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By Frederick Page
"Nelson, you put those boys in a good Catholic school so they gets a good education now!" That is mother’s parroting of how we got enrolled into St. Elizabeth’s parochial school. Aunt Alma, my father’s sister, who was an African Methodist Episcopal Christian, had instructed my father on what was in our best interest. He always listened to his sisters.
Dad was the baby of 17 children, and all his sisters were Christians like my grandmother, who was an Eastern Star. All the boys, although raised Christian, were wonderful fathers who loved their alcohol and machismo. Dad worked for the City of Philadelphia as a sanitation worker, and mom was mostly a homemaker raising her children, occasionally working part-time here and there. My two older siblings were always wrestling and tossing each other around, while I observed the test of will and strength between them. Sports were made just for them, it seemed, as my world was a world of fascinating books. I would bury myself in tales of adventure with the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries. My most athletic feats were sprints to the store a block away from our home, so I could ecstatically peruse racks of new comic book superheroes. Batman’s Gotham and Superman’s Metropolis were worlds I could identify with. I could smash people like the Hulk, who would not let me live in peace, and fight the bad guys, like Thing of the Fantastic Four. "It’s clobbering time!" I would escape into other dimensions and worlds being whoever I desired. Nothing interrupted my world of adventure and knowledge. I would study ten new words in the dictionary every day. I loved reading so very much.
Mom and dad were very territorial about recreation for us. Our backyard was where we acted out fantasies of cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers, army battles and even a platform where we acted out fantasies of being singers. Crooning all the Motown hits of the 60’s on stage. We dreamt of one day being professional baseball players, and the corner of the block was our Connie Mack Stadium where we played stick ball. Connie Mack Stadium was where the Philadelphia Phillies played baseball. It was only some seven or eight blocks away from us in the heart of North Philadelphia.
There was a little envy from my older siblings because someone was always implying I was my dad s favorite. He had no problem showing it either. Every report card period, he would wage bets with friends that I would bring home all A’s and A+’s for $5.00 an A. "Joe, if he gets all A’s you have to make him a Shoe Shine Box." Joe was a Philadelphia Detective who sometimes drank with my dad. He gladly accepted and I got my first stab at entrepreneurship by shining shoes on the weekends at neighborhood bars for 15 cents a shine. That ended after some older boys took my money.
Getting to school was like living in Vietnam. From 1st grade through 6th grade, I had to walk through gang territory, sometimes taking shortcuts through side streets filled with dilapidated and abandoned houses. Trash strewn throughout the sidewalks. Mom would give my brothers the infamous speech, "you left here with my baby, and you better make sure he gets back." No running! Not that it would have made a difference. I was the shortest and slowest runner alive, it seemed. Fearlessly they stood and fought. No matter who we faced, like mom said, they always got me back home.
It was roughly a one mile walk to and from school. Mom made sure we were well fed and clothed to bear the change of weather. Snow, rain or shine, you were going to school. This particular day, around 2:45pm, Sister St. Hugh had announced unaware to the class, "Everyone is staying after school until dismissed. No one turned in raffle tickets. You have one week to turn in the money from the tickets." A morbid feeling spread throughout the class. You could hear a pin drop. Not one murmur or complaint. Not even a whisper among ourselves. We had entered the twilight zone.
If you were late for school, you were told to stand in the back of class facing the wall until you were excused. Talking in class would certainly get you a few whacks on the hand with the feared Golden Ruler. A foot long ½ inch thick gold plated metal that left painful red whelps. Talking back to the Nuns and fighting would get you detention or suspension. I’d even seen a Nun pick up a guy by the collar and pin him to the wall. Appropriately, she became known as Hercules.
After having witnessed normal types of punishment while a student at St. Elizabeth’s, today could be likened to our slaves being corralled onto slave ships for money. As a surprise attack on a village of unsuspecting children. Taken hostage to be sold on the auction blocks. It was all about money, no other reason. The class in fact had run without any breaking of any rules.
My entire sixth grade class was being held in detention. Some students had not turned in money for Raffle tickets sold by the School. Other options existed, such as asking everyone to return their unsold tickets. Instead we were held as hostages, demanded to turn in unaccounted for monies. From the first grade through sixth, I had never been punished for any type of infractions, whether it was being late, talking in class or otherwise. This had to be worse than the cardinal sin we had been taught about. No one ever got a two hour detention even if he had committed the worst of transgressions possible.
Dad was born and raised in North Carolina and was the family disciplinarian. When we crossed a line mom would say, "Wait until your dad gets home." Those times seemed like forever—waiting, knowing and anticipating 3 to 5 good stinging whacks.
Mom was just the opposite. You really had to do something to get mom to chastise you. You’d have from his belt to push and push until—swooosh! A shoe would come flying past your head. We’d duck and laugh, but we knew she meant business.
Two hours crept slowly by. The hands of the clock read 5:00pm as a mild darkness was upon us. One girl got up and said angrily, "I’m going home." In utter surprise all eyes gleamed as she grabbed her coat and stormed out of the classroom. Dread and fear went through my entire being as if the Grim Reaper had entered the room. I had no idea what to expect on my lone trek home through dangerous territory. Five O’clock p.m., she finally ordered everyone militarily to file a single line. As we marched down the stairs my fear overwhelmed me and I too blurted out, "I’m going home."
Had I just said that? Never had I ever defied any adult or Teachers authority, especially a Nun.
I must have been delirious.
Time no longer held any meaning; it was as if everything slowed down student and nothing was moving. Neither did I hear the sound of chatter. Stepping out of the uniformed line, and beginning to walk down the stairs, I felt three consecutive whacks of pressure at the base of my neck. A very angry Nun had grabbed me and karate-chopped me three times in rapid succession. I saw black and every color of the rainbow was before me. I could not understand what had happened or was about to happen. Gradually, after what seemed like an eternity my sight was restored. I saw blood trickling from the Nun’s nose as she waved her arms wildly pointing, "GET OUT, LEAVE!"
What had happened was for me an impossibility. As I gained consciousness, I realized I must have punched her, pure reflex. No anger present, just an empty space time, smothered by blackness. Violence had produced an act of violence, void of intent, rage or anger, or desire for retribution.
Everything had happened within the speed of lightning. I had never sat through a detention, never defied any adult, never been hit with such brutal physical force, and never had to defend against an aggressive act of violence.
Eleven years old and naive, I was afraid. Afraid of the teacher and most of all afraid to go home.
For a brief moment I had a flashback to maybe five or six years earlier. My first so-called "fight" occurred when I was five years old. What was supposed to have been a fight was really a seven-year-old boy tossing me around like a rag doll. Fighting was very alien to me. My older brothers fought for me. My friend and I were playing in his little red wagon. I asked for a bite of his popsicle. He had playfully offered to share. I set my eyes on that juicy frost pop and bore down biting a huge hunk while laughing. He was displeased I had taken so much and he lightly hit me on my shoulder.
Cousin Bill was visiting from North Carolina and he’d witnessed the youthful frolicking of children. "Nelson, Nelson! Freddy let that boy hit him and he didn’t do anything." Dad yelled, "come here, boy."
"You better go out there and fight him, and if you don’t, I’m going to beat your behind."
Tearfully I tried to explain, "We were only playing daddy." But Daddy’s pride was not going to have his favorite son be a punk.
"Get out there now"!
Randy towered over me and was skinny and a lot stronger too. The fight was very brief. I ended up in the house crying over my nonexistent battle wounds. My crying was more related to daddy yelling, forcing me to fight. Afterwards daddy was proud. His favorite son, who was one day going to be a doctor, had won his approval by showing what dad had seen as courage.
You see, in our neighborhood you had to fight. It’s just that fighting was not in my heart, nor was it in my character. The irony of it all is that the day I did fight for myself, was a day of no glory or approval. For me it was a day of sorrow in the company of much misery.
No way to prevent what had just happened with the nun and no way to turn back the hands of time. Not only had darkness begun to overtake the sunlight, but darkness was present in my thoughts while hurriedly pacing the lone streets home. I watched every person I encountered closely seeing them as suspects, for I had no idea who would or could do me harm. I had never walked home this time of the day. It’s a difference when walking home during school hours and after work hours. Everything and anything looked scary.
Nine city blocks later, I arrived home, and I went straight to my room, without saying a word. I was still in a daze from what had just happened. It was all a scary nightmare and I had yet to awaken.
The phone rang and for a few minutes there was silence. I placed my ear to the wall to hear what was being said. Suddenly I heard mom screaming. "Freddy, Freddy come here! What is wrong with you, just wait till your dad comes home." Intense fear ran through me as if a terrible storm was approaching, as I anticipated my punished as having no heart of mercy. I had hit a nun and defied an adult. There were no more lines to cross, and this line was one you definitely never crossed.
What was more dreadful was that I had let my father down. The future lawyer or doctor that he bragged about to his friends, was about to need both a lawyer and a doctor. I was the family key to getting out of the ghetto. His dreams of my future accomplishment had died like every other dream he had envisioned.
To my surprise the school had called but did not convey the event as it had happened. The school principal reported to my mother I had pulled a pocket knife on the teacher and cursed her out and that I was put out of the school.
My mother was told, “Your son will no longer attend St. Elizabeth’s school. He is permanently expelled."
"But mom, it’s not true, that’s not what happened," I said.
"Go to your room!"
Dad really punished me, and I thought the whooping would never end, but the whooping was not what hurt me. What tore deep into my soul was that my parents didn’t believe me. I had no association with gangs. I was not a fighter; I had never had any encounter with delinquency of any kind, and I didn’t even curse.
I began to think everything I had been taught was a lie, and there was no reason to be good anymore. What did it get me! All my life I had had this reverent respect for Nuns as if they themselves were like the blessed Mother Mary. Looking back now, I realize that it was beyond me to believe a nun could lie, making it all the easier for my parents to believe what was said about me.
I had no way to disprove this lie. I was an eleven-year-old child, accused by a nun. No investigation, no thought of the possibility they were lying, not even a “that’s not like my son!”
A few months later I was enrolled in George Washington Carver Public Elementary School. The jubilant studious boy who loved school and reading now lost his affinity for education. A black hole lay where my heart had once resided, and life was depressing and boring. School became a place of despair and hopelessness following me like a shadow.
School had become the streets and I became attracted to them like a junkie needing his fix. I began cutting classes and hooking school as a constant thrill. Books no longer brought the world to me, but rather, the world would now teach me.
My new classroom did not give me a false perception of the righteous and the godly. That summer as I was reading the Philadelphia Daily News, I saw an article that read, "Sister St. Hugh is selected to do Missionary work in Africa." There were no articles written about a child who was brutally attacked and lied about, whose dreams and life had been shattered. There were no cameras and cell phone videos to record a horrendous and unnecessary assault on a child. There were no social media movements that exposed the secrets of our most trusted institution; school. It was left to the streets to narrate my eulogy: here is another ghetto prodigy destined for the grave or the penitentiary.
|Frederick Page BU2238|
P.O. Box 244
Graterford, PA 19426
I was born in North Philadelphia, November 13, 1958. For the past 27 years I have been a resident of Gratarford Prison. I am serving a 42½ to 102 year sentence. Vocation, ministry and the arts have equipped me for going home. Writing, painting and singing Gospel are my hobbies of interest. I serve others’ interest via advocacy as Treasurer for the Graterford Gray Panthers, as a facilitator of the F.A.C.T. (Father and Children Together Initiative), and through various ministries.
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