Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Catholic School Kids

Responses to my blog about the rules at my convent school came, not in the form of comments posted here, but in emails from friends to whom I sent a link—dear people who were at college with me or who were in similar schools at the same time. I say of my contemporary graduates of other Catholic schools, that we went to different schools together. Robert Knightly, who also blogs here, is one of my school-mates of the soul, so to speak.

The responses to last week’s blog taught me that, contrary to my assumption, the rules were just as restrictive at the men’s colleges. Here are my friends’ experiences, in their own words:

From Tom, who went to Fordham:

These aren't laughable; they are simply the social and behavioral norms of that era. God, we sure had class then. And when I say "We" I really mean "we." The Catholic men's school I went to had rules at the time that were much like these in many respects --- except we didn't have to wear a hat and gloves to board the train (LOL)!

We did have to wear a coat and tie on campus on all class days. If you showed up at class without a coat and tie you were recorded absent! Seniors wore a "short" (about thigh length) academic robe to class, believe it or not.

BTW, we did NOT have the privilege of unlimited lights. We had a definite lights-out time!

I notice your dress rules do NOT say anything about hemline length. Very interesting omission.

One interesting thing we had rules on was alcohol. Since we were located in a state with age 18 drinking at the time, some controls were necessary. Yes, you were allowed to have alcohol on campus and expected to handle it responsibly.

From Kate, who went to St. E’s with me:

It was like being in prison or an orphanage in Victorian England.

I don't remember having worn a hat when leaving the campus. I too got a weekend in prison there. I was chatting with Rosemary Rush and didn't realize that the lights had gone out. When I left her room, the halls were in darkness and I ran into that (expletive deleted) Sister ________. That did it.

From Abigail, another classmate:

I think I had 21 meals twice. Can't remember the first infraction but the second was watching TV alone 2nd semester senior year. Making absolutely no attempt to hide, I was caught, and punishment was meted out. At age 21 I was infuriated and told Sr.______ so and said I was leaving the school. After much drama including a visit from my very reluctant mother!!!! the punishment was lifted and I stayed to finish. This was probably April of 1963. Can you imagine!

What’s interesting here, referring to Tom’s comment about alcohol, is that in New Jersey, we could drink at age 21. Our rule book reminded us of the law but did not further restrict drinking. So, presumably, at 21 Abigail was old enough to order a Singapore sling at Rod’s Ranch House but not to watch television after 8PM!

From Mike, who went to St. Bonaventure:

Having somewhat similar experiences at St. Bonaventure, I could readily identify with your situation. We too had a handbook of "Rules" (the ONLY thing on the desks in our rooms when we checked in). They also spelled out the "demerits" for each violation as well as other disciplinary actions that would apply at the various thresholds (e.g., simple disciplinary probation, strict disciplinary probation, appearance before the disciplinary board, potential expulsion, immediate expulsion, etc.). When I first read it I was almost afraid to leave my room lest I unwittingly violate some unspecified tenet covered by the "summary clause" (i.e., "or any other action considered detrimental to the orderly functioning of this institution").

Assigned study hours, chow hall discipline, lights out, signing in and out for the library, etc., like St. E's, were all there. At Bona's, being then an all male campus, they were not as big on dress codes, they were very BIG on 6th and 9th commandment violations!! I ended up being put on simple disciplinary probation for having a picture of the Purdue University "Golden Girl", from Sports Illustrated magazine no less (head band majorette with a gold lame one piece bathing suit), posted on the outside of my closet door (I should have been smarter and put it on the inside!). The prefect on the floor (every floor had a live-in Franciscan monk) came in for late bed check and saw it and woke me up and told me to take it down because it was "scurrilous literature.” When I said, "It's what"? He replied, "Look it up." When I did so I saw it meant, "Given to the use of vulgar or low abusive language". There was no language, only the picture. But since they say a picture is worth a 1000 words, I knew I wasn't going to get too far arguing the point.

In any event, I had to meet with the Dean of Discipline (which is another whole story) and was campused for a month. What I didn't know was that a letter had been sent to my parents informing them I'd been placed on simple disciplinary probation (this little tidbit was NOT mentioned in the "Rules"!). The letter opened with the sentence, "This is to inform you that your son has been placed on simple disciplinary probation and that, without corrective action, his tenure at this institution is in jeopardy". I found out about the letter when my father called ME, the first and only time he did so. My frail attempt to point out that it was "simple" disciplinary probation only served, as you might guess, to raise his level of ire. I felt fortunate to be 400 miles away rather than within arm’s reach!

So as Bob Hope says, "Thanks for the memories"!

From Ann Marie, a classmate at St. John’s High School:

What an evolution!

Jimmy Breslin
In 1976-77, a serial killer who called himself Son of Sam terrorized New York City. (This is the “Crime” part of this post!) The murderer took to writing to the journalist Jimmy Breslin. Based on the style of those letters, Breslin, himself a Catholic School Old Boy, theorized that Son of Sam also went to Catholic school. “He understands the use of the semi-colon,” was, according to Breslin, evidence that he had been carefully taught grammar, not a subject similarly drilled into students in New York City public schools. Breslin turned out to be wrong about the Son of Sam’s early training. But he was right about the care with which the nuns and brothers taught us to express our thoughts in writing. As evidence of that, I give you the stories above, written casually in emails to an old friend, but lively, cogent, clear, and concise and spelled correctly. Silly rules about hats, high heels, and baton twirlers in gold lame to the contrary notwithstanding, our teachers gave us skills that have stayed with us and helped us in our careers. In my case, they became the tools of my trade.

Annamaria Alfieri


  1. The college I attended was founded as a men's school but it was too close to Boston to attract the enrollment it needed to survive. So the fourth class enrolled included women.

    I was there in the late sixties. For the first three years, the men were required to wear dress pants (were khakis even around then?), white shirt, tie, ans sports coat. The women were required to wear dresses or skirts and the rule of thumb was that when kneeling, the hem had to touch the floor.

    Senior year the rules were scattered to the winds Catholic school style. The men could wear shirts of any color and either a cardigan or pullover sweater and a tie. If the weather was really warm, the ties could be loosened. The big concession was a change in the rules for the women. On very cold days, and there was a temperature in the equation, women could wear pants. No matter what we were wearing we had to wear nylon stockings.

    At my first psychology class first semester freshmen year, the professor walked into the room and everyone stopped talking. He moved some papers around and then he tapped a small bell on his desk. Two-thirds of the students stood up. He explained that he had done that to see who had gone to Catholic high school.

    He transitioned easily into a lecture on Pavlov's dogs.


  2. Brainwashing! That's what they told us the Communists did! Pavlov. Isn't that a Russian name? Teehee. And Arf! Arf!