In 1967, when I was in the third grade, all students at Christ King School attended daily mass. (After Vatican II blew into the consciousness of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, daily mass became mass one day a week for each grade.) So throughout grades one, two and three, I was at mass every day at 8 a.m. In first and second grade, I didn’t mind mass much; since everyone went every day, I tended to go along with the flow. The only part of daily mass I dreaded was the walk to church through the halls of the school. On my very first day of first grade, we were all told to “pair up” with a friend for our orderly march through the hallways. At that point in my life as a five-year-old, I simply did not have the social skills to walk up to another girl and say, “Be my partner!” Starting that day and every day thereafter, I would stand quietly until everyone else was paired up, and if the number of girls in the class was even, I would be paired with whatever girl was just as clueless as I was, or (this was much worse) there would be an odd number of girls in the class and I would have to walk partner-less, thus announcing to the entirety of Christ King School how unpopular I truly was. I had actually made one attempt in my first week of first grade to ask another girl to be my partner, but when I approached Mary Pat Pergoli she looked at me and said, “You have fat teeth.” She partnered with someone else that day and I went home crying bitter tears about my grotesquely obese teeth. (My mother was simply baffled as to what it could even mean to have ‘fat teeth’ and tried repeatedly to reassure me that my teeth were lovely and normal-sized.)
By the time I reached third grade, then, daily mass was just part of life at Christ King School. I am not sure why, one morning in the third grade, I decided that I needed a few days off from worship of my Redeemer. By that time, it was part of my character to avoid whatever was going on in front of me and opt for some other mental activity instead. On this particular day, I was moving toward our classroom door (the number of girls in Mrs. Lane’s third grade class was odd, so I was alone) and ruminating about our upcoming mandatory stop in the Girls’ Lavatory enroute to church. I could, I thought to myself, enter a cubicle to take care of my business and then, rather than exiting the cubicle and proceeding to church, I could stand on the toilet seat with the door to the cubicle still locked. No one would be able to see my feet and they would all march off on their merry ways, freeing me up for some peace and quiet during the thirty minutes they were at mass. The fact that I had to spend this “peace and quiet” time sitting silently in a cubicle with nothing to do does not seem to have factored into my assessment of what I considered a brilliant strategy. After about a half-hour had passed,I heard the clatter of classes heading back from mass and discreetly exited the bathroom and joined my line; unlike the march to mass, which was quiet and fiercely regimented, the walk back was always chatty and somewhat chaotic.
I think I employed my brilliant mass-skipping strategy for about three days when I decided to share this wealth of wisdom. There was another girl in Mrs. Lane’s class who was pretty and smart and even though she was fairly popular, was nice to everyone, even me. Thus it was Cathy Petrusek whom I approached at the end of that mass-free week and offered to show her how to evade this daily chore. Cathy was actually pretty interested in my strategy, and she was game to give it a try. That day, when class stopped at the lavatory, she and I entered side-by-side cubicles, locked our respective doors, and stood on the toilet seats. I hadn’t factored in the possibility that two cubicles being effectively out of commission (out of eight) would attract more notice than just one. Sure enough, Carol Taibl was still in line when everyone had to exit the bathroom and resume the march to mass. Suspicious of her long wait time, she peered through the crack between the door and the side of my cubicle, spotting me standing there on the toilet. When neither Cathy nor I showed up in the pew at mass, Carol immediately ratted us out to Mrs. Lane, who swooped into the bathroom after mass and ordered us both out of the cubicles. I don’t remember what our punishment was; nor do I remember whether Mrs. Lane reported this misbehavior to our parents. I do remember, however, Mrs. Lane turning to Cathy Petrusek and saying to her, “I expect this sort of thing from HER (gesturing with her chin toward me), but YOU come from a good family!” I may have been only eight years old, but I knew that my family’s honor had just been besmirched. By me. And Mrs. Lane was one of the teachers who actually liked me. It was my first—and very powerful—moment of collective guilt—I realized that the things that I did reflected not just on me, but on my family. I was deeply ashamed.