Oh, Sweet Baby! Close Those Little Ears and DO NOT Listen to Those Catholics.

June 22, 2014

I entered first grade a year early by taking a test to skip kindergarten; I was five in 1977, just a baby. We moved three times that year, finally landing in Daytona Beach, Florida, for the majority of the school year. My mother had landed a contract singing at Country Music USA and that is where we lived until the summer prior to second grade.  The condo where we lived that year was not in the most desirable school system, so my mother sent me to the local Catholic school.

I walked into a melting pot classroom that looked like a Benetton advertisement, replete with religiosity, the likes of which I had never experienced.  I had been in only one church my entire life, and it was in the middle of the rural community of Bradley, Alabama- population approximately 200. You won't find Bradley on a map, no matter how closely you look for it.  At the time, everyone there was either a Pentecostal farmer, a farmer's wife, or a creek bum.  

I had watched Sally Field as The Flying Nun, and was pretty excited about meeting nuns. However, none of the nuns at my school flew or wore those cool habits; they carried rulers and fat pencils that they used to discipline small children. Although I didn't have a nun for a teacher, every week on Tuesdays and Thursdays, we had a nun come into our classroom to teach religion. It took me a while to comprehend the concept of a religion class, because where I had come from in south Alabama, people "got religion", they didn't study it.

On Fridays, the whole school went to mass together.  My Pentecostal great- grandmother knew this was part of the program, and like clockwork, every Thursday night she would call me to give me the Pentecostal grandma telephone shake down.  It went something like this...

Ring, ring...
"Oh, you sweet thang!  I couldn't wait to hear your sweet little voice.  I love you.  How do you like your school down there?  Good, I'm so proud you are getting so smart.  Now baby, when you go to church tomorrow, you don't listen to what that ole preacher says.  And whatever you do, you don't worship Mary.  There ain't but one way to get to heaven and that is through Jesus Christ, your Lord and Saviour.  If you need to tell your sins to somebody, you just tell the good Lord.  Your preacher ain't gone get you to heaven, do you understand?  And you've got to be baptized in the Holy Ghost. Do you understand what Bigmama is a sayin' to you?  I'm telling you don't listen to nothin' he says.  You just love Jesus with all of your little heart and if they talk about Mary, then you just put your fingers in your little ears and don't pay attention."

Tell a kid not to shake a gift, look in a closet, or talk and see what happens.  Children don't hear the "DON'T" before any statement, they just hear the verb that follows the "DON'T".  I was intrigued.  What secrets were these Catholics keeping from the rest of the world?  Were country people not supposed to know what people in the cities knew?  I needed to find out, but I did go to mass with my fingers in my ears for the first few months, probably the early beginnings of meditation for me.

However, I started paying attention more closely each week, and for the most part, other than the squaw dancing and hollering that went on in the church where I had grown up, the message seemed pretty much the same.  Jesus, Mary, Joseph, Christmas, Easter...all the same narrative.  I would reassure my Bigmama every time that she would call that I was learning about Jesus and she would give me that same speech over and over again.

Every morning, when my class said prayers together, that they had all learned in their mothers' wombs, I was fumbling through the Hail Marys, just trying to keep up.  For the greater part of the year, I made the sign of the Cross backwards, and ended up getting sent to the back of the room several times for asking my neighbor, Stacy, what to do.

Mrs. Finn, my teacher who was French Canadian, called me a "fresh mouth" every time that I asked a question of my neighbor.  Apparently, "fresh mouth" is a northern term for smart ass, because I kept being sent to the back of the room.  I was obsessed with the Pearl Drops tooth polish commercial at the time, you know the one that said "mmmm, it's a great feeling!" I thought that being a fresh mouth was a positive, yet I was being punished; it was a confusing year for me.  I asked for Pearl Drops the minute that I returned home to Alabama to Grandmother's house.  I brushed my teeth all summer, religiously, hoping to wash whatever it was that got me into trouble out of my mouth before second grade began.

I have always cherished the year that I went to St. Paul's, and the things that I learned there.  I learned that outsiders need to keep their mouths shut, and watch what others do- a very valuable lesson that would come in handy many times later in life.  I learned how to curtsy, and remember doing this quite often.  I have never had the occasion to curtsy since, because I have yet to be presented at court.  I learned to waltz there, with a boy named Eric, and I learned about black market candy sales from an eighth grade room monitor, also named Holly. 

Twenty-two years later, I was baptized in another Roman Catholic St. Paul's in Birmingham, Alabama, where I learned even more lessons that would transform my life.  I would like to think that Bigmama was smiling down from heaven with her blessings.

Hope you all had a wonderful Sunday.
Love y'all.

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