Most of my year at St. Jerome grammar school was a pleasure, but Bingo Day in the 8th 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 my last school year vividly. Patricia came in, her auburn hair teased high above her head. Sister yanked her back into the cloak room. 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.
Patricia always tested the rules. Recently she came to school with her frock not starched. It clung to her body. Sister declared it obscene, sent her home immediately, not allowing her to return until properly attired.
Two weeks before end of the school year it was announced that, after the standardized tests, the whole school would have a Bingo Day in the big auditorium. As eighth graders, we were at the top, first in all regards. We walked through the doubled door into the large, empty auditorium. Nothing was set up up yet. The boys were to handle the long tables and chairs. You probably know the type of tables. Eight feet long, laminated dark brown playing surface, steel gray ribbons around the top edge to protect them, and steel foldout legs.
Tony and I teamed up. I slid my book bag to the wall with the tall windows. Other boys started on parallel rows behind us. Sister called the girls up to the stage, where she would distribute the bingo cards, set up the bingo drum, and the candy store. Tony was catty-corner from me on the last table when it happened. We righted up the table after extending the legs. The metal piping snagged my right front pocket. As the table came upright, it tore a four-inch rip across to my zipper, then down an inch. The fabric folded, exposing my white underwear.
I tugged at the ripped material, hiding as much white as I could, and planted myself in a chair with my legs under the table.
Fortunately, Tony didn’t notice my plight. He had turned to see what was going on the stage. “I’m going to see what else I can do up front.” He hurried up to the stage, next to Patricia.
I sat, facing the tall windows. No one else was around me. Cautiously I moved my hand from the rip. My skin showed as well as underwear! I couldn’t let anyone see. I’d never get up again. A hot flush rose up neck to my face. The only thing in my mind was that I was trapped with no escape.
Tony called from the stage, “Hey Chet, we need some help with the chairs for the little kids.”
I shook my head. “In a bit, let me catch my breath.”
He looked hard at me. “Your face is red.” Then he continued, “Don’t worry, buddy. I get somebody else to give me a hand.”
The joy of Bingo Day was lost to me. I couldn’t get up to buy a Big Daddy sucker, although at five cents, it was the best deal going.
Then the obvious struck me. I’d have to get up when bingo is over. My mind started whirling searching for excuses to make.
Patricia sat down across from me with Tony next to her. The rest of my classmates were all around.
Finally, the game began. Sister spun the glass drum that held the white, labeled balls and picked the first one. “B13.” Each number came at such a slow deliberate pace, we had time to talk and look at each other’s cards.
In the third game, when 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 to get my choice of a scented sachet, a fancy candy, or a paperback atlas.
At last, the 2:30 bell rung. Sister Boniface was busy chastising some classmates who ran towards the door. She didn’t pay attention to me when she left. I stuck in my seat, telling everyone that my younger sister was to meet me here.
Finally the only kids left were near the front door. I grabbed my book bag and rushed out the back door, the one only Safeties were allowed to use, to the alley.
I ran down the long alley, holding my book bag in front on my pants, to make sure no one could see the rip.
That night, drying dishes, I had to tell Mom that I ripped my school pants and couldn’t wear them. “Did it break the skin when you ripped them?” she asked, and then added, “Were you roughhousing with Tony? Bring them down and I’ll sew them.”
“No, no. It just happened when we were moving tables and sewing won’t work.”
“It’s right across the zipper.”
She frowned. “Bring them down anyhow. So what did Sister say?”
“Nothing. She didn’t notice.”
“What did the other …” then her lips clamped shut. She didn’t finish that sentence, instead with a curious expression, she sent me upstairs. “Go get them.”
Some families dealt with emotions. In ours, my father set the tone. Emotions were weaknesses, not to be acknowledged. It took me the experience of raising my own children, before I understood Mom’s curious expression.
Embarrassment is in the head, not in the fact.