By Paul F. Morrissey
I just returned home from a semi-annual meeting of "The Boys of St. Alice." It is a dozen or so of my eighth-grade classmates from St. Alice Catholic School in Upper Darby in the early 1950s.
Stories of nuns whirl in my brain: Remember Sister Barbara, who waved the foot-long ruler at us? She never hit us though. And Sister Hilda Marie, who would rap us with a blackboard pointer when we got out of hand? And Sister Gertude, who made us throw our Ouija boards into the burner?
And a few of us at my end of the table of 12 admit: "I wouldn't trade a million dollars for the education I received from those nuns."
There are other topics. New hips and knees, various surgical procedures, and we have a Skype conversation with one of our classmates in the Midwest who is caring for his wife with Alzheimer's. But we often return to the nuns.
"Torturers could hang me upside down and beat the soles of my feet with bamboo rods," one guy said, "but I'll never forget my catechism." "Or how to spell and read," said another. "Or write," said a third, making the swirling motion with his wrist that the nuns taught us as we learned the Palmer Method.
They were Immaculate Heart of Mary nuns who lived in a big convent on Copley Road, a block away from St. Alice Church and just a short walk from the school building where they reigned. Some were barely out of their 20s, yet they had the responsibility to keep a disciplined classroom of 50 or 60 boys and girls. And it was virtually the same number of us who stayed together from first to eighth grade. You can imagine how well we knew each others' weaknesses and strengths, and how we could play each nun like a marionette as we went through the grades together.
But the nuns were sharper than we were. They must have had master's degrees in discipline the way they could keep us in line by a glare over their wire-rimmed glasses. And if we went home and told our parents that a nun had beaten us, our parents were angry at us - not the sister. "What were you doing wrong?" they would demand. So we knew when to shut up - and learned discipline even as we had a great time egging each other on in those hormone-driven years.
"The nuns might be arrested today for the way they disciplined us," one guy observes wryly. Many of us nod, but we don't seem any worse for it. In fact, we are bonded somehow, like soldiers who survive boot camp. Over lunch in a sports grill on a cold afternoon, we brag about the nuns and their rough justice now that we are in our 70s. The bond still holds.
So many stories. So many knowing glances to weathered faces that at first you may not recognize. But catch the name and you see the young face of the guy whom you played handball with in the schoolyard long ago. Bud Simmonds lights the fire under us every six months with an e-mail or phone call to meet. He tracks down classmates from all over the country. Some have died; some have just disappeared, it seems. We find who we can. We're like a gang that isn't complete until we know where we all wound up. We are not just satisfied with meeting again in the Kingdom.
Occasionally we meet with some of the girls in our class. But mostly it's just men, sharing family stories, memories of the days when we were young, often still playing the same roles - the class clown, the communicator (now with his computer to Skype with), and even a priest. Some of us are Republicans, some Democrats, some still go to church, some probably not. We don't get into too much that would set off a rumble because a few have gun collections.
We enjoy each other's company at least twice a year, and when we can hit on a topic that links us to the good times of youth - like our amazingly alive memories of the tough, good, and dedicated "Nuns of St. Alice" - we all join in.