Most of my year at St. Jerome’s grammar school was a pleasure, but Bingo Day in the 6th grade was an exception. I never talk about it, yet it pops into my head at the most inopportune times.
The School Sisters of Notre Dame taught at St. Jerome’s back then. They wore thick black cloth from head to foot, except for a splash of white in the recess of their cowls, outlining their faces like lowered halos.
The boys’ uniform included dark brown slacks and white shirts with the school tie. Hair was to be cut short, never combed back like greasers. Girls wore starched, sky blue frocks with white collars and navy-blue knee-highs.
I remember the first day of that grade particularly. Patricia came into class after missing the morning’s obligatory mass. Her auburn hair teased high above her head. Patricia had transferred in last year. There were two striking things about her. She was unbaptized; the nuns called her a heathen, and her body was already maturing. Her frock was not starched and clung to her body.
Sister yanked her back to the cloakroom. We heard yelling and screaming. I swear when Patricia came out, although she held her head high, there were tears in her hazel eyes and strands of auburn hair floating behind her. Sr. Boniface emphatically declared her girls would comb their hair. No teased hair for her girls.
Two weeks before the end of the school year, it was announced that the entire school would have a Bingo Day in the big auditorium. As sixth graders, we had responsible jobs.
That day, we boys were to unfold and place chairs about the eight-foot-long tables jammed together in long rows. You know—dark grain top surface with gray steel protectors over the edges. I slid my book bag to the wall with the tall windows.
Sister Boniface called the girls up to the stage. Their job was to distribute one bingo card before each chair, while Sister set up the cage that she would spin and select the bingo numbers from.
Tony was catty-corner to me on the last table when it happened. The table’s metal protector snagged my right front pocket. I pulled away and ripped a four-inch gap from my pocket to the zipper. The fabric flopped down, exposing pale skin and white underwear.
He laughed and pointed.
Patricia heard and looked over. “Hey, skinny legs,” she shouted at me.
A hot flush raced across my face. I plopped onto the chair seat and slid as far under the table as I could. I couldn’t get up. This was so embarrassing! I couldn’t let anyone else see what happened. A hot flush rose from my neck to my face. The only thing in my mind was that I was trapped.
Sister turned from the bingo drum. “No tomfoolery, children. What heathen thing are you sprouting, Miss Patricia?”
I feared that Patricia would tell Sister, but then I saw angry cross her face. “Nothing, Sister.”
Students of other classes entered through the double doors. Sister Boniface picked up the microphone. “Quiet. Take your seats quietly.” Tony sat next to me. Smirking Patricia sat on the other side.
The joy of Bingo Day vanished. I couldn’t get up to buy a Big Daddy sucker, although I had the five cents for the best deal going. When Bingo Day was over, I would have to get up. My mind whirling, scrambling for a way out with no one noticing.
The first game started. Sister spun the clear drum that held the white, labeled balls and picked the first one. “B13.” Each number came at such a slow, deliberate pace. There was much table talk about who needed what, but my predicament consumed my thoughts.
In a long Bingo game, Sister called “O75.” Patricia turned to me. “That’s your winner, isn’t it?”
I shook my head no and pointed to my card. She looked puzzled when she saw I was missing one in the row. I’d removed G60, before I placed down O75. No way was I walking up to the stage, even to claim a desired prize like a scented sachet, a fancy candy, or a paperback atlas.
At last, the 2:30 end-of-day bell rung. Sister Boniface chastised students, who ran at once towards the door.
Patricia said, “Ready to go?” to Tony and “you can come too, skinny legs.” I shook my head and said go ahead without me.
Finally, the only remaining kids were middle graders across the room, near the front exit. I grabbed my book bag, placed in front of my ripped pants, and dashed out the rear door. Only Safeties were allowed to use it, but I didn’t care.
Once outside, I ran down the long concrete alley, holding the book bag close, especially when other students looked my way.
That night, drying dishes, I had to tell Mom that I ripped my school pants at Bingo Day and couldn’t wear them tomorrow. “Did it break the skin when you ripped them?” she asked, and then added, “Were you roughhousing with Tony?”
“Just a scratch. No, it just happened when we putting chairs around the tables. Sewing won’t work.”
She frowned. “Just bring them down.”
When Mom saw them, she nodded. “I see what you mean. Stitching would be noticeable there. You can wear your Sunday dress pants until we can get you a new pair.”
“Can I skip school tomorrow?”
Mom shook her head. “Why on Earth? No. That scratch is nothing. Put a band aid on it, if you’re worried about it.”
“It’s not that.”
“Then what is it?”
“Everybody will tease me.”
“But you’ll be dressed completely in fresh pants.”
“I know, but…”
“Chester Charles Almon, any embarrassment now is in your head, not in the present. You’re going to school tomorrow, and that’s final.”