My Year in Sister School: Part I, The Crime

Sister Jean Francis

IN WHICH I don a uniform but not the dogma

“Oh, you’ll find out. Boy, will you find out!”

This ominous statement, tossed my way by my cousin Sam during our final balmy picnic of summer, was half-warning and half-taunt. He’d approached me after the apple bobbing and said, “Hear you’re going to sister school next month.”

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Surrounded by Catholics, Part II: We Decide to Adopt

IN WHICH I see too much and not quite enough

After blessing our home so expertly, Father Berube became the eager recipient of that Catholic middle-class beneficence those who once dispensed it now call “priest adoption.” Back then it was known as “welcoming a priest into your home.”

Priest adoption occurred more often than you’d think. Our family friends the Woodburys adopted a priest before they’d moved to Danvers, but he didn’t last.

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Surrounded by Catholics, Part I: Blessings on Everything

Every Danvers Catholic kid I knew swore by everything Father Berube said. About anything. The reason why was . . . complicated. Oh, so complicated.

“Now you're getting older, your body's starting to change” said Dad. “Any questions?”

“How do you stop getting hard in church?” I asked.

“Don't be ridiculous. That never happens.”

“I just heard . . . in school. Some of the guys . . .”

“It doesn't happen if you're Catholic. You know all about impure thoughts by now.”

“Yeah, but . . .”

“You just got confirmed for chrissake.”

“Not sayin' it was me.”

“Then who? Better not be that Channing Johnstone character.”

“I'm just asking, what if it happens? What are you supposed to do?”

“You say a prayer or something."

“What prayer?”

“Any prayer!”

“But what if some girl’s sitting in the next pew and . . . and looking real pretty . . . and things get out of hand and suddenly you gotta get up and take communion?”

“How the hell should I know? Ask Father Berube.”

from “Questions I Tormented my Dad With”

IN WHICH we are truly blessed.

I never did ask Father John Berube that question, but it wasn’t because I didn’t trust him. He was eminently trustworthy. Every Danvers Catholic kid I knew swore by everything he said. About anything. The reason why was . . . complicated. Oh, so complicated.

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Best Friend

Had I known I’d be writing about Steve, my first adolescent friend, I would have carried my Brownie Hawkeye camera around with me more.

IN WHICH I learn that friendship is more complicated than enemyship.

I’ve never been friends with anyone in the same way I was with Steve Demetrious. It was one of those “more than” relationships. We were more than schoolmates, more than movie companions, more than teammates, more than confidants.

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Bullyland, Part I: Slow Learner

IN WHICH I figure out one way of dealing with a bully.

The solution to three years of Dickie Shears whaling on me was right in front of me and I wasn’t seeing it.

There were other bullies who’d plagued me throughout my young life, and each tormented me in his own way. But Dickie was one of the worst. Most bullies were like one of three types of biting insects: a greenhead fly that takes a bite out of your flesh, leaving blood trickling down your back; a deer fly, a greenhead wannabe that doesn’t hurt so much but is more persistent; and a mosquito that pierces your flesh at outdoor barbecues, making you run straight for the screened-in porch. I had no idea how to shoo any of them away. Bullies were drawn to me, inspired by the scent of fear. But Dickie was like one of the villains that the Avengers would have to fight, a combination of greenhead, deer fly, and mosquito.

The Washington Post reported that 25% of school-age boys say they were bullied[1]. The real total is probably higher than that. Who wants to admit, even to their parents, that they were getting the shit kicked out of them every day?

I was one of them, with three medieval brigands after me in the space of three years. I found myself running out of options. I was terrified of the ride to school. I should have spent my time being scared of other things, like taking tests I hadn’t studied for, or Miss King, our roving principal, who was always popping up unexpectedly. Once when I was exiled to the hall, she walked by. It was doubly bad, because she was a friend of the family. “Why Peter Bates! What will your Aunt Carolyn say when I tell her about this?” These were worthy of fear and trembling.

But bullies? I was scared of one who wasn’t much bigger than I. It didn’t make sense.

Dickie Shears was a dirty-blond kid with a gruff voice and a prominent widow’s peak that made him look like the golden-crowned flying fox I saw on the cover of All About Bats. He hung out at the school bus stop and chased me around trees and clumps of other kids. Once when I fell on the newly paved macadam road, I limped around for a week, bothered less by the pain than by the other kids imitating my hobble. My mother was more upset about my ripped pants than hearing about my run-in. She didn’t even notice my bleeding knee, so I had to tell her what happened twice.

Dickie Shears Cub Scouts photo. He’s at top left, I’m bottom left, gazing in terror.

After yelling about the impossibility of mending my pants, she helpfully mentioned that if I just prayed for this misguided “Shears child,” Jesus would protect me.

Maybe he would, but just for backup, I asked my father how he’d handled bullies when he was young. A mistake. Rule #1 of Parent/Adolescent Relations seemed to be never ever reveal anything dicey about your own youth to your children. My father danced around the bullying topic and claimed he didn’t remember.

However, a few nights later, he came home one night with a box labeled “Father and Son Training Gloves.” The box cover had a cartoon of a boy knocking his father three feet into the air, red stars shooting from his head. For one hour my father tried to teach me how to punch and parry. The problem was he didn’t know how to do it himself and there was no instruction manual. Soon the lesson turned into the two of us just rolling around on the floor, laughing like dorks. The gloves went back to the store the next day. I was back to being fight-clueless.

I tried my mother’s prayer remedy. “It’s not working,” I told her later, after my first and only attempt.

“Well, obviously you’re not praying hard enough,” she said. “I’ve seen you in church, monkeying around during the Apostles Creed.[2] God needs to take you seriously before you’re deserving of his help.”

“The Apostles Creed!”

“Come on, let’s hear it: I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. . . .”

So God let Dickie chase me around mailboxes and fences, and once an entire house, because I monkeyed around in church when I should have been reciting that long, long prayer?

One day, Dickie devised a new torment on the bus ride to school. He would rake his grimy fingernails across my skull and sometimes smoosh my hair into a lopsided peak. To muss up hair so painstakingly crafted into a wave or curlicue, then greased down with Vitalis, was an insult to my cool-guy image. A blow to my twitching masculinity, a symbolic kick in my balls.

It was a challenge that demanded an answer.

The solution seemed to be squirreled between two schoolbooks in my briefcase – a comic book.

Back in the fifties, comic books contained ads for products such as a “Throw Your Voice” ventriloquist kit, “Sea Monkeys” (brine shrimp) you could grow in your own bedroom, x-ray glasses I could probably see Roberta Brayson’s underpants with, a Polaris Nuclear Sub, and the mightiest piece of merchandise of all: the Charles Atlas DYNAMIC-TENSION® SYSTEM of Health, Strength and Physique Building. I had the five dollars from my paper route and, as a 97-pound weakling, actually qualified. I ripped off the back cover of my “Adventures of Superman” comic book and went for it. Dickie wouldn’t dare mess with me.

My kit arrived in June, after school had let out. I had all summer to bulk up before encountering Dickie again. Grunting and straining for two months, I followed Charles Atlas’s isometric exercises. He was my personal trainer and lived in my bedroom the entire summer. My muscles weren’t much bigger, but they were hardening up. I could tell.

Guaranteed or Your Money Back

On the first day of school, I spotted Dickie talking to a kid at the bus stop. I confidently snuck up from behind and grabbed Dickie in a crushing bear hug. In four seconds, he brushed me off like a grasshopper he’d suddenly noticed crawling on his sleeve. Five seconds after that, he had me pinned me to the ground. “Watch it, Bates” was all he said.

The course was a bust. I was so pissed I soon returned the booklet for the money-back guarantee. I never did see my five dollars again. I didn’t send away for anything until Amazon opened shop forty years later.

But then my luck changed. It happened at a Boy Scout troop meeting. The evening had started out badly.

Without asking, the local council of the Boy Scouts of America stuck all thirty of us Troop 16 scouts in the shabby basement of the First Congregational Church of Danvers. The heat ran hot all summer and was barely on in winter. I still shiver when I remember that. Even the American flag looked pekid—pale, perpetually wrinkled, taken down and folded too many times into the three-cornered hat configuration. This was practice, in case a Troop 16 scout were to suddenly drop dead on forced march through the Danvers woods. In which case we would need to present the flag to the grieving parents.

One cold October day we were lined up in formation. Scoutmaster George Murray, an ex-marine sergeant, was strutting four patrols away from the one I was in, Patrol 7. At about five feet eight, Murray must have been twenty pounds overweight. He was seventy percent bald (though only in his late 30s), and failed to conceal this flaw with his Boy Scout garrison cap. He never cracked a smile or chuckled over a Boy’s Life “Think & Grin” joke. Like the standard poodle who lived across the street from us, he barked at me and everyone else. I may have been wary of him then, but I sure as shootin’ didn’t envy his job. He was marooned on an island with kids who’d played with firetrucks only weeks earlier and couldn’t start a campfire with three paper matches (or two wooden ones) if they’d heard a cougar roaring nearby. I noticed that our patrol leader, tall wiry Paul “Gussie” Gusterton, was frantically trying to button the collar of his uniform. I knew that if he failed, he wouldn’t be able to attach his neckerchief properly. It would look . . . sloppy. And that meant consequences.

I’d been in Troop 16 only a couple of weeks, but even I knew that a messy getup like Gussie’s was one of Murray’s key infractions and could earn him a thirty-push-up penalty. I’d heard that the Communists had captured him in Korea in 1952, so here was a hardened man who tolerated nothing close to an unbuttoned collar or crooked neckerchief.

All I did was gape and wonder what was going to happen next.

Gussie wasn’t the brightest kid in school, having been held back in the fifth grade. What he lacked in scholarship, Gussie made up for in pugilistic skills. I’d heard stories that he once beat a kid senseless, an expression I found both perplexing and a little silly. Which of the five senses was the kid now without? Vision? Smell? All five? I never found out who’d said Gussie had done that senseless thing, but I never doubted the story. “Holy shit! Really?” was the only possible response. One ironclad rule we all followed was that rumors are always true. Like when Jimmie Bork had jabbed a kid’s eye with a dirty fingernail and it got infected and had to be taken out. Nobody asked for proof. Why would they?

If Gussie had knocked someone senseless, then there was obviously some poor kid walking around without any senses.

Now as I looked at Gussie struggling to button his shirt, I wondered if he could do thirty push-ups.

Paul “Gus” Gusterton Graduation Photo

Suddenly Gussie looked at me with such distress and bewilderment that I slid over and fed the button through the hole for him. The shirt collar was a little small and he gagged when I yanked it tighter, but we got it done. I helped him with his neckerchief too.

Just in time. Murray was telling the next kid over, “Do something about those shoes, tenderfoot. Next time I wanna see my reflection in them. Or it’s hit the floor for you.”

After we fell out for pup-tent practice and neckerchief-slider whittling, a grinning Gussie came over and patted me on the shoulder. “Thank you!” Gussie’s cousin looked on and said nothing, but his mouth stayed open for a whole minute. Turns out, his cousin was Dickie Shears!

I briefly entertained becoming friends with Gussie and helping him with his homework, but that proved unnecessary. The next day the bullying stopped. Just like that, like it’d never happened. Dickie was purged from my life, permanently. He probably never even approached me again, but damned if I can remember.

But being bullied wasn’t over. Far from it.

Dickie Shears Graduation Photo

  1. The Washington Post, “Being a Boy,” 12/19/2018.
  2. At 115 words the Apostles Creed is one of the longest prayers that children of Catholic parents are required to learn. It was written by fourth-century Christians to give converts a convenient list of “rules” to follow. This meant they didn’t have to know much about their new religion, just the creed. Recently the creed was in the news. Leading evangelist Franklin Graham defended President Donald Trump, who failed to recite it at former President George H.W. Bush’s funeral on Dec. 5, 2018.Graham, son of the late evangelist Billy Graham, tweeted: “Guess what — I don’t usually sing in church. Why? Because I can’t carry a tune! And, I have no rhythm.” This stopped the mounting tide of discontent right at the shore.

“. . . the Twist, the Stomp, the Mash Potato too . . .”

Chris Montez1 had it right. “Any old dance that you wanna do.” When I was 13 at Holton-Richmond Junior High2, attending class in wooden desks with dried-up ink wells, I used to go to the school dances that happened third Friday each month. They were called “mixers,” because that’s what the girls and boys were supposed to do. Mix with adults gaping on. Of course not many of us did. The concept of a sock hop, with minimal supervision and an outta sight disk jockey, was yet to be in Danvers, Massachusetts.

Teen Dancer (photographer unknown)

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