First, before I get started on The Story that I Left Out of one of my books, let me mention The Brown and White, my fictionalized memoir of my high school days in Chicago in the late 1960s. Forty plus years in the making, The Brown and White is a fictionalized memoir that tells the story of Collin Callaghan’s freshman year at a Chicago Catholic High School. Collin is a white boy who is living in turbulent times in a changing city. He clings to his neighborhood and his family as he heads out each day with his classmates on the Brown and White, the ancient school bus driven by free-spirited Willie. Memorable characters abound as this story unfolds. Collin’s loveable family, especially his Irish Catholic policeman father and his Irish immigrant mother face life together. Collin and classmates blaze their own humorous and passionate trail through the late 1960s. A unique cast of terrific teachers are there to see the boys through. Laughs and life meet readers head on as they travel on the Brown and White.
Now, for the story that I will be adding to my book on grammar school.
The Story that I Left Out
Some of my old friends have never left Chicago and the south side neighborhood around Kennedy Park. For Grammar school kids, the park was the hub of activity. Our Catholic School was just steps away. From where I lived, just west of the park, many of the homes were older, a bit rougher, and with modest smallish rooms. Closer to School, the houses got a little bigger, a little newer, and a little nicer. But everywhere in the neighborhood, there was a mix of old and new. The neighborhood developed slowly.
Right along the street that led from the school to the park was a few yellowish brick apartment buildings. These tall buildings served as a kind of buffer between school and the freedom of the park, between the black asphalt parking lot of the school and nature.
Like all neighborhoods, ours always reflected the seasons: it was green and fast growing in the spring; it was tar blistering streets during the summer; it was an avalanche of colorful leaves and football games in the fall; and it was frozen and cold in the winter with an abundance of exuberant activity around the park’s skating pond.
The Dominican nuns at our school were working hard to do everything as perfectly as possible and likewise to move towards perfection themselves. These “Brides of Christ” were relentless in what they sacrificed each day and in what they expected from us. They were teaching big Catholic families whose parents were in total agreement with their means and methods. Parents at the time were children of the Depression who matured during World War II. Women were wonderful full-time mothers with a confidence that can only be gained after many family experiences. Fathers were often former soldiers who were determined to succeed.
While the sisters at our school and the priests at our church were doing their best to maintain a “higher law and order,” there were times when the social order made things more complicated. And so it was with their dealings with the two O’Brien families that school year. Each O’Brien family was led by brothers who were wealthy business men. They lived in stately homes on opposite corners of the street across from the park. Their homes were new brick ranches with manicured lawns, large garages, and big chimneys for fireplaces that carried a stylized “O” to mark their turf.
The good sisters were determined to show no favorites, at least favorites that would be dictated to them, but the weekly parish collection was weighed down with some pretty hefty O’Brien envelopes. Still, the O’Briens were not scholars. The sisters did not take to them naturally. Most of the O’Briens were average students. Although both the O’Brien families were handsome: one was dominated by daughters and the other by sons.
My fifth grade teacher, Sister Claire, stood looking out the window one day in late November. In her thin voice of authority, she said, “Now, students, if any of your families are thinking of a winter vacation this year, I hope your parents are planning for them to take place during the Christmas Holidays. You get so many days off, we can’t allow children to go with long periods away from school.” She turned from the window and looked around at all of us with a sense of urgency.
For most of us, the thought of a trip down to Florida or any other winter vacation spot could find no home in our brains. It was about as likely as a trip down the Amazon or an invitation to visit the Pope in Rome.
As the weather got colder, Sister Claire turned up the heat–more intense lessons, more homework, more big projects and fairs, tests and daily quizzes! We were all exhausted, but soon enough, we were perched on the Christmas Holiday precipice. In the final hour before the bell tolled for all, we got some last minute instructions–sheets of various information that might be done and stacks of finished assignments and projects to show our parents.
Weeks before, each of us had brought in an old 78 phonograph record. Down in the school basement, Sister Clair had carefully positioned each record atop a pot and placed them in an oven, one at a time. As each record started to melt, the center of the record sank a little to create a bowl-like shape. Pulled out of the oven at just the right time for cooling–each of us were given a brush and some paints to decorate our new “candy dish” for Mom’s Christmas gift.
With about a minute to do, Sister Claire called on Suzanne, the one O’Brien child in my class. She quietly called her over and gave her a thick brown envelop. “I’ll call your mother about this,” she said.
A minute later the bell rang and we were all gone. Christmas vacation was long enough to feel like we would be gone forever at the start, but once it was over it felt like a couple days and we were back at school.
When we were back at school, Suzanne O’Brien’s desk sat empty. Day after day, Sister Claire took attendance and there was no mention of Suzanne. Why she was gone was common knowledge, but we knew it was in violation of Sister Claire’s rules. As the days wore on, some of the girls grew jealous. Marybeth Hannigan, the smartest girl in class was not one to let such things go ignored. One day, after attendance she asked Sister Claire point blank: “Sister, where is Suzanne? ”
A frustrated Sister Claire stared at Marybeth nastily and exclaimed, “Oh she must be sick or something.”
I suppose it was not technically a lie, but we knew…
Two weeks after our Christmas vacation had ended, Suzanne was back in class with an absolute goddess-bronze tan. To her friends, Suzanne told them that she had gone to Florida on Christmas vacation, but had gotten sick down there and had to stay a couple weeks more to recover. That story did not last long because her cousins down the street had been on the same schedule. It took weeks for Suzanne to lose her tan and for Sister Claire to lose her embarrassment.
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