Old School


So much is described as “old-school” these days. Music. Movies. Clothing. Behavior.

That’s old-school. It’s meant as a compliment, an accolade. The theory being that everything was once better than it is now. Still, you don’t have to be very old to remember when no one ever used those words.

I’m old-school. I actually graduated from THE old school, a convent run by Ursuline nuns from Trois Riviere, P.Q. in the golden days before the introduction of Lite Catholicism. That, my friends, was old-school!

They stressed the 4Rs: reading, riting, rithmetic and the right hook. Corporal punishment was robustly dispensed by elderly nuns who had the punch of a flyweight boxer and were fast on their feet, too. One old nun, even half-blind, could round up 100 kids like a border collie.

That world was not much different than the world of the Middle Ages—and that was just fine with the sisters at Mount Merici. It made the curriculum easier to teach. We did not need new textbooks. Nothing in our curriculum had changed since the time of Tomas de Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor. He was old-school.

I benefited from an education absent of technology and science, educated by nuns who operated as if Galileo, Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton had never lived. New? Nothing was new. The earth was flat. That’s old-school.

Among my personal effects may be found some ancient notebooks, proof that I was taught something that used to be called cursive penmanship by nuns who reminded us every day—and this is scrawled on some of those notebooks—ecoutez et repetez (listen and repeat.) Our motto. Very old-school. Actually, the motto of the school was “Serviam” (Latin for “I will serve”) and emblazoned on everything, including the uniform that I wore every day.

I don’t believe the social conditions now exist to operate an old school (probably illegal) and I imagine there will be those who will argue that’s all for the best.

First off, you can’t find old-school nuns now that longshoremen’s halls, piano moving and professional wrestling are open to them (a more enlightened time.) You’d never be able to round up the staff from my old convent, French-Canadian farm girls who had escaped having nine children and doing back-breaking work in Riviere-du-Loup or Chibougamau. Back then, convent life was a life of ease. And you got three squares a day, too.

All was not prayer and fasting for students at the old school, either. We knew how to have fun. We had field day, a kind of bazaar where you could win incredibly valuable stuff like rosaries that had been blessed by Pope Pius XII. Holy cards! (Collect the series. Swap them with your friends.) Even relics! Made on site! Wow. And for a nickel, you could get a cupcake the size of a regulation softball topped with 16 ounces of frosting the color of Pepto-Bismol.

The reason that I was at the old school was that my family did not want me to have any contact with heathens. Intolerance is old-school. The nuns filled our heads with some zany stuff, including fairly lively accounts of demonic possession and exorcism. They believed things that were fairly consistent with what people believed in 1400. Basically, they were living in 13th-century France, but they had a car.

One time for fun, we went on a day trip to a petting zoo about an hour away. It was pretty seedy. But it beat the other “treat,” which was an even longer drive to a shrine in nearby Quebec to see “the wall of crutches.” Perhaps a crippled person might jump up and be cured while you were there? Miracles are old-school.

Then one day, there was no more old school. The Vatican said so. New school was different. No more Latin. The nuns stopped wearing habits and started saving the whales, getting married and fire-bombing the draft board. Mass began to resemble a hootenanny. If the Vatican had told us to sing “Home on the Range” or skip rope on the way up to receive Communion, well, we would have done it.

Curiously, the old school did not have a deleterious effect on me. I actually got a very good education. And I’m fairly certain that I suffered no long-term harm as a result of my many years with the holy nuns. Sort of amazing.

And I can take a punch, too. That’s always valuable and, you guessed it, that’s old-school.

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