Most of us probably remember the teachers who were bad or so awful that calling them “bad” would be a compliment. I had a nun in third grade who called me up to the front of the class to cut my tongue out of my mouth for talking. I really thought this was about to happen so I gave it some logical thought, If I just put my tongue out a little she won’t be able to stop me from speaking in the future. It will be just a little snip. I was actually more worried about telling my parents I had been punished. (Oh, by the way, she did not cut any part of my tongue but as a kid I didn’t doubt she meant business.)
I had one biology teacher at St. John’s Prep who never hesitated to throw his heavy textbook at one or another of our student’s head for misbehaving according to his definition. Sometimes he hit them with that ponderous tome, once breaking a kid’s nose. He’d call us “monkeys” and say that “Your parents are monkeys too.”
I was always able to duck in time and was never wounded.
In seventh grade at Our Lady of Angels grammar school, I was taught by a Franciscan Brother Lucian, a red-faced, six-foot five mega-monster who would bring a misbehaving kid to the front of the class and wallop him. He did this in a unique way, holding one hand against the student’s check and walloping the other side of the kid’s face with his other massive hand. No one wanted to get hit by Brother Lucian. It was devastating and such walloping even made some of the tough kids cry.
He’d also fake a slap and if the kid flinched, “Well now sonny, you get two slaps for flinching.” The side of the face that was slapped usually had a big, red imprint of Lucian’s hand on it. That imprint would last almost all day.
He once brought me up to the front of the room and I was thinking quickly about what I could have done to merit this guy’s animosity. He laughed at me when I was standing trembling before him; he was looking down his high body at the small kid before him. “You did nothing wrong except fake me out in the basketball game last night.” He laughed. “Don’t do that again Scoblete. Now go sit down.”
Brother Lucian coached our seventh-grade basketball team. I was on that team but I never got to play. I just sat on the bench. I didn’t know what the hell that guy had against me but he evidently had something. I was the best player on the team.
The following year in eighth grade I not only started on a team that went undefeated, even beating Lew Alcindor’s team St. Jude in the LaSalle Christmas Tournament but I dominated every game along with our awesome center Pat Heelan. (Alcindor changed his name to Kareem Abdul Jabbar and became one of the greatest players in NBA history.) That year I received several basketball scholarships to Catholic high schools in New York City. I was one of the best players in the city at that time. [You can read the full story of “The Real Dream Team” in my book Confessions of a Wayward Catholic.]
Fortunately, those abhorrent, angry, abusive teachers I had weren’t the ones to leave an indelible mark on my life. Instead, there were three others who gave me the tools and encouragement to equip me for success. They all taught at Our Lady of Angels grammar school in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.
In fifth grade I hated my teacher, Sister Patricia Michael of the Sisters of Charity, who seemed to have a real hatred of me too. “Francis, this essay is awful. You make statements you can’t prove. You keep writing this poorly and you’ll work as a garbage man – and be lucky to get that job.”
Every time I handed in something I wrote she would keep me after school to show me where I went wrong. “Francis, no one can be a good writer who doesn’t prove his case to the reader. I don’t want these statements unless you can back them up. You say here that Lincoln made very anti-Negro statements in some of his speeches but you do not quote any line from a speech. Where is your proof?”
And sometimes she would hit my hand with the strap if it looked as if I were daydreaming. She didn’t hit too hard – nothing like Brother Lucian.
In sixth grade I had Franciscan Brother Jonathan. He was a young man but a kind guy who never once hit a student. He was delighted by my writing and told me that “Francis, you will become a professional writer someday. Never give up writing. Just keep practicing.”
He knew a lot about theatre and never stopped praising the performance arts. We actually got to read real plays with real meaning. He would often be told by his superiors not to have his students read “adult” literature. He finally left the brotherhood, married a former nun, and pursued his love of theatre.
My third great teacher was Brother Barnabas, who demanded that I achieve an average of 90 or I would not be allowed to play on the basketball team. In those days you were seated according to your academic performance: the top students in the front of the class and the failures in the back. “You are too smart to be sitting in the back of the class with the idiots. You’d better get those grades up or you will remain a nobody.”
Barnabas was the coach of the eight-grade basketball team and I really wanted to be on that team so I brought my A-game to my academic life.
He also once told me, “Scoblete, you are going to be the guy to guard the best player on the other team. I expect you to shut down these great players. And kid, you are going to be the guy who will take the last shot in a close game and dribble to stall for time.”
I was even one of the three players guarding Lew Alcindor from the front, conveniently stepping on his feet as often as I could get away with. Alcindor was 6’10” at the time! I was 5’7”!
So my three elementary teachers put thoughts in my head. Thanks to Barnabas I was never afraid to put myself on the line. My father also had that philosophy and it stuck.
Jonathan was right, I did become a professional writer. He had seen a talent in me and told me about it. He also got me to love theatre. In 1978 I started my own theatre company with a fellow teacher. We worked the boards for a dozen years. I enjoyed performing before audiences. I considered teaching a performance before an audience – an audience that didn’t pay to get in and some who really didn’t want to be there (toughest audience in the world!).
My family was poor when I was graduating high school. I was lucky that I had a scholarship that paid my St. John’s high school tuition. Would I go to college? No one in my extended family, all of us from working-class parents, had gone to college. If I did, I would be the first.
I didn’t even know what the SAT exam was; just that one of the priests at the high school told me, “Scoblete, you are taking an exam tomorrow. Get a good night’s sleep. Bring a pencil.”
I applied to Ithaca College because it had a special program for 12 students called Triplum where you would major in three subjects, literature, history and philosophy. If I could get into that honors program a scholarship was possible.
My parents had no money, so I had to get a scholarship or go into the navy. I also knew that even if I got a scholarship I’d have to work, maybe full time, to send money home to my parents. But first things first: that scholarship.
On the entrance test you were given a topic and the honors committee would read your essay and let you know if you made the program and whether you’d be one of the three to get a free ride at the college.
I knew that if I didn’t get a scholarship I’d never make it to college. I journeyed to Ithaca, took the test, journeyed back home to Brooklyn and waited. Several days later I received my results. Yes, I had made Triplum and, yes, I did get the scholarship. I would become a college student.
That September I went to college and on the first day of the first Triplum seminar the professor said, “We had a remarkable essay handed in for entrance into the program. It had everything an essay should have; strong statements of opinion and facts to back up those opinions. I was quite impressed by it.”
I looked around the conference table at the members of the seminar. They all looked so intelligent. Which of them had written such a great essay?
“Mr. Frank Scoblete [holy shit!], you should be applauded for such a fine example of writing. You should be proud of yourself and you absolutely deserve the scholarship to our college. Keep up this good work.”
At that time I was so Brooklyn-born, that I used “yous” as the plural of you. I said “terlet” instead of toilet. When I first opened my mouth at the seminars I would get looks and some of the students would snicker at me. It didn’t matter. I was in college on a free ride!
On the winter break I went back to the convent of Our Lady of Angels. I asked to speak to Sister Patricia Michael. She met me in the lobby.
“I don’t know if you remember me,” I started.
“Oh, yes, I do, Francis,” she said.
I then told her how grateful I was that she took the time to teach me how to write a proper essay. I told her about Brother Jonathan liking my writing and then I told her about the scholarship based on writing a single essay and how it was considered an excellent essay.
I then told her that I had done this because of her. She had taken the time to develop my talent. I thanked her.
[Read Frank’s book Confessions of a Wayward Catholic! Available on Amazon.com, on Kindle and other electronic media, Barnes and Noble, and at bookstores.]