Important Life Lesson

Important Life Lesson

By Charles Gargiulo

My Mom decided to send me to a Catholic high school after I graduated from my Catholic elementary school. I don’t know why it was such a big deal to her since she never went to church and I never did either, but it somehow meant a lot to her that I attended St. Joseph High School for Boys. Yep, that’s right FOR BOYS. The stupid high school was an all boys school, in fact we were going to be the last class with this dumb rule because starting the next year after us they were finally going to let girls attend too. Apparently, 1965 would be the final year that girls would be radioactive to boys and they could feel safe enough to give the all clear signal in 1966.

The timing really sucked for me and all the boys in my class who had any hope of playing high school baseball. I was really looking forward to that opportunity but I found out they had cut every sport but basketball and cross country running from St. Joseph’s High School for Boys but would be reinstating other sports, including baseball, when they became just plain ol’ St. Joseph’s High School for both boys and girls next year. Just my luck, it was bad enough they didn’t have a baseball team, what made it worse there was no way I was going to try out for the basketball team because the coach was a total jerk and I didn’t want to run cross country because I was too lazy to run a million miles a week to get in shape enough to compete.

I went to a Catholic grade school and the biggest change I was going to have to get used to in high school was being completely surrounded by males, not just my all boys classmates, but also my teachers were no longer going to be nuns, they were all going to be guy nuns. Technically, they were called Brothers, much in the same way people call female nuns Sister. In my case, we actually called our nun teachers Mothers, instead of Sisters, but never mind, that’s too complicated to get into right now.

The point is our teachers were no longer women, they were all going to be men. Since this was an all boys high school they’ve always had the Brothers teach, instead of the Sisters, in case they needed to whack us around if we got out of hand. Apparently, they don’t think boys are less dangerous when mixed with girls because next year they’re going to be ditching the Brothers and getting the nuns back to teach from now on. I have no idea what’s going to happen to the Brothers, maybe they’ll ship them off to some island to take care of the lepers.

I was nervous on my first day of school because I didn’t really know anybody. All of the kids I went to grade school with were going to Lowell High. I’ve got to admit it was a little weird seeing the Brothers because instead of wearing a black shirt and pants like a priest, they wore a big black gown and, instead of a tiny white cardboard looking collar like a priest, they had a bigger floppy white cardboard thing hanging down under their neck.

They were all to be addressed as Brother, but what was really strange was that some of them used their first names, like Brother George, Brother Louie or Brother Val, and some of them used their last names, like Brother Schumann, Brother Villemette or Brother LeClerc. So you’re probably thinking what’s so strange about that? Well, what’s so strange is that those who used their first name, never used their last name, and those who used their last name never used their first name. And to mess our heads up even more, there was one called Brother El Cid, so we didn’t even know if it was his last name or first name.

Things got off to a bad start when I found out that I had to wear a suit coat and tie every damn day to school. I hated wearing this crap because, unless someone was going to a wedding or a funeral, the only people I knew who wore suits and ties were jerks who usually thought they were better than everyone else who dressed like a regular guy. I learned whenever some guy showed up in my neighborhood with a suit and tie it meant somebody was in trouble or they were going to be trying to sell something. I knew my Dad didn’t like guys in suits and ties and used to mock them as big shots and my Uncle Arthur always felt uncomfortable around them because most of the guys he knew who wore them were his bosses at work and they wore the suit and tie to let the workers know who was in charge. I felt stupid and ashamed to have to wear it to school everyday and it made me feel like I was traded to a team I hated. Besides, it was also uncomfortable to wear.

People would tell me I was getting all worked up about nothing but I knew there was something to it after about a month of attending school. The snobby kids had all kinds of suit coats, fancy shirts and ties that they would change all the time thinking they were special and they would mock kids like me, who only had only one or two suit coats and just a few different shirts and ties. If they liked you, or were afraid of you, they wouldn’t say it to your face, but it became obvious when some of the kids with lots of different dress clothes started to snicker at this awkward kid named Bobby Toomey because he came to class every single day with the same suit coat and pants. He must have gotten them cleaned often because he wasn’t dirty and didn’t stink, but because he wore them everyday the bottom of his pants started to become shiny after a couple of months. I wanted to smash his mockers in the face but I had to keep my cool because I had promised my Mom that I would not be violent, but I let them know that they were jerks and got some of the decent kids to stand up to them. They got the message and left Bobby alone after that but I knew I was right, there was something to my theory about suits and ties.

Most of the kids seemed alright but there were a bunch of jerks like anywhere else. It was different from my grade school where all the kids came from the same neighborhood. In this school kids came from all over the city and most of the annoying kids came from the fancy neighborhoods where they thought they were better than everyone else because their parents were rich. It would get under my skin when they would talk about what a crappy neighborhood our school was in and they were afraid to walk around after school as if there were monsters and muggers just waiting to attack them any time they took a stroll.

The one thing I did like about being in an all boys school was that you could get away with more rough house stuff, and acting like idiots, without girls getting all bent out of shape and reporting you if you were plotting and carrying out really cool practical jokes on the teachers in class. I quickly figured out that an all boys class was similar to being with the mafia, where it was understood that nobody squealed on anyone. That way we knew that we could get away with doing anything in class, if we didn’t get caught in the act, because nobody would ever tell one of the Brothers if they tried to strong arm one of us into giving away who had pulled the latest stunt.

Maybe we took it a little too far sometimes, especially if we had a Brother we could rattle pulling our class clown tricks. Most Brothers would be smart enough to ignore our games and it would kind of take the steam out of things because our desire to pull stuff would just fizzle away pretty quickly. But when we got a Brother who flipped out, it would inspire us to keep topping the latest crazy thing we came up with that caused him to lose a gasket.

Unfortunately for him, we had one Brother named Schumann who got so wacko at anything we did that he made it impossible for us to control ourselves. It didn’t help that Brother Schumann had the weirdest accent ever heard because he was a German, who grew up in Nazi Germany, and then came to America and settled in Brooklyn. So he had a mixed German/Brooklyn accent. It’s hard to describe, since he sounded like nobody else, even any character from the movies or on TV. Try to imagine a thick German accent, mixed with all the Brooklyn dem’s and dose’s, and you’d get words like homework sounding something like “Hum-ma-woik,” with a deep guttural beginning on the Hum part. Now imagine putting whole sentences together with words coming out sounding so bizarre.

Now, normally I don’t make fun of the way somebody talks, but in Brother Schumann’s case we all made an exception because the guy was also a real mean creep. When he got out-of-control angry at one of us for pulling a stunt, he would sneak up behind the kid and do this thing we called a bellringer, where he would use the palm of his hands and smack both ears at the same time really hard. I later heard you could potentially bust somebody’s ear drums doing that but, lucky for us, nobody in our class got anything more than temporary deafness. Still, it was kind of a low down, lousy move for a guy who was supposed to turn the other cheek when we made his life miserable.

And we certainly made his life miserable. HIs ear slapping and, turning-red-while-spouting-rapid fire-German/Brooklyn-accent curses at us, just made us more determined to drive him crazier. It started small but then got kind of out of control a bit in the end. It all started when one day my friend Fred Flaherty, who sat next to me in class, noticed that I had a nervous habit of shaking my feet up and down on the floor so hard that he could feel the wooden floor shaking under him. I never even realized I was doing it until he pointed it out. At first I thought he was mocking me but he said he honestly could feel the old floor shaking under him when I did it. I asked him to try it, to see if he was pulling my leg, and sure enough, when he dug the ball of his feet into the floor and started driving his legs up and down, I could feel the floor start vibrating. Fred and I sat in the far back corner of the classroom. The two kids sitting in front of us and the two kids sitting to the right side of us noticed what we did, so each one took a turn to see if they could make the floor shake doing it and it worked any time somebody did it. As you can imagine, it didn’t take long before a little bell went off in our heads that said, “I wonder what would happen if more than one of us did it at the same time?” So I whispered to Fred, and the four other kids sitting next to us, to try shaking the floor together as hard as we could the next time Brother Schumann turned his back to us. We knew it wouldn’t take long because he was always writing on the damn blackboard. So we got our feet positioned and the second he turned his back and grabbed a piece of chalk, I whisper-shouted GO and we started pushing our feet to the floor like pistons with all our might. It was amazing, the floor literally felt like it was rippling and Brother Schumann turned with a shocked expression and we stopped when we saw him turn to look. All the other kids started smirking when they saw what we had done and Brother Schumann looked confused. It took all we had not to laugh out loud and everybody was fighting to hold it in. Word started spreading down each aisle to all the kids who didn’t realize what happened.

Brother Schumann’s was our last class of the day so when the bell rang to dismiss us our pent up laughter burst like a dam as everyone ran out of class howling like idiots running down the stairs and out of the school building. Instead of splitting up and heading home like we normally did, we all hung around together reliving the moment and plotting our next steps. We couldn’t believe how much we could make the floor shake when the six of us did it. Then, as if

a voice from God came to us at the same time, we stopped in our tracks and thought “if only six kids doing it at once could cause it to shake that much, what would happen if a whole class of 25 kids did it at the same time?” It was stunning. It must have been the kind of revelation that went off inside Isaac Newton’s head after that apple fell on it. So like all great scientists we knew we had to test how much greater the force 25 kids could produce in shaking a floor than the force of 6 kids. For the first time in history, we actually couldn’t wait until school started again tomorrow.

It was hard trying to pretend we cared about all the classes we were in the next day waiting for our last class of the day with Brother Schumann. Our class began at 1 and we all agreed to begin the floor shaking the very first time he turned his back to the blackboard after 1:30. It took real discipline to hold in our laughter before 1:30 because we were dying to find out how much we could make the room shake and how crazy it was going to make Brother Schumann. We all agreed and promised that each one of us would keep shaking for a full minute, even if he started smacking us. We knew that if he saw all of us doing it he couldn’t single anyone out for serious punishment. Like soldiers going into battle, our vows to get each other’s back was sacred.

Finally, the time came and, almost on cue, Brother Schumann turned to the blackboard exactly as the clock got to 1:30 and everybody started at once and did it as hard and fast as we could. It was unbelievable! The floor shook so violently that you could literally feel the room moving up and down like an earthquake. Brother Schumann almost fell down, turning around to face us with near panic from the combination of the shaking floor and the shock he felt trying to figure out what the hell was happening. When he got control of himself and saw what we were doing he went nuts, screaming at us to stop, but we kept it up and the room swayed even harder and the floor felt like it was going to cave in. Now he started swearing at us, smacked Bobby Toomey in the first row, and screamed louder and louder to stop as he started going from one kid to another slapping them in the head. We kept shaking the floor and things shook so hard stuff started to fall from his podium and the shelf in the back of the classroom. I think we stopped a little bit less than a full minute because things shook so much we started to get scared ourselves that maybe the floor was really going to cave in. Brother Schumann was so startled and angry that he started yelling at us in German and then Brother George, who was teaching in the classroom next to us, came charging into the room with a panicked look asking all out of breath what was happening. At this point, Brother Schumann was a raging lunatic and it took forever for him to calm down enough to explain to Brother George what we did. Needless to say, we all got in trouble and had to each meet individually over the next few days with the Principal to be scolded and given an official letter of reprimand, they said would go in our files, and threatened to have us executed if we ever pulled anything like that again in the future. We also had to stay after school an hour for a week.

That really sucked but it was worth it. It was one of the greatest moments of my life. I’ll never forget the exhilaration we felt and the amazingly important life lesson it taught me. You really can accomplish anything if you work together with others.


Charles Gargiulo’s memoir, Legends of Little Canada, will be published this fall by Loom Press. Charlie is a regular contributor to

2 Responses to Important Life Lesson

  1. Bill says:

    I, too went to that school a few years after the author and he really hits the mark. When I got there, the Brothers had retired to make jelly and the school was run (overrun) with nuns and a handful of ex-hippie teachers that didn’t wear socks.

    My elementary school was staffed by the Sisters of Charity, some of whom were not too charitable. Their discipline consisted of the “freeze-out” where you were made to leave the room or an occasional toss down the stairs.

    When I arrived at St Joes, it was an incredible culture shock. I went from staring in fright at a 6 foot nun who could hum a staple gun like Jim Lonborg to a group of tiny, meek nuns who had lost a lot off their fastballs. The French school kids would quake when the Ladies in White would swear at them in a foreign language (I think), while the rest of us would just laugh with amusement . We had all been victims of the stairway toss at one point or another.

    I was always up for a little mischief and did my best to play Gingerbread Man for four years, Almost fifty years later, I still haven’t received my final grades, for I neglected to pay for the plate glass window we took out, almost taking out the librarian underneath. The good ole days.

  2. Charles Gargiulo says:

    Thanks for sharing your experience once the school ceased to be St. Joseph’s High School FOR BOYS. Glad to see the same irreverence ruled even after the Brothers were cast off to wherever they casted off Brothers. To their credit, at least they wore socks.