The Penguin …


I am playing with my stories from Sunset Park. This stuff makes me laugh and since I’ve been carting them around for thirty years, I thought I’d let you have a laugh with them as well.

Enjoy my snippet, correctly named The Penguin, as in the Roman Catholic nuns who scared the be-Jesus out of us in the ’50’s. It is a first person of the adult Antoinette remembering the nuns in her school.

Those cute little ladies with powder blue skirts and tiny little curls on their head are the mere shadow of the old girls.


From Sunset Park Stories:

I was not considered to be the model student and the nuns told my mother when she went on parent’s conference what was needed was more corporal punishment.   

Now it is true most ex-Catholics will go on whining about the nuns and the brothers who taught them in parochial school.  And though to an outsider it may sound like an exaggeration, many will credit a Catholic school education for their life of crime or mental instability, or at the very least, the reason they left the church.   

It was the 50’s and parents did not complain if their little Suzie or Jimmie came home with red marks on the backs of their hands, where the good sisters gave them a whack with the ruler.  Quite the contrary, if you came home with a whack from Sister, you might get another whack from your parents.  It was not unusual for an old “penguin” to pull on your pigtails, or yank you out of a pew in front of the entire congregation.  You might find yourself doing penance on your knees in front of your classmates and your parents would be given instructions on how to best discipline you at home. 

I never kept still, or paid attention or stayed in my seat.  I might get up suddenly and walk over to the window to look out at the streets below.  I rocked back and forth in my seat and hummed while chewing on the end of my pen.  I had blue marks on the corners of my mouth from putting the wrong end of the pen into it.  I knocked over the ink well, seemed to trip over my own feet or a piece of dust, took a header in the cloakroom and ripped my uniform in several places each year.   

I talked on line and in the back of the church and I encouraged otherwise wonderful and obedient girls to mischief.  I talked while my mother prepared supper, I talked the whole time my brother was working on one of his projects, I talked the fastest and the loudest, but for one small problem, I talked with a serious lisp.  During the first and second grades I was sent three times a week to a speech therapist to learn about “Sally sipping seashells,” and how to position my tongue.  “Very good, just slow down a bit and you’ll be fine.” 

I was left-handed and this alone caused great alarm at the first parent conference with the good Sisters.  My mother was told to have me changed over to learn to write with my right hand.  Fortunately, I continued using my left hand, but it was a perfect mess because being left-handed I used the opposite side of the desk to write.

Nuns being the trusting souls that they are insisted in placing me at the front of each class so I could be watched, just in case I might use my “disadvantage” to look over the shoulder of another student. 

I had long, narrow, flat feet and was pigeon-toed.   Until I was twelve I had orthopedic shoes my mother ordered in a shoe store off Fulton Street.  Not only were they very expensive, we had to make two trips.  Naturally, I was the tallest kid in the class, and outgrew my uniform jumper and everything else every six months, including my shoes.   

Having an accident in school meant you had to sit in front of Mother Superior’s office, which was next door to the nurse.   

“Is that you again, child?” 

“Yes, Mother.” 

“Well what is it now?”  She came over shaking her head in disapproval. “Dear me, can’t you watch where you are going?” 

If I happened to trip and make any one else fall I also got punishment for “endangering” another student.  When the ink well went crashing to the floor and splattered several girls legs and socks, I had to get each of them a new pair.  That was my empties for almost a month.  No movies, no candy store and no twenty-five cents for my ice cream soda! 

Nuns in the 1950’s were draped in heavy black dresses down to the floor.  Their “habit” as it was called was a sign of the order they belonged to.  Ours, The Sisters of Mercy had their heads wrapped in white linen that went across the forehead and ended in a bib.  Over this they pinned a veil of heavy black material like their dresses down to their waist.  They wore heavy black leather belts and attached to them was a huge rosary with black beads that went across the body and ended with a five-inch silver cross dangling down one leg.  It was all very medieval.  Their shoes were high top, laced and when occasionally you caught a glimpse of their legs, they had on dark, heavy black stockings.   

We were curious to know if it was true that they had to keep their head shaved, and more curious to know about their undergarments.  When Audrey Hepburn starred in The Nun’s Story, it was fascinating to see her slips, and undershirts. 

Sister marched around the room holding a ruler.  BAM!  “Miss O’Brien what did Ponce De Leon discover?”  She slammed it again.  BAM!  “Quickly!” 

We marched in straight lines in the hallways, and we marched in straight lines to morning mass, and in the yard we lined up in rows of fours according to our class.  As we were always in size order, I was always last on line.   

“Yes, Miss Slow Poke, we can wait if there was something else you needed to do.”  She clapped her hands. 

If they clapped once you stood up, twice you got on your knees for morning prayers, twice again and you stood up and once more and you sat.   

Pavlov could have spared all his monkeys and dogs and just gone to the nearest Catholic parochial school for his experiments.  The nuns would have taught him a thing or two. 

I have no doubt boys who have gone to Catholic school are well prepared for the rigors of the Army.  Actually, I am sure they would report their drill sergeant could never hold a candle to Sister. 

“One more comment and you’ll be down to see Mother Superior!”


I still hear my mom calling me.

 Calling me home to …

fOIS In The City



Filed under Ramblings

2 responses to “The Penguin …

  1. I loved it! Brought back ‘fond’ memories alright.


  2. christicorbett

    I was raised Catholic and heard lots of stories from my mom and aunt about the horrors of their school days, and how grateful I should be that I didn’t get sent to Catholic school 🙂



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