BITS and PIECES # 19


January 19, 2013 by palamow

BITS and PIECES # 19

Hello again from Luquillo,

In a recent New York Times Op-ed piece I read that Roman Catholic parochial schools across the nation are closing at an alarming rate due to lack of finances caused by a decline in donations as well as a slump in religious vocations of nuns and priests. Many of my ‘geezer’ friends were co-beneficiaries of that didactic, tough love, no-nonsense educational structure. However, a system that worked so well for us ‘back in the Day’, may be perceived as antiquated and thus no longer applicable in today’s ‘advanced educational culture’ — but is it really?

I offer the following personal appraisal for the edification of those of you who are unfamiliar with how this ‘sub-cultural’ educational experience worked, and (mostly) worked so well for me and a few other lucky ‘survivors’, some six decades ago…


I am thumbing through ‘Scholarly Scoops’, my eighth-grade class, self-published (mimeographed) graduation manuscript from Good Shepherd, the Catholic elementary school (we called them ‘grammar schools’ back then) in Beverly Hills. Although we all called the school ‘Good Shepherd’ because of its relationship to our local parish church, it was more formally known as ‘Beverly Hills Catholic School’.  I attended this bastion of Catholic education that will soon celebrate its 100th anniversary, between the ages of six and thirteen…

The black-and-white photos of the class of 1948, pasted carefully between titles and narratives throughout the booklet are mini-portraits of a collection of thirteen and fourteen year-olds, caught in a moment of time, each pictured face slightly bigger than a postage stamp. Thirty-five kids with their hair smoothed into submission and their collars fairly straight for picture day…

Every grade at Good Shepherd was presided over by one dedicated nun belonging to the teaching order of The Sisters of the  Holy Cross,– a teacher-to-student ratio that is largely deemed unacceptable by today’s more stringent standards. We didn’t shuffle down the halls and change rooms for different classes. We were glued to that one nun and she to us every day from 8:00 in the morning until 3:15 in the afternoon, except for a brief mid-morning recess and a one-hour lunch break…

Back then, each nun was clad, head to sensibly shod toe, in a voluminous black linen gown called a ‘habit’, a stiffly starched white linen head sheath that covered all but the eyes and mouth, topped-off by a rounded, white linen fan, fluted for rigidity that recalled the halo that circled the head of a saint in religious paintings.  The effect was daunting to us (as I’ve always suspected it was intended to be) and was certainly uncomfortable attire for the nuns in those pre-air conditioned Southern California classrooms. But, miraculously, they always looked fresh and cool and unaffected by such minor meteorological trivialities — and  their linen framed faces served to accentuate and firmly focus the familiar  ‘teacher’s death ray gaze’ that has pinned and frozen recalcitrant school children in their seats since the dawn of time…

Each morning began with a Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag (with hand over heart), followed by the Lord’s Prayer and another short prayerful plea that the Lord would watch over us and help us to learn the day’s lessons – and then, the succession of one-hour ‘periods’ of class-work would begin, the blackboard would be alternately covered with successive examples of the arcane desiderata of elementary education only to be erased and begun again until, gloriously, the final bell would ring and free us once again to play work-up softball in the dusty ‘big yard’ adjacent to the school…

 Somehow, we managed to read and write, solve math problems, learn world history and geography, study verses from the bible and, of equal importance, slowly but surely learn how to conduct ourselves in public…

Scanning the pictures, I spot only one former schoolmate whom I’ve seen in the past five years, and three more with whom I have amazingly re-connected after sixty five years, and now  keep alive an e-mail relationship! .

Having endured the always loving, but iron-fisted (and often ruler wielding) canon of nuns like our eighth grade mentor, Sister Mary Mercedes, we were spilled out into the world of high school, from which we hoped to graduate in 1952, then on to college (in my case, delayed briefly by military service), from which we hoped to graduate in 1956. Here are the nascent youth of the ’50s, no longer children, but not quite fully-formed adults either — on the launching pad of that tumultuous decade, boys with brillcreamed pompadours and girls with Peter Pan collars and crinoline skirts…

We lived in Beverly Hills or in nearby Brentwood, some of us in lovely houses by the standards of that era, others in less glamorous homes, or in servant’s quarters with their working-class parents.  Some parents hired landscapers or gardeners, others were the landscapers and gardeners, and their homes often held five or six kids.

Still, regardless of circumstance, most of us walked or rode our bicycles to school, and by the eighth grade we had shed book bags and lunch boxes as symbols of childhood. We carried our books stacked on one hip, our lunch in plain brown bags that sat, unrefrigerated, in the coat closet until noon, when it was united with a small container of room-temperature chocolate milk…

There were plenty of dysfunctional families, though “dysfunctional” was a word we never would have pulled from the sky back then. And by eighth grade, we pretty much knew which households were troubled. But we came to school and didn’t talk about it, put it aside on the playground each morning as we marched into class as a unit, ready to have chaos come under control for the next seven hours…

Remarkably, more than a few of these pictured teenaged schoolboys later grew into respectable adults, fathers, grandparents, and held responsible jobs during their working lives and are currently admired in their communities…

As I browse through the pictures, I can tick off every name — astonishingly, even some middle names. Every so often, I have an ‘electronic’ reunion of sorts with one of my old friends from this class, and what one of us can’t remember the other is likely to be able to amplify in full. Since we are spread across the country and even across oceans (from the Pacific to the Caribbean), and we are rapidly ‘aging-out’, we don’t plan any physical reunions, but must be satisfied with the advantages of modern technology to keep us united.

It is not likely that anyone will try to reinvent his or her life’s history. When you’ve come through the crucible of Good Shepherd, or perhaps any Catholic school, from kindergarten through eighth grade, when you’ve grown from child to adult, surrounded by other kids who knew you as a lump of clay, it’s not likely that you can feign pretense or affectation. And if you did, the imbedded conscience of Sister Mercedes or some equally memorable nun would soon set you straight…

As Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor, another product of Catholic parochial education indicated in her recent memoir:

“It was a different time and a different generation that believed love was discipline,” she said. “Nuns and priests, like every other human being, are products of their environment”

But, oh, what a satisfying ‘product’, and what a glorious ‘environment’!

© 2012 – Alan Mowbray Jr.


One thought on “BITS and PIECES # 19

  1. Brian Shutts says:

    Still have your Halliburton case from DEC

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