Submit your work, meet writers and drop the ads. Become a member
May 14
Chapter 7:  Learning To Share

At St Thomas Of Villanova Grade School we learned how to share.  We had shared desks, shared inkwells, shared coatrooms, and no individual lockers.  Any valuables that we did have were out in the open and under the protection of all.  This honor system was developed over many generations, and one that had its own measure of checks and balances.  Things did occasionally get lost, but in my 8 years at St. Thomas,’ I can’t recall one thing ever being stolen.

If you talk to anyone who grew up in the 1950’s, you’ll hear things like this repeated over and over again …

: In my neighborhood we never even locked our doors.
: I left my bike on the front porch for years.
: The milkman and breadman left food outside the front door,        sometimes for hours, and no-one ever touched it.

               These Things Were Integral To American Life

Just like in school, the neighborhood had its own method of self-protection.  It stemmed from a principle, all held dear, that no-one would ever even think about entering anyone else’s home uninvited.  Cars sat in driveways unlocked with packages in the back seat and glove boxes full.  The same applied here. This was someone’s private property, and you afforded the object the same respect as the person who owned it. It’s just the way things were done.

Things were done this way because we all shared the belief that any other way would have been wrong.

              It Really Did Come Down To … Right Or Wrong!

In the lower grades at school, we all wore coverings over our pants and skirts in the winter called leggings, Leggings kept you warm while offering a layer of protection from the hard asphalt that served as our playground during recess and lunch.  It was one students job every day to help everyone else get their leggings off.  If you ever wore them, you know what a chore this could be, especially if you were doing it by yourself.  Luckily, in my school, you were never by yourself, and you actually looked forward to the day when it was your responsibility to help everyone else.  In the sharing of oneself, we learned of the deeper meaning that life can bring.  

We also had shared turns at cleaning the blackboard, emptying the trash, and once a week, in the months during spring and fall, we all got to work in Sister Clara’s Garden.  Sister Clara was almost blind, and no-one knew how old she really was.  What we did know is that she had taught our parents, and in some cases our grandparents too, and we couldn’t wait for the stories that she would tell us about them when they were our age.  Sister Clara may have had failing eyesight, but she had total recall when it involved one of her students no matter how many years had passed.

It didn’t matter how long ago the event happened, she could make it seem like it was happening again today. She never pulled any punches, and it was through her stories that I first learned that my mother was not always perfect, she just got that way through hard work and practice.  I know this is true because that’s what she told me (LOL).

The things we shared at school came with responsibility and a pride in what they represented.  The words me or I seemed rarely used back then.  The pride we felt was in our school, or in our neighborhood, and of course in our country. If I hit a home run on the ball field, it was our team who won, and my efforts were part of that greater whole.

We learned early that we were only as good as the slowest or weakest player on our team, and we rallied around this person to sure up his strengths making us all better in the process.  By being willing to share, we could turn slower guys like me into blockers on the line, while our fastest guys would be the running backs carrying the ball down the field to score. No matter how fast those guys were, they always knew that without the right block, at the right time, they would never have been able to get through the line and into the end zone.  It was in the end zone that we shared together the joy of the touchdown.  Isn’t that the way it really should be, people of like mind, banding together for a common goal, and sharing in its reward?

Back then, being visible and being valuable were not necessarily the same thing.  Today, every kid wants to pitch or be quarterback on his team.  Under this scenario the team itself disappears.  Ask any great quarterback how he got to where he is, and he will invariably thank his offensive line for allowing him to make the plays that resulted in the wins. By believing in the concept that what’s good for all trumps’any individual goal, we were able to not only win games but to experience the joy that only teamwork can create.

         A Team Is About The Vision And The Mission They Share

When we shared these moments, we shared them in the only language that brought us together … English! We would never have expected, nor wanted, to celebrate in any other.  Just because you were Italian, and I was Irish, had nothing to do with it.  That was yesterday and in the past.  Today, our common bond was that we were all American kids conversing in the language that our Founding Fathers had used.  One of the marvelous things about the English language is its ability to assimilate different words and idioms from other cultures and make them its own.  

We often times found ourselves interjecting words from the foreign languages we learned from our friend’s parents into our daily speech.  I might be a Meshugana and you a Dummkopf, but it was all in good fun, and it spiced up our native language with a zest and flavor. The parents and grandparents from the ‘Old Country’ didn’t want their children to speak anything but English and would correct us with the proper English word when we borrowed one of theirs.  They wanted their children to be American, and only American, and to speak its chosen language without the accents they still carried on their tongues.

With Our Common Language, We Footnoted Ourselves In The Stories That We Told

We learned in school that one of the greatest tragedies of America’s past had been the Civil War. It was a bitter conflict fought by two sides who shared so much in common — almost destroying each other in the clash of a few differences.  Luckily, we had the great unifier Abraham Lincoln in office to guide us back to nationhood.  Lincoln, more than anyone, realized that “A house divided against itself, cannot stand.”

                                        And So Did We!

We learned that Northern and Southern States were divided along an imaginary line named Mason—Dixon. This line would often pit previous friends, and in some cases brothers, against each other in a tragic struggle to win the day.  One fundamental difference, slavery,  almost destroyed an entire country leaving deep wounds — the scars of which are still visible even today.

We first learned in school that all men were created equal. Our Founding Fathers had assured us of that. In their shared understanding of the basic rights of man, they forged documents (The Declaration of Independence & The Bill of Rights), to insure that in this country men would always be free …free to share in the benefits that only liberty can provide.

It took a Civil War to make sure the promise of those documents was finally extended to all Americans.


Chapter 8:  Every Story Paints A Picture

With every story the good Sisters told us, during our 8 years in parochial school, a picture got painted inside our minds.  These pictures became part of our spiritual DNA and the backbone of the moral code we developed and learned to live by.  The Nuns had told these stories over many years, and to thousands of students, but somehow through the intensity in their voices it seemed as though they were telling them again for the first time, and only to us.

Stories that involved important messages like … “Birds of a feather, flock together,” and … ‘Show me your friends, and I’ll tell you who you are” still resonate inside me today. Their truth has only strengthened with the years.  These stories, with their timeless phrases, were as important to us as any Bill of Rights or Ten Commandments.

                    “The *** Should Never Call The Kettle Black”

We also heard these sayings at home as our parents had learned them when they were young too.  It was something they shared with us, and it made the bond between student, teacher, and home, all the stronger.  We were all on the same page and we knew it.  It felt natural and right, and we supported each other in living out what it meant.  There was a twinkle in our mother’s and father’s eyes as they retold the story of what their nuns had taught them.  We knew the lessons were true because they had stood the test of time.

In 1942, my father had gone off to war as a U.S. Marine when he was 16.  He said on many days when the outcome looked bleak, he took special comfort in thinking back to his grade school days in the Kensington section of North Philadelphia, remembering that his 7th grade Nun had told him he was destined for great things … and he was!

The Public Schools taught the same lessons, with the same intent, just minus the religious overtones.  The fundamental principles of honesty, loyalty, fair play, and respect for the individual were constantly reinforced.  

If I heard it in school once, I heard it a thousand times … “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”  The part that stands alone is what divides, but in coming together we unify into something greater than we could ever be on our own.  This turns what is impossible for one into what’s possible, and even likely, when we act together.

When we heard those immortal words from President John. F Kennedy, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” we knew exactly what he meant.  The you he was referring to was us as individuals, and in acting together for the good of our country, we could make America great — even greater than she already was.  We knew firsthand that people had suffered and died for its meaning. Most of us were the children of G.I.’s who had not long ago returned home from a long and devastating World War. It had been fought on three different continents to keep the world free.

Every year, we would have one or two, or maybe even three, new students transfer in from other parts of the country.  Some had come from as far away as Texas, or Illinois, and in 8th grade we even had one girl transfer in from Holland.  It didn’t matter where they were from because they thought and valued the same things as us.  They may have been taught in a different language, but the meaning was always the same. Their tastes in food may have been different, but their table manners and concern for those around them were identical to ours.  

Terry Heinsohn had transferred in from Amarillo Texas to our school in the 6th grade.  Terry sure had a real twang to his voice, but it never covered up the respect he showed for Sister Natalie or any of the adults who worked at our School.  Like us, Terry had been taught the Texas difference between right and wrong, and his lessons were easily and readily shared with us for those last 3 years.  He was also a really good athlete.

We learned from these transferees and their stories that the surface differences we noticed on the outside were just that … superficial.  When you got right down to it, they were just like us in the things that really mattered, and it was the things that really mattered, the core values that we shared, that bonded us together as a class.  

                Sadly, I Don’t Believe Today We Can Say The Same!
Kurt Philip Behm
Written by
Kurt Philip Behm
Please log in to view and add comments on poems