Monday, April 20, 2009
The Singing Nun and the Great Poo-Poo Scandal of 1969, Part 2
If you followed the Great Poo-Poo Scandal from Part 1, you know the score. If you didn’t, here it is in a nutshell: in first grade David Grimaldi and I got busted for writing a bunch of potty words, such as “poo-poo” and “farts” on a piece of paper. After his mother had found the offending document, David told her that I had written the whole goddamn thing. Then she phoned Sister Jean Paez and demanded that I be punished. The next day, Sister Jean called us both to the back of the room and demanded to know who was responsible. David started bawling and insisted that I wrote all of it. I stuck to the truth and said we both authored the offensive material, But David wouldn’t admit to his half of the misdeed.
I knew David wouldn’t fess up, because he had already lied to his mom and Sister Jean, The Singing Nun. So there was Mexican standoff between two first graders, with Sister Jean knowing full well that David wrote half of the “dirty” words because the were in his handwriting. But she wanted the scandal to come to a halt before it mushroom-clouded into World War III. She wanted me to admit to the entire bathroom humor screed. Well, I’m not going do drag out the drama for you readers, just as I didn’t back then. David wasn’t going to put an end to the impasse, so I did.
“All right, I wrote it all,” I said. What the hell was she going to do—make me say fifty Hail Marys? Tell my parents? Go ahead, bitch, I’ll tell them the real story.
“Now that we have that settled,” she said, “I want you to tear this up and throw it away. It’s bad enough to write this kind of thing, but to use school supplies is inexcusable. A waste of paper.”
One fucking sheet. Big fucking deal. It’s a good thing I didn’t use a lot of the other words I knew. I bet Sister Jean’s intact hymen would have burst if I hat written “fuck,” “shit,” and “ass.” I knew them all. That paper was PG-rated for crying out loud.
“Bob, as far as I’m concerned, this is over,” she said, fluttering her eyelids to avoid looking me in the eye. “I’m not going to tell your parents about this, as long as you don’t do anything like this again.”
Then our eyes met. There was a knowing look to hers, communicating both appreciation and disgust, as if she were saying, “You’re a stand-up guy, but you’re still an asshole for being a party to this.” Of course, didn’t chastise me for “lying” about David’s involvement. Imagine that. Yes, she knew that if she started going off on my alleged lack of truthfulness, my indignation would have reached the breaking point, and I would have recanted my confession. The only lie in this matter was the one David was telling—the same one I was finally forced to repeat.
Before I go on with the story, let’s take an intermission to again observe the striking parallels between famous The Singing Nun, Sister Luc Gabriel (whom I described in Part I), and The Singing Nun of Ursuline Academy, Sister Jean Paez. Well, Sister Luc Gabriel could never duplicate the success of her 1963 hit song Dominique. In 1966 a movie starring Debbie Reynolds was made about her, but it was a box office failure. Sally Field spoofed her character in the TV series The Flying Nun. And, like Sister Luc Gabriel, Sister Jean Paez would become a parody of herself and fade into obscurity.
Back to the Great Poo-Poo Scandal of 1969: Well, I could stick with the lie no longer after Sister Jean told my parents about the whole thing during parent-teacher conferences that spring. God! Sister Jean told me that she was forgetting about the incident, that she wouldn’t mention it again, and then she went and told my fucking parents!
So I blurted out the whole story to mom and dad, and why I did what I did, and they sort of understood my reasoning. They were still pissed at me, and they were pissed at Sister Jean for pressuring me to take the rap, but they chose not to say anything to the bitch, which was all right by me, because, frankly, I had forgotten about the incident. “But Jesus,” I thought to myself. “What a fucking bitch of a nun!”
As for David and me, the “bathroom humor” scandal had cost us our friendship. I was willing to forgive and forget, but David shunned me for the rest of the year. For the first few weeks, I thought he avoided me because he was so embarrassed. But, over time, it was clear that his mother told him to stay away from me, and the momma’s boy wasn’t going to rock the boat. “Oh well,” I thought. “There’s nothing I can do about it. The spoiled brat cried his way out of that one. I have other friends.”
This should have been a character-building incident in my life, right? Wrong. I was a sucker. I knew that was the case on the first day of second grade, when everybody was talking about the great birthday party Dave had over the summer. Yes, I was the only one in the class who wasn’t invited! God! Dave’s mom strikes again. Was there no end to this fucking affair?
When I mentioned this scandal to my father a few years later, he explained that the parents of Ursuline Academy students were divided into two camps: David’s parents belonged to the group that was always trying to raise extra money from the parents to fund school programs, and my mother and father were part of the “not a penny more” group that demanded that the school should deliver a better educational product to justify the high tuition.
“So she pressured me to take the rap, and then tattled on me to get back at you guys,” I said.
“Yes, I guess Sister Jean was sending us a message. I guess she was telling us that there were consequences to our stance.”
“Incredible.” What I wanted to say was, “What a fucking bitch.” But I guess I didn’t have to. It went without saying.
So why did this miserable piece of crap become a nun? I developed a theory that in the late 1960s, when there was revolution in the air, sexual and otherwise, Sister Jean pulled off the ultimate rebellion for her generation: she went to seminary school and brought home to her parents the ultimate hippie boyfriend, complete with sandals, beard, and long hair: her beau’s name was Jesus. And you know what? After her bleeding heart act got old, Jesus kept trying to break up with her, but whenever he did, the tears came flowing, so he gave up. He’s stuck with her for eternity.
By the early 1970s, however, Ursuline got fed up with Sister Jean's bleeding heart shtick, and told her to pack her bags for an assignment in Europe. First, she had stopped wearing her habit, just like Sister Luc Gabriel, pictured above (real name: Jeanine Deckers). Then she had clashed with other nuns over her "peace sign" art projects for first graders for the first Earth Day in 1970, and her frequent criticisms about the Vietnam War. (The father of a girl in our class was killed in Vietnam, and her mother didn’t take kindly to the comments.) Sister Jean also questioned Sister Immaculata’s disciplinary method of threatening students with a yardstick, even though she never actually used it.
Sister Jean’s weapons of choice were far more horrifying than a yardstick: her acoustic guitar, her love for Ursuline’s spoiled misbehaving weasel students, her disdain for the average students, and her little boo-hoo act at the end of Mass when students wouldn’t listen to her sing.
The final straw at Ursuline Academy was when Sister Jean stopped her closing hymn for the gazillionth time and asked everybody to sit right back down until she finished. Well, some of the eighth graders didn't give a shit and kept right on walking—so Sister Jean put her guitar down, started crying, and ran off the stage faster than Snagglepuss, the cartoon mountain lion. Exit, stage left! Heavens to Murgatroyd! Sister Jean herself left before the end of the closing hymn!
Needless to say, silence enveloped the auditorium. The old nuns swooped down and commanded that everyone go back to their seats. Sister Jean never returned, so the old bags started the process for an orderly end to the Mass. They were pissed at the students, but it was even more obvious that they were infuriated at Sister Jean for bailing and leaving them to deal with the aftermath. They let us stew around in our seats for a while, making us fear the worst, then they moved into action.
"All right," said Sister Immaculata, "Expel the first row."
The first row solemnly arose and filed out. "Holy shit," I exclaimed. "Are they expelled from school?"
"No shithead," said an eighth grader who sat behind me. "She just means get the fuck out of the auditorium. They're not gonna expel anybody for making Sister Cry-baby cry. They need our fucking tuition."
I know what you're thinking. "Why the hell are you even writing about your boring encounters with Sister Jean? You got in trouble for something you didn't do. BFD! Get over it!" And in some ways you're right. It's not like she slapped me upside the head, like Sister Immaculata did after she caught me reading my MAD Magazine in the library. Hell, my father put up with much more punishment—verbal and corporal— at the hands of the nuns at Our Lady of Hope in Hungry Hill.
So what was so evil about Sister Jean? Well, I guess she gave me my first first brush with injustice.
"Boo hoo," you say. Life goes on.
You're right. If I'm seeking the roots of my rebellion against authority, which manifested itself in my outrageous conduct as a teenager, better to point the finger at figures such as Richard Nixon.
But I can't. Sister Jean Paez is an easy target, and she was much more of a hypocrite than Tricky Dick.
Someone’s crying Lord, cumbaya. That someone is Sister Jean—at the end of every Mass I attend. I can see her as clear as tears. There she is, blathering and blubbering, because people are walking about before the closing hymn is over. Keep crying, Sister Jean. Cry me a river. Oh Lord, cumbaya.
The careers of Sister Jean Paez and her apparent idol, the famous Singing Nun, Sister Luc Gabriel, seemed to mirror each other in their pretentiousness, and, ultimately, their ruin. Pictured above is the Glee Club album that was Sister Jean's final shot at stardom and last gasp at staying at Ursuline Academy. "How could they force me into exile after this wonderful record?" she reasoned. Mother Superior's answer: "Beat it!" Yes! Elvis has left the building, and Sister Jean has left the country!
My voice is on the album, but noticeably prominent is Sister Jean's in her heartfelt rendition of, you guessed it: Cumbaya, her swan song.
Sister Luc Gabriel also had one last attempt at restoring her former glory: amidst financial problems, she released an embarrassing disco version of her 1963 song Dominique. Of course, it went over like a lead balloon.
Citing her enormous debt, Sister Luc Gabriel and her "companion" Anna Pecher did themselves in by overdosing on barbituates and alcohol. But in the ultimate irony on the very day of her suicide and without her knowledge, she was awarded about $300,000 in back royalties, which would have been more than enough to pay off her $65,000 debt.
Needless to say, this is the stuff of great comedy/tragedy, and in 1996, The Tragic and Horrible Life of the Singing Nun appeared Off-Broadway. In 2006, a musical version of the play was staged during the New York Music Theater Festival.
In case you're wondering, no, Sister Jean Paez wasn't the Ursuline Academy Singing Nun's real name. This is a pseudonym I concocted that resembles, in case you missed it, folk singer Joan Baez, another icon that undoubtedly loomed large in the life of Sister "Jean." Note, also, the similarities between the word "Paez" and "pious." Am I a great writer or what?
Oh Lord, cumbaya.