There’s no shortage of Catholic school horror stories based on cruel and twisted treatment of grammar and high school kids taught by nuns, back in the days when these “Brides of Christ” wore black & white Medieval wardrobes featuring rosary beads long enough to hang by the neck any wise-acre who brought a Duncan yo-yo to class or tried to peek into the girls’ bathroom. Mistreatment by Catholic school nuns produced such a wealth of stories – some funny, others not-so-much – that successful books, board games and Broadway shows have been built around the shared experiences of former kids who survived the ordeal. Like Vietnam vets, but with no medals for valor.
Prominent in my personal inventory of Catholic school memories is the time I spent living in Jellyfish Bay: a designated row of 5 desks at the back end of Sister Anthony’s 6th grade classroom reserved for “people who have no backbone.” Students sentenced to Jellyfish Bay – according to this 4’5” elderly troll whose face featured no fewer than 3 moles with long black hairs protruding – were failing to live up to their potential in her class. Although I can’t recall how many weeks or months that I was known to my classmates as a Jellyfish, I remember vividly the humiliation I felt each time a visitor would come into our classroom. On each occasion, I’d slink down in my chair, Jellyfish-style, as Sister Anthony explained to them why we were sitting in Jellyfish Bay.
I’m confident that my many personal quirks, self-doubts, shortcomings and character flaws were either shaped or hard-wired by my time in Jellyfish Bay and by similar indignities during 12 years of Catholic school education. But that abuse did have an upside, in terms of making me hypersensitive to the long-term impact of the things we say and do to kids.
During my high school and college years, because I liked working with kids, I served as a day camp counselor for summertime employment. After I graduated from college, I taught school for 5 years. In my final year of teaching, at a large public high school, I was sitting in the library one afternoon when a very tall, athletic-looking male student approached me. In a deep baritone voice, sounding older than his years, he asked, “Are you Mr. Andrew, who was a camp counselor at Robinson Day Camp?” I hesitated for a moment, wondering if I should cover my face or hide under the table. “Uhh….yeah, that’s me,” I offered.
The student dropped his macho stance and his voice, and explained, “My name is Billy Campbell. When I was 7 years old, you were my camp counselor. One day, you told me that I was the fastest runner you had ever seen in your life, and you gave me a blue letter “R” made out of felt cloth.” As he spoke, I recalled that we would give felt letters to campers as awards for various achievements. “Right…,” I said, pretending to remember the incident.
He continued his story. “Well, I remember that day. I stuck that felt letter on the mirror in my bedroom, and it’s still there. I’ve looked at it every day over the past 8 years, because it makes me feel good about myself, and gives me confidence. And I’m on the J.V. football team here. So…I just wanted to thank you.” Billy shook my hand quickly and walked away. I mumbled something stupid to him, as I fought to hold back tears.
That one moment, that solitary acknowledgement from a kid I’d long forgotten, whose life I had touched in a positive way, was well worth all the time spent in Sister Anthony’s Jellyfish Bay. At least in the eyes of Billy Campbell, the fastest runner in the world, I will always have a backbone.