Onward Christian Soldiers
I’d bet that I have most of the usual back-to-school memories of anyone who went to first grade in 1965. A plastic pencil box with a retractable door that would inevitably get stuck at half-mast no later than the first week of October, trapping helpless Bics with toxic markers for all eternity. Speckled black composition books with the times tables on the inside front cover. Books that didn’t wear sox, but did sport grocery bags. And since the backpack had not yet been invented (how did LL Bean survive?) I lugged a book bag, sort of like a briefcase for children. I’d fill it with every book in my desk and, with two hands, swing it at my older brother, knocking him senseless just as the bus approached, leaving no time for retaliation. I can still see my third grade bag, purple vinyl with black plastic trim. I was groovin’.
But as a Catholic school veteran (St Peter’s Grammar School, Holy Cross High School, and Chestnut Hill College) I have extra memories that the Publics, as we called any non-parochial school student, don’t. The greatest of these is the annual purchase of the new uniform. Unless you were unfortunate enough to have an older sibling of the same sex, you got to go to the school cafeteria on the hottest day of August and try on cheap, itchy wool apparel. I don’t know why it was so exciting but it was. All pre-pubescent girls look alike in a cotton shirt with a Peter Pan collar, a maroon wool sack with a belt that didn’t tighten and double-thick socks that came so close to hem of the skirt the only thing visible was an inch of that well-known erogenous zone… the kneecap .
Around 8 th grade the stakes got a little higher. As shapeless and sexless as those jumpers were some girls managed to fill them out. I wasn’t one of those girls. But, I told myself hopefully, there was always high school. Bye bye jumpers, hello skirts.
As I stood with my mother in the larger, but no cooler, high school cafeteria I desperately sucked in my 14-year-old, Scarlett O’Hara waist so that I could squeeze into the smaller, shorter skirt. She fell for it. She also agreed to the too-small blouse I grabbed right out of the voluptuous Maggie McQuilkin’s weak, little hands. The stupid socks remained but they could always be pushed down to my ankles after I left the house but before I reached the bus stop.There was no helping that boxy, prison-gray blazer, the one with the crest that read, in Latin, of course, Chastity, Piety, Obedience . It definitely had to be lost in my room, repeatedly.
So, looking like a recruit in the army of God while simultaneously proclaiming my rebel status, I began the new school year. When the homeroom bell clanged, I crumbled, pulling my skirt down and my socks up. But as I walked the linoleum to my classroom, I took a deep breath of excitement and anticipation. I saw the future spread out ahead of me.
And it was clear, wide and shimmering.