Catholic School Stories You Maybe Haven’t Heard
Every Catholic baby boomer shares the usual tales
about nuns or brothers and their punishments
too extreme just to be ranked corporal.
Like Sister Rita Cathleen who used to pull
out students’ hair and then let us all see
it descending from her fingers
to the classroom floor: her way to make sure
we knew she had gotten some.
Or Sister Jeremy who once locked
little Billy Abruzzino in the dark
coat closet and then left him there
for hours after school until his mother
found success in her desperate search.
But the harm I remember most
involved words alone: like Sister Clarisse
who told us only the Irish “are God’s people”
the rest of us Italians, Puerto Ricans, Polish,
blacks all a bunch of sinful losers; or that
same Sister Jeremy once threatening
my Lithuanian friend Algis Oslapas during
Mass, promising: “If you don’t shut up
Mr.Oslapas, I’m going to really make
you sloppy”; or years later Mr. Mitchell who
coached track, taught religion and classics
at Cathedral Prep, getting angry at me for quitting the team
and for the next four years insulting me at every
turn, sometimes in Latin, as when he borrowed
Cicero’s speech against his hated enemy, substituting
my name for Cataline’s, or when Mitchell told my classmate
Jamie Guevara, “Hey Guevara, you know the only
guy greasier in this school than you is Benevento.”
I stuck to the Stoicism I had learned in his class,
never gave him an excuse to get me expelled (unlike
my hero Filipino friend Martin Del Rosario, who responded
to Mitchell’s labeling of him as a “half-ass” with “Well, you’re
a whole one,”). Mitchell relented a little by senior year, even
warned me about my scholarship to NYU: “Watch out
for all those Jews.”
You can recover from a hard slap in the face
and when you’re a kid your hair grows back fast,
but what child can recover completely from the person
in charge of your education, who negates your name,
your complexion, your people, allowing you no way
to duck the blow, turn on the light, unlock
the door that might lead to your escape.
Three Inch Heels
for guys were in
among the Puerto Ricans
with whom I hung.
I didn’t often digress
away from white
boy apparel, but somehow
succumbed, bought a pair,
which I didn’t try to wear yet
walking with them hidden in their box
down Liberty Avenue towards home.
Got on with them on the Q41 for high
School; already 6’2” stockinged
it was harder to step up
without hitting my head. The almost all white
boys and faculty at Cathedral Prep all wondering
what else was up beyond my stature. Father Keane
reminding me I was already tall, guys in the locker
room taking turns rising up by seeing what it was like
to walk a moment in my shoes.
Wore them one Saturday, 9-9 shift
at Mays Department Store, found out
what women suffered for fashion’s sake
in those back-
Finally they fit in attending my best friend Jose’s
high school graduation party: his parents going
all the way with an actual roast pig on a spit,
not a common sight in Queens, and pulpo
also on the menu- my first time seeing, much
less eating octopus.
Of course there was dancing and even though
my salsa steps were silly, in those three inch
heels, I at least looked the part un poco mejor.
And when I grinded with Irene Vargas
almost six feet before shoes herself,
black hair down to her cintura, each of us heels
higher than normal, hanging on to each
other all the more for balance, her perfume,
her summer-time no air-conditioned sweat
pressed against me so close, I wanted to
stay in that space forever, though I knew
I’d never really be able to hold on, no matter
the inches closer I feigned being on top of things.
Joe Benevento grew up in a working class, multicultural neighborhood in Queens; his experiences as the only white guy in a large peer group of blacks and latinx friends formed the basis for his urban YA novel The Odd Squad which was a finalist for the John Gardner Fiction Book Award back in 2006. His poems, stories, essays and reviews have appeared in over 300 places, including Bilingual Review, Prairie Schooner, Poets & Writers, Inkwell, Wisconsin Review and Cold Mountain Review. Among his eight books of poetry are After from bilingual publisher Mouthfeel Press, (2017) and Expecting Songbirds: Selected Poems, 1983-2015 with the Purple Flag imprint of the Visual Arts Collective. Benevento teaches creative writing and American literature including a course in Latinx poetry and fiction at Truman State U., where he is also poetry editor for the Green Hills Literary Lantern.