What Catholic School Taught Me About Violence

Every once in a while I run into someone who, like me, attended Catholic school in the '50s and '60s. These encounters usually follow a pattern. We establish terms of service—I put in 13 years, including kindergarten—test our memories of the Baltimore Catechism and the Latin mass, and recall things like meatless Fridays, the scourge of "impure thoughts" and Limbo, the nice but God-free place where babies who died before baptism spent eternity (and which the church essentially did away with in 2007). There is an odd charm to much of this, a quaint and funny weirdness that only another Catholic from that era can truly appreciate.

But the conversations inevitably turn to a decidedly less charming subject—getting smacked by nuns. I have no idea whether slapping kids across the face was officially sanctioned by the church in those days. I only know it happened, to me and plenty of other kids. The nuns who smacked me and my friends at our small elementary school in New Jersey were Sisters of Charity, a cheap bit of irony that always draws a chuckle when I talk about being on the receiving end of those holy rights and lefts. And let me say right here that not every nun I encountered in the early '60s resorted to physical violence. Most didn't, in fact, but the ones who did established a pervasive atmosphere of low-grade dread that still taints my memories of those years.

The offenses that brought down the wrath of the sisters included "talking back"—which was my specialty—swearing, fighting, fooling around in church, throwing snowballs at girls and so on. In other words, kid stuff. And because each nun had her own mysterious criteria, not to mention her own unfathomable (to us, anyway) moods, there was a nerve-racking randomness to the way punishment was meted out. A wisecrack might bring a dirty look one day and a slap the next.

Certain kids came in for more than their fair share of abuse. Some of these "troublemakers" simply could not contain their outrage at the treatment they received. They overreacted when hit—crying, yelling, stomping out of the classroom—thus establishing themselves as easy targets for future smacks. The rest of us learned early on to take our punishment without flinching. While I don't recall ever seeing a girl get slapped across the face, my brother Michael, two years ahead of me, remembers that the girls usually got whacked across the knuckles with a ruler; that was the method used on a seventh-grade classmate of his whose uniform skirt was deemed too short.

If there was an upside to the nuns' use of corporal punishment (a shameless euphemism that masks the inherent inequality at work when an adult strikes a child), it was the spirit of camaraderie it fostered among the students. It was us against them, all the way. We were united in our defiance of the nuns' authority—and the church's, for that matter—and we each felt every slap, not just the ones that fell across our own cheeks. Our parents weren't much help; they'd been through it themselves when they were kids and they accepted it. So we were on our own, and if it made some of us tougher, wiser and less trusting of people in power than we might otherwise have become, I guess that's a good thing. But I wouldn't want anyone else to go through the crap we went through. The use of physical violence against children in school may or may not create order and improve test scores, but it certainly teaches kids about humiliation and fear. And what fifth grader needs to learn about things like that?