In 1955 at the age of four years old I entered the Kindergarten class of the newly opened St. Lucy’s School attached to my Bronx parish. I was the youngest in my class—I wouldn’t turn five until mid-March of that school year—but the admissions policy was flexible as they tried to populate the new building. I was schooled through grade five by the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany. The heavy brown habits that they wore with their imposing stiffened white bibs and headpieces did not seem to hamper their ability to swing a wooden ruler or long rubber-tipped blackboard pointer. But I was, for the most part, a good kid and I rarely had personal encounters with an angry nun.
After six years my parents decided to send me to an all-boys private school in hopes of bettering my chances of being admitted to a good college prep high school. So for the start of sixth grade in the fall of 1961 I began three years in the elementary school of All Hallows Institute. All Hallows was well known for being one of the premier Catholic prep schools in New York City. Successful work through eighth grade there would guarantee me a place in their high school. It would be worth the hour trip to and from the school each day. All Hallows was not at all near my own northeast Bronx neighborhood. It was located in the center of the old Bronx near the county courthouse on 161st Street and the Grand Concourse just two blocks from Yankee Stadium. A nice walk and two long city bus rides would get me there each day.
The school itself was an unremarkable building packed into a residential neighborhood of brick apartments. It had virtually no grounds of its own. A small courtyard of asphalt was created and protected by a 15 foot brick wall that kept the boys safe within the confines of the tiny campus. I was ten years old and had, up to this point, been instructed by women. Now, in sixth grade, I was in an exclusively male environment: this place was run by the Christian Brothers of Ireland. The brothers were identified by their long black cassocks and a stiff white band which showed much like a priest’s collar. But somehow we never mistook the brothers for the priests. Many of them looked tough and sounded tough and acted tough. And many of them were tough—particularly on little boys. Catholic prep schools were known for the degree of discipline that they maintained. All students dressed in a sport coat and tie with dress pants each day. The large classes of 30-35 students (five rows of seven desks was the norm) were orderly and quiet. Any time spent in the halls or walking to recess or the cafeteria was spent in silence until the signal was given when we could talk and play. The school yearbook was titled Halloween, but this place was no place for trick-or-treating. This was a structured life—and one that would be routine for me for the next seven school years.
Discipline was maintained with fear. Fear of a call home, fear of getting kicked out, fear of bad grades, fear of black marks on one’s record. But the thing to fear most each day was the phrase “Two shots.” Most of the brothers carried, hidden in their cassock, a leather strap. Although the exact size varied, a typical strap was a piece of shoe leather about eight inches long, three inches wide and half an inch thick. A “shot” was a very hard whack with the leather strap on the outstretched palm of an offending student. Shots were usually meted out in groups of two; a student felt “lucky” to be sentenced to only one shot. Receiving four or five shots at a time was not unusual for some. Shots were always, always delivered in full view of the entire class. After a recess down at the playground, students who had been so ordered would line up in the front of the classroom to receive their shots. The ceremony was a part of the average school day at All Hallows. Every day two or three students had been awarded shots for some infraction. And a student’s every movement, every activity; every shout was influenced by the dread of hearing the words “Two shots.”
The delivery style of shots varied by individual brother. Some were quicker to award shots than others and we all quickly learned who was who. Offenders receiving shots also varied in their reaction. Crying was typical, although that certainly was a measure of one’s manliness. Loud “ouch” reactions were common. Some brothers added shots to the sentence if a boy was particularly vocal. And God help you if you pulled your hand away as it was about to be struck! That was the worst offense of all. Pulling your hand away, truly a natural reaction to the impending danger, resulted in worse punishment. Two shots a day for a week was one way to extend the agony. Another was to have the boy bend over the teacher’s desk and take shots on the behind. Discipline was maintained and learning assured by the fear of having a brother yell your last name at any time and look you in the eye. “Zinzi! Two shots!” The worry and dread one felt for the next hours before the punishment was delivered was just plain awful.
It’s hard to explain, but we all survived the system. Virtually everyone at the school went on to college—that was the school mission. Most all of the students had never been anywhere where some form of physical punishment was not a regular and accepted part of the school day. It was part of our growing up and I am hard-pressed to determine exactly how my young school experiences impacted the rest of my life, but I’m sure it has. Each childhood experience contributes in some way to the adult we become. I never complained about school to my parents—I had no complaint. School was school, and part of school for me was the daily fact that actions had consequences. I had my share of “shots” while at All Hallows. Somehow the brothers made sure that everyone, even the good kids, had that experience.