“William! Put your answers on the board now!”
My name is not and has never been “William.” But you would never know that if you had watched me in my freshman homeroom, or worse, sophomore mathematics classes with the infamous Sister “The Pulverizing Penguin” Clara.
This is one of those posts about St. Nard’s that any of my former classmates will know was bound to come if they happen to be reading. Leading up to this writing, I debated on whether or not to use Sr. Clara’s real name, but because she’s been dead for ten years and I have no fears of the alleged magic powers of nuns, I feel that it is perfectly fine to not keep secrets.
Sr. Clara was the sole nun at St. Nard’s by the time I began my freshman year. She stood at about 1.3 meters with the overall shape of a fire hydrant topped off with a few strands of stray white hairs. She was well into her 90s and showed a plethora of symptoms of senility at best or dementia at worst. She was openly racist and would ridicule the few non-white students in the school using slurs that were generally unheard of by my generation and were more likely to be found in some 1920s or ‘30s setting. Her classrooms were segregated with white boys in the front, white girls behind them, and all non-white teenagers in the back.
For my entire freshman year, I was called “William” in homeroom and grew to just accept it. I was in a mindset where I’d rather not correct a nun who was clearly kept on the roster out of sympathy and ageism. That, and she was quick to slap you with a yellow plastic meter stick if you didn’t comply with her commands. She may have been dwarfed by every single student in my class, but goddamn did we learn to fear her.
By the time I was a sophomore, I had to endure two full semesters of math with Sr. Clara. Nobody was safe from her. She was the only math teacher sophomores had, regardless of their placement level. Every class was divided into Level 1 and Level 2, with Honours becoming available for upperclassmen in English and electives. Level 2 was equal to the standard curriculum in a public school, Level 1 was advanced placement. I was in Level 1 for all of my courses, including sophomore geometry. Even if I decided to change my placement, I still would have been stuck with the penguin.
Let me tell you this: you don’t know true fear until you look at your predestined schedule on the first day of the term and see her name on it, and knowing that you’re stuck there no matter what.
This woman had no idea how to teach. Every class for 180 days involved having our (incorrect) names being called to the board, we’d write our homework on said board, and then she’d slowly walk down the length of the wall, inspecting each equation. She’d stare at your work for several minutes and either check it or strike an “X” over it. If you got the “X” you were required to report back to the board and correct it. I saw plenty of my classmates stand at that board for the entire class, trying to correct the same equation they started with. Sr. Clara would not show you where you made a mistake, and instead forced you to redo the work from scratch with all eyes on you. The only help she provided was to tell you if you were correct or not.
She never once helped a student who had made an error. Had she shown you where the mistake was made, you would, I don’t know, learn something. This would make solving future geometric equations much easier. Instead, you were on your own and you either sank or nearly drowned. I can say, without hyperbole, that everyone Sr. Clara taught had below average grades. The highest grade in my classroom was a C+ and the average amongst her Level 1 classes was a C-. The average for her Level 2 classes was a goddamn D.
I never struggled with math. I would find it boring at times and lose interest in studying and applying the work (until later in high school and college when I took Calculus), so I normally had a B to A- in my math courses after the 4th grade. However, I can say that I did struggle with Sr. Clara. She provided no instructions in class, and if you used the textbook to learn how to apply the theorems and formulas, you would lose points as the penguin wanted you to use her methods only. Methods that she never shared.
Her classes revolved entirely around presenting our homework as stated above. If we were done sharing, we were to start the next chapter’s assignment. She did not instruct in anything, but one of the methods we did glean from her was that we had to be able to recite every geometric theorem and postulate from memory, word for word. Spelling counted. If you used shorthand to write “Two parallel lines cut by a transversal create congruent alternate exterior angles,” the entire equation would not count even when you had the correct answer and proofs. If you ran into the margins, you were marked wrong for the entire equation. If you made a spelling error, you lost half the points on the equation.
This was fun when you only had six lines to work with, and to write all six steps within their respective lines and margins and you needed to write something like this: “When two secant segments are drawn to a circle from an external point, then product of one secant segment and its external segment is equal to the product of the other secant segment and its external segment.” And no, we weren’t allowed to draw our own lines to create more space.
Our exams were equally lacking in information. Most geometry classes or chapters I had taken prior to or since Sr. Clara’s involved three things: one, the given. Two, the geometric shape. Three, what I am required to prove. I then have a list of lines where I am to write my statements in the left column and reasons in the right, using the given as the starting point, or from finding the given myself using the geometric shape. It’s not hard and not much different from solving any other logic puzzle.
Sr. Clara’s exams were usually just a hand drawn shape and the lines for us to make our statements and reasons. She never provided a given, and never provided information on what to prove. That was our job. I can understand this but the hand drawn shapes offered little information by themselves, especially when a blind Tyrannosaurus could have sketched something better. We never had anything like “write a justification for each step” or “find the inverse of the following statement” with questions getting progressively harder throughout the year. From the first quiz to the final exam, it was just a sheet of paper with some poorly drawn shapes on it and no usable information.
Passing had more to do with sheer luck than with math, logic and geometry.
I have a friend who works as a chief mechanical engineer for the United States Navy who still keeps a geometry and trigonometry notecard with him at work to solve formulas and other necessary equations on the job because of, as he put it, her.
Making this more fun for myself, I was docked points on several homework assignment and exams in geometry where I used some trigonometry to solve equations. Had I done that in a public school, I'd like to think that my teacher would have recognized my work as an advanced approach to analyzing triangles rather than chewing me out because I didn’t use the more basic methodology.
By the time I was a junior, I was a straight A student again in Algebra II and math was something I came to enjoy. My teacher was awesome, and she actually showed us what to do and how to correct mistakes in our work. She was only a few years older than us as well so it was a huge and welcome change of pace.
Here, we also had to write our homework/classwork on the board and she swiftly noticed our apprehension. After asking why we were all so scared, we shared our stories of Sr. Clara who was still working with the sophomores. She brought this lack of education to the headmaster’s attention who eventually moved the penguin to the basement library to oversee the few books and computer lab in a move of pointless busy work. She dwelt there like a troll, living out her days until she died in her early-100s in the spring of 2009.
School was never really a problem for me. I was always much further ahead than my classmates and in the 5th grade, both of my teachers even recommended that I skip ahead to the 7th grade in the beginning of the fall term. The lowest grade I ever got during elementary and middle school was a B+ so yeah, I was the egghead and the teacher’s pet. I never once got a detention in my life. I was that awesome.
However, I was bullied a lot as a child. In fact, kindergarten is the only time that I was ever happy attending school for this every reason. My mother was a teacher and always managed to help me make the best of things growing up in the same local system that she taught in. Things started getting worse by the time I was in the 7th grade, and continued to get worse through the 8th. My middle school decided to add a wood waste recycling dumpster near the playground for shop class, and one day, I was actually physically assaulted on the schoolyard near the basketball hoops by a class bully who was wielding a 2x4 that he procured from this dumpster.
I had massive black bruises over my ass and shoulders from this attack and it hurt like hell to ride the bus home for weeks as the terrible roads in town bounced me around with those injuries. As high school started to loom over my future, my family was desperately trying to find an alternative to sending me forward with the same people who had beaten me up on a near daily basis for several years. A coworker of my mom’s had a sister who recommended that I be enrolled in a parochial school forty minutes away for a fresh start and a better academic challenge compared to the local system, and just like that I was attending a school that I will refer to as St. Nard’s.
For the record, this coworker’s sister was going to be sending her own son to the same academy and it was seen at the time like “at least you’ll have one friend going in!” but he ended up enrolling in the local high school to her chagrin and I was completely alone in a strange, new world…
Now, I’m not Catholic. In fact, I’m Wiccan. But I know my way around Catholicism and the whole Christianity thing so it wasn’t so weird. At least, I thought it would be fairly simple to navigate. I was so, so wrong! These are the strangest, wildest and in some ways, funniest stories I have about my time at St. Nard’s.
The Dress Code
If you were to go out and purchase an extra starchy dress shirt, a thick bland tie, khaki pants and the itchiest, most flammable sweater you can find, you’d have the St. Nard’s uniform. We actually had two uniforms, the summer and winter versions. What I just described was the “winter version” and that was what we had to wear from late September until the end of April, or as you can tell, the majority of the school year. The summer version was mostly the same except we got a far more comfortable, short sleeve polo shirt instead. Boys could only wear brown or navy blue pants, and girls wore skirts or pants in the same colours.
Dress shirts had to be white, light blue, lavender, yellow or pink. It was generally recommended that boys only wear white or blue, while girls could have more options. One of my few male friends dared to wear pink with only a few nasty comments thrown his way, and I wore pink for graduation after years of nothing but white and blue had damaged my fashion sense. That was the closest I ever came to rebellion.
Boys were forbidden to have facial hair of any kind, including peach fuzz, and we had to shave every morning. If an administrator deemed you to have even a single stray hair, you were immediately sent to the main office where you were required to shave again in the tiny adjacent bathroom, using the school’s crappy Bic razor. It was a legend that St. Nard’s had only a single, ancient razor that was to be reused by everyone, but the reality was they replaced it weekly. Yes, you read that correctly. I also have to note that the headmaster, principal and vice-principal heavily enforced this rule and would watch you shave, while they all had thick beards of their own. The lay teachers called them out on this hypocrisy but as you’d expect, nothing was changed.
Girls were subject to some of the most humiliating treatment I had ever seen. It was common to see my female classmates randomly asked to perform the archaic finger and floor test, where they would have to show the all-male administrators that their skirts, were in fact, the proper length. Even those wearing obviously long skirts were checked while the administrators ogled them. If it wasn’t the higher-ups doing this, it was the school’s single, bony old nun whose mind was trapped in the 1930s. I’ll get to her in another post. Even parents made frequent complaints to the school about the skirts, and when I was a sophomore, all the girls in the school were required to attend an assembly on “female decency” (I’d like to see how that would fly with today’s #MeToo movement) and the administration considered banning skirts altogether and requiring girls to wear a very restrictive jumpsuit instead. That never happened either.
Regardless of the uniform, we all had to tuck our shirts in. If your shirt was too baggy you were screeched at to tuck it in again. Every morning before homeroom, the halls were filled with a cacophony of religious teachers demanding that our shirts be righted and lay teachers kindly reminding us to do so before the “others” saw them. Those instructors rocked.
There was also a sort of unspoken and rarely enforced rule that made it so a guy’s belt had to match his pants colour. Only the nun seemed to care about this, but if she saw you wearing a brown belt with navy blue pants she would freak out and demand you get a black belt right away.
The dress code became fully draconian my senior year, when the new headmaster came up with a rule that students with “unnatural” hair colours would be sent home until they dyed it back to “normal.” This also forbade girls from getting highlights which caused an uproar, and it was changed so that only “natural” coloured highlights could be worn. I saw two of my classmates kicked out (with a 0 for the day in each of their classes) for having hair that was too blonde or highlights that were too red. This same addition to the dress code outlawed natural hairstyles for the very few black students at St. Nard’s, forcing them to receive distinctly “white” haircuts.
Two of my female classmates had natural red hair, and despite this, they were penalized for having “radical hair colour” which resulted in both of them obtaining blond dye jobs just to conform to the rules. It became that insane.
It is for reasons like the above that I have an enmity towards uniforms and strict dress codes, in addition to my antipathy for their traditional nature of dehumanizing individuals in order to instill control over a group. I was taught from a young age that a uniformed body is a uniformed mind, and that is a dangerous entity to be dealing with. This sort of animosity likely stems from my German and Polish family, who fled to Canada and the United States to escape the pogroms of the late 19th century and the rise of the Nazi party. My great-grandparents, settling in the States from Germany, would hide in their basement when the post or milkman arrived, fearing he was a Nazi spy sent to take them back to Europe.
After high school, I wore a tie exactly five times in fifteen years. If I ever perform in a venue that requires prestigious attire, I will happily wear a dress. You've been warned, Carnegie Hall.
I hope you've enjoyed the first entry in this series of school stories. I have dozens more about St. Nard's and realized while writing this first one that there was no way I'd be able to fit it all into a single blog entry. I'll probably be focusing a lot on high school at first since I have a list of topics to go over, including the time the administration brought in a self-described abortion survivor during our week of mandatory right-wing protests, a speaker who plagiarized a well-known chain email, and a rapping Jesuit priest who told racist jokes to break the ice.