1. A quick snap on an Adam’s apple. That’s what I remember from mornings outside Our Lady of Perpetual Help. We’d run around the school yard, a parking lot really, and throw tennis balls against brick walls until it hit a teacher’s car. And then the bell signaled us to line up. I yanked the plaid tie out of my bag, threw the ribbon around a yellowed collar, and clipped it just to the side of my Adam’s apple.
1b. Snap, and stepped past the metal doors into the warm, brick building.
2. Our Lady of Perpetual Help, OLPH. Old Ladies Prison Home, we called it, six square blocks along Main Street. The Sisters of Saint Joseph ran a tight post–Vatican II ship.
2a. Sister Rita Guiffria had a curious practice of reacting to second graders who had not gotten a parent to sign spelling tests by squinting her eyes and saying in a ching-chong Asian voice, “no tickie no washie!” Sister Barbara led us in songs with her acoustic guitar, the capo so high up the fret board it sounded like a mandolin.
3. Sister Katherine Dolan, our imperious principal, led us in song for holiday masses. She marched down the church aisle, and slapped the palm of her left hand with the back of her right to keep time. I am the bread of life, slap slap, he who comes to me shall not hunger, slap.
4. In the boy’s room, nuns monitored our times inside. If a sister suspected horseplay, she might go inside, which we saw as an invasion of our privacy. Eighth graders rushed up to the urinals, bumped kids out of their way, unzipped their pants, and moaned in mock erotic pleasure.
4a. Uh. Oh yeah. Uh. That’s good. Yeah, yeah!
4b. The nuns retreated. It freaked me out to hear those donkey-brays echo in the room, especially if Jimmy, the red-headed retarded boy, was genuinely trying to pee, his pants and underwear dropped down to the tiles, his freckly ass showing.
5. Up until age nine or so I was a happy kid. Ecstatic even. I raised my arm—swung, really—when I knew answers to the sisters’ questions, volunteered to read from books aloud. I ran around the school yard, quoted lines from last night’s “Happy Days” episode, caught stacks of quarters from my elbow.
5a. If I recognized song lyrics from our Language Arts textbook, I was the first volunteer to sing a few bars—“Eleanor Rigby” or “Feelin’ Groovy” stand out in my memory.
6. By fourth grade, my mother took a part-time secretary job working for Sister Katherine. Dad protested, said she should stay home. But she wanted money for a new kitchen. Some of the kids thought I got preferential treatment because of this insider status, but I found being the son of Mrs. Nester Who Works in The Office to be the opposite. If I was wailed too hard in dodge ball or bombardment, the aggressor usually got off easy for fear of meting out uneven justice.
7. I hesitate to call OLPH an oasis because Maple Shade is a town without metaphors. Still, I loved how the school, church, convent and rectory, the whole complex, felt like a second home. We were brought in as little children and we left as big children.
8. The last time I drove past OLPH, it was a sunny morning last Spring. A kid swung from the rope on the flag pole, a human tetherball over South Poplar Avenue. I turned right off Main Street onto Fellowship Avenue. Past the church on the left was the Sub Shoppe. Two eighth grade girls, wearing those familiar plaid skirts, stood off in a corner, away from the wind. One lit a cigarette, and shared it with the other. It summoned, to me at least, something sacred.