"SALUTING THE DEVIL" AT 7 YEARS OF AGE
I was in first grade. Seven years old. In the mid 1960's, particularly at a Catholic School, pre-school and kindergarten programs weren't offered to ready students for their academic careers beginning in first grade. At that time, when we were an older 6 year old or a 7 year old, students were sent directly to first grade - our first experience in school in an organized setting. Of course, in first grade at St. Mary's Help of Christian Church, our teachers were all nuns - (cue the spooky music) Sisters of Divine Providence.
I would like to note that I am not totally anti-nun, particularly in this part of the century, where most nuns are educated, and, particularly those nuns assigned to teaching in schools have had either a background in education or a knowledge of working with children. When I was in catholic grade school, I admit the Divine Sisters obviously had no prior experience in handling children - good, bad, or indifferent; hence, we were all treated in the same manner. If you were an angel of a student, you had it made. The nuns counted on you, gave you odd jobs, and basically were class favorites (and also pretty much hated by those of us who weren't perfect). Additionally, if you were a sibling of students who had already gone through the system a few years ahead of you, you were compared daily to your brothers or sisters. The nuns KNEW, and, if you had brothers or sisters who were good students, you had better also be a good student - "just like your brother." The nuns pulled no punches. Looking back and thinking about my elementary education, I entered first grade with a reputation. I had to be perfect.
However, if you were of "faulty" origins (had brothers or sisters who were "bad seeds"), you were damned from the beginning. Plus, you had to be a quick read - much like the television show The Survivor and Running Wild with Bear Grylls, you were baptized literally by fire. (My wife loves to feed birds and squirrels on our deck. The squirrels and the birds enjoy their daily feast, but they are always on the "watch." When I let my dogs out onto the deck into the backyard, the birds obviously fly away at a moments notice, but the squirrels really scatter. It's like they are "stealing" and don't want to get caught. The squirrels take off like rockets whenever I let my Norwegian Elkhound out. He loves to chase them, but never catches them. They fly off the deck, into the woods, and run up a tree). Hence, you felt like a squirrel stealing food and getting chased by a hunting dog - everyday.
That's they way I had to feel ALWAYS growing up Catholic at my school. I had to be constantly on alert waiting for that smack with a ruler, the punch to the back, the push, the shove, or the "Stephen, come up to the front of the room" command. Thinking back on those days, I often ask myself how in the world could one learn with all of this "danger" hanging over me. Just impossible. I was more worried about a nun stealth attack than conjugating a verb. It was a catch 22 scenario every day. Not be able to solve a math problem or get punished, physically, for not being able to solve the problem. But, how does one solve a complicated math problem knowing that if they come up with the incorrect answer, they will be tortured for the next five minutes. Impossible. It's like solving a calculus problem hanging by a thread over the Grand Canyon knowing if you don't come up with the correct answer, you will fall to your certain death. Same feeling for a 7 year old.
I always found it difficult to believe that a 7 year old student had to be so worldly at such a young age. But it was expected of you. YOU HAD TO KNOW THE RULE. Now, these rules weren't written down anywhere - they were unwritten rules of behavior and etiquette that were expected of you to know going into school for your first experience. And, really, HEAVEN help you if you didn't know these unwritten rules, because the learning curve wasn't very large. By first grade, particularly if you had older siblings, you KNEW THE UNWRITTEN RULES - step out of line - BOOM - smacked in the back with a ruler. Give an innocent glance that looked deceiving - OUCH - pulled up to the front of the room by your hair.
However, getting to my point of "saluting the devil." There I was, a skinny, little, nervous, deathly afraid boy standing up and staying morning prayers. Innocently, after the prayer was finished, I naturally made the sign of the cross. At that time, I was EXTREMELY left handed (I learned to be ambidextrous because the nuns had no tolerance for left handedness). So, I made the sign of the cross as I normally did. Suddenly, Sister Marcelina yelled STOP at the end of the prayer. Crap, who did something wrong? No. Don't look around the room. Don't call attention. Let the scourged get their just reward. As long as it wasn't me. But, honestly, I was just finishing morning prayers. What could I have possibly done wrong? I surely hoped it was someone else this time. I was astonished to see that she came literally flying over to me and just stared at me with the angriest, most impious look I had ever received (from a nun). Flying. Do you know what that looks like to a 7 year old? Like she could fly, that's what - with all of the flowing robes and stuff. If you ever saw the movie Dune, a character is developed in the book and movie -Baron Vladimir Harkonnen - who literally transported himself flying around. Very funny looking. But this wasn't funny at all. What did I do wrong now? I asked myself.
"Mr Arch," she boiled, "please make the sign of the cross for me again." Sign of the cross, for goodness sake. What was going on? So, I made the sign of the cross WITH MY LEFT HAND. Crap. I had no idea what I was doing. Didn't even know I was doing anything wrong. I'm left handed, for goodness sake! And 7 years old! So, I made the sign of the cross again for Sister Marcelina, of course, with my left hand, and she screamed at me - DO YOU KNOW WHAT YOU'RE DOING? Huh? No, Sister, I don't know what I am doing. But I knew that it must have been bad - bad enough for her to stop the prayer and come flying to me. "Well, she said, by making the sign of the cross with your left hand, you are 'saluting the devil!'"
"And you certainly can't do that in Catholic school. Don't you know any better? Who taught you this?"
Speechless doesn't come close to what I was feeling at the time - embarrassed, afraid, evil, stupid.... All of these feelings took over my being. But speaking wasn't one of the things I thought about. What does a 7 year old say to an aging nun, dressed in black robes covering their entire body (you never knew how heavy a nun was - maybe that was their fashion statement), staring you down and telling you that you were saluting the devil. That's quite much to take in. Saluting the devil. Saluting the devil? What did that even mean? Was I now going to go to hell for sure? Was I to burn for all eternity because I had paid homage to the devil? At 7? I hadn't even made it out of first grade, and my soul was damned.
Now, even more frightful: the punishment. A punishment always followed a scolding. The nuns who taught me weren't very big on just scolding and letting it be. You had to be made an example of so that no other student in the class would have to live in Hell for all eternity. So, I was taken to the front of the class (taken meant being pulled to the front of the class by a body part, usually the ear) and made to make the sign of the cross 25 times. Of course, what Sister Marcelina didn't understand that since I was standing in front of the class and making the sign of the cross with my right hand, the "mirror image" of all the students watching me would appear as if I were making the gesture the wrong way. I probably confused a lot of my fellow students that day.
This was my initiation into the world of Growing up Catholic. My first real experience being shamed, and shamed in front of 25 of my peers. I didn't realize this at that time, but this incident would shape my attitude that would last for the next 50 years.