Rights and Wrongs

By Sharon F. Skinner, PhD

March 2018

I walked to school every morning and home every afternoon. I went to a private school, St. Boniface grade school. My memories of St. Boniface are filled with contradictions. It was ground zero for the Civil Rights Movement here in Milwaukee. Our teachers were mostly nuns, and it was clear many of them had never been around little black kids before. Now that I look at some of the things going on with black children in grade school today, I get it now, to some degree, why those little children are being thrown into detention, or even having the police called on them. Even though these are little grade school kids, they apparently are just smaller versions of the law-breaking adults they will be. My depiction here of the nuns may come across as very acidic. I really think they could have opened their eyes and been better towards us as kids. But, what I experienced and suffered tells me that our nuns were human beings. And they certainly came with a host of fallacies.

As I’ve mentioned, I am an introvert. Going to school was stressful for me. All the way back to kindergarten, and from then on. I recall my father arguing with one of the nuns in administration at St. Boniface over my start grade. Apparently I did kindergarten at the public schools, but now I was going to go to this private school, along with my older sister. I can hear my father saying, “but she’s smart”, and the nun trying to lower his voice and tell him about some “study” that said they found that children coming from the public schools into the private schools did not perform as well, and needed to re-do a grade or two. What turned out was that there were quite a few “older” students in our grade. As I look back, I can recall some were up to three years older than we were. It’s interesting when you have children in your grade that much older than you. For instance, as you are getting all excited about Christmas, you find out the hard way that there is no Santa Claus, or no St. Nick. You also learn there is no Tooth Fairy. This was very disheartening when you’re a kid and your heart believes in these things.

I was constantly bullied. Going and coming from school, in school, at lunch, in the bathroom. I ate lunch alone every single day. Every single day. Every day. I never wanted to go to school. But I did love to learn. I didn’t know I was a geek at the time. I was always there at school, fresh and eager to learn. But I was quiet and shy, so it was terrifying for me to raise my hand to answer or ask a question. I think back to all of those years and I wonder how I managed to get through all of those years when not one of the nuns tried to talk to me or to understand me. There were comments on my report card that said I needed to talk more, or that they suspected I knew the answer, but didn’t raise my hand. But they never took me aside and talked to me. So that opened the door to kids being kids and bullying the heck out of me.

There is a test that all students take around the fourth grade. It’s one of those tests to tell how well kids across the U.S. are doing. It also gives the schools a chance to see how well they are doing with teaching us. Well, the results came back and the nuns were quick to call us morons. This was not an uncommon thing. We were morons because apparently our class didn’t, nor did our school, do too well on the test. The nuns went over some of the questions, and bullied us as to why we didn’t know the answer. One of the questions had to do with matching. There would be a picture of several objects: we had to circle two objects that went best together, like hat and gloves or pen and paper. We were berated because most kids circled a spoon and a cup. Our teacher started by asking what we thought went together. After hearing so many say spoon and cup, she got red in the face and yelled that a spoon and a cup didn’t go together. The cup and saucer went together. Then there was silence. Then came the questions as to what was a saucer. We were further berated for not knowing what it was. We were asked, “What do your parents drink coffee in”? The answer came back: “A mug”. The nun went on to tell us how uncouth we were, and that our parents were, too. She went on to say anyone knows that the proper place setting was a cup and saucer. The older kids argued that not everyone has a proper place setting in their homes and that a cup and spoon were logical to them. The nun turned and pointed to one of the white kids in our class, who had said the cup and saucer went together. She then asked, how was it he knew and we didn’t.

You’re just little heathens

We had so many opportunities to prove to the nuns that we were little heathens, as they called us. As Lent rolled around, each person had to state out loud what they gave up. If what a student said wasn’t good enough, the nun would quickly berate the student and then tell them, in an ordering voice, what they had to give up. Sometimes the older students would jump in and ask questions, such as, “What do you do if your birthday falls during Lent”? This was asked, probably because the nun was saying we should give up things like cake and ice cream. The nun responded that it would then be the ultimate sacrifice to give up cake and ice cream if Lent fell during your birthday. Then, came the chorus from kids saying, “every year”? Then came the anger from the nun. We were heathens. So, on Fridays, we were each asked what we were having for dinner. Fridays were considered no meat days during Lenten at the time. What the nuns didn’t catch was how many students didn’t know what they were going to have for dinner. What they were looking for was to trap someone. And it never failed: someone said some type of meat. Back to being heathens. It was not required that students become Catholic to attend the school, as the older students would remind the nuns. It didn’t stop them from doing this every Friday. Finally, every kid just answered “fish”.

We would get calendars that highlighted Catholic holidays, and had pictures of saints. It was in the back of the classroom. One year, our teacher decided we needed to understand the meaning of our names. So, we each had a chance to go to the calendar, which had a listing of names, and where they were found in the Bible. Kids made a bee line to the calendar to find their names. Then many came back with long faces, as they couldn’t find their name. The nun, smug, was quick to say that their names weren’t on the list because they weren’t given a proper Catholic name.

I learned that looks mattered according to the nuns. For example, if you were considered “mixed”, you were considered smarter and “better” than those who weren’t. If you had “good hair”, you were considered better. I noticed this often. I recall one day our teacher brought in a book and told us that we were inferior to whites in intellect because the book said we were descendants of apes. We were told we would never develop higher learning skills for math and science. This caused a disruption in the classroom and the older kids basically freaked. So much so that they went home and told their parents. Apparently, there was a spate of phone calls to the convent because the next day, our nun was all smiles and told us, “you can all be president”.

Because we had a wide range of ages in our classroom, we had a wide range of knowledge. Sometimes we would get students who would come in but then disappear within a few days, or a few weeks. It became obvious to us that parents wanted to send their child to the school, but the child may have had some type of learning disorder. We had students come in who stuttered or had difficulty reading. Within days, they would be gone. They were sent to the public schools. The nuns seemed happy when they were gone.

What we learned stuck with me. I still use or refer back to some of the lessons, such as math, or grammar, or science. We had to learn things and we had to, in many ways, out in the open, show that we understood the lesson. When we were learning to write (we were not allowed to use the word “cursive”. That was a word “the heathens in the public schools used”), we each had to go up to the board and write the letter or letters of the day. Our homework assignment was to practice and then come back the next day and be able to write the letter or letters. Somehow I was told to come up to the board. I panicked, as I was terrified to get up in front of the class. The letter was “M”. I had practiced it that night. And, one of my neighbors’ name started with M, and he was older, so he came over the night before and taught me how to write the “M”. During those days, we learned by having our parents, or our friends, or our neighbors help. In my panic, I somehow wrote the “M” backwards and the entire class erupted into laughter. I was told to do it again. I started and froze and then began to sweat. I finally realized all eyes were on me, so I wanted to get it over with and quickly finished the “M”. The class erupted again. What I didn’t know was that I had written it backwards again. I guess the class thought I was making a joke. The nun slapped me. Very hard. I remember looking directly at her and then going to my desk and sitting down. I was angry. The nuns convinced many parents that they should sign a form that allowed the nuns to “spank” you if you became unruly. I thought this was uncalled for on my part. I refused to cry, as this nun was known for slapping kids. Particularly the boys, and they’d go off crying. I refused to cry. When I got home and told my father, he was angry. I don’t know if he called the school, but I know that he told me it was wrong.

My father was Vice President of the Parent-Teacher Association. He had a car. The nuns came to the convent from a place that, at the time, seemed far off: Mequon. So, whenever a nun needed to come or go back to Mequon, my father would take them. In his youth, he had his chauffer’s license, and had the experience of driving all sorts of cars. He loved cars. No one drove like my father. It was so smooth. He could hug a curb and you never leaned. He could get within the width of a pencil from his tire and the curb and never touch the curb. He said he had to pass the chauffer’s test by having an uncooked egg under the bra. If he broke the egg, he failed. And he was told to stop on a sudden notice. So, he was the go-to person to take the nuns back and forth to Mequon. Sometimes I would get a chance to go on the rides, particularly if it was on the weekend. I remember those rides. They were always quiet. We’d start off with prayer and end in prayer. Sometimes the nun would ask me a question or two. I was always happy when they didn’t, as I was terrified to speak to them. But the car ride was gentle and smooth, and he would listen to the easy listening radio station. I remember this with smiles.

Aspiring writer

My dictionary was my friend. I loved to read it during the quiet times in class. I would look up words, or look for synonyms or look for pictures. I was always in there. I loved to read. Our school had a small library and it was fun when we were allowed to go in and pick out books. I remember having a hard time finding a book one day, as I had read most of the books my age level and probably three or four years ahead. I tested at a reading level three or four years ahead of me, but the nuns just poo-pooed this to my parents. As I was looking for something to read, a nun came over and told me I should read “Little Black Sambo”, as, she said, I would enjoy it. I found the book and noticed how thin it was. I read it standing there. I thought, ‘why would she want me to read this’? I went home and told my father, who blew up. He called the school and complained.

I felt good one day, and wrote a poem. I was always writing something. I think the assignment was to write a poem, or write about something you liked. The poem was about the blue sky and happiness. After I turned it in, the nun contacted my parents and told them how wonderful it was. My parents even came to school to meet with the nun and she told them that she encouraged me to write more and anytime I wanted to write, to give the poems to her and let her read them. My parents were thrilled, as they thought this would be a great way for me to “come out of my shell”. I was excited because I was being recognized by the nun for something. So I eagerly went home and over the next few days produced another poem. I remember going up to her desk, which took great effort on my part, and giving her the poem. She looked at it and read the beginning of it, and then snapped, “what are you giving me this, for”? I was shut down. I slinked back to my desk and never went back to her. I told my parents that night. My father was incensed. He called and complained. I began to notice that these complaints were falling on deaf ears.

Ground zero

After school, our playground became the place for gatherings for our rallies. It was during the 1960s and the civil rights movement was alive and well. One of our priests at our church was Father James Groppi. Fr. Groppi was one of the leaders of the civil rights movement in Milwaukee. It turned out that our school and church were ground zero for the movement. Next to our school was North Division High School. The big kids from North Division would come over after school, along with adults from the surrounding community to participate in the rallies and marches. Fr. Groppi led the rallies and we often began our marches from our playground.

It was interesting that we had such a chasm going on at that location. We had the injustices going on inside the school, yet a pastor who was eager to fight for justice and change. My father had a motion picture camera and took pictures at a few of our rallies. Here’s a picture from that time:

During one of our marches, my aunt took my hand and said, “You know why we’re doing this, don’t you”? I knew by the tone in her voice that this was not a question I should try to answer. She then said, “We’re doing this for you. The young people”. I knew what she meant. Even though I was little, I knew what was going on. The big kids were talking about it and the adults would talk about it at the rallies. Our neighbors and my friends, and my parents and my parents’ friends all talked about it. My aunt said, “Your uncle is here. We may see him”. My uncle was a cop. He was the first African American sergeant on the police force. He was stationed at one of the intersections, along with other cops. The streets were blocked off and the main intersections were open for traffic. As we would march, we would see police officers at the main intersections. They were there to keep things moving, or, to act if there were any disruptions. I wonder now, what my uncle thought, standing there, watching us march. As an African American man, he probably wanted to join his wife and niece. As a cop, he had to do his job.

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Last edited by Patricia Obletz. Based on work by patricia obletz and Tyler Schuster.  Page last modified on March 31, 2018

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