Only the Troubled are Saved
by Bill Beeler
I started out proud and glad.
I was good, I was loved.
This I knew, they told me so.
Mother loved me. This I knew, she told me so.
God loved me. This I knew, Mrs. Walls told me so.
I met people who were going to save me.
I was bad, I wasn't loved.
This I knew, They told me so.
Only then would I appreciate their effort to save me.
Please God, don't let anybody else decide to save me.
My first real awareness of God as something awesome seemed to be from, or through, school. Strange, I know we prayed at home. My Father got down on his knees beside his bed every night. Mother must have said prayers with us, but I don’t remember.
We talked about God at home. Not in a formal way, but casually, like you would talk about anything else. God was there. You knew he was there and watched out for you. No big deal, just an accepted fact.
One Advent or Lent, Mother and Dad tried to get a thing started where we said the Rosary together each evening. It must have been out of the blue. I don’t remember the details. I was probably about eight. That would mean my sisters, Lucia and Sue, were about eleven and fourteen. We all threw a fit at having to stop everything and pray. It didn’t go over very well. They abandoned the idea pretty quickly.
At the same time Mother was always talking of prayer. She approached God, Jesus, Mary, and the saints in the same matter-of-fact way that she discussed what was for supper and how you dressed to go to a party. It was all very normal. It was just something you took for granted as fact. She would talk about religious topics when they were in context. That was the way she taught us everything else about life.
If she lost something, she said a quick prayer to St. Jude and just assumed it would be found. When starting out on a trip, there was a short prayer to St. Christopher. No doubt, she just accepted that he was there in the car with us. She encouraged us to pray as we went about our lives. Mother kept a number of rosaries and holy cards. Going to Catholic schools and Mass every Sunday and Holy Day was important. After her death, I found many written passages about God, his goodness, wisdom, and mercy. These were written on the borders of calendars, in notebooks, and tucked in her nursing books. She always took a large rosary to bed with her.
Dad was in the background. He was the strong silent type. When he spoke, you listened, but he did not speak very often. Dad and Mother were very traditional, yet not. He worked hard and long hours as Manager of the Kroger store in Bardstown. At home, he took care of the house, stoked the furnace, maintained the car, yard, and things like that.
Mother was in charge of the home front. She managed the money, wrote letters, planned social events, and raised the children. Propriety and Amy Van Buren’s Book of Etiquette were made for her. She was the hugger, supporter, talker. There was nothing that she could not or would not talk about. She was also the adventurer who loved to try new things. She insisted that they ride the mules down the Grand Canyon when they were in their late sixties.
Dad was not a hugger. He was terribly embarrassed by any open expressions of emotion. Even the mention of pregnancy, and especially S-E-X, would make him cringe and lose his appetite. At the same time, he thought it was funny the first time I got crabs. In junior college. I’m sure he thought I had a girlfriend somehow that they did not know about.
He refused to fuss at me and could not keep a straight face when mother was fussing at me for my indiscretions. She finely told him that if he thought it was so funny, he should just go into the other room and read the paper. He did. I think he was proud of what he perceived as a symbolic “coming of age” type thing. I tried to bring up the subject to him a few days later, but he was just too embarrassed. Or – maybe he really didn’t want to know the details.
On the morning of my wedding day, Dad was embarrassed, but told me the only risqué joke that I ever heard from him. It was a prelude to telling me that I should have a little jar of Vaseline handy in case things were a little tight. That is also the only sex related advice he ever gave me. Don’t misunderstand. Dad gave me a lot of other advice and support over the years, but not about sex.
Obviously, I don’t remember much about kindergarten. I remember that Mrs. Walls and Mrs. Pash were nice people. I liked to draw. We would sit in a circle and sing songs. I especially remember singing “Jesus Loves Me”. I love that song. Even at fifty-one, I still sing it sometimes.
I can still picture Sr. Reperata. She was my first grade teacher. I was almost as tall as she was. When we prayed, I would keep my eyes open. That way she would come by and place her hand over them. It was wonderful. I do not know why those hands were unique, but I can still feel the cool specialness touching my eyes.
I do not remember Sr. Reperata teaching anything in a formal class type situation, but she probably did. She always seemed to be at her desk or standing between two towering novices. Remember, I was only six. They must have been teacher aids or teachers in training. They use to work with us in reading groups. Sometimes we were called over to Sr. Repartee’s desk. She would look over our work and talk to us. It was special.
That first grade room at Bethlehem Academy opened onto a large porch which overlooked the playground. There was a big clock on the wall. I am not sure whether I could tell time of not. After prayers we would sit at our desk and do our papers. I would pretend that I was a riverboat captain. The clock had a key part in my daydream, but I’m not sure just how. The people around me were my crew. This did not help my schoolwork, but it made the time pass. I would pretend that we were on a cruise until the next recess or lunch. When the ship landed, we would go out onto the deck (porch) and down the gangplank (stairway).
This was where I got my first taste of classification. I was a blackbird. Yes, you guessed it. The reading groups were the Bluebirds, Redbirds, and the blackbirds. Visual problems, hyperactivity, and a very short attention span made reading difficult and earned me blackbird status.
I have always associated Sr. Reperata with the almost holy experience of that year and the novices with the grouping. Even at that age, we all knew the significance of the groups. As a teacher, I realize that the “birdy” style grouping was an accepted practice in the fifties. A twenty-five year high school reunion showed that those groups were not very predictive in the long run, but they were a burden at the time.
When I was the teacher, I remembered this labeling experience and use rotating numbers for my groups. I changed the numbers every week or so. The good ole blackbirds might be the first group this time, second next time, and third the time after that. Just a little thing, but nobody had to say that they were a blackbird.
My second grade teacher was a big woman. She had at least one novice also. I do not remember a lot about that year, except that they discovered that I was terribly near sighted. It was such a shock to see the detail in life. Now I understood what people were talking about in the distance. I could see the ball coming. I couldn’t catch it, but I could see it coming. My school work improved too. I do not recall getting into trouble at school those first two years.
I assume that she was a sincere and understanding teacher. I must have had a good two years. Human nature forgets the good things, the comfortable memories. We remember the trauma, the sadness, the pain. Even when we forget the little details, we remember the events.
Third grade was a turning point. That is when I found out that I was bad. There are a number of incidents that stand out in my mind. I will share some of the most representative.
I was always full of imagination and action. As a Nurse, Mother recognized that I was hyperactive. This often drove her up a wall, but I was never made to feel unloved or unappreciated because of that hyperactivity. She worked to teach me to redirect my energies. Looking back, I think I inherited my Hyperactivity from Mother, just as my son, Marc, got it from me.
Even today, the worse thing you can do to me is expect me to sit and relax for an hour, would you believe a half hour? That is why I love the computer. It gives me something creative and useful that I can run with while staying in one place with my family.
Mother encouraged my reading, projects and role-playing. One Saturday, during the third grade, I watched a spy movie about China. Mother and I looked into Chinese writing. I made about twenty pages of “Chinese” writing with brush and paint. They were pages of secret scrolls.
Against Mother’s advice, I took them to school. I was proud of them and played with one during recess. Shared it and my game with Stanley. He was not amused. Typical third grader, he told the Sister. I do not remember her name.
She sat the class down after recess and had me bring her my bookbag. I sat there while she took every piece of paper out of the bag. Each scroll was unrolled, held up for all to see as an example of my wasting paper, wasting time, doing foolish things.
“Just what I would expect of you, Billy Pat. “What would your Mother say?”
“She said I could.”
“well, she couldn’t have meant for you to waste all this paper and paint…”
It went on and on, every last sheet had to be displayed and commented upon.
When I got home I told Mother. She called the Nun. The papers were thrown away … need to set example … maintain discipline … he should have told me. You know how talks with teachers tend to go. She never did apologize.
She would fuss at me. I would look directly at her while she talked. Then I got into more trouble for being defiant and disrespectful. No problem, I started looking at her bosom. After all she was always fiddling with something under her little cape (a top piece of her habit that was suppose to hide her figure). She was well endowed, so it did not do a very good job, especially with her hands up there.
Then I really got into double trouble. I could not understand why I was being “dirty”. Seems like she would not want to keep me after school if I was dirty, but I was and she did. Finally she called Mother about my dirty mind. Something had to be done.
I remember that talk very well. I get in trouble for doing something wrong. Sister fusses at me. I get in trouble for disrespect if I look around the room while she is talking. Looking right at her, like we normally do when somebody talks to us, and I get in trouble for being defiant and disrespectful. No problem, I look at her bosom, watch her fiddle with something. Mother found out she fiddled with her pocket watch because I made her nervous. Now I get in trouble for leering. Can a third grader leer? Mother and I decided that I did not dare look at the rosary in her belt. The only safe place was her shoes while uttering an occasional “sorry” or “yes Sister” as appropriate.
Whenever we were bad, whatever that means, she would spank the palms of our hands with a three sided ruler. Three to ten licks, depending upon the offense. I got lots of licks. This was the year I learned that I was bad. I had to stay after school a lot. Writing lines and working arithmetic problems were the most common punishment. My crimes were talking, not paying attention, and being disrespectful. I was not the only one, just the most frequent.
That was the year we learned to use the dictionary. I was not good there either. Our parents provided dictionaries for their children. Mother got me a child oriented dictionary. It was colorful and had lots of pictures. Every time I went to look up a word, I got sidetracked. I would see a new picture and stop to read about it.
Sister made me leave that one at home and use one she got somewhere with no color and few pictures. My time to find a word improved, but it was not as much fun. I still get sidetracked looking up something on Google.
We made our First Confession and our First Communion in the third grade. We had to really study the Baltimore Catechism to get ready. To be worthy. That is when I first became aware of sin. At home and in the earlier grades I had learned that there were good and bad actions. They were passing things, actions, that were to be done or avoided.
Sin being inherent and the soul being dead was foreign to me. At that point, I never questioned the love or justice of a God who punished every living soul for a single act of indiscretion committed millions of years before. Sister and the Baltimore Catechism made sure that I knew that my soul was dead because it had sin on it.