Dangerous fun at recess for eleven-year-olds in 1969 at St. Rose meant putting your clip-on tie in your back pocket and then, moving past the younger kids pitching pennies, queueing up on hands and knees with the older kids using milk straws to collect mercury that had leaked onto the asphalt from the school’s gas meter. Copper was kid stuff. But mercury was shimmery and illicit.
Each little bit of quicksilver (we wouldn’t learn that slang for mercury until high school) could be coaxed to join other little bits to form beads. Beads formed globules. On a good day, you could fill the bottom of a black, plastic film canister with a tiny metallic amoeba. Once secreted away, beyond the watching eyes of Sister Cornelia and the other playground monitors, later you could rub it into the surface of silver quarters to heighten their shine.
Sister Cornelia was our sixth-grade teacher and a kindred Carmelite nun with our principal, Sister Magella. At the end of recess, one of them would ring a handbell several times to get the playground’s attention. This meant all 200 kids, grades 1 to 8, were to freeze in place. A single strike of clapper to bell followed, which meant lining up by class and gender. Ties on. Mercury in transit.[G1]
While Sisters Cornelia and Magella were separated by a generation, both were of the same cloth. Each was married to Jesus (as we’d been taught), similarly avowed to Chastity, Poverty, and Obedience (whatever that meant[G2] ), and had it in for boundary pushers.
Sixth grade was an epic year of testing boundaries, pushing buttons, and generally getting away with venial sins. Fighting. Cussing. Pushing. Talking. Gum. Like most punishments at that age in a Catholic school, justice felt arbitrary, capricious, and, well, parochial. But by the time the year wound down, we had begun to tune into Sister Cornelia, who was about 25 years old and reminded us of our friends’ oldest sisters.
Like Alice, my friend Paul’s sister, who worked as an operator at the Telephone Company. Alice had money, mod outfits, and a giant stereo. Paul had a turntable where we listened to The Monkeys and played along on his snare. Alice invited us upstairs to her trippy wonderland to offer a counterpoint: “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” by Iron Butterfly. We didn’t really get it. But we were glad she did.
When seventh grade arrived, there weren’t enough nuns for all eight classes. A nun null set. As luck would have it, we drew Mr. Woodring in the draft, a youngish musician and music teacher from a nearby town, similarly immersed in the Sixties vibe. Jerry was snarky and coy and way more libertine than he must have let on in his interview with the diocese. To be honest, turning 12 in the late Sixties with a lay, hippy teacher in a Catholic school was a godsend. Or rather, a jackpot.
Mr. Woodring kept our tween energy in check by improvising for us on his Cordovox®, an electric accordion on which he composed a school-year-long soundtrack for his wards. While electric music was taking off at that point, it was rare at St. Rose. We were still in the folk mass era where squadrons of acoustic guitars buzzed every assembly. It made the amp, cables, and wah-wah pedal that came with the Cordovox quite exotic. And when Jerry got our age-twelve mojo working, music started to sound more interesting. And the seventh-grade girls came into sharper focus. [G3]
Jerry would write songs on the fly to distract us, engage us, and calm us down. Like when a classmate, Beth, lost a shoe. It begat [G4] the “Crying Beth Blues”. “Betty Lou. Lost her shoe. And she don’t know where to find it. If she leaves it alone. It’ll come home. Dragging its little tongue behind it.” It went on — brown, buckled, scuffed, vanished. [G5] Like all good blues riffs it was poignant because it was specific, it was true, and it distracted from heartache, even when the stakes were low.
At the close of that year, we learned that the Catholic faith was working through its Sixties moment too. Pope Paul VI, the pontiff who signed our “books read” certificates, had made waves at the Vatican II Synod in Rome (1962–65). Among other moderations, it came to pass that nuns [G6] no longer need wear habits, a freedom that the Carmelites adopted. And lo, when the nun draft returned Sister Cornelia to our classroom for eighth grade, sans Carmelite armor, we were wholly, holy, wholly unprepared. [G7]
Were I in therapy, this is where I’d confess my passage through puberty during the summer of love in a Catholic grade school when nuns began wearing pencil skirts.
Even though we were tweens, we were generally aware that there was something happening here (Buffalo Springfield, 1966). Paperback books with racy passages like Myra Breckenridge and The Godfather were dog-eared and everywhere. Guest dancers on “The Dean Martin Show”, like Tina Turner and Ann Margret, brought race and gender and game. And for Catholic kids, a good barometer of cultural milestones could always be found in The Catholic Times' weekly movie ratings, where films considered to be “Objectionable In Part” or simply “Condemned” alerted us to important cinematic milestones.
As if to confuse things further nuns become a pop culture trope during the same period. Debbie Reynolds was in theaters as The Singing Nun. Sally Fields was in prime time as The Flying Nun. But for us, it was Sister Cornelia, daytime, school days, as The Plain Clothes Nun, who became the focus of our attention and the impetus for us to comport ourselves.
Which we did. Amidst the havoc of changing bodies and changing times, her counsel over our second year together helped us puzzle out some important things about ourselves and each other. In what must have been a similarly transformative year for her too. Asserting her freedom of expression in a Catholic religious order in 1969 took some moxie. The same year, John Wayne in True Grit praised Kim Darby for having admirable gumption. It was also the year the word “feminist” was coined.
Four decades on, long after Sister Cornelia had left the Carmelite Order, married, and had children of her own, she joined us for our fortieth Saint Rose class reunion. As we laughed and reminisced over the evening, I watched her work the room — with the same cool, quicksilver poise that we were too young to know had also been a lesson.