In the spring of 1958, my father was transferred by his company to a nearby town in upstate New York. I was in 5th grade. There were only two months left to the school year, so my mother sweet-talked the portly pastor, Monsignor Canfield, into enrolling my brother and me on a trial basis into the local, overcrowded Catholic school. The average class size at St. Charles Borromeo was forty plus kids, but we were used to sixty from our previous Catholic school.
During recess on my first day in the new school, I was standing in a raw, cold windy playground, talking to some of the girls in my class. Suddenly a gray, gritty, sopping wet rag hit me and my brand new, maroon plaid, box-pleated uniform skirt. I turned and saw Ronnie Menalli, the scrawny little tough guy the girls had just been warning me about. He was pointing and laughing at me.
This was before Facebook. Yes, dears, there was such a time. So perhaps Ronnie was unaware that I had three brothers. In seconds, I had him pinned down in a puddle, my hand on his throat. I was “punching the living crap out of him” as we kids used to call it at home, out of earshot of my mother. Since Ronnie had not started crying, I kept punching.
Suddenly a dark shadowy penumbra loomed over us. I stopped, fist frozen mid-air by, “What is going on here?” It was Monsignor Canfield.
He brought me to the principal’s office. As I stood in front of Mother Ursula’s green metal desk, under the cross, with the dried palm frond curling on the crossbar, I tried to look contrite. The monsignor told her he had found me pummeling Ronnie Menalli. He was disappointed in me, for despite his generous accommodation, I had been fighting. He could not possibly keep me in his schooI, and told Mother Ursula to call my mother. The deal was off.
Before I even tried to tell my side of the story, Mother Ursula announced, “This lovely young girl would never do such a thing. And if she did, Ronnie Menalli probably deserved it. Kathleen, you may return to your class.” On a scale of one to ‘Climb-Every-Mountain’ it was a stunning. I finished out the year, and later graduated from St. Charles.
It has been years since I was a student or a high school teacher. Yet every end of August, with the change of light and the chill in the evening air, I feel an unnatural fondness for knee socks signaling the beginning of a new school year. And I remember the Mother Ursula story. At a distance of many years, I am now am convinced she winked at me as Monsignor Canfield waddled out of her office ahead of me.
As this school year begins, may the bullied not be filled with dread. May they not be bullied. May they be blessed with the protection and intervention of an adult ally. May their friends intervene. May they fight back. May the year end well.