|Picture this in your mind. A young mother drags a wailing 6-year-old towards the yellow school bus waiting at the curb.The golden-haired girl is wall-eyed with terror. Somehow Mom manages to get her safely aboard.
She clings for dear life to the pole behind the driver’s head. As the doors slam shut and the bus pulls away, the bus driver glances at her in the rear view mirror and then bursts into song.
catalina, patas de galina.
Magically, the little girl quiets her tears and relaxes.
The bus driver, Leo Rodriguez, tells her the song is a Mexican love song. It would be years later and by unusual twist of fate that she discovered what the words truly meant. And thus began the strange relationship between the little girl and the bus driver who played such a formative role in her young life.
That little girl was me. Many times I have thanked God for pairing me with Leo Rodriguez.Some days he would sign about the spinach and eggs he had for breakfast. Otherdays he would burst out with “Oh what a beautiful morning!!!” in the most God awful tones imaginable. The songs always made me laugh because they were so ridiculous, but they comforted me as well because they were exactly the sort of thing my Dad did on a regular basis. So riding the bus with Leo was like being at home.
He was my champion.
Looking back on my early years in Catholic school, I realize exact three things got me through it all and they spell CAT.
C stands for Champions.
Leo was my #1 champion. He made the rides to and from school an adventure. But, there was also Bill, a 6th grader when I was in 1st. Bill was my first crush on an older man. He was dreamy! He used to read to me on the ride home or have me practice reading to him. I read over 100 books that first year.
A equals my ability to entertain.Whether on the stage in “The Princess’Christmas”, or telling homespun scary stories to entertain my classmates, I learned early “Laugh and the World laughs with you, Cry and you might as well be standing out in a thunderstorm, cuz you stand alone.
I drew a larger than life replica of the of Mother Superior to commemorate the 2nd time in 2 days she had to paddle me. I guess it was my way of saying, “no hard feelings.” It’s just that I had never seen snow before in real life. And here was an entire bank of it. Being the effervescent ring leader that I was at the age of seven, I conned the other kids into taking card board boxes and sliding down the snow bank on the back field.
Mother Superior was not impressed. After wailing me good, she made me promise Not to do it again. Like Flip Wilson, it must’ve been the devil that made me do it. Because the next day, I just couldn’t help myself and I did it again. Shereally walloped me the 2nd time around, but I became her pet after the drawing.
My first grade teacher, Sr. Agnes, had a nervous breakdown that year and had to be retired.
Which brings me to the 3rd point: T.
T stands for thick skin. Obviously, it paid off to have a thick hide where Mother Superior was concerned. But I needed thick arms and hands, too, in the 4th grade with the dreaded Mrs. Machost. To put it bluntly, Mrs. M looked like a skeleton and she had the personality to match. She had this way of sneaking up on me when I had my back to her, entertaining the kid behind me. She’d creep up on me ever so stealthily, with her boney fingers and her knobby knees, and her bug eyes popping out of cat glasses and her big long stick….and she’d whack me one good, right across the knuckles.
Of course none of my darling classmates bothered to tell me she was headed my way. Even in my misery, I was always entertaining.
My final hide toughening came in my blessed final year of Catholic school– 7th grade at St. Theresa’s Academy. I stopped getting paddlings, and got tongue lashes instead. For it was there that I was exposed to Sr. Anna.
Thanks to Sr. Anna, I learned there were worse things in life than physical abuse. When she started her verbal abuse, it felt as if she were peeling the hide right off you, layer by layer, with her words. Sr. Anna was mean as a snake and she looked like one, too. The way that little pink tongue darted in and out of her mouth when she scolded you, She reminded me of a Mexican hairless.
Sr. Anna was the Science teacher. Science was my favorite subject until Sr. Anna came along. To put it bluntly, she was a control freak. It was then that I learned how to best deal with control freaks. Just sit down like an old mule and don’t do anything. It drives them crazy.
Still, those were the factors that got me through Catholic school:
Champions like Leo
My ability to keep em laughing
and most fortunate of all…my thick skin.
And I guess you’re wondering how I managed to decipher the Love song. I finally escaped to public school in 8th grade. In 9th grade, a new kid showed up on the scene, grinning from ear to ear, and introduced himself, “Hi! My name is Frankie Rodriguez! I think you know my father.”
When I looked at him baffled, he said, “He used to sing you a love song, “KATHY, legs like a chicken”
“Oh, you’re Leo’s boy,” I shrieked in glee. And we were fast friends all through school.