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The SBJL Class of 1967 Years

Where do I begin? SBJL stands for St Benedict Joseph Labre or St Benny’s in casual conversation. It was a Catholic grammar school that was part of the SBJL Parish in Richmond Hill, New York. The School opened during September, 1913 and closed just a few years ago in June, 2009. I attended SBJL from 1958, when I attended Kindergarten, through 1967, when I graduated. The School was located on 117th St between 95th Ave and Atlantic and was part of a large parish complex that included the church, the rectory, the convent, a garden and two parking lots.

I attended the school at the height of the Baby Boom.  And since I grew up in a largely Roman Catholic neighborhood, all of us went to Catholic Grammar School. It was pretty much expected that if you were Catholic, you went to Catholic school, period. I wouldn’t call it mandatory, but it was pretty much, well, mandatory. We went to different Catholic Schools dependent upon where we lived. I lived on 123rd st, between Liberty and 103rd Ave, so me and all the other children on my block, went to SBJL. In surrounding communities, children attended Our Lady of Perpetual Help (OLPH), St Mary Gate of Heaven, Holy Child Jesus, and Our Lady of Cenacle.

Getting to School:   We didn’t have school buses taking us to school. And we didn’t have moms in minivans shuttling children to and from school. No, we walked to and from school every day. For me, that was approximately 8 blocks to school every morning and 8 blocks back home every afternoon. We had 7 to 8 boys on my block that formed a “walking club” for school. Some of the boys were a few years older than me and a couple were a few years younger. So with safety in numbers, we walked as a group from First Grade through 8th Grade.  Even when I could ride a bike to school, starting from 5th Grade on, I rarely did. Needless to say, it was a much safer time for children. Parents had little fear that any harm would come to their children walking to and from school. (When my own sons attended Sacred Heart School in Bayside during the 90’s, my wife and I drove them to and from school on a daily basis, to a school that was seven blocks away. We wouldn’t ever entertain the idea of our boys walking that distance by themselves)

Even with many Catholic schools in the area, class size was still quite large. I laugh when teachers today want 12 to 15 students per teacher for maximum teaching effectiveness. In my graduation class in 1967, we had nearly 60 students for each half of the class, 8-1 and 8-2, for a total of 120 students in 8th Grade. And since we went to class in those same 8th grade groups (ie were not split up into smaller class sizes for instruction), that means that our teachers had a 60 to 1 student ratio. The rest of the classes had similar sizes while I attended SBJL.

The average classroom layout…Each classroom was very large. They had to be to house 60 students each. Generally, there were windows along one side of the classroom. Then at the front of the classroom, there would be blackboards and the teacher’s desk. There was a small American flag hanging from a small pole high on the left  front wall. On the other side of the classroom, the hallway side, there would be a hallway door at the front and rear of the class, and a black board in between. And at the back of the classroom, there was a walk in closet for our coats and books. Above the front hallway door, there was a speaker for the Public Address system. And somewhere on the wall at the front of the classroom, there was a clock and a large crucifix. Did I mention that the school had no air conditioning?

The classroom was minimalist. And there was no instructional technology to speak of. There were no computers, PCs, PDAs or smart phones. We didn’t even have calculators. A class was lucky to have a television permanently mounted on a wall. Generally, if a Sister needed a TV, they would wheel one in on a TV cart. We didn’t have VCRs or overhead projectors. Almost all instruction was presented on a blackboard or with texts and class hand-outs. The only teaching aids were a globe and some pull down maps. Unlike smaller classes today that tend to move on the hour from class to class, the 60 of us pretty much stayed in that one room the entire day. Different Sisters would come into our classroom to present instruction. We did not change class rooms. The only exceptions were a brief outside recreation period every day, our lunch break and those infrequent times when we had to go to the Auditorium, or to the Church. And did I mention that we had no air conditioning?

Sisters of St Joseph: The Sisters of St Joseph were responsible for the administration and instruction of the SBJL students. During the time I attended SBJL, the Josephites (as they were known), or nuns for short, all wore a distinctive habit. This was well before the time where Sisters could wear civilian clothes. No, in the 50’s and 60’s, the Josephites all wore the standard black and white habit. The nuns wore black robes with starched white cornets and a black veil from the top of their heads down their neck and back.  They wore a dark, beaded rope belt that resembled large Rosary beads. And all wore a large crucifix that lay upon their breast, below the large white bib (guimpe) that formed a semi circle under their neck, from shoulder to shoulder.  Due to the starched linen (wimple) that completely covered their chin and sides of face, the only flesh showing on these Sisters were face and hands. Not a hint of hair could be seen from the heads of these nuns.

As a young boy in Kindergarten and in my early grades, it was hard for me to understand that these nuns were actually women. I understood the concept of Dad being a man, and Mom being a women, but when looking at the Sisters, I had no idea that they had any sexual identification or classification. To me, they were a completely, separate part of humanity, neither man nor women. They just looked intimidating, and even ominous, in their black and white habits, without any sign of hair or makeup. And I often thought how uncomfortable their clothing must have been given their layered, long black robes with tight, starched linen circling their chin, cheeks and forehead. They had no summer version of their habit, as far as I knew, so I did not envy them on those 90+ degree days in a non-air conditioned classroom. Still, I can never remember them sweating. Also, I witnessed a true miracle in the classroom every day: after a full day of using chalk and blackboards and erasers, I never saw any Sisters with chalk dust or chalk marks on their black robes. I still don’t know how they did it.

You have to understand that these habits were dark, heavy and uncomfortable. On top of that, these were not utility clothes. There were no back pockets or front pockets, like pants, and no shirt pockets: there were no pockets anywhere on these habits. The simple act of carrying a pen or small notebook required some ingenuity on the part of the nun. I have often thought of the sisters as magicians, because they often stored or stowed items, up their sleeves. So, as they taught, you may see them reach up their sleeve for a pen, or notepaper, a small ruler, a kerchief or whatever else they needed to carry. I don’t know what type of strap or device they used under their sleeves, but this is where they stored common items.

We called them Sister: We had no nuns named Sister Mary Hitler, although I have heard that joke many times. We always had a sense of decorum and propriety when addressing nuns: simply put, we called them “Sister.” Now, all sisters had two names: for example in Kindergarten, we had Sister Mary Bertille. We never called her, “Sister Mary” or “Sister Bertille.” No, we just called her “Sister.” And in our New Yorkese, we often dropped the “I” and said it like “Sster” with a long “S” hissed at the front followed by “ster.” These were the “old school” Josephite nuns, so many had “Mary” as a first name. And as was the custom they selected (or it was selected for them) some Saint’s name for their second name (and yes, I looked up “Bertille” and there actually was a Saint named Bertille). So when they took their initial vows, they completely lost their baptismal names and used an Order-prescribed name. As a result, there were a lot of “Sister Mary Somethings” back in the 50’s and 60’s. Today, those naming conventions have gone the way of the black and white habits. Sisters today wear civilian clothes and for the most part they go by their given (ie birth) names.

Propriety went both ways when addressing students. The Sisters always called us by our formal first names. So, I was always “Gerard.” There were no nicknames ever used. So I was never a “Gerry.” No, it was always “Gerard.” Even to this day, my grammar school friends may still call me “Gerard” even though most of my friends post-SBJL call me “Gerry.”

Spare the Rod…Many humorous stories have been told in books, movies and TV about the unique and often painful teaching style of these black garbed teachers. I am here to attest, that the stories are mostly true. The Josephites were certainly an impressive lot. To say that their black and white habits made the Sisters look imposing is a severe understatement. One would have to be completely mad to talk back to a nun or to say something disrespectful to them. Still, there were some that did challenge authority at times. And the Sisters, albeit quite patient most of the time, would occasionally slap a student across the face or rap the back of a hand with a ruler. For the truly reviled juvenile delinquents, a trip down to the principal’s office merited a counseling session with the “Board of Education.”  

Yes, this was a time when corporal punishment was part of education. And you prayed that if you were punished at school, that the Sisters would not phone your parents about your bad behavior.  If they did, you know that the punishment that your parents meted out when you returned home would be far worse than the Sister’s discipline. This was a time when parents reinforced school discipline and supported the Sisters in the educational process at home. (Today, if teacher slapped a student, the parents would be filing a lawsuit against the teacher and the school. And we call that progress.) As I look back, those that received corporal punishment usually deserved it. The Sisters showed unbelievable patience most of the time with most students. But I guess it is easy for me to say that since I never was a victim of corporal punishment. Yes, I was one of the “good boys.”

A Good Boy: What was a “good boy?” Back in the 50’s and 60’s, a good boy first looked neat and clean in appearance. The nuns liked that. “Cleanliness is next to Godliness,” they would say. So that was one of the first criteria for being a “good boy.” My Mom put a lot of effort into my appearance. I always wore pressed shirts and pants into school every day.  My hair was cut short and always combed in place with Polymol, a gel like green liquid used in my hair that set like concrete with 1 minute of application. My hair had the texture of uncooked spaghetti and it held its shape the entire day.

Next, a “good boy” was punctual. I can’t ever recall being late for school, ever. And as I mentioned earlier, we walked the 8 blocks to school every day. So we had to back plan our departure to get to school at least 10 minutes prior to the start of the school day. Whether it rained, or snowed, it didn’t matter. I always got to school early, every day.

To be a “good boy” you had to be good academically. And I had very good grades throughout grammar school. In class, I would be the one chosen by my Sister to read aloud. Every time the Sister asked a question, I would be the one eagerly raising my hand, saying, "SSSster," "SSSSster," wanting to regale her and the rest of my class with my brilliance. I would also be the one that would stay after school, voluntarily, to help the Sisters. My best friend and neighbor, Bill Popp, was also a Good Boy. He and I would clean blackboards and go outside and clap erasers together to clean them of a day’s worth of caked chalk dust for the nuns. Oh, I know what you are saying: what a brown nose, or worse. But many of us were just like that in class during the 50’s and 60’s. It was a question of survival.

Altar Boy: To be a really good boy, one had to be an Altar Boy. Notice the “boy” in Altar Boy. Young females in the 50’s and 60’s were not allowed to be an “Altar Boy.” So, in 5th Grade, I started to train to become an Altar Boy. This was quite an experience and an arduous task to become an Altar Boy. This was in the era when all masses were recited in Latin. We Catholics call this pre-Vatican II. In those days, the congregation really didn’t participate in Mass and most people didn’t understand the Latin that the Priest was using. The Priest generally faced the Altar during mass, while the congregation saw his back for most of the Mass. This was not a service that welcomed church-goer participation.

We didn’t have Lectors, we didn’t have Eucharistic Ministers, we really didn’t have any Lay participation during Mass, other than the Ushers who completed the weekly collection and ushered people into pews and down the Communion line. So the Altar Boys were the only Lay presence at the altar during a typical mass. In a word, the Altar Boys did a lot more than they do today.

First, the two Altar Boys who served Mass (there were generally 2 at every Mass), were the primary respondents for the Priest’s prayers. So we had to memorize most of the prayers and responses for Mass in Latin. Yes, I said Latin. And I said memorize. And that was in 5th Grade. There would be several Sisters who conducted Altar Boy training who helped us learn the required Latin prayers and responses. Surprisingly, the Priests did very little to train the Altar Boys, it was left to the nuns. So the first hurdle in becoming an Altar Boy was learning Latin, and then passing a Latin test during a practice Mass at the Altar. I remember fondly one nun who took me under her wing and helped me from 5th through 8th Grades as an Altar Boy: her name was Sister Mary Gerard. This was one tough woman, demanding in church and in classroom, still she had a gentle side and seemed to be fond of me. Perhaps it had something to do with her selection of her Saint’s name “Gerard” which was also my “Book of the Saints” name. We were both namesakes of St Gerard Magellan.

The Typical Mass:   Here is what the typical Mass looked like: a Priest, his back towards the congregation, would say most of his prayers in a low voice, and his Altar Boys would respond back to his prayers, also in a low voice (almost a mumble), in Latin. For some prayers, the Altar boys would say the prayer with the Priest. There were only a few times during Mass where the Priest actually faced the congregation and where the congregation would provide a response. For the most part, church-goers heard the low mumbling of Latin from the altar and not much else.

Once Altar Boys mastered Latin, they had to learn the Mass dynamics. That is what to do and when to do it. We Altar Boys simplified our duties into two major tasks: “Bell Boy” and “Book Boy.” Unlike today’s Altar Servers, old school Altar Boys were always moving and doing something. Sometimes they would be at a position to the right side of the altar. At other times, they would kneel alongside of the Priest at the center of the Altar. For Mass, one Boy would be responsible for ringing the bell at specified times during Mass. The other boy would be responsible for carrying the Gospel book to different positions at different times during mass.

The Gospel book was very heavy, very heavy indeed. It was made even heavier when resting on a large gilded metal presentation stand. And when the Priest did all the Sunday readings (again, no Lectors) he rarely moved from his Priest Chair to the left of the Altar. So this meant that the Altar Boy brought the open Gospel book on stand in his outstretched arms to the Priest, for different readings and prayers throughout Mass. The Book Boy was also responsible to make sure that the attached, multi-colored cloth book marks were marked to the correct reading or prayer for that particular Sunday. Even an experienced Altar Boy may forget now and then to “bring the book” when required, usually followed by a Priest standing with outstretched arms looking at the server and issuing a polite but stern “ahem.”

The days of long, really long Communion Lines:   As I mentioned previously, this was a time before Eucharistic Ministers, so Communion lines were very long. Back in the 50’s and 60’s, most Masses were packed with church goers. Then there were the special days, like Christmas and Easter, where congregants were lined up along all aisles, back out of the church and up the stairs to the Choir loft. We called those parishioners “C and E” Catholics. Then we had some Catholics that went to Church only on freebie Sundays, the “A and P” Catholics (For Ash Sunday and Palm Sunday).

Regardless of the Mass, the procedure for Communion was always same.

There were 2 long kneelers at the front of the church, one on each side of the main aisle. One group of parishioners would kneel across the entire front of the church on these kneelers. Another group would be standing behind them ready to take their place. And then there would be two long lines of people moving up the center aisle of the church. There would generally be only one Priest distributing Communion. He would start at the far right of the kneelers and give out Communion. An Altar Boy, carrying a paten (a thin brass dish), standing to the left of the Priest would put said paten under the chin of the parishioner who was receiving communion. The purpose of the paten was to catch a Communion host, should it fall from the Priest’s hands or out of the mouth of the Parishioner. And then, the Priest-Altar Boy duo would move down the line of parishioners, when they reached the far left of the church, they would walk back to the far right, and start the process all over: rinse and repeat till all congregants received their Communion. And in the old days, no-one received the host in their hands—it was always on the tongue. My greatest fear was that on some sleepy morning, I would slice some parishioner’s chin or throat with the very thin brass paten, but fortunately, that never happened. Altar Boys were always relieved (as was the rest of the congregation) when a second Priest would help out with Communion. One Priest did the right side kneelers, the other gave communion on the left side and the overall Mass was much shorter in duration.

This was a lot of work:   I know many of my classmates from SBJL, especially the girls, probably didn’t know how much Altar Boys were responsible for. In addition to the actual Mass activities, we usually showed up 15 mins before Mass to make sure the Altar was ready. We would dress ourselves in our Cassocks and Surplices and would help the Priest put on their vestments. We would make sure that the Gospel Book and Ciboria were in their correct positions. We had to make sure that candles were lit before Mass. And then after Mass, we would help with the clean-up. In every sense of the phrase, I felt like a Priest-in-training. So for the average parishioner, they would attend Mass, see the Altar Boys do their thing, and that was it. It was routine for most observers (as it should be) but for the Altar Boy, there was a lot of responsibility, before, during and after Mass.

The Altar Boys generally worked a Sunday Mass every three weeks, due to the numbers of Altar Boys that the Parish had. That doesn’t seem too taxing. And back then, if you were assigned to a Mass, you showed up, period. It was very unusual if an Altar Boy missed an assigned Mass. If you were at a Mass where an Altar Boy was missing, you were expected to quickly go to the Sacristy and volunteer your services for that Mass. (The Sisters did not look kindly on Altar Boys who missed assigned Masses. They viewed that worse than an unexcused absence from school.) What really taxed Altar Boys was the Daily Mass Schedule. The Parish had a 6:30 AM, 7:00 AM and 8:00 AM Mass Daily. When you were assigned a weekly Mass, you served every day of the week, Monday through Saturday, for that Mass. Nothing was worse than the dreaded 6:30 AM Mass. I used to get this weekly Mass 2 or 3 times a year.

The Dreaded 6:30 AM Daily Mass:   By the time I started serving on a regular basis, I was in 6th Grade. If I had a 6:30 AM Mass, I would be up around 4:45 AM in the morning. I would ride my bike to the Church, leaving my home around 6:00 AM. My bike had a front basket, which held my books. On Mondays, I would ride my bike, carrying my pressed cassock and surplice on my right arm as I pedaled to church and steered with my left hand. I would get there by about 6:15 AM. By the time the Mass was finished, I would leave Church about 7:10 AM. There was another problem with the 6:30 AM Mass, besides how early it was. All the Sisters attended that Mass every day. So if you made a mistake during the Mass, the Priests were often kind and just said “Good Job” or “Nice Work” after the Mass. However, the nuns would be quick to give you some “constructive criticism” after Mass.

By the time Saturday came around, I was one tired young boy. After Saturday’s Mass, I would then carry my Cassock and Surplice back home (I had left them in the Sacristy during the week). The 6:30AM Mass was especially taxing in bad weather. If it rained or snowed, I often left earlier to walk, or slog, my way to church leaving the bike at home. And it was not unusual to immediately work the 7:00 AM Mass if an Altar Boy missed that assigned Mass. After Mass, I had no time to go home for breakfast (many times I wished I lived across the street from the church or school). So my mom would usually pack something for breakfast. I could enter school early and eat in the empty cafeteria (they didn’t serve breakfast) at about 7:15 AM, and then get ready for the start of school at about 7:45 AM. However, on many days, I was invited to the Rectory or Convent for breakfast. This was strange for a 6th Grade boy, to see Priests and Sisters away from the official setting of church and school. I learned that these were real human beings, just like the rest of us. In the Convent, I didn’t eat at the large dining room where the Sisters ate (to the right of the entranceway). They used to let me eat at a table in a nook to the left of their kitchen, to the left of the convent’s entrance. The Convent's female Lay cooks were very kind to me often providing a filling breakfast before school.

It Wasn’t All Bad:   There were rewards to being an Altar Boy. It wasn’t all bad. We were assigned to perform Funerals and Weddings. Now, trust me, I didn’t enjoy doing funerals, nor wished for any to serve, however when I was assigned a Funeral, I was paid for that service and also missed school. Most funerals were 10:00 AM or 11:00 AM, so we missed a couple hours of school for each funeral. Not a bad deal at all. The going rate for a funeral back in the 60’s was generally $5.00 to $10.00 per Altar Boy, per funeral. That was a lot of money. As a comparison, I received $5.00 allowance per week: comics cost 12 cents: movie tickets cost 25 cents; a slice of pizza was 15 cents. So $5.00 to $10.00 extra was a big deal. I would normally do one to two funerals per month. The procedure was always the same after each funeral: some well-dressed man (I think from the funeral parlor), gave the Priest an envelope, and gave each Altar Boy an envelope. I can’t recall any Funeral where we didn’t receive an envelope payment in this manner.

Weddings, however, were truly rewarding events. No matter how detached you try to be at a funeral, they were very sad and somber events, even if you didn’t know the family. But weddings were always happy events. And nothing made me happier than getting the going rate of $25.00 for each wedding. On some good days, I even received $50.00 for serving at a wedding. That was not bad for 2 hours of my time in the mid-60’s.

Yes, being an Altar Boy in the 50’s and 60’s was a memorable and rewarding experience, rewarding in every sense of the word. I was given responsibility well beyond my years, the experience shaped who I would become and it helped make me one of the “good boys” in the eyes of the nuns. I always wanted to be on their good side, because life for those who fell into the “bad boy” category, or anyone who departed from the norm, was sheer hell.

Learning Styles and Learning Disabilities:   I received a Doctorate in Education in 2002 from St John’s University in Jamaica, NY. As part of that program, I learned about learning styles and learning disabilities. Modern education takes a very strong view of both. Educators must understand that each student has a different learning style, or combination of styles. To increase teaching effectiveness, a teacher should understand students’ learning styles and develop curriculum to maximize each student’s distinct learning style. Learning disabilities go hand-in-hand with learning styles. A teacher must understand the student’s learning disabilities, if any, and find ways to counteract this barrier to learning. Now that we know this, throw it out, and let’s go back to the dark ages of education during the 50’s or 60’s.

There was one method of teaching during my grammar school years: memorization or rote learning. As my Sisters would always say: “Repetition is the mother of learning.” Everything we did or “learned” started, and sometimes ended, with memorization. We were the generation of the “times tables.” We memorized all multiple combinations from one to twelve. For example, “Give me the 2 times table” would elicit the following response: 2-4-6-8-10-12-14-16-18-20-22-24. That was easy, as was the 5 times table, the 10 times table and the 11 times table and to a lesser extent, the 3 and 4. The 6, 7, 8, and 9 tables were much more difficult. (Think about it: 8-16-24-32-40-48-56-64-72-80-88-96). Then there was the near impossible 12 times table. Heck even Davinci and Einstein would have difficulty with the 12 times table.

Our Sister would go throughout the class and ask different students for different times tables. If you were called upon, you stood up and bravely ventured into higher order math in front of your peers. As a steely eyed Sister gazed at me, I prayed to myself, “Please, let it be the 2 or 5 times tables.” Then when she said, “Gerard, the 5 times tables please,” I emitted an audible sigh of satisfaction, like I hit the lottery. I could also hear the groans of my fellow classmates, as they lamented one less easy times table available to them for their potential question. I would stand proudly, and rapidly peel off: 5-10-15-20-25-30-35-40-45-50-55-60. I would sit down with a proud smirk on my face.

Then the Sister, like a great white shark, gazed around for her next victim: “John, the 12 times table please.” (John is not the student’s real name, by the way. I am using “John” since it was a common male name in my grade. Also, the description that follows presents a combination of different classmates. I have changed the name to protect the guilty.)

John was unfortunately obese and tended to sweat. His collared shirt was never buttoned at the neck, like it was 2 sizes too small. Although it was only 3rd grade, he appeared to need a shave. Suffice it to say he wasn’t the sharpest knife in the draw. Sister could smell his fear and I often think they relished calling upon such students for the more difficult times tables. John stood up shakily and slightly swaying. Every young eye was upon him and the classroom was absolutely silent. John said: “12 (long pause), 22, I mean 24, (longer pause) 36…” and then he looked at the ceiling and drifted off like an old man, lost in his thoughts. That was it, he was done. But Sister would not let him off that easy. She would try to lead him on: “48, 60.” John would mumble 48 then 60, but that did not jog his memory enough to remember the rest of the times table.

After what seemed like an indeterminable amount of time, the Sister would tell John to sit down. On most days, the nuns would just cast a displeasured frown at the student. Even at this young age, most of us felt sorry for John. That could easily have been us. On a bad day, the Sister wouldn’t let such public academic failure slip by without comment. This was a day when there was no political correctness. So it would not be unusual to hear “stupid” or “lazy” from the nun’s lips. Those two words were often used during critiques of a students’ performance. We did not know about dyslexia, we did not know about hyperactivity, we did not know about any other learning disorders. No, most sub-standard behavior was either due to stupidity or laziness. The underlying premise to a nun’s criticism was that God created all of us, God gave all of us the ability to succeed, so we either must be stupid or lazy if we were not good students. It was a very simple paradigm for teaching. So in a strange way, failing in academics wasn't just an educational failure, it was a religious or spiritual failure as well.

There were many instances where the John’s and Mary’s of our classes were ridiculed publicly by our Sisters. A nun once told me (a good boy and a good student) that I “wrote like a Chinaman.” Talk about no political correctness. It was said with a matter-of-factness that at the time really didn’t surprise me. This happened every day, every week of every year for 9 years, not just to me but to the student body at large. If a student was overweight, it was even worse. The nuns viewed these students as physical embodiments of laziness. Once again, a weight problem was not a physical problem, it was a spiritual problem as well. Usually, the obese children would be made fun of by other children, so this made their educational experience even worse. I wonder now how so many children survived this type of education at a Catholic grammar school. I can only wonder at the psychological scars that were produced in many of the students from the 50’s and 60’s. And I now marvel at the inner strength these students possessed to survive this experience.

But for me it was easy. I was one of the students that had a very good memory. My fellow classmates in grammar school all the way through post-graduate studies, would always tease me good-naturedly about my ability to get good grades while never really studying (I know some of that ribbing may have been inspired by jealousy as well). And, I never really did study all that much—I just had a very good memory. I was also one of those students who was very good with English and Math. So it was perfect environment for me where memory was prized and the emphasis was on English and Math. I was also a good test taker, so I had the perfect background to succeed at both Catholic grammar school and Catholic high school. But I knew that I had a good situation: I didn’t flaunt this ability or brag about my good grades. And deep down, I had real empathy for fellow students who studied much more than me but only attained marginal or failing grades.

Now, I can also attest that not all people are good with rote learning. Others have difficulty with Math, Reading or English. Some have problems with standardized tests. I can say this now after many years of wisdom, after teaching at college level for 12 years and after receiving a doctorate in education. Some people excel with their creative side at the expense of mathematics and science. This has been the way it always has been. My wisdom tells me now that this doesn’t make them any lesser students with inferior ability. But for these types of students, however, their lives as Catholic grammar school students must have been horrific at times. Still, the Sisters’ teaching method worked for me.

Instructional Method and Instructional Technology:  We had a blackboard, chalk and erasers. That was it. That was our instructional technology. This was still Little-House-On-The-Prairie-One-Room-Schoolhouse technology. So everything that was taught and learned happened on the blackboard, in our textbooks or in our notebooks and loose-leaf and composition books. And again, the primary method of learning was memorization and the primary method of teaching was lecture. Sisters would talk at the front of the class and there was little student participation with the exception of answering a Sister’s question. Even with our Religion classes, where one may want to explore the deep meaning of a supreme being and self, you were required to recite answers from memory, word-for-word.

“Who is God?” That is a question that could be open to many different answers and interpretations. The question has baffled many smart philosophers for millennia. Still at SBJL, the answer was simple. “God is the Supreme Being who made all things.” How do I know this? Well, it was answer to Question #2, of The Official Revised Baltimore Catechism, Number One, published by W.H. Sadlier, first published in 1944. See, it’s simple. There is no weighty discussion involved. Either you knew that answer verbatim, or you didn’t. And the list of questions and answers went on.

The Catechism helped the Sisters with Religious instruction. After all, one of the primary reasons for sending children to Catholic school was to receive a religious education. And that was something we received every day, whether it was from formal instruction, saying the Rosary or other prayers, attending Masses in Church, or any other open acknowledgement of our faith. We were not saddled with constitutional restrictions about church and state. No, we unabashedly professed our faith in the classroom every day. I had even heard rumors about some Catholics who went to public school: they didn’t get this type of religious education. They actually had something called “Sunday School.” They didn’t learn the finer traditions of the Church like crossing oneself, in the Sign of the Cross, when driving past any Roman Catholic church, a habit I still observe today. No, they only received their one hour of instruction on Sundays. One hour! Heck, we had a hard time learning all we had to learn about being a good Catholic with daily religious instruction. How could the public schools kids know it all with just one hour per week?

Some will look back at this method of instruction and question the archaic method of teaching. But in an age where we did not have laptops, notebooks, smart phones, calculators, white boards or social media, it seemed to work for me. I like the simplicity of this type of instruction. It was black and white, regardless of the subject. Religion, just like Math and English, had a right and wrong answer. All you had to do was memorize the right answer and you would receive high grades and the accolades of the Sisters who taught us. For me, this method worked. It worked very well in grammar school, high school and at college (keeping in mind that the college that I attended was a Military Academy). There was a sense of order and discipline to this method of instruction that I truly embraced. There was a definite sense of right and wrong: there was no gray.

When I was a doctoral student, I majored in Instructional Technology. And there was a lot of new, modern technology to use. One of the major challenges that many teachers faced was to integrate technology into learning. The objective was to use technology as an enabler for all subjects, not as a separate subject in-and-of-itself. The idea was not teach about computers as an end (although there were separate classes for Technology use). The idea was to seamlessly integrate a laptop into everyday teaching of other subjects, as a means to an end. The older teachers especially seemed to resist this idea. I could understand why, if they came from an educational background similar to mine.

As a doctoral student, we learned about Bloom’s Taxonomy. This taxonomy provides a list of six levels of learning , from Knowledge level to Evaluation level. The first level, Knowledge, meant that the student could define terms by memory. Each level is more complex than the previous level (ie,at the second level, Comprehension, students can work assigned problems and can explain what they did) is more complex than the first level of Knowledge. More effort is required to reach each successive level both in teaching and testing. Fortunately, in my Catholic grammar school we were rarely required to venture beyond Knowledge and Comprehension. We were not shackled by the need to analyze, synthesize or evaluate. No, we would be graded upon our ability to memorize and comprehend. I was perfectly fine with that.

However, for anyone that had any creative ability at all, anyone who was a “free-thinker” or anyone who wished to question established knowledge, those poor souls were crushed into oblivion. The formula was clear: just repeat back to me, the approved answer. And the formula was right for SBJL in the 50’s and 60’s, given the 60 to 1 student ratio, and the primary mission of St Benny’s: to provide a Catholic education and get students ready for high school, with courses primarily focusing on Math, English and Reading. In my mind, the Sisters did a great job using this instructional method, especially with test preparation. Still there was a lack of creativity and critical thinking that was never really nurtured in grammar school.

Even this instructional method began to change during the 60’s. The Sisters faced a major cultural upheaval as a result of the encroaching society. It affected all of us and the teachers as well. In a changing society, where common slogans were “Question Everything” and “Sex, Drugs, and Rock-n-Roll” the method of instruction used “successfully” for decades by Catholic schools met serious challenges. Some of those challenges came from within the Catholic Church itself.

(As an aside, by the time I entered Archbishop Molloy in 1967, there emerged some renegade teachers, although few, who embraced the coming revolution. Brother Robert Englert, who taught English, was one of the true rebels. This Brother actually challenged us to think. We all sat in his class like robots, trained in the rote style of learning. We struggled at first when he asked us to defend our intellectual position, or propose an alternate view, one that contradicted a prevailing belief. But that experience is another story…)

The times they are changing: The Class of 1967 entered Kindergarten in 1958, during the Eisenhower Administration. The country was in a peaceful time between wars. It was an era of prosperity, of innocence and of a growing middle class. Each Catholic middle class family viewed success as sending their children to college, an option many parents of that generation never had. Catholic grammar school was a natural means to that end. Send kids to Catholic Grammar School, then send them to Catholic High Schools and then to College. Done! Success!


We were in the middle of the “Space Race” and the Cold War. During 1961, we seemed to be on the brink of war with the Soviet Union. We had the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile crisis occur during the same year. This was the era of MAD: Mutually Assured Destruction. This was the philosophy that regardless who started the nuclear war, each side had enough nuclear weapons to decimate the other side, and the rest of the world as collateral damage. So the US prepared with bomb shelters and air-raid drills. In our class, we would have periodic air raid drills during the early 60’s. This was a serious and somber exercise, where us 4th graders would be instructed to duck below our desks, kneel down with heads down and hope that this drill was only an exercise. While we crouched down under the desk, our nuns would say prayers as they walked about the room. Then the exercise would be over and we would go back to instruction. I am sure I still have some psychological scars from that time. I mean, how can a rational youngster not endure trauma from that exercise with the fear that at any time, we would be vaporized into black shadows against the wall of the classroom.

There was a growing civil rights movement at the time, and a lot of civil unrest throughout the US. Still, the Sisters struggled to maintain order and discipline within our own little piece of the world. And President Kennedy began to commit US troops to a little known area of the world called Viet Nam. There were also massive changes within the Catholic Church. The Church in Rome was holding a global meeting which has become known at Vatican II. The Cardinals, Bishops and other invited members discussed the Church in the modern world. It was nearly 2000 years overdue. The conference would last for 4 years from 1962 through 1965 and would make radical, sweeping changes. During the course of the conference, our only Catholic American president was assassinated during November 1963. We were in class at the time when our principal announced his death. It is one of those life events where you will always remember where you were when the news was announced. President Kennedy’s death signaled another major change in our American culture. The days of Camelot were gone.

At the same time that we rejoiced our technological progress through our Apollo Program, we also hosted a World’s Fair in our own home town of Queens, NY. The Fair gave of us view of tomorrow and hope for a peaceful, utopian society. During this time, we also committed more and more troops to Viet Nam and we spiraled down into a quagmire of casualties and anti-war unrest. It was an era of a mixed, psychotic personality: peace and hope on one hand with death and despair on the other. In this tumultuous time, we also faced the radical changes of Vatican II.

By 7th Grade, we were saying Mass in English. English? Priests were now facing the congregation during Mass. Churches were scrambling to build new altars, like kitchen islands, so that the Priest could celebrate Mass facing his parishioners. We all had new English missals so that church goers could actually pray with the Priests and respond to his prayers. And lay persons were asked to start helping with Mass duties. By 8th Grade during 1967, I was serving as Lector for some masses. By my high school years in the early 70’s, we had lay Eucharistic Ministers distributing communion. This was a major, major change for all of us. I suspect it was an absolutely revolutionary change for our Sisters and our school.

Vatican II also laid the groundwork for Catholic Brothers and Sisters to abandon their age old robes and habits. These changes happened by Order over time. When I graduated grammar school, all nuns still wore their distinctive habit. When I went to mass during my high school years (1967 through 1971), the Sisters gradually switched to civilian clothes. I remember seeing some of them during Mass and thought how strange they looked in normal clothes. And it wasn’t just a time to change one’s clothes. Vatican II made many Brothers and Sisters re-examine their own lives in the modern world. So, many of these people left their Orders during this time. I remember the story that we told of one 8th grade Sister who was last seen in the early 70’s, leaving Richmond Hill in civilian clothes on the back of a Harley. And Brother Robert Englert left class one day in 1969 in his black Marist robe, and returned the next day in a fashionable civilian suit, telling his students to now call him “Mister” Englert. (Since he had a PhD, we always affectionately called him “Doc.) There were many people voluntarily leaving their Orders. It was a critical time for Catholic education.

When I look back, I realize how many Sisters we had in our grammar school. Throughout all classes, almost every teacher was a nun, and all administrators were nuns. And it was obvious they were nuns with their distinctive habits. I can only remember two civilian teachers, or “lay teachers,” and they were Mrs. Glennan in 2nd Grade and Miss Ranier in 3rd Grade.  The large population of nuns was replicated in the other Catholic schools throughout Queens and New York City during that era. However, when my own sons attended Catholic School in the 90’s, there were only 2 nuns at the school, and they wore normal civilian attire. 2 nuns, that’s it. And you couldn’t tell them apart from the Lay Teachers.

So it appears, as the baby boom demographics signaled a drastic downturn in student enrollments, so too was there a drastic reduction of young women becoming Sisters. There were just fewer women in the available population. It was a matter of numbers. Also, many of the Sisters who taught me left the Order post-Vatican II, which also reduced the number of Sister teachers. The remaining nuns who taught my generation in the 50’s and 60’s have all retired and essentially, they were replaced by Lay Teachers, or not replaced at all. For me, this is a sad and somber fact. We most likely will never see that type of Catholic education ever again.

(And on a practical note, large numbers of Sisters reduced the overall salary requirements for a Catholic school—they weren’t paid that much. Hence, Catholic tuitions remained low and affordable to the average middle class family.  Lay teachers had to be paid much more. So Catholic schools faced a double whammy: they paid more and more each year to an increasing number of lay teachers. They then had to increase tuitions to cover this cost, all at a time when potential student pools were dramatically shrinking.)

I may sound critical at points during this narrative. I don’t mean to be. I am writing what I remember from my unique perspective. That is the tyranny of authorship. So some of my classmates may agree or disagree with my viewpoint. I know that the Catholic grammar school experience worked for me. And although the Sisters may have been heavy handed at times, I say that with a smile, because I am very thankful for their teaching style, their devotion and their love of students. They certainly helped me become a better student, and they prepared me for success in high school, college and beyond. I am eternally grateful to all of them.