Not the Coolest Kid
It was hard to be a seventh grader in Catholic School and be as wild as you want to be, but I gave it my best shot. My peak achievement, I suppose, was coming razor-thin close to getting expelled. That happened because the nuns took the class downtown (Chicago) to watch a boring old war movie ("The Longest Day"--and it really was).
Anyhow about fifteen minutes into the movie, my friend, Joan Ryan, and I sneaked out of the theater to go pick up sailors we'd seen when we were going into the show. We had a much, much better day than our goodie-goodie classmates I can tell you. Too bad though we were embarrassed in front of the sailors on account of being in our queer old uniforms. What can a girl do? Light up another cigarette so you have some semblance of looking cool, that's what. We lost track of time, not that we were wearing watches or knew when the damn movie was getting out anyhow.
By the time we sashayed our little plaid butts around the corner and down the street back to the theater, the entire seventh grade and all its nuns were boarded on two buses waiting for us. "Way to go, Joan" I tell her. She's cool, putting out a fag like nothing is going on. Well, all the talk was about expulsion for the rest of the week. I enjoyed the week at home watching daytime television while Mom and Dad were at work. They weren't as upset as you might think since they were both alcoholics and didn't pay a lot of attention to the everyday family problems. As long as they had a bottle at the end of the day, everything in their world was just peachy.
Joan's mother was a big muckety-muck with the PTA. She was always running up to the school to help out the nuns. It was the least she could do I figured. She had nine kids in the damn school. Anyhow, Joan heard from her Mom that the nuns were cooling down now. The talk was drifting from expulsion to separating the two of us. That wasn't such great news since there were only two seventh grade classrooms: the bright class that we were in and the remedial class still reading aloud like molasses moving down the side of the jar. I had a feeling that I would get the worst of it with Joan's Mom being an Altar and Rosary Lady and every other damn thing up at that church and school.
My parents had never put in an appearance. I would be easy to sacrifice, and I could count on no parents running up to the school to complain that it was totally unfair. Hell, it was totally unfair. I made better grades than Joan. But the next six months found me living in some of the slowest time outside of the state penitentiary. I swear it took one year for those kids to read a paragraph, and I was trapped in my seat with nothing to do but stare at the page.
I'd already been caught reading James Bond books underneath my Scholastic Reader. Seventh grade was turning out to be the biggest yawn imaginable. I almost lost interest in being a rebel. One afternoon I had to set my bus pass on fire just to prove to myself that I still had the stuff. I think my protest was vaguely about how I didn't want to have to carry a little card to ride the bus or some such crap that makes no sense to me now. So as if things weren't bad enough, now I had to walk back and forth to school every day in the heat and in the cold. But lunch time was good. Our class had the same lunch time as the smart kids so I got to see some of my old friends, flirt with some boys and hang out with Joan.
I was supposed to stay right there and hang out on the playground after eating, but Joan lived nearby and one day she talked me into sneaking over to her house. It was an experience. All her nine brothers and sisters were there. It was like something out of an insane asylum movie: Snake Pit II: The Suburbs.
That was the day I was shattered to learn that the whole damn family was ten times wilder than I could ever dream of being. The funny thing was all the weird stuff that went on happened while the non-working mother was home. I looked at Joan's Mom closely and realized I was only seeing her shell. The real woman was far, far away. I guess having nine kids will do that to a person.
Anyhow, we get in the house and her brother Jimmy heads straight for the phone.
"Check this out," Joan says, lighting up a cigarette right there in front of her mother. In fact she had taken one of her mother's fags from her pack
"He's calling the convent," she tells me while blowing smoke out of her nose. "He does it every day.
I hear Jimmy on the phone, "Yeah, hello, is this the convent? I want to know what you wear under those fucking habits and I want to know now." He's laughing a little but we were laughing more. "Do you wear special nun underwear? I want to know if it's black and sexy, or if it comes down to your knees and has crucifixes on it." He has made his voice so deep it's funny in itself. Joan's Mom comes into the room.
"Hurry up, Jimmy. I need to make a call." That's all she has to say, and she leaves.
He finally hangs up, the nuns were staying on the line for some reason, and Joan's sister, Molly, picks up the phone and orders a pineapple pizza. I hate pineapple pizza so I stop paying much attention until I hear her tell the pizza place to deliver it to the Sisters of St. Joseph and she gives the convent's address. These kids don't play, I think. I get up to go use the bathroom, but I have to come right out again.
. "Joan, there's a loaf of unwrapped white bread soaking in the toilet," I scream.
"Oh, that Johnny. He's going to get it this time. Hey, Molly, where's Johnny? I'm not putting my hands in the toilet."
Then she turns to me, "Just pee on it, Mare.. It's just bread." She sounds kind of bored like this happens all the time. I watch her sneak and grab her Ma's purse and sure enough she grabs a ten-spot out of her wallet. Her Mom never glances over from where she's sitting smoking in the kitchen.
"Let's say we go out after school, huh, kid," she says to me with a wink. Joan's sister, Maggie, the polite one, comes over to me.
"Did you have any lunch?" she asks sweetly. "We've got some okay cereal you can have." I realize I am hungry.
"That would be great, Maggie," I say.
We go join her Mom at the kitchen table. Maggie hands me a box of Cocoa Puffs. Someone has written really bad swear words all over the box about how rank the cereal is. "Fuck this shit" it reads where it should say "Cocoa Puffs". Joan's Mom doesn't seem to notice as we pass the box in front of her nose. I can't help but laugh.
Just then the Dad comes home for lunch. I smell booze on his breath. I guess he starts even earlier in the day than my parents. He is full of wide smiles on his bright red face. He greets each one of us broadly, patting me on the head and calling me Joanne, the name of one of the other kids. It must be hard when you have so many kids. We eat our cereal while he drinks a beer. Maggie reaches over and gulps down half of it.
Then it is time to leave the nut house, surrender my unofficial title as the wildest girl in the seventh grade, and head back to school to spend another couple of years at my desk that afternoon. Boy, I had a dull home life--even with my parents parking in the front lawn most nights.