Cardella: Confessions of a public school dummy

By Tom Cardella

I was a public school student. I was also raised Catholic. That meant that in order to get Holy Communion and Confirmation I had to attend what we called “instructions” in the early 1950s.

I’m not sure why — maybe it was because both of my grandfathers lived in the vicinity of 9th and Wolf — or because I had friends in that neighborhood, but I wanted to go to elementary school near there. I gave the address of one of my grandparents — something that wasn’t uncommon then, and was able to attend Francis Scott Key School. In that way, I was also able to attend Epiphany Church. I guess you could say that I was a 9th and Wolf wannabe.

I liked Key School. I was a pretty good student. Also went to church regularly at Epiphany. Got caught up in religion so much so that when I heard one of relatives or friends curse, I would say a “good act of contrition” under my breath. One time I got caught doing so by a tough kid in the neighborhood who confronted me. “You sayin’ prayers?” he yelled at me. I weakly denied that I was doing so. Then said “a good act of contrition” for my own cowardly soul.

When I became old enough to get Holy Communion, I registered for Catholic instructions at the Epiphany. I did so unafraid and pure of heart. Reciting and memorizing the Baltimore Catechism became our focus at instructions. It was then — for the first time — that I and the other public school students in our class were made aware of the deficiencies in our intelligence. The good sister in charge of the class had a pet name that applied to all of us, “public school dummies.”

We couldn’t do anything right. It wasn’t our fault. How could it be? We went to public school, a school system Sister informed us wasn’t so much FOR dummies as one that CREATED dummies. I was amazed. I knew parochial school students in my neighborhood and had never realized they had superior scholastic abilities. I knew Tommy Verbitsky had a helluva left hook, which on one occasion he had buried in my solar plexus. But I had never been exposed to Tommy’s intellectual nature.

Being a public school dummy had its advantages. We were expected to make mistakes reciting the answers to the questions in the Baltimore Catechism. And we never failed to meet sister’s expectations. But with it all, through the kindness of her heart, she announced one day in early spring that all of us would be allowed to get the sacrament of Holy Communion.

We began the diligent practice of kneeling and standing on command. The sisters clapped their hands. I hadn’t realized clapping could carry with it a fearsome imperative. To this day, when someone claps, I immediately kneel. If one of us dummies did not react sharply to sister’s commands, we received a rap on our behinds with a yardstick. The rap was not gentle, but it was both well-intentioned and well-aimed.

We also had to learn how to take the host on our tongue without it touching our teeth. Although we were never told what would happen if the host did touch our teeth or if, heaven forbid, we chewed the host, we were certain that we would face eternal damnation. We were never certain of just what “eternal damnation” meant, but we were certain it was not a fun thing. No time outs, we figured, for bathroom breaks and lots of flames burning our tushes. One thing we knew for certain, we wouldn’t be toasting marshmallows in that hellfire. Invariably the host (and let me assure you that we practiced with an unconsecrated host) stuck to the roof of my mouth. One of the most difficult things a public school dummy had to learn was how to remove the host from the roof of your mouth without your teeth touching it. When you eventually swallowed the shriveled host, you experienced a joy composed more of mental relief than a spiritual awakening.

Getting Holy Communion meant being introduced to the confessional. The art of a “good” confession carried with it the pressure of being able to remember and faithfully recite all of our sins. I can’t speak for the other kids, but I always felt that my most serious sin at the time of my first confession was that I had attended public school. I had the temptation to invent sins that would make me more interesting to the priest behind the screen. But then I was afraid that if he asked me for specifics, he’d find out that I’d just committed a real sin. Lying.

The next year I was required to attend the same classes to receive Confirmation. Those classes were uneventful, except for the day I skipped class to play touch football in Key Schoolyard and some girl named Louise ratted me out. Heaven will not be waiting for me in the afterlife.

I was required to wear navy blue woolen knickers for Confirmation. I’m allergic to wool. Wearing red non-woolen pajamas underneath my knickers wasn’t a smart idea. My pajamas became visible while I was kneeling at the altar. Not a spiritual moment.

At Confirmation, I was one of the few kids whose sponsor — my Uncle John — was not a bookmaker.