that same year that I wanted to be a writer (after rehashing the plot to “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight” to my playwright godfather), I was placed in a special reading class. At the time, I was really shy and scared to read in front of the class, so Sister Karen thought that meant I couldn’t read at all.
Still, my most stinging memory had nothing to do with nuns and everything to do with Miss Barry, our eighth grade teacher. Tall, blonde and in her early thirties, she was the object of desire for more than a few boys in my class. Miss Barry had been our English teacher since the sixth grade, so by eighth you would think she would have known that I was on my way to being a great American wordsmith in the tradition of Oscar Madison.
At some point in the eighth grade, we were studying poetry and Miss Barry assigned the class to write our own verse. Ever the hustler, I wrote more than a few poems for my classmates, charging them a quarter apiece. Yet, when we turned in our poems, Miss Barry read my masterwork and accused me of plagiarism.
In my mind I was puzzled, because I had written like ten other poems (making a total of $2.50) in the batch, and now this chick was accusing me of copying. “I wrote this myself,” I uttered, feeling like I was going to cry.
“Well, I think you got it out of a book and I want you to write another one.” Believe me, if thoughts could kill, Miss Barry would have been choking on her own vomit. Any sane kid would have told his mom and got a chance to laugh when she told Miss Barry that her son sat in the middle of the living room floor typing poems, plays and short stories on a gray Olivetti.
Instead, I simply wrote another poem. Though I can’t remember if I scribbled it at home or in front of her, when Miss Barry returned it, I had received the lowest grade in the class. Though this incident happened thirty years ago, it still haunts me. Sometimes I wish I could find Miss. Barry and show her my published works; sometimes I wish I could just ask her why she doubted the authorship of the poem.
Whatever her reasons might’ve been, another side of me is convinced that my drive as a writer streams from that experience. Every essay, short story, article and poem the I write right, I write to prove Miss Barry wrong.