The Penguins …

I love to dwell in the past … our past … my alter-ego and me … or is that me and my alter-ego? Whatever. I spend copious numbers of hours creating and cavorting with her … enjoy taking trips down memory lane with her.


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The lines between fact and fiction blurred long ago. But I have a clear picture of my mother’s first cousin, The Penguin, who played baseball with the boys. Ten years ago I met a man who grew up in Mt. Loretto, a home for orphans in Tottenville, Staten Island, where my mother’s cousin, Sister Mary Ann Catherine, taught young boys the basics of long division and how to hit a home run. He kindly gave me a news clipping from a Staten Island paper with her hitting one out of the park. I have yet to scan her into the computer.

Today, in her honor and to poke at the she-devils in black, I give you 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.


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From Sunset Park:

I was not considered to be the model student. The first time my mother went to parent, teacher conference, my second grade nun told her that 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 with the good Sisters.  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.  Each pair required two trips downtown. Naturally,  I was the tallest kid in the class, and outgrew my uniform jumper and everything else, including my shoes, every six months.   

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 their order.  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 that hung down to their waist.  They wore thick 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 laced high tops, and when occasionally you caught a glimpse of their legs, they were covered in 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, 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 next to your desk, twice you got on your knees for morning prayers, twice again, you stood, and once more, 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!”


Pray tell, what childhood memories did you make up?

And can you still find the line between fact and fiction when you look back?


fOIS In The City


Filed under Bleeps, Blooper and Outtakes

24 responses to “The Penguins …

  1. I remember being jealous of the kids that went to Catholic school – their uniforms, their Catechism, their secret rituals were like a special club I wasn’t a part of. Yeah, I know. I didn’t miss anything fun, huh?


    • Heck no, Laura. You didn’t miss anything. They were the thorn in my butt. Then again, my mother’s cousin and my fourth grade nun were kind and lots of fun.

      I followed my Sister for years and contacted the retirement home for their order and found that five years after I graduated, she left the order. I used that in another story.

      She went on to become a college professor, wife and mom and I still have fantasies that we will meet again one day 🙂


  2. orthopedic shoes. Leave it to you to bring a deeply buried embarrassment to light again. brown, lace up , ugly. I was the only kid in school, at least that I could find, that had to wear them. Being from an old southern family, we naturally lived several decades behind everyone else. (Don’t even ask me about wonder bread.) We all wore orthopedic shoes. I think it evoked the button up shoes and shoe hooks of the glorious past. Now I will go stuff that particular memory back into the dark recesses and hope that no others have seeped out. J


    • Isn’t the truth, Shelley. Those damn shoes haunted me through grade school and the first year of junior high. Then I rebelled and wore crappy shoes for years and ruined my feet. Now I need foot surgery. Ha, the feet of it all will never leave me !! And as an ex-dancer (knowing many a dancer in my time) I have the feeling your feet were also tortured for years. Enough !! Let us put our feet back in the dark where they belong 🙂


  3. “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 grew up in the same time and environment as you, Florence. You have written my biography in this post. Enough said.
    What I vividly recall is wondering if the nuns went the bathroom like the rest of us and if they ate the same food we did. We really did put them up on a pedestal of sorts, like saints, but they fell off in high school, I think.


    • Ah yes, Patti … us ex-Catholic school girls carry much the same memories of the old Penguins. We thought of them as the brides of Christ and therefore, saintly and perfect.

      Glad I could reach back into your childhood and call you back to that time of our life 🙂


  4. christicorbett

    I’m once again convinced we would have been the best of friends if we’d grown up together. I was raised Catholic, went to speech therapy, and was constantly in trouble for talking too much during everything.

    My mom went to Catholic school and because of her experiences she sent us to public, stating that she never wanted us to go through what she went through.

    On a related note, she never made us eat liver either 🙂

    Christi Corbett


    • Bless you mom, Christi … not only for not making you eat liver … but for having the good sense to spare you the Penguin-experience 🙂

      I think us kindred spirits find each other across the miles … and us compulsive talkers make great writers !!


  5. vlmbatman

    Ah Florence, you made it and even sane afterwards. I was incredibly shy which no one believes now. Probably lacked confidence. But I did my work and didn’t daydream (which lets out our creativity) and survived. School wasn’t the happiest place, but it had books and I love books.


  6. annerallen

    I had to wear weird shoes, too. High lace-up ones with steel arches. I think it was to cure me from being knock-kneed. Luckily my mom took me to a different doctor who said I didn’t have to wear them any more after third grade. I’ll bet it’s why I wore slut shoes in my teens and twenties.

    Scary stuff, being bullied by those nuns. Now kids are more likely to be bullied by their peers, but they still get hurt.


    • So true, Anne … my “weird” shoes lasted until ninth grade … after which I wore the worst shoes on the planet out of protest.

      The old Penguins were a force to be reckoned with but I am glad I survived and that they are mostly extinct like the way they taught 🙂


  7. Snort on the drill sergeant/sister comparison, Florence. Sisters of Mercy, eh? Perhaps with all those rulers around, there was no room in the classroom for a dictionary.


    • Oh, Sherry … my nuns were the worst dictators and the boys who had Brothers didn’t fair any better. Catholic schools in the 50’s were not the happiest places to be. And I spent a great deal of time escaping into books which did me well later 🙂


  8. My fiction was I didn’t really have brothers. I had to have been adopted, but my biological family was looking for me…right. I knew it was fiction but sometimes those brother could be a real pain in the butt. Plus, they beheaded every doll I ever got.

    But I always knew it was fiction.

    As for school, I was a parochial school girl. We had Sinsinawa Dominicans. They were in white with black accents, but high buttoned shoes, huge rosaries around their waists.

    We had 3 who were particularly cruel, 4th grade, 7th and 8th. Oh, and a couple in high school we still talk about but at that point we had a couple who were gems. Of course, they left the convent in the early 60’s and started real lives.


    • Darn it all, Casey … my one brother was the doll destroyer and the big one the fixer. It went both ways with the boys. And so with the nuns. My favorite nun did leave the order as so many of the younger ones did during the 60’s and 70’s … There was a Dominican order upstate where my mom’s family lived, but I did hear they weren’t any better 🙂


  9. OH, how I LOVE your voice! I went to CCD classes but never got confirmed. I told my mom before 8th grade that I didn’t want to and she couldn’t make me b/c she didn’t even go to church! To which she responded, “Fine, just don’t tell your grandma.” I’m sure my mother’s experience with Catholic school from grades K-8 was very much the same. And oh, we argue allll the time about our memories. Somewhere in the middle of our stories, we find the truth 🙂


    • Jamie, that is so perfect … “Somewhere in the middle of our stories, we find the truth.” Love that 🙂 Thanks, the memories are so finely blended into fiction that I truly can’t tell the difference !!


  10. Oh-my-gosh. I was raised in a completely different religion. A spin-off of the Mennonites, and Catholics were considered evil — worshipping those heathen statues (as Mom used to put it).

    Our neighbors were Catholic, and I remember spreading out a blanket on in the backyard to “witness” to them after I was “saved” during one of those “altar calls.” The music droned on-and-on, song-after-song, until someone was moved to be saved.

    Backsliding was my ticket to Hell within days or weeks of each one of those events. I think the Catholic girls were grateful.

    And, then! my HS Sweetheart was Catholic. But, I knew Mom and Dad wouldn’t let me date him if they knew. So I looked Poland up in the Encyclopedia, discovered they had a small pocket of Baptists — and zippity-zing of my magic wand, he became Baptist. Liberal religion, but acceptable, in the minds of my parents.

    The things that boy put up with to date me. Incredible. And, it wasn’t even because of sex. We were both virgins when we graduated from high school. Of course, that was the norm for girls back then. The guys? I don’t know, but my guy had plans to get his PhD and took no chances on getting a girl pregnant.

    LOVE your storytelling talent, Ms. Fois.


    • Good golly, Miss Glory … is all your spark and sputter repressed emotions? I know us ex-Catholics have tons of repressions, regressions and … well you get it. Thanks for sharing. And the order of things back then was to date, kiss, marry and then pop the tent with babes!!

      Glad you enjoyed … I love when I elicit your memories 🙂


  11. My fiction is similar to Casey’s. I was sure I was adopted, but instead of exchanger brothers for sisters, I wanted to exchange my many sister for brothers. 🙂 I enjoyed your description of the nuns, Florence. As a non-catholic, I missed your experiences, but as always, enjoy reading about your life.


    • I wonder, Sheila … are you the baby or the middle?? Which birth order?? I was the baby and the only girl but that didn’t help much with those two big brothers of mine 🙂 Glad you liked the “nun” experience. It’s hard to compare to anything else !!


  12. Mine were the Holy Faith Sisters from Ireland, mostly old battle axes except one — Sister Brid, my 1st grade teacher. She had the face of an angel and an accent to match. I remember after a parent-teacher’s meeting, my mom told me with disapproval, “She’s too young.” We all loved her.

    When I was 18, I returned to my home town and, for a hoot, attended church with my mom (since I left it when I was um, 13). I heard someone call in a lovely lilt, “Debra Eve!” I turned and down at Sister Brid. She was a half-foot shorter than me and still looked 20. It was shocking, like time had stood still! I’ll always be grateful for her, because it went downhill after 1st grade! I got suspended in 7th grade for wearing Yardley Pot O’Gloss in frosted peach 🙂

    Great storytelling, Florence. And thanks for the trip down memory lane!


    • Ah, Debra … there were those rare sisters that gave us hope … the ones with angelic faces who remembered how to have fun. Mine was the fourth grade, but I never forgot her. Darn … Yardley Pot O’Gloss? Why you little devil 🙂


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