Not unlike other Irish/Italian families, parochial school was a standard; better to have the nuns deal with the messy work of discipline, especially with the Tafuni children. Everything you’ve ever heard about Catholic school is true – I swear it!
Two years ago, I joined a handful of schoolmates at a 40th class reunion. Not for high school or college, but for St James, my elementary school. Diane, my best friend at home and school, organized the informal outing. Having spent eight years together, my classmates and I were close, not always in friendship, but united in our mutual respect and disdain for corporal law, the discipline of Catholic School. The rules were so strict, that many of us found it more fun to find ways around them. Laughing out of control simply because we felt so stifled by the controlling environment, that when were in trouble, our laughter grew worse.
Right from the beginning, we were taught about guilt and warned about punishment. Following our First Penance in 2nd grade, we joined the rest of the students attending confession every First Thursday of the month to purify our souls for First Friday mass. Each grade had an allotted time slot, so the priest wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the web of lies ready to assault him. As we stood in line waiting for our turns, we discussed the transgressions we would make up. I said, “I’m going to tell him I fought with my brother five times.” Diane shared, “I’m going to tell him I pinched my sister by accident.” Colleen mused, “I’ll say I disrespected my mother twice.” Siblings were lower than parents on the commandment scale, so we had to be careful to weigh out the sin against the expected penance. Even though we all “used the Lord’s name in vain,” we would never admit it! That one topped the list.
Most of the punishments far exceeded the crime. This one in particular had me in tears. Joe and Carl were dueling with the water from opposing fountains, the old white porcelain ones, where the knob could be hyper-extended causing the water to leap out of one side all the way over to the other. Typical, self-absorbed adolescents, they weren’t smart enough to realize they were only twenty feet away from the principal’s office. It didn’t take long for Sister Barnabas to step out to investigate the commotion. The punishment? She pulled them close, face to face, and using their neckties, she tied them together to the pole outside the restrooms, publicly humiliating them, while sending a message to the rest of the potential rule-breakers… not even kidding!
Another time, in 2nd grade, David told on Glenn for some minor offense. As a result, David, the tattler wore the tattle tail for the rest of the day. In 3rd grade, Mrs. Drexler asked Donna to be the monitor, and to write down the initials of the children who were talking during the day. Right before the bell rang, she stood up front to snitch on her classmates – poor kid. As soon as she landed on LT, yours truly, Laurie Tafuni, I defiantly shouted, “That’s not me, that’s Lucy Tomallo!” Mind you, Lucy was the quietest girl in the class. The punishment? I had to stay after school, write an apology to the teacher and class, and write on the blackboard, I will not call out in class. No warning for my parents, or my brothers who would be waiting for me by the bus. Case closed.
One of the more humorous crimes occurred off school premises. Even though Diane and I rode the bus, and were expected to eat lunch in the cafeteria, our friend Colleen was a walker, and wanted us to join her at her house instead. Sister Barnabus was more than eager to approve permission, hoping for some peace and quiet in the middle of the day. On our way back to school, we regularly headed over to Cozy’s Candy Store, an “off limits” location for the St James students, as it was considered a drug den – not kidding. There we would fill the pockets of our uniform vests with candy and sneak it into our mouth all afternoon. One day we were greeted by Sister Barnabus, who got wind of our daily outing. Already in the middle of our purchases, Lou, the shop owner, saw her coming and hid Diane and Colleen behind the counter. Not paying attention, my hand was reaching for some sweet tarts, when I noticed a black and white sleeve come across my shoulder led by a gnarled hand headed straight for mine. Sister B marched us back to school. While Diane and Colleen were smirking silently, I continued to sass her, “This is so unfair! It’s a public place. We should be allowed to go where we want!” guaranteeing myself a more severe punishment.
Although we had a great time poking fun at our religious training, all kidding aside, it seems we all share a steadfast faith. As we were catching up on our lives as adults, many of us found ourselves on our knees praying for ailing parents, challenging children and financial stresses. Despite the relentless voice of Sister’s “Nun of this and nun of that,” we all agreed that St. James School did provide us with a moral compass and code of behavior.