I cannot remember not loathing Sunday school. And much of that loathing, more than likely, stemmed from the fact that I wasn’t a cool kid. I was as far from cool as a screaming tea kettle from a popsicle – a shy, socially awkward, irremediably klutzy, buck-teethed, frizzy-haired, bug-eyed little creature who preferred curling up on the sofa and reading a book to going outside and “playing.” The idea of parking myself in the midst of a sweaty, roiling mass of pint-sized man-eaters was about as appealing as diving like Alice through the looking glass into my Faith Alive workbook and playing tag with the lions in the Roman coliseum.
Shakespeare wrote so eloquently about love and death and ambition and misadventure…and, in Macbeth, he did a darned good job at summing up an unpopular kid’s view of school – “Double, double, toil and trouble/fire burn and cauldron bubble.”
A witches’ brew of Hell on Earth five days a week was bad enough. You HAD to go to school-school. But adding into a week one more day of Hell, at CHURCH of all places, was incomprehensible. Mean. Sadistic, I’d have said – except I hadn’t learned that word yet.
Yet, helpless as I was, I was no wimp. Countermeasures ranged from bribing my little brother, Ricky, to keep his big fat mouth shut so my parents would sleep in to cutting deals on Saturday nights with God…. “Get me out of this and I promise I’ll learn to like saying grace.”
Sometimes God smiled and, abracadabra, my folks graciously pulled the sheets further over their heads and granted us the day off. Other times, God engaged in a bit of Old Testament wrath…and off that Sunday morning my brother and I would be hauled to an upper floor of St. Michael and St. George Episcopal Church on Wydown Blvd.
It’s odd. While I was a child who threw temper tantrums with as much regularity as our pet sheltie, Kismet, shed hair, I don’t remember throwing so much as one about this. Mute with resignation and eviscerated with dread, I would simply sit in the back seat of the car and count off stoplights as Doom loomed closer…closer…ever closer.
One year, however, God abruptly ended all negotiations.
My father signed up to teach Sunday school – a spark that I am CONVINCED lit my 15- year-long rant of atheism some thirty years later.
What made things even worse was that I was in my father’s class. Fifth graders live to ridicule and sit in judgment of their teachers, that’s a given. Also, as I quickly learned, it makes not one jot of difference if said teacher’s spawn is in the room. Empathy and compassion are for losers and grownups.
I developed two plans of attack, neither of which was very effective since, as I said, I was a shy child. Learning to throw verbal stilettos dead center through the heart was a skill I failed to perfect until well into adulthood. So off a crack would fly…and, dumb as Helen Keller with none of her dignity, there, squat in my misery, I sat.
Sometimes I would paste a smile on my face, as if to say, “Oh, aren’t you the clever one?” Chuckle, chuckle, chuckle. Other times, I would pretend I hadn’t heard a word of whatever verbal darts were whizzing about me.
No one was fooled, of course. Least of all my father.
“Take that frown off your face, sweet pea,” my father drawled after one particularly grueling session.
My father’s parents emigrated from Lebanon to the hills of West Virginia. Imagine an ethnic guy with a twang. “They’re just having fun,” Dad continued. “Don’t let it ruffle your pretty feathers.”
“I’m not pretty.”
Oh, only a cast of thousands, starting with Joe Ellis and Randy Cox. But that wasn’t the POINT. “DAD, Janet Sears called you Doctor Banana Nose!”
My father let out a bark of laughter, taking his hand off the wheel just long enough to run a finger along his admittedly ample nose. “Well, I got me a good Lebanese hook here, she’s right.”
“Dad, it was mean!”
“WHY? Come on, Dad. I know how Janet Sears MEANT it.” My father had a PhD in Chemistry. He was Director of Research at some lab, where everyone called him “Dr.” How could he be so stupid? “She was making fun of us. Because we look different.”
I was still smarting from overhearing Carla Wright’s mother refer to me, the weekend before, as “the dark one.” It was the best part about moving, some fifteen years later, to California, Melting Pot Central. No one noticed me there. For the first time in my life, I blended in.
“Jenine makes fun of my glasses, Daddy,” chimed in Ricky from the backseat. My mother rarely went to church with us so, as next in rank, I got to sit in front. “She calls me Four Eyes.”
Rapier fast I turned to glare at him over the headrest. The kid never missed an opportunity to rat me out. “Did not!”
“Did not. Stupid!”
My father was chuckling again. “Actually, your brother is on to something.”
“Hah!” from the backseat.
“Shut up!” from mine.
“That’s enough,” said my father. “Settle down.” He navigated a turn. “Jenine, tell me something. Do you make fun of your brother because you hate him?”
“Yes!” I said.
“SEE?” wailed Ricky. “Jenine’s mean.”
A reproving glance in my direction from my father. “Let’s approach this from a different angle. Do the kids ever tease Mrs. Mayer?”
“Mrs. Mayer, better beware,” chanted Ricky. “Mrs. Mayer. She’s a bear.”
I scarcely heard him. I was too busy shuddering.
Trust me, say the words “Mrs.” and “Mayer” in conjunction to any Boomer who attended Warson Woods Elementary School in the mid 1960s, and even today, nearly a half century later you will garner a similar reaction – along with, more than likely, a severe hike in blood pressure. Mrs. Mayer was humankind’s answer to the Cassowary, often cited as the most dangerous bird in the world. When her hand descended from above to scoop up my favorite bright yellow plastic ruler and slam it to pieces across my desk in a fit of pique at my mathematical ‘scatterbrained-ness,’ I saw not fingernails but 5-inch long claws.
Cassowaries, by the way, cannot fly. Which, in my book, makes them mutant birds. Mrs. Mayer was a mutant human.
“Jenine?” my father prompted.
“Mrs. Mayer? No one would DARE call her Dr Banana Nose. Well, maybe Carole Zeuschel would. Carole’s fearless. Her mom sticks up for her when she gets in trouble.”
Typically, my father chose to ignore that last, rather sour comment. At our house, The Teacher Was Always Right. “The kids don’t like Mrs. Mayer – is that safe to say?”
“Everyone HATES her! Well, except Don Ziente, maybe. He’s her pet.”
“Stay on track, please. Would you say the kids like to have fun with me?”
“Dad, they’re having fun, sure. But it’s not the right kind. They’re having fun at…at…what’s that expression? Kind of like laughing at you behind your back except it’s to your face?”
“Do you want me to act like Mrs. Mayer? Make everyone afraid?”
“Do we get our work accomplished?”
“Dad, YOU’RE the teacher.”
A small smile. “How’d everyone do today?”
I pondered that. Our homework from the Sunday before had been to memorize the first verse of the Serenity Prayer, an assignment that had led to a resounding chorus of “Dr. Banana Nose, no! HOMEWORK? This is Sunday school. You don’t get HOMEWORK in Sunday School, Dr. Banana Nose!”
But, as I might have told my classmates (except I hated them) they were wasting their breath. Dr. Banana Nose held firm.
Yet, lo and behold, this morning, there had been no mutiny. Like the critters on Noah’s Arc, everyone had clambered right up on board and played their part. Even dumb old Janet Sears had gotten most of the words right, although my father had had to prompt her in a few places.
“Dad,” I said, “I still don’t get why you let them call you names.”
“Maybe I think Dr. Banana Nose has a rather nice ring to it…And don’t you roll your eyes at me, young lady. I’m your FATHER. You’re not too old for a good spanking.”
Moodily I scooted over, into the far corner of my seat, and stared baleful-eyed out the window. Oh, to have a dad like my best friend’s, Mary Theresa’s, who had no drawl, an American nose, and let us get away with all kinds of stuff as long as we didn’t interrupt him while the football game was on.
Years later, when my mother was packing up my father’s belongings, she found a yellowed sheet of paper, folded like a plaque, among Dad’s books. Dr. Banana Nose, it read in large girlish handwriting that I was sure belonged to Janet Sears. A stick figure with Don King curly hair and a banana nose that took up half the page stood beside the name, arms raised high like a Born Again’s on steroids. It was only when I turned the sheet over that I saw my own autograph.
My father was still speaking. “And, in the grand scheme of things, what’s it matter what they call me?” he asked. “Doesn’t it matter more that the kids learn what the church has asked me to teach them? If the learning involves a little funning, all the better.”
Not for me, I countered sourly.
In silence, we followed the main road into our subdivision, just in time to meet the Cusamano sisters and Linda Fritz on their bikes. They were on their way to noon Mass at Ste Genevieve. I could tell because JoAnn Cusamano was wearing her mantilla – Catholics still wore them back then – like a sweatband. Halfheartedly, I returned the girls’ waves.
“Sweet pea? Answer my question.”
“Well,” I muttered. “It’s not nice calling people names.”
“You call me names all the time,” my brother reminded me.
I twisted around to blast him to Pluto, once and for all, where I wouldn’t have to hear him. Dad laid a hand on my knee. “Pay attention, young lady. Answer my question.”
“Okay, I will,” I erupted. “I don’t like it! I don’t like them calling you names! I don’t like them laughing at you!”
“Ahhh…But here’s a new question for you. Are they laughing at me or with me?”
“They’re laughing AT you!” DUH…
“YES! Look what they do when you say ‘yellow.’ ”
Dr. Banana Nose, say yellow!
It’s yel-LOW, Dr. Banana Nose!
Of course the kids roared.
Only recess at school-school, when two popular (athletic) kids picked teams for kickball and I was invariably chosen last, was more torturous.
“And you shouldn’t like it either,” I concluded. “You can’t help how you talk.”
My father was laughing again, really hard this time. “Doll Baby,” he said. “I’ve got me a thought. I’m thinking I am going to tell you something my daddy told me when I was just about your age…”
“What?” I sighed. I had already heard ad nauseam the tale about how his mother had chased him throughout the house, up on to the roof, back off again and into the front yard before tying him to a tree for four hours, where a psycho cow nibbled at his socks and got halfway up his pants leg – all because little Lew had mouthed off.
“You watch that mouth of yours, y’hear me? Y’hear?”
A look that let me know he had darn well heard those periods. Hastily I turned tail. “What’d your father say, Dad?”
My father may have grown up a hillbilly, but he was as sophisticated as they come, when it came to working a moment.
“Dad? What’d he say? Tell me!”
Still no reply.
Abruptly the car ahead shot through a red. “You or your brother,” Dad muttered, as he braked, “you drive like that fellow, I’ll kill you before the 5-car pileup does.”
These words were to come back to me five years later, when I opened my secret drawer, unearthed my carefully hidden Joy of Pot book, and found these words across the flyleaf in big block magic marked letters: Try it and you die. Your father.
I leaned toward the dashboard and turned down the radio. “Please, Dad,” I said. “Tell us the story. I really want to know.”
My father turned the volume back up. It was Tony Bennett, and my parents were big fans. Tony was on the chorus. I knew this because my mother sang the same song with Gale Bell’s Trio on Monday nights at Yacovelli’s.
The shadow of your smile, when you are gone
Will color all my dreams and light the dawn
We had to hear the song through before my father spoke.
“I can’t remember the story behind it,” he told me. “Just my daddy’s words at the end. Lew, he’d say… Lew, you may think you’re hot shit on a stick….But ya’know what?” A fraught pause as the orchestra faded out. “You may think you’re hot shit on a stick, but you’re nothing but a fart on a splinter. ”
He made ‘fart’ last about three syllables. FA-AAA-ART.
The car rocked as Ricky jumped up and down in the back seat and my father roared at the memory. “Dad called you a fart! Dad called you a fart!”
My father pulled into the driveway, parked the car and, as he turned to open the door, took my face by the chin, forcing me to meet his gaze. He was still grinning. “You think about that, Doll Baby. You think about what your daddy just told you.”
“I think you should tell it to Janet Sears,” I said. But only after his door had closed.
Copyright © 2014 Jenine Baines, “May I Have This Last Dance, Mr. Banana Nose?”
To find more of Jenine’s poems, writings, and musings, please visit MichaelWhoKnew.com.