The Scourge of Notre Dame

hunchback of notre dame

“I will not throw chalk at Nathan Pickler’s head. I will not throw chalk at Nathan Pickler’s head. I will not throw chalk at Nathan Pickler’s head.” And so on and so on.

After cutting up and looking for ways to continually push the envelope, you’d think that I would have learned my lesson by now: don’t get caught throwing chalk at the back of Nathan Pickler’s head. But I did, so there I was standing at a blackboard in a nearly deserted classroom two hours after all my friends had gone home. At Notre Dame High School, they called it detention. At other penal institutions, it’s known as incarceration, detainment or being sent up the river.

I found myself attending Notre Dame by once again blindly following in my brother’s footsteps. It wasn’t the first time. Nor would it be the last. As a misguided 9th grader, there was something alluring about attending a private, all-boy Catholic high school run by the Brothers of the Holy Cross – sort of like getting accepted for SEAL training when you’re 14 years old. Compared to other schools, Notre Dame was not only harder to get into, it was more difficult to stay out of trouble once you got there. But the Brothers did the best they could by introducing us to a life of spirituality, human compassion and frequent doses of corporal punishment.

As a private college prep school, Notre Dame was supposed to provide its students with a quality education while underscoring the spiritual tenants of the Roman Catholic Church. At least that’s what they printed on their brochure. Of course, that didn’t make any difference to me. I was just there to have a good time – until I discovered that their curriculum stressed literature, mathematics, political science and Latin. Where were the wood shop and stained glass window classes?

The primary difference between Notre Dame and most public schools was the absence of women. Except for mine, there wasn’t a good looking pair of legs to be found anywhere until you got off campus. There weren’t female school nurses, guidance counselors or even middle-aged hair-netted women behind the steam tables in the cafeteria. Every function was staffed by boys and Brothers. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the Congregation of Holy Cross felt girls were a distraction to young men growing up seeking an education, but they underestimated one crucial thing: if a young man doesn’t have to worry about looking stupid in front of girls, he’s free to channel that unused energy into unbridled shenanigans. Ground zero was usually one of the Brothers or their classrooms.

My capricious introduction into a life of crime began in Brother Eugenio’s Spanish class. Brother Eugenio was as round as he was short, so navigating the classroom was the most demanding activity you could expect from him until he had to sit down. Five minutes before class, Seamus O’Toole goaded me into helping him slide Brother Eugenio’s desk forward until the front legs balanced precariously like a rock climber on the edge of the lecture platform. When Brother Eugenio slid behind his desk, the entire structure collapsed, trapping him underneath until the Fire Department arrived to extricate him using the Jaws of Life. Class was cancelled early, so we never did learn how to conjugate the present tense of irregular verbs. I doubted I’d need them anyway.

One of the best pranks required nothing but well-choreographed teamwork on the part of everyone in beginning Algebra. At precisely 2:15, Brother Gerald would usually turn toward the blackboard to write the equation of the day. In unison the entire class scooted their desks toward the front of the classroom, one imperceptible inch at a time. Each time Tommy DaVicincio nodded, we’d scoot forward another inch. Brother Gerald was in the midst of writing an equation that took up half the blackboard, during which time we’d continue our forward migration until we were literally 18 inches from the front of the classroom. After putting down his chalk, Brother Gerald turned around and said, “For your homework tonight, I want you to finish solving… gasp!” Pinned against the front wall, the entire class had slipped forward like a lava flow until we were touching the front of his thighs. We all got detention.

Some of the pranks involved special equipment, like fresh fruit. Tommy Kennedy’s family owned a produce market, so he brought a bag of fresh oranges to school. Fifteen minutes before Latin class started, we carved the oranges into quarters and gave one to each member of the class with specific instructions: hide the orange quarter in your mouth, peel-side-out and walk sullenly into class. At precisely 11:16, look up and smile your biggest smile. Brother Anthony’s classroom lit up like an operating room. Unfortunately, he was also the assistant Varsity football coach and had a few tricks of his own: he gave each of us 5 detentions and “encouraged” each of us to donate our lunch money to the school’s athletic fund.

By the middle of the semester, the capers were becoming more and more sophisticated and it was getting harder to organize a good stunt without getting dinged with detention, whose methods were becoming more barbaric with every passing week. Writing on the blackboard was replaced with mild forms of torture like having to hold two chemistry textbooks horizontally at arms length for an hour – which, of course, no one could ever do. More egregious violations usually resulted in a dozen painful swats against the backs of our thighs using “The Board of Education.” Eventually, Administration caught wind of the water boarding and kneeling on ball bearings and put a stop to any form of punishment that left permanent marks or required surgery. Which resulted in more sophisticated classroom gags.

Besides detention, daily study hall was the most futile attempt at trying to bridle the energy of 200 young men counting the minutes until the end of the day. A stunt might start with a simple cough. Then, someone on the far side of the room would hack and wheeze. This was followed by one after another until study hall sounded like a 1920s tuberculosis ward. Another prank began with one of the students kicking a marble toward the back of the study hall. Propelled by the next set of feet, it would ricochet against hundreds of metal chair legs like a pinball until it eventually rolled out the door. There were so many students in on the act, it was impossible to dole out detention to everyone. There just weren’t enough classrooms or proctors, so they collared the first few suspects they could find – which usually included a handful of freshmen who weren’t even in on it.

But above all, the Brothers hated the rain. On the days when inclement weather kept us from eating our lunch outdoors, we were herded into the gymnasium – the freshmen and sophomores on one side and the juniors and seniors on the other. The basketball court served as “no man’s land” separating the upper from the lower classmen. There wasn’t any reason we had to be rivals. We were just following a long tradition in boys’ schools. So, as soon as the patrolling proctor exited the floor to take a restroom break, a hail of food from opposing sides started flying over the basketball court like a barrage of SCUD missiles. Apples, Twinkies and plums. Anything that was remotely aerodynamic became airborne. This would go on for several minutes until the proctor came back into the gym, when the volleys would abruptly stop. Invariably, one poor schmuck would be caught launching a half-eaten banana over the basketball court. He’d get detention.

My education was rolling along at its prescribed pace until the summer I figured out there were girls out there. Millions of them. And they all went to public schools, with the boys. When I discovered alcohol that summer, I instinctively knew what to do: I bailed out of Notre Dame and transferred to public school. Sure, I’d miss the literature, mathematics, Latin and detentions but there was always auto shop, home economics and badminton. And girls.

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