On a Facebook page dedicated to the alumni of St. Patrick’s Semi-Military Academy, Sister Victoria is described as vicious and sadistic and having the power of ten men.
She patrolled the aisles of our cafeteria like a prison warden, with both hands clasped behind her back and her head bowed. She always seemed deep in thought, as if she was praying…but she never missed a thing.
On that fateful day, I made sure to look over both my shoulders twice before I made my miscalculated attempt. She caught me anyway. It was like she had a divine gift for sensing which one of the one hundred and fifty children under her watch was up to no good. No sooner did I scoop the first of my four Brussels sprouts into my empty milk container, when she pounced on me, smacking me hard on the right side of my face. Before I even knew what hit me, she grabbed the collar of my uniform shirt and yanked me out of my chair. Standing erect, I towered over the tiny little lady in a nun’s habit and yellow-lensed glasses.
It wasn’t the first time that I experienced her wrath. Sister Victoria hit me on so many occasions that I became familiar her timing mechanism: 3 wags of her pointed index finger, followed by a crack across the face. The cracks hurt quite a bit. Although her hands were small, very dry, and chalk riddled, they were fast. There was no ducking or dodging. If you attempted to block a swat or cover up, then the punishment got even worse. She’d grab onto an ear and drag you out into a hallway, where you’d be made to kneel on your hands for an hour, or squat with your back against the wall with a rifle draped across your outstretched arms.
This time, I had committed a cardinal sin. I was wasting food and knew I was going to pay for it. So I took my cracks across the face like the prepubescent male that I was, and then sat back down in my chair and sobbed, in silence, while the rest of the lunchroom looked on in fear. My lesson was not over, though. For penance, I would have to write a five hundred-word essay on the starving children throughout the world and for dinner that night I’d have to finish those four, uneaten Brussels sprouts before I could have anything else.
How did I end up at St. Patrick’s Semi-Military Academy you might ask? Long story short, I acted-up in school when I was a kid and the topic of boarding school came up on one of my mother’s frequent to the principal’s office (I have enough stories about my antics to fill a book).
So one weekend when I was in the middle of third grade, my mother brought me up Tarrytown, New York, and we walked around the grounds of a school called St. Vincent’s DePaul. She asked me if I liked it. I said “sure,” not knowing that I’d be getting dropped off there the following week for good. St. Vincent’s was a nice school, though; Franciscan Nuns ran it. They were kind and sweet, and they loved and cared about us and never hit us; I even went to summer camp there. The school closed down just before I was going into the sixth grade, though, so I wound up at St. Patrick’s Semi-Military Academy by default.
St. Patrick’s was located in Harriman, New York, and run by the Sisters of the Catholic Apostolate. The “semi” part was for the combination of religion and military…and that combination sucked. My school week began on Sundays at 3pm, when I had to report — in full dress uniform — to Grand Central Terminal to catch the bus to Harriman. At 12 years old, I was already taking the subway to the City on my own.
Since St. Patrick’s uniforms where the same as the ones worn by West Point cadets, I was often asked by nosey straphangers if I was in the Army, to which I was always sarcastically replied, “Yeah, I’m 12 years old and in the Army. I got drafted.” Then I would walk away.
Every Sunday night we would watch an old black and white reel-to-reel projector movie, like National Velvet. After the movie we’d return to our dorms for lights out and the playing of “Taps.” Each and every morning began with mass. After mass we had breakfast, then a full school day. After school we would change into our military uniforms, and then do marching drills for two hours before dinner. On days that it was too cold to drill, we wore our hats and gloves and overcoats and drilled anyway. After dinner, we went back to our classrooms and did our homework.
St. Patrick’s sat on several acres of manicured property. The school had beautiful baseball fields and basketball courts, both of which we rarely ever used because we were always marching and drilling. Maybe we marched so much so that we would be prepared for the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Spectators of the parade loved watching our school. We looked tiny little soldiers marching up Fifth Avenue. Little did they know how much we hated it.
In between the drilling and the inspections, being berated and punished constantly, we did manage to make our own fun somehow. We’d have towel fights in the showers; we’d stay up late listening to transistor radios with a single earpiece. Some nights, after everyone was asleep, some of the more daring students would escape the school grounds and walk into town in our pajamas and slippers.
One day I threw a boy named Jose Ortiz down the laundry shoot and he loved it. The laundry shoot was made out of polished aluminum. If you were tiny and light, you could fly down the three stories of the building and land in a huge laundry basket in the basement. Once I discovered the laundry shoot ride, every little guy in the school wanted to do it.
One night, just as I was getting ready to toss another tiny kid down the shoot, Sister Victoria came off the elevator. I had kids watching out for her in the stairwells, because no one ever thought she’d take the elevator. She screamed bloody murder…but she didn’t hit me (she never hit the eighth graders). Instead, she ordered me to bring my dress uniform jacket down to the cafeteria and leave it on my chair, which meant that I was getting demoted before graduation.
When I returned to the cafeteria later on that evening for dinner, I had indeed been demoted from Sergeant to Corporal. To tell you the truth, I didn’t care. I had less than a week before I was paroled.
Back in the day I used to misbehave. Then I met my match: the meanest little lady ever, Sister Victoria. To this day, I can still feel the smack of her dry little hands. I’ll never forget how she dragged me out of class by my ear and made me kneel on my hands for an hour. Wherever you are now, Sister Victoria, thank you, I’m probably way better off today because you didn’t spare the whip.