THE BLOG
08/29/2014 11:32 am ET Updated Oct 29, 2014

Back to School in the '70s: Catholic School Revisited

tom cramer

When I was 12, I moved to a new town and started 7th grade at a Catholic school. I had attended public school since kindergarten. The change wasn't easy, but I survived.

The only good thing about the next year was that we were 8th graders, the kings and queens of grammar school. Plus I had friends, and wasn't the new kid anymore.

My home room teacher was named Ms. Woods. She was new, a lay person (not a nun) from the public school system in Chicago. She reminded us of this several times, implying she was tough.

That first day was hot, both outside and in the classroom. I couldn't wait to get out of the itchy uniform. At the end of the day, I stood close to the classroom door, guarded by Ms. Woods. Students were released in waves. Kids who walked were released first, then bicycle riders, then bus riders, etc.

I bolted out into the hallway as soon as walkers were dismissed. Some kid yelled "You're not a walker, Cramer, you rode your bike." Forgetting about Ms. Woods, I turned back and yelled "Bulls***!"

While effective on the streets, this economical reply is frowned upon in Catholic school. Yet after a whole summer of swearing like The Bad News Bears, it's kind of hard to stop.

Ms. Woods' eyes lit up -- she had her first victim. All I can say is that it takes longer than you'd expect to get the taste of soap out of your mouth.

The next day, she informed me that I had been one of those chosen to do a reading at the first all-school mass later that week. Was that an honor or a trap?

On the day of the mass, I was told to sit in the front row of pews. Directly behind me were the 1st graders, followed by the 2nd graders, and so on. I was happy the other 8th graders were in the back; I didn't need any distractions.

My time came, and I got through the reading smoothly. Before I left the altar, I spotted Ms. Woods -- was that a look of disappointment on her face?

In a Catholic mass, sometimes you sit, sometimes you stand and sometimes you kneel. Knowing exactly when to do these things is easier when you can see everyone else in the church. Not so much when you're in the front row.

I had relaxed after my reading, and was standing when my mind began to wander. Eventually, I noticed the altar boys smiling. I glanced behind me, and it appeared the 1st graders were standing. When smiles turned to giggles, I looked back again. I still didn't notice anything.

When the priest himself cracked up, I turned completely around and looked at the whole church. Everyone was sitting (and laughing) except me. Ms. Woods was positively beaming.

Pro tip: first graders are approximately the same height whether standing or sitting.

Ms. Woods had plenty of other opportunities to punish me that year, and I must admit she could be quite creative.

One day, Ms. Woods sent us to the blackboard, to struggle through math problems dealing with concepts she had yet to explain. We were clueless, and it was torturous. Just then, one of the priests entered the classroom. He asked how we were doing.

"Help us, Father. This woman is insane," I blurted, before my brain could stop my tongue.

After a visit to the principal's office (not my first), I received my punishment from Ms. Woods: a three-page report on Osgood-Schlatter(?). Wisely, I resisted my urge to say "gesundheit."

I asked what Osgood-Schlatter was, and how to spell it. She only gave me the spelling, and said the report was due the next morning.

At home, I confessed to getting in trouble again, and then rode my bike to the library. I was confident I could finish the report before dinner. I spent about two hours, but I couldn't find anything. I had even asked the librarians for help. After dinner, my sister drove me back, thinking I didn't look hard enough. Eventually she conceded there was no information to be found.

I barely slept that night.

The next day, I was scared when I told Ms. Woods I had no report because I couldn't find any information.

"I knew you wouldn't find anything -- that was your punishment," she said, smiling.

Oh, how I missed Public School.

Disclaimer: I wrote this piece from the perspective of my 13-14-year-old self. Today, I am grateful to have had teachers that were strict but fair. When kids got in trouble back then, the parent/guardian assumption was that the child was in the wrong, and the teacher in the right - and in 99% of the cases, that was true. I liked Ms. Woods, and the fact that she didn't put up with my shenanigans!