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.