I grew up in an area of New Jersey where everyone was Catholic. And white. I didn’t even meet a Jew until high school. Ditto for a black kid. If I had gone to public school it might have been different. But this was the 1960’s. Dad went to work and my mother was in charge of me. She was pure Irish Catholic and that meant Catholic schools. Diversity was non existent. Today, I consider myself to be a recovering Catholic.
The grammar school had a priest for a Principal and most of the classes were taught by nuns. First grade class was no exception.
The nuns weren’t the problem. I was. I seemed to be smart but I was failing miserably at school. Failing at first grade! That’s right. Mom’s miracle child was turning out to be as bright as a 40-watt bulb.
My parents desperate to fix me, set up a meeting with my teacher to see what could be done.
I wasn’t there of course. I was at home being watched like a hawk by my Aunt Zaz, my mother’s older sister. And no, her name wasn’t really Zaz. It was Helen. But I insisted on calling her “Za-za.” Why? I don’t know, I guess it just sounded right. And soon enough, everybody on planet Earth started calling Helen Clark “Zaz.” Her husband, my Uncle Walter, was probably watching me, too, but since he was pretty much beered up most of the time, he was considered an unreliable babysitter.
The parent teacher meeting went something like this…
MOM: Sister, Hal and I are worried about Richard.
SISTER: I see.
MOM: You sent home a note, and it sounded like Richard has some kind of learning problem.
SISTER: Richard doesn’t have a learning problem.
MOM: He doesn’t?
SISTER: No. He needs glasses. He can’t see the blackboard.
Now, you might ask why the first-grade teacher didn’t just call my parents and let them in on this little secret. I mean we did have phones in 1961. Being a nun, I guess she didn’t want to interfere with God’s plan. Or maybe she just wanted to make sure my parents got the message. Oh, they got the message all right. My parents were shocked. Both had twenty-twenty vision. My mother, almost to the day she died, spoke about how guilty she still felt over not picking up on my near blindness. That’s a good Irish Catholic for you. Guilt is the eighth sacrament of the Church.
In short order, I was outfitted with coke-bottle lenses stuffed into thick goofy-looking frames. Fast forward to second grade. My teacher was a lay person and, apparently, familiar with the workings of a dial telephone. My parents got a call from Mrs. Juniper who was deeply concerned about my health. That was more than enough to send my mother over the edge and racing to another parent-teacher meeting.
Here’s how that meeting went…
MOM: Mrs. Juniper, I got your message. What’s wrong with Richard?
MRS JUNIPER: He needs to see a doctor, a specialist.
MOM: Oh no.
MRS. JUNIPER: I’m afraid so. I think he has a bladder, kidney or digestion problem.
MOM: Oh my God. Why do you say that?
MRS. JUNIPER: Richard is constantly going to the bathroom. As soon as he comes back to class he has to go again. And he spends a long time in the bathroom.
MOM: Thank you for telling me. I’ll make an appointment for him right away.
I never went to a doctor for this “problem.” After the guilt soaked “he just needs glasses” experience from the year before, Mom was starting to smarten up when it came to me. Before she called in a white coated specialist, she sat me down and asked me, “Why do you go to the bathroom at school so much?”
I was more than happy to tell her. The bathroom was far more interesting than the classroom. In the boy’s room, I was Clark Kent. A quick look in the mirror and I would dramatically snatch the eyeglasses off my face. People were in trouble and needed my help! I would turn and run into the a phone booth…actually a bathroom stall…to change into Superman. I completed the transformation by standing tall and putting my fists on my hips. Oh, the wonderful adventures I had alone in that bathroom, battling assorted criminals and super-villains in my mind. That was so much better than being bored out of my skull by Mrs. Juniper.
My mother didn’t share my enthusiasm. Still, I have to give her credit. She suppressed the desire to strangle me right then and there. After a talking to, I reluctantly gave up my career as a superhero.
Up, up and away!