Friday, March 8, 2013

What was Cool

Flipping the collars up on our navy Catholic school blazers was the cool thing to do.  Hiking up the sleeves of the blazer, just past our forearms, was also cool.

And then some boys started to pierce their ears in 1981. 

At the moment the parish determined it an "epidemic" in a letter to our parents, the nuns marched just the boys, single file, into the church which was attached to the K-8 school. Lit only by the dim November sunlight filtering through stained glass windows, the space was awash in muted reds, blues, and yellows. Sad eyed, John the Baptist...the pious Peter...the shameful Mary Magdalene gazed upon us for a long stretch of silence.

We were to reflect.

When the nuns clacked their knees against the pews, we watched them struggle as they shuffled towards the pulpit. From the lectern, several nuns stood shoulder to shoulder like a Greek chorus and took turns with pressed lips against the microphone/ They admonishing our practice of ruining our bodies with piercings. We insulted God who blessed us with beautiful bodies. Moreover, they officially forbade any male piercings--even though it was too late as there were already holes littering a lot of little ears.  

They decreed that boys were not permitted to wear their earrings to school; if your ear closed up, so be it for it was God's will. 

Consequently, the boys just put band-aids over their earrings.

The frustration of the canonry escalated from the lay teachers pleading with us to strip the band-aids and metal from our ears once and for all to the infamous moment with Sister Mary Peter. Already a character because of her nasal-voice and bulldog jowls, she was the first educator I saw physically handle a student. 

Losing her mind and cinching Dino’s band-aided ear between muscled thumb and forefinger, Sister gripped it and ripped it. She raised her chubby palm and a bloody mass that still glinted.  
"Do you think you are cool, young man?"
The room held its breath.

As Sister pitched the fleshy earring into the waste bin, Dino's ear blossomed red like a slow summer rose even though he didn't utter a sound. A rivulet of blood snaked down his neck and disappeared inside the eggshell blue shirt collar.

She berated Dino and he took it for a while. Eventually he simply stood up and left the room. And then she cauterized our souls by defining "cool" for us.

"God was cool. And nothing you little shits do will ever change that."
Sister Mary Peter disappeared for a few weeks after that incident and Mother Superior soon announced over the loud speaker that boys would be permitted to wear band-aids on their ears--even if they were only covering up a damnable earring.

With our tensions eased and angry parents huddling in the main office with the Monsignor on a daily basis, we antagonized the anxious faculty by asking their opinions while openly debating which ear made you gay.  
“Look, Sister!  His earring is in his right ear!  Is he gay?”
“No, Sister, it is the left ear that is the gay ear--isn't that right, Sister?”
The fact is, we didn’t know. We asked because we were afraid of the answer--and no one could garner a straight answer from any lay teacher or nun. Uneasy, our teachers would not touch the question. 

But a part of us really wanted to know.

Just as many boys had earrings in their right as in their left. So, we would nudge each other when we saw an earring in a boy, no matter how tough he was.
“Look, he likes boys.”
Even though we wore earrings too.

While I didn’t smoke in 8th grade, most of my friends did.  Like little James Deans leaning against cyclone fencing, cigarettes nestled behind some of the band-aided ears, we pawed at the girls with just our eyes--the girls skipping rope--the girls giggling in tight circles for warmth--the girls blowing smoke "the French way" in shaded recesses of the building--the girls shoving a nervous friend into my path as I played catch with the other boys --the girls who shrieked with wide-eyed smiles when the small rubber ball bounced towards their knees peeking beneath navy jumpers and taking turns gripping it firmly in their hands--the girls taunting us with the ball and their smiles, and after handing the ball back, using their palms to press our blazer collars flat and back into place--the way they should be--as only girls could do.


  1. thanks to some very unexpected snow this morning, and a few extra minutes to read, I found your SOL blog and so I now have another reason to thank the snow! You are a gifted writer and your stories and poems touch deeply on moments in your life that are common to many of us -yet your lense - so deeply personal and reflective - is indeed powerful. It's clear your students have a powerful writing mentor in your texts....I'll be read and soak in moments that stir my own reflection.

  2. Your post brings back memories. My younger brother was in middle school during the early 80's, and he desperately wanted an earring. My parents would never have allowed him to get his ear pierced, so one Friday or Saturday night he talked me and my friends into piercing it for him. I used one of my old earrings that was missing its partner (a Christmas tree, I believe). Then I spent the next few weeks watching as he tried to hide the new piercing from my dad, who would have ripped it out, flesh and all.

  3. From your story, I am compelled to love Dino, just sitting there...

  4. Your story opened my eyes to what it was like going to a Catholic school. I heard that some of the nuns were strict...but Sister Mary Peter went a bit too far. Your imagery of the stained glass windows was unique...Sad Eyed John the Baptist. Nice story.

  5. Wonderful imagery. I gasped out loud at the startling image of dino's ear being ripped. And appreciate how the vivid details make it seem like "my" memory not a story.

  6. Of all the strong features of descriptive writing, strong verbs particularly stand out to me here. Love the rhythm of your conclusion as well. You are a fluid and controlled story-teller, sir! This brings to mind the early 80s conversations we had around the monkey bars wondering what to make of Boy George.

  7. You masterfully bring the past come alive for your reader. I wonder how the nuns would react seeing boys and girls at 2013.
    Thank you for visiting my blog and leaving a comment. The Slice of Life community has grown big and it makes hard to read all blogs. Your comment led me here and I enjoyed reading your writing.