Telling Tales Out of School

Some friends have urged me repeatedly to write a memoir, recounting what it was like to grow up Catholic in the 1970s, but I’ve always waved them off. Mainly it’s a marketing decision: There are too many horror titles, anyway. Perhaps, well-meaning pals suggest, I could shift the focus from the craziness that filled our schools and sanctuaries, and instead tell an intimate story of family life. But Running with Scissors has already been published, so why gild the lily?  Anyway, I think it’s in rather poor taste to hang stained laundry out on the clothes line — though I have faint memories of actually doing just that, sometimes in the middle of winter, and then wheeling the clothes back in to find them frozen stiff, forming lurid shapes as of invisible bodies impossibly contorted. If they aren’t your family’s clothes, this isn’t usually interesting; but when they are, it stokes in the adolescent mind grim phantasms of evil. Or it does if you’re obsessively reading Edgar Allan Poe, as I was in the seventh grade, which is what got me sent in for an emergency psych evaluation.

Let me explain. The Catholic school I attended in delightfully ethnic, blue-collar Astoria, Queens, was in “transition.” A smattering of nuns in pants suits — I heard from the few holdouts who still wore habits that they were being harassed by the “new guard” into either shedding them or moving out of the convent — and a bunch of overworked, underpaid laymen mixed “experimental” techniques into what was left of the old-style Catholic parochial school approach. What remained of the Catholic educational tradition, as far as I could tell, was a heavy emphasis on penmanship, sitting quietly in your seat, and lining up in height order. (That last feature was especially fun for me, since we marched off to one assembly or another on a weekly basis — regularly reminding me that I was the shortest boy in my grade.)
Compensating for this were the standardized tests — a new and exciting feature, since (not to toot my own horn) I scored off the charts. Sister Mary Rayon Stretch Pants made the mistake of telling me this, after which I pretty much suspended all academic work and concentrated on pestering the cute Italian girls with juvenile love poems. I’ll never forget when Sister called me out late in second grade and read me the riot act: “You haven’t done any of your homework all year. The only reason we are passing you into third grade is because of your potential.” It was a new word to me, but I grabbed it like a get-out-jail-free card. I decided to milk this “potential” for all it was worth. “You deserve to be left back, and have to repeat the second grade,” she said, knitting her caterpillar eyebrows and looking fierce.
I thought for a minute, and answered: “But that would just mean you’d have me for an extra year. And I don’t think either of us wants that.” That was when Sister taught me a new word, one I would hear from teachers repeatedly over the years: incorrigible.
The SRA cards and other high-tech means of teaching amounted to laminated assignments that the teachers could hand out for us to do on our own at our desks, while they sat at the front of the classroom reading magazines. Since I read voraciously in my free time — essentially homeschooling myself on the sets of encyclopedias and catechisms I’d pestered my parents into buying me — I didn’t really see much point in school. At any rate, I was grateful that my parents coughed up the money to keep me out of what I’d heard was the death trap called “public school.” I had the distinct impression that the purpose of public school was to give tough kids the chance to use pointy-heads like me as practice dummies for their knifing techniques. So whenever my teachers or parents would threaten to send me there, I viewed it as a death sentence and would briefly clean up my act. Still, I failed “Conduct” every single year, and looked forward to high school mainly because I knew (I’d done the research) that “Conduct” was no longer a subject.
Every teacher carries a cross, and I’m sure that for most of them I was the crown of thorns — sickeningly precocious, hyperactive, jumped up on the sugary cereals and Chef Boyardee that formed the bulk of my juvenile diet. (Had Ritalin been invented then, no doubt I would have been dosed until I sat drooling silently in my desk.) I smarted off, knew the answers without ever apparently doing any work, and “won” insult contests (we called them “rank-outs”) with so many guys named Vinnie and Kevin that I was forced to discover secret exits from the school to avoid getting hammered into the pavement every couple of weeks. The offended party would wait, pounding his fist, at the school’s main exit, and station his friends as the other doors to cut off my escape — but I’d found a tunnel that ran from the school’s back stairs into the parish’s lower church, which allowed me to slip out at the other end of the block and dash home, often unscathed.
There was one teacher with whom I clicked, and whom I still venerate — my seventh grade English and Social Studies instructor Mr. Torre. He had just started teaching, and apparently no one told him about those tedious SRA cards, since he actually stood up and gave us lessons. When he got to the parts of speech and started diagramming sentences, he must have seen my eyes glaze over, because he pulled me out of class. “You don’t need to learn all this stuff,” he said. “I’ve read your essays. What would you really like to be doing in school?”
I looked up at my newfound savior. “Writing stories,” I said, almost warily. Could this possibly be happening?
He nodded. “Then why don’t you sit in the back and do that?”
God bless the man. I stationed myself in the back of the room, stopped pestering my schoolmates, and started scribbling. I filled long yellow legal pads with the tales that had been brimming in my head. I used a thesaurus and dictionary to expand my vocabulary and sound more like the author whose stories I’d been reading obsessively since my father brought them home: Edgar Allen Poe.
Be careful what you read at an impressionable age. Drunk with the dark atmospherics and the dank, sadistic psychology of Poe’s tales, I sat down to replicate them. The fantasies I crafted, each one set in the actual school building, were replete with disemboweled bodies, elaborate instruments of torture, and students walled up to starve in closets. The last story I wrote for Mr. Torre, as I remember, entailed an adulterous parent, who had murdered his wife, being trapped in the school’s auditorium/bingo hall/folk Mass chapel by thousands of hungry rats, each bearing the face of his dead and vengeful wife. By the thousands, they clambered over him, gnawing and tearing . . .
Now Columbine hadn’t happened yet, but when my teacher read these, he was scared. He didn’t say why, but he scheduled an immediate appointment with some diocesan counseling center. My parents had to come too, and after several sessions with kindly social workers, my verdict was delivered: This kid is not well-suited to the educational resources of the school. Please just leave him alone, and he’ll turn out fine. Which is what good Mr. Torre had intuited in the first place. I told him about Poe, and the fear drained from his face. I returned to the back of the classroom with my legal pad and wrote.
God bless good Mr. Torre, who recently retired. For ten years, I lived down the block from my old school, and I’d stop in to see him periodically. When my first book was published, I marched straight down there and gave him a signed copy, telling him what a big part he’d played in getting me started as a writer. He smiled, but then a strange look crossed his face. “We were worried about you. You could have gone either way.”
“No, Mr. Torre. I was only writing that way because of Edgar Allen Poe!”
He nodded graciously. “Sure you were.” 

  • John Zmirak

    John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as editor of Crisis.

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