Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A Going Back to Parochial School Poem--Circa 1956

I wrote the following poem for Tricia’s Monday Poetry Stretch - Back to School. My contribution is a wee bit dark. I attended a strict parochial elementary school in the 1950s. It was a drab, depressing place with dark corridors, desks and chairs screwed to the classroom floors, and bathrooms in the building’s damp basement. I became a school phobic...soon after I arrived on my first day of first grade.

Yes, I take the nuns to task in my poem—but I do understand the poor ladies were dealing with classes of approximately fifty children. I can only imagine what their daily lives were like in the convent that stood adjacent to my school. The nuns were often treated as second class citizens—as are most women—by the Catholic Church.

A Back to School Poem
by Elaine Magliaro

Even though the sun seared the sky
on the Tuesday after Labor Day,
I buttoned my stiffly starched blouse

with puffed sleeves and Peter Pan collar…
then slid on the green serge jumper
that pricked my skin with woolly thorns.
Above my heart
the diamond-shaped badge blazed SJS in gold.
I was a student at Saint John’s School—
a good Catholic girl bound up in dogma
who could recite lengthy answers
from the Baltimore catechism by heart,
who never ate meat on Friday,
who went to Mass every day before school during Lent,
who invented sins when forced to confess my transgressions
to a priest in the bowels of our church,
who dared not disobey the nuns.
Oh, the nuns—dark angels of my innocence,
their foreheads wrapped tightly in white wimples,
their bodies draped in layers of black cloth,
their shaved heads covered with veils
that spread out like ravens’ wings when they strode
down the dark corridors of our school.
These were the good sisters of discipline and doctrine
who did their holy best to crush my spirit,
to haunt my dreams,
to wipe the joy and exuberance from my childhood
with talk of Lucifer and mortal sin and eternal damnation.

It was September 4, 1956,
my first day of fifth grade.
Dressed in crisp cotton and scratchy wool,
a large drawstring bag slung over my shoulder,
I trudged off to school under a scorching sun
with a heavy load—
holy books, a metal lunchbox, bad memories—
and a prayer:
Good Lord Jesus,
help me to survive another year
of this parochial purgatory.


Jules at 7-Imp said...

Wow. Intense. Thank you for sharing. The ravens' wings metaphor is really vivid.

Elaine Magliaro said...


This isn't my typical kind of poem for sure. The ravens' wings part was what stood out in my husband's mind when he read it too.

laurasalas said...

Elaine, this is fantastic! I, too, love those ravens' wings...makes me think of The Omen or imagery from some other movie like that, with scary/haunting music in the background while the nuns stride harshly down the hall or across the green.

I also really love the kind-of list poem embedded in there with the "who" lines as you describe yourself.

Makes me sure appreciate my elementary school! I didn't really hate school until high school:>)

Elaine Magliaro said...


Thanks for your comments. Once I started writing this poem, the words just came pouring out. Elementary school was not a happy place for me--but I met some of my best friends I'm thankful for that.

Janet S said...

I liked going to school at Sacred Heart Elementary from 1948 through 1952. The nuns there, except for the aging Sr Regina who was slipping into demetia, seemed to enjoy teaching and me, the later being most important at that age. We moved to Annunciation at Easter time in 1953 where the class was divided into the well-off and the rest of us who were more or less invisible. My grades dropped and my social development stopped but it wasn't the school or the dogma which I later discarded. It was the social stratification embraced by both students and teachers.