Sister Francesca once made a bargain with me I will never forget. If I could keep my shoes tied for a full day she would award me a holy card. By applying double knot strategy to both of my shoe strings the next day I was able to deliver on the challenge. She hardly noticed but I was bold enough to remind her. I was the recipient of a Mary, Mother of Jesus holy card. (Quite an accomplishment for a clever underachiever like myself.)
Sister Francesca expected a lot from me. She was my first grade teacher (the first time). By the time I met with her wrath on the staircase that day I was tardy in grade eight, she was the principal of the school. (Sister Francesca made it a point to mention that the spelling of principal ended in PAL. She wanted me to grasp that principle I guess.)
My mother and Sister Francesca had to decide together about whether or not to promote me to the second grade. They must have been unsure of my readiness but wanted to make a careful decision. Holding me back meant I would be in the same grade as my younger brother Greg at that parochial Catholic school in Lakewood, Ohio.
A two week experimental start in grade two in Ms. Victory’s class resulted in a speedy confirmation that I was, in Ms. Victory’s professional opinion, NOT ready for grade two. So like the minor league player that moves up for a “cup of coffee” I was sent back to grade one for more development. My brother Greg (just a year younger) was always in another section but from that point on we were in the same grade.
I was put on the spot when classmates wanted an explanation. “Are you guys twins or something?” My way of diffusing the embarrassment was to make light of it all. “I flunked the first grade.” If I owned it and delivered the line well enough, it took on the tone of self-deprecating humor. I learned early on that facing defeat in such a way was disarming. Kids can be cruel at that age but you win if you can outsmart them by showing that you are not vulnerable. I was of course, but this defense mechanism made me seem less of a target I guess.
Maybe I was a late starter, because by grade three I was a teacher’s pet and by grades four and five I was excelling in most subjects. Never a whiz kid but generally recognized as creative and a reasonably good student the rest of the way at St. Luke’s. By the time I was playing CYO football in the eighth grade I was like the Mean Joe Greene of the St. Luke’s Crusaders Lightweight Football Team. (I actually had to lose weight to play but in doing so I was still the biggest kid on the field.)
So in a kind of weird way I have to thank my pal the principal, Sister Francesca for who I am today.