So, this was a surprise to me. I received a message over the weekend regarding my 20th high school reunion and I immediately had a panic attack thinking "when did I get old!?" before remembering that I skipped a few grades. Now, the 20th anniversary of my high school graduation is still just a few years away so I'm not sure why the people in charge of it are so gung-ho about getting it going this early on, but it's a moot point as the entire reason for this email was to notify me that I am not welcome at said upcoming reunion.
Apparently one of the women in charge of the event had a falling out with me over a Facebook post that I had shared around fourteen years ago and flat out hates me as a result. Don't ask what it was, but it was probably one of my many posts about how much I disliked football at the time which really peeved a lot of people even though the entire post was, wait for it, a joke. I didn't even know that there was an issue here as I probably only added this person seeing that we graduated in the same year and I wasn't really friendly with her to begin with because, as I've written before, I had few friends at St. Nard's.
I never attended the 10th reunion, and from what I've heard, not many people did either because it was held on or the day after American Thanksgiving and everyone was more interested in being with family than seeing their long lost bullies all dressed up for a lousy dinner at a brewery some 5200 km away. I considered going to the 20th just to see how fat and bald my old nemeses had become over the years, and to see where they have gotten in life with those fancy philosophy and art history degrees from St. Anselm, Cornell or Harvard, but I guess I'll never know.
Sad face :(
Oh well, I guess I can't do anything but cry and fiddle with a fidget spinner until I feel better.
It’s been nearly a year since I went to court to file for protection against my stalker. Since then, I have been subjected to character assassinations, death threats, and a resurgence of phone calls on my new phone number that pushed the total to a point over 1200. I stopped counting and I changed my number again.
For the majority of this year, I have been in contact with various websites that distribute personal data such as Spokeo and Been Verified to have any and all information pertaining to myself and my family removed for privacy concerns (and because they have no business sharing my private information without my consent). As I have no social media profiles, these conglomerates were the last bastion where my stalker could obtain my information and continue her assault. Since writing to the various white pages of the internet, the calls have stopped and I have not received any further unwanted contact since April.
In two years, I have written much about the torment I have been going through since late 2011 with this individual, but never detailed how we met or the abusive relationship that I was trapped in with her throughout high school. As I have been writing about my school experiences and because I have been an advocate for victims of abuse most of my life, I feel that it is time for me to share that, hoping that it will help others.
This situation began at St. Nard’s. I was not well liked in high school as I wasn’t a jock, wasn’t overly religious and wasn’t involved in any clubs. I sat alone at lunch for four years straight. I was into prog-rock, Magic: The Gathering, and high fantasy novels so it was easy to see that I was a dweeb. I didn’t even perform in school talent shows and never told anyone that I played the piano. Because I lived 45 minutes away it was hard to make friends, and the highly conservative hierarchy of the school guaranteed that I’d never fit in. I even had a teacher as a freshman who bullied me to the point where I was ready to drop out, but I’ll talk about him another time.
Before I continue, I want to state that for privacy purposes I am not going to use my ex’s name or the name of the girl who set us up. So, I looked up a list of the worst names for girls in 2019 and decided to call my ex Diesel and her BFF Chlamydia. Yes, this is what the first result of my search yielded.
While I was a social outcast, I did manage to catch the attention of Chlamydia in Spanish class. (Oh, this is going to be fun.) To say she had a crush on me was an understatement; this girl openly told her friends that we were dating even though I had never asked anyone at St. Nard’s out before, she would force her way to sit with me at assemblies and hold hands with me whenever she got close. And no, she didn’t sit with me at lunch. While flattered, or at least as much as a 14 to 15-year-old could be, this girl did not interest me at all. We had nothing in common, she was failing all of her classes, and her clingy behaviour was creeping me out, especially after she signed my freshman yearbook with “I Love You!” alongside several hearts and a massive lip gloss kiss. She didn’t even know how to pronounce my last name correctly, so the idea that she “loved” me was really off.
This changed a year later, as she was the only person in the entire school who seemed to show the slightest interest in me as a human being, I kept Chlamydia close as a friend. (This is going to be awkward so just deal with it.) Her clinginess was still an issue but I just bowed with the wind. That was a red flag that I should have paid attention to.
Anyways, as a sophomore, a rumour started going around that I was gay, which was grounds for immediate expulsion from a Catholic school. Now, I am openly bisexual today, but not when I was surrounded by holier-than-thou ultra-conservative bigots, and because of the curriculum that clearly stated that both homosexuality and bisexuality were not real and just “wrong choices,” I thought I was flawed in some unforgivable way. This made being a social misfit who already had low self-esteem a lot, lot worse. In order to hush the rumours and to stay closeted to my family and friends until I could either “cure myself” (there’s no such thing) or come out as bi on my own terms, I made the horrible decision to ask Chlamydia out on a real date.
To my surprise, she turned me down, and said that she would much rather go out with another guy whom I’ll call Gary because it’s the first male name that popped into my head. Then she told me that she had already been dating him, while telling the rest of the school that we were an item. Now, a normal person would look at this situation and back the hell out of it, getting as far away from that tangled mess as possible. So, what do you think 15-year-old me did? I asked her if she had any friends…
I’m going to let you scream at me through the computer now, maybe break a mouse or something. It will make you feel better after reading that.
Chlamydia immediately told me about her best friend Diesel, who thought I was nice and cute (she never saw a picture of me before that) and gave me her email and AIM name. For the young ones here, AIM was the AOL Instant Messenger, it’s how we used to “chat” in real time before Facebook or Skype existed. Yes, this makes me feel old. Within a couple of days, Diesel had already written to me before I had even gotten up the courage to send her a single email.
We seemed to be relatable, at least we liked some of the same music though I was the only one who knew that Rush was a band and not a lunatic political commentator. I asked if we could have lunch together the next week, and that’s when I found out that she went to a different school. I didn’t see it as a major problem, but it was definitely trickier to make a relationship out of in the early ‘00s. When I passingly mentioned this to Chlamydia and that I was a little disappointed that she was setting me up with someone who lived over an hour’s drive away, she swiftly told Diesel behind my back and I was soon subjected to her “crying” over the instant messenger that I was dumping her and that she wasn’t good enough for anyone.
This should have been another red flag as Diesel was already beginning to abuse me with a technique called gaslighting, and was creating a false reality in my own mind where I was hurting her feelings just by having some doubts about making a long-distance relationship work in an era before teens even had their own basic flip phones.
Diesel immediately got to work setting up a list of rules and a schedule for me to follow. I had to be online from 4pm to 10pm every weekday in case she logged in to chat, and if I wasn’t there she would get quite peeved with me. Keep in mind that she never told me when she would be online and that this was before you could message someone while offline. Also, AIM did not save messages automatically, you had to manually save them as a file if you wanted to reread an older chat log. I had to send her at least two love poems a week, I had to call her my girlfriend even though she hadn’t even told me her last name yet, and I was required to complement her looks in every chat even though I hadn’t seen a picture of her yet. She had gotten a scan of my sophomore class picture and restated that I was cute, while hiding her own image from me behind a list of strange excuses (for example; she had no disposable camera, her makeup was running, she didn’t have a computer even though she was telling me this over the internet).
My sister Hannah absolutely hated Diesel. They had never met each other, but in one chat Diesel had asked for me to say hi to my sister for her, to which Hannah gave the computer monitor the finger. Hannah could see that I was being manipulated and abused, and it infuriated her that I continued to talk with someone who was hurting me. Diesel’s ridiculous rules also made it hard for Hannah to use the computer for school or to talk with her friends, and because we had dial-up, it meant that the phone was inoperable while the computer was online. I gradually moved away from my required schedule as Diesel and I both worked after school and this freed me a little from her grasp. Hannah seized this opportunity to try and get me out of that pseudo-relationship and would desperately talk with me about asking one of her friends out, mainly those who were secretly crushing on me. She even tried to arrange a date between her best friend and I, hoping that it would break Diesel’s spell.
Nothing seemed to work though.
In one instance, Diesel became irate with me for not being online during her designated hours. She had told me the night before that she would be working the next day until 10pm and wouldn’t be home until 11. I didn’t bother going online and let Hannah have her fun with the zany websites of the era and group chatting with her friends about which 1980s rock star they thought was the hottest. I didn’t hear from Diesel for nearly a week after that, and found out from Chlamydia that she was angry with me for breaking her rules. Diesel had lied to me about working just to see if I was online during her schedule, and seeing that I wasn’t sent her over the edge. After discovering this from Chlamydia, I was sent a long and seething email from Diesel where she claimed to have been in the hospital for a suicide attempt, and threatened to cut herself or worse if I ever disobeyed her again. She claimed that I was being unfaithful and that she couldn’t trust me at all if I wasn’t willing to follow her instructions.
All of Diesel’s claims were false; this was her continuing to gaslight me and attempt to gain further control of my emotions and psyche. A different mutual friend of ours had later told me that she had never been hospitalized and never had self-harmed.
It was only by dumb luck that I was finally able to meet Diesel in person during my junior year of high school. All attempts to convene in the past had been turned down by excuses (“I got a bad haircut!”) despite that we’d be meeting alongside both of our parents and in public spaces to ensure our safety and to put our folks’ minds at ease. Just before St. Nards’ winter formal, Chlamydia and Gary broke up, and Diesel and I decided to go together as a group since Chlamydia was now going to be alone. I purchased two tickets to the event and a corsage for Diesel, and everything was put in place so we’d meet in the lobby of the Best Western where the dance was taking place. This time there were no trite alibis and things finally seemed to be going well.
I was waiting in the hotel lobby for an hour with fear in the back of my mind that I was going to be stood up before Diesel and Chlamydia arrived. We introduced ourselves to one another and this was also my first time ever seeing Diesel at all, and she was very pretty, maybe not what I had pictured, but at least this wasn’t some sort of weird joke out of a crappy Paris Hilton movie. We went to the dance, got a snack and took our seats while we got to know each other better and everything was going great. I also have to add that this was the first real “date” I had ever been on, so I was really nervous and awkward. After about seven or ten minutes, Diesel excused herself to use the restroom and never returned.
I sat alone at our table for over an hour with the DJ’s speakers right next to me, before I was told that Diesel was sick and was going to be leaving early. I helped her out of the hotel while and she left without saying a word to me. I had been given my dad’s cellphone, the only one in the house, and swiftly called home to get a ride. My parents and sister had just arrived at the house from going out to the mall, and my mother was furious when I told her what had happened. She was under the impression that Diesel was a no show, but she was angry at the entire set of circumstances anyways given how much I had paid for tickets and flowers (nearly $150 in total), and for all of this to just backfire in my face after waiting so long to try and meet Diesel face to face.
Hannah was livid but happy at the same time. She was a little envious that I was going on a date to a formal dance and that she hadn’t been asked by anyone herself. She was a freshman and I knew of a lot of guys who had crushes on her but they were too afraid to ask her out either because they were freshman themselves and thus timid by nature, or were in my class and were concerned that I’d be upset if they had asked my sister out, which I wouldn’t have been but they just made that assumption without even talking to me. As a consolation prize, Hannah gave me an early Christmas gag gift of David Lee Roth’s greatest hits (an oxymoron), which we listened to in her room with a dance off to cheer me up.
Despite Diesel’s apologies for what had happened, I later discovered that she was not sick from a bug, but that she and Chlamydia had been drinking before the dance (hence their late appearance) and were wasted by the time they had arrived. Diesel had passed out in the ladies’ room while vomiting and was taken back to Chlamydia’s house so her parents wouldn’t find out that she was drunk.
This was the last straw and I stopped following Diesel’s rules and maybe chatted with her once a week, just staying friends with her. I considered myself single again but didn’t go on the dating circuit as to give myself some much needed “me time” after that whole kerfuffle. I was feeling good and was more confident that I had been in ages. But things would soon take a very different change of course.
On 3 May, I was involved in a multi-vehicle wreck on the highway while being driven home by a livery service. Hannah was seriously injured, but due to confusion and some sketchy 911 calls, it took over 20 minutes for an emergency response. Hannah passed away from her injuries, with details that still have never come to light fifteen years later.
I lost my best friend and half of my entire person.
I was incredibly vulnerable. I had been seriously injured myself, but mentally I was in worse shape than any part of my body. I couldn’t and didn’t know how to react correctly, I bottled everything up, and I considered suicide on several occasions.
My classmates provided an outpouring of support with sympathy cards and interaction that I had never experienced before, but it also opened me up to the worst of the abuse I’d receive from Diesel.
Using this vulnerability, Diesel immediately swooped in and tried to make herself my saviour. She visited my home the day after the wreck and became involved with my parents and myself on a more personal level than ever before. She actually seemed like a real friend for the first time in our relationship. She wasn’t just an internet friend now, and she would visit our home at least twice a month and even showed up as a surprise on my birthday. After about six weeks of this, I slowly and unknowingly found myself following Diesel’s every command, even resurrecting her controlling schedule for online chats without realizing it.
At this point, Diesel became the only friend I had. Even though my oldest and best friend from kindergarten was visiting me every day, and she and I would go out for drives and just talk about shit, Diesel was still the star that I was guided by and was orbiting. Going out with some new friends had to be cut short so I could talk to Diesel. Visiting with Hannah’s friends for mutual support, each of us stricken with insurmountable grief, had to be scheduled around Diesel. Visiting my grandparents had to be worked around Diesel. She had me by every cell of my body and every part of my fractured soul.
By the summer before senior year, Diesel dictated who I could and could not speak with. She demanded that I only stay within her and Chlamydia’s circle of friends and that everyone else, including my aforementioned best friend, was excluded. I still spoke with them, but had to hide that from Diesel. It reached a point where even Diesel’s mother was involved in controlling when and where we would speak or meet. Diesel’s mom even tried to control my parents and used that to schedule dates or get togethers around her work and interests.
My mother hated Diesel’s mother. She was an illiterate, self-absorbed asshole who had no empathy for my family (or anyone). During our last get together, Diesel, her mom and Chlamydia all decided to come to my family’s house for lunch. When my mother told Diesel’s mom that she was doing poorly (as it was just four months since Hannah’s passing), her response through chewing a wad of gum was a sarcastic “Still?” which turned her as red as a can of Coca-Cola. That would be the last they ever spoke to each other.
We had a tense lunch, but Diesel, Chlamydia and I got along despite everything. Diesel’s mom had made some disgusting noodle salad that I feel obligated to bring up for its sheer nastiness, but other than that, it was just a cookout. Afterwards, things got even stranger. Diesel decided to use the family computer to instant message some of her friends despite deliberately coming to my house to visit me, and she was fixated on the computer for the rest of the afternoon before she had to leave to go to work that evening. She didn’t even hug me goodbye like we usually did. This would be the last time that I ever saw Diesel willingly.
After that lunch date, things became worse. Diesel and I were up very late online one night and I had casually written “Love you” as we were signing off. This made her very angry and she refused to speak to me for two weeks. That two word sign off also enraged her father, whom I had never met, and he decided that I was some sort of drooling villain prowling remote hamlets for maidens to have the nerve to say “love you” to his daughter.
Once my senior year began, Diesel was again demanding that I be online all evening to talk to her even when I knew she was working, and she would randomly give me the cold shoulder and refuse to respond to messages before accusing me of being mean or angry to her when I knew for a fact that I never was. Again, this is gaslighting and she was a master of using that abusive technique. I’d write a simple “Hi” to her and she would type back absurdities like “Why are you so mean all the time?” or “How could you have done that to me?” without specifying anything. I started to doubt myself and had to save all of my chats with Diesel just to go over them later and see if maybe I did have a temper or did say something out of line. I didn’t, but I felt like I was going crazy every time I spoke to this woman.
I started to question reality because what I knew and experienced was never the same thing as what Diesel was telling me I had done or said.
This reached a breaking point when Diesel decided that I was not to call her on the phone anymore. She randomly messaged me with those disheartening words: “We need to talk” and proceeded to leave the chat for over three hours before coming back, watching me nervously squirm the entire time in her mind’s eye. Her reasoning was that I was “an unstable person” for having told her “Love you” back in August. This was October and this reasoning was inane. But Diesel had so much control over me that I still obeyed her. While she didn’t want to speak with me by phone, she still insisted that I speak with her online daily, and demanded that I give her my AIM and email passwords so she knew what I was “really up to.” And I did. I didn’t even question such a brash and unreasonable violation of my own safety and privacy, I just gave them over.
Because Diesel had asked me to never call her on the phone anymore, I didn’t call her for her birthday and instead sent her a Hallmark card. That did not go over well. She tore into me that I was “over the line” in sending her that simple card (which I only had signed with my name because I knew “love” was about as bad as a certain c-word with her). A few days after she called me every name and slur in the book over AIM, she apologized saying that it was just the stress of senior year getting to her, and that I was “lucky she still loved me.” It’s okay if she said it but if I said it, oh boy. And that right there was a massive red flag amongst all the smaller ones that I still had failed to see.
Everything came to an end on Christmas Day. My parents were not doing well, I wasn’t doing well and everything in our lives and home was off. After our dinner, with a special plate set at Hannah’s seat with an offering of yams, her favourite vegetable, my mom asked if I was going to call Diesel and wish her a Happy Christmas. I was hesitant as she had told me to not call her on the phone but it was, after all, Christmas. With a lot of anxiety, I dialed her number and was confronted by her father almost immediately. I’ve mentioned this before, but after I asked for Diesel, he responded with something along the lines of “Don’t you ever call here again you goddamn k*** or it’ll be the last fucking thing you ever do! That’s all over now, Chanukah Boy!” in a thick, nearly unintelligible Boston accent, and with an obvious hint of drunkenness.
I never again spoke to Diesel and I never saw her after that (on purpose). I was devastated at first, but once I began talking with my real friends, I slowly started to understand what a blessing I had been given. I started to see through the fog and realized just how manipulated I had been, and how clouded my judgments had become due to her constant abuse. I had even slumped in my grades and in my musical practice during that relationship because I always had to make time for her which meant less time for studying and less effort in my essays. I comprehended that I had more friends than I had previously thought, as she had controlled who I could and could not see or speak to. After making arrangements with my companions and colleagues, I soon deleted my email and AIM name and created a new one as Diesel had my passwords and I didn’t want her to know how to contact me ever again.
Of course, she would later go on to stalk me with her mother’s assistance, but I’ve already discussed that and have had police intervention to make sure that she stays as far away from my family and I as possible.
Given the weight of this very long story, I want to again provide my readers with information on how to leave and heal from an abusive relationship, alongside suicide prevention hot-lines from around the world. Stay strong, and know that you deserve to be treated right and with respect and dignity, and anyone who fails to do so is not deserving of you!
Domestic Abuse Hotlines
United States: 1-800-799-7233
United Kingdom: 0808 2000 247
Suicide Prevention Lifelines
Canada: 1-866-277-3553, (514-723-4000 in Montreal)
United States: 1-800-273-8255
United Kingdom: 0845 7909 090
International Suicide Hotline List
What is the most terrifying movie you have ever seen? For me, it’s 1984’s Threads, a film about nuclear war that I watched in the same week that the United States threatened a pre-emptive attack on North Korea in 2017, thrusting humanity into a worldwide panic. But before that, there was another movie that kept me awake at night for months on end. Technically it was The Day After, but let’s creep away from atomic holocaust for now and go way back, all the way to kindergarten.
Kindergarten in this old timer’s generation was a lot different than it is now. Classes were half days, we mostly played games and sang songs, and we were introduced to the awesomeness that was The Letter People reading series. Those songs were great, Mr. J’s (The Jumbled Junkman) was my favourite. There were no bullies, everyone got along with each other and it’s the only time in my life as a student when I can honestly say that I was happy. Nostalgia aside, there was one pivotal moment that came as a kindergartner that led to years of anxiety, and it involved Fire Prevention Week.
Now, if you have read my short story of the same title (and if not, I suggest you give it a gander) you probably know where this is going. The majority of that story is based on a very real movie and experience of mine. But before that, here’s some background. When I was a child, I attended a four-room schoolhouse and my mother was a teacher in the same building. The school itself was a dilapidated mess with bats in the upper floors and massive hornet nests in the windows. The bathrooms were in the mould encrusted basement and the preschool in the cellar was infested with ants, hornets or mice depending on the season. I actually attended a different preschool because of that, but that’s another story. The building itself was abandoned and the kindergartens moved to the elementary school in the mid 1990s. It was torn down in the early 2000s to build the town’s Parks and Rec building, but some say you can still hear the rats shrieking in the night, haunting the grounds beside Fuller Field…
Getting back on topic, all was well until October and the safety week began. We had a local firefighter visit each class, and we got to have plastic helmets to play with while we evacuated down the fire escapes in the back of the building. They were in such bad shape that only two or three people at a time could use them; the second story classes had to evacuate down the main stairs and then out the fire escapes in the ground floor as the second story escapes were rusted to oblivion and unable to bear any weight. I can understand why this place was demolished.
Each day was a new lesson on fire safety because, as I mentioned before, classes were only half days and there just wasn’t enough time. The lectures ended on Friday with the showing of a short movie. My class was one of the first to ever see this particular film, and everyone I’ve met born between 1981 and 1990 has seen it at least once. This movie is called Don’t Play Games With Fanny Flame and it was the most horrifying thing I had ever seen at the time. I first wrote about this on my now defunct comedy blog Krowness Chronicles, and quite a lot of people contacted me regarding it, thanking me for sharing my story as they had remembered the film giving them nightmares but nobody believed them that it existed.
I am not going to spend my time describing or analyzing the movie, as I was finally able to find it online after eleven years of searching, and have embedded it at the end of my story for all to see. What I will do is detail how this short completely ruined my five-year-old brain. We watched Fanny Flame with another class in the basement as it had the only television, and we were so quiet after the viewing that you could hear the invading insects scurrying beneath the rug. Our teachers then gave a short, oral quiz on the movie and proceeded to pour loads of misinformation into our heads.
We were told that if we rubbed our hands together for too long, it could start a fire and they used the warmth that such friction creates as proof that we were all little bits of walking kindling. We were told that quickly flicking a light switch or flashlight on and off could spark a fire, and that batteries could make our toys explode if we didn’t use them correctly. Over a quarter of a century later, I see that the real reason for these lies was to keep us behaved in the classroom or to not try and “fix” the class toys. But as impressionable little things, and being from a generation that was told to always obey our parents or teachers, we took this as fact for months or even years.
My dad would give me an allowance of $0.50 a week in the form of two quarters that he would place on the bookcase in my bedroom. As I slid them off to put in my orange piggy bank, I’d blow over the coins and over the shelf out of fear that their movements would spark a fire. I honestly performed this ritual until the 2nd grade. I distinctly remember my dad chuckling about it until he finally had to lecture me on the realities of fire safety to wash away the bullshit that I was still lathered in.
I only ever saw Fanny Flame again while in the 1st grade. We had a last-minute indoor recess at the elementary school due to a pop-up thunderstorm, and we were all sent to the auditorium/gym to play. That movie was put on and I remember slouching behind the girl sitting in front of me on the dirty floor to try and not see the TV. I even remember that that girl was my classmate Rebecca.
I never saw Fanny Flame again in its entirety until a couple years ago, and looking back, I can’t believe how cheesy and stupid this movie is. As a kid, I thought “how could any grownup have approved this!?” but as an adult now, the difference is quite noticeable. And that’s where the ending of my short story comes from; that what we feared in childhood is often exaggerated by our own imaginations, and turns something ordinary into something surreal that an adult just can’t see.
So now for your viewing pleasure, here’s Don’t Play Games With Fanny Flame! The video starts at 9:10.
“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.