Sorry is not enough

Eighth grade began with a surprise that no one in our class of 24 kids had ever expected. In the previous 7 years of elementary school all of our teachers had one thing in common. Whether they were ruler wielding, habit wearing, Sisters of Mercy, or bell bottom clad, VW driving, 60’s love children, they had all been women. So it was a great shock when we arrived at School that first day of class, and learned that our teacher for the year was a man. In fact, in all of my time in St. Joe’s, he was the first male teacher in the entire school. That should have been an portent that things were changing.

As classes go, we had been among the best behaved the school had seen. Sure we had our moments, but for the most part we were the meek and humble lot that you’d expect of a Catholic school. Not a hell raiser in the bunch. What trouble makers we had over the years, had left one by one, as if the chaff were being sifted from the wheat. So the poor faculty and staff at St. Joe’s had no idea of the chaos that was about to befall them. Neither did we.

In the 7th grade we had picked up two new boys from some of the outlying school districts in Genesee County. It wasn’t unusual for parents to pull their kids out of the public school, if academic or behavioral issues had become a problem and send them to us as if we were a reform school. The result was about what you’d expect when you place a shark among the fishes. It didn’t take long for the trouble to begin.

Ever since the 6th grade our hormones had been building like an active volcano, slowly taking charge of our self control, and waiting to erupt. In the lead up to 8th grade our teachers had been strict disciplinarians. Sister Josepha was a tough, eccentric, unstable old Nun that could go from kindly to maniacal at any minute. Sitting in her class was sitting on pins and needles, never sure what might set her off. In the 7th grade Mrs. Hoag was tough as nails. We found out immediately that she did not suffer fools, but she was fair and we respected that and for the most part we toed the line.

Mr. Crimando in contrast, was one of the nicest and meekest people I have ever met. He was sincere to a fault, and was in no way prepared for what awaited him. Like those volcanoes in Iceland, as soon as the glacial weight of strict discipline was removed, our class exploded with hormonal energy. It didn’t take long for things to get out of hand. Unfortunately for our hapless teacher, one of the trouble makers we had picked up the year before happened to be an old student of his from his days in the Alexander school district. Brent was a goofball, and an instigator, and not someone the class respected very much, but when he started telling us false stories about Mr. Crimando it was just too tempting to resist. Before long, chaos had descended on the eighth grade class at St. Joe’s.

We began to run wild like a pack of wolves. Class room disruptions increased, and Mr. Crimando couldn’t get through a lesson without a chorus of sniggering over some juvenile, sophomoric humor. After school, as we waited for our basketball practice to start, the eighth grade boys began roaming town looking for mischief. It was shockingly easy to find. It was 1981 and a video game arcade had opened on Center Street. We’d wander through downtown on our way there, pushing and shoving, and laughing hysterically at our 13 year old humor. After spending our quarters we’d wander back to school, hiding behind cars in the snowy parking lot at Mancuso’s, looking for a bumper to “pogey” on.

In case you aren’t familiar with “pogeying”, it involves hanging onto the back bumper of a car that is driving over snow and ice, and sliding along like a water skier. Of course, the trick is to get onto a bumper without being seen. This requires skill and cunning, not something in great supply among 13 year old boys. The result was usually a driver stopping and yelling, and us running through the back alleys behind the movie theater to escape.

When the streets and parking lots weren’t slippery enough for pogeying, we took the more direct approach of throwing snowballs at cars to court trouble. This always resulted in the adrenaline rush of the chase. Once, it was even the Police that chased us. I can remember lying under a car in the parking lot watching the squad car roll slowly by. Eventually, word of our antics got back to school and we got into some hot water with the principal. As mean, and nasty as Sister Eileen could get, we still were not deterred. So they brought in the big guns, Monsignor Schwartz, a man as formidable as General George S. Patton. I can remember him slapping one of the kids upside the head and knocking him out of his desk chair.

After that we flew straight for a while, and stopped our “wilding” around town for the rest of the winter, but poor Mr. Crimando was still tormented relentlessly on a daily basis. By spring, we began wandering the streets again, but this time in smaller numbers. One of our classmates lived on the south side, and used to walk home along Harvester Ave., past the century old hulk of the Johnson Harvester factory. The building was mostly vacant now, but some parts were being leased to different businesses. One of the renters was the local Frito Lay distributor. In his exploring, Jock had discovered that once a week the distributor would throw away his product that had passed its expiration date in a dumpster by the railroad track. So we began paying weekly visits to the Frito Lay distributor to see what we could find. Sometimes we ate the products. Doritos that are past expiration aren’t exactly a health hazard. More often than not, the food was used for food fights in the industrial wasteland on the south side of the building. This activity was colloquially known as “hitting the Lay”.

Mr. Crimando had surrendered by then, and seemed to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. As graduation approached, the administrators used every threat they could think of to get us under control. They cancelled our 8th grade field trip to Crystal Beach, an annual rite for the graduating class. Still we rebelled. They used the “you will not be allowed to graduate with the class” routine, but we were wise to that. As long as we maintained solidarity there was no way they’d refuse to graduate all of us and admit defeat. They threatened that this would go down on our permanent record, and if there is such a thing deep in the archives of the FBI, I am sure this whole sordid story can be found there. However, nothing short of physical intimidation by “Schwarzy” seemed to have an effect, and how many of us could he slap upside the head before some parent caught wind of it?

No, I am sorry to say, we were horrid little brats right up until the last days. Graduation came and went, and the parish and school administration let out an audible sigh of relief. We were someone else’s problem now. Mr. Crimando did not return the following year, but he did not disappear either. One of the rules of living in a small town is that there is nowhere to hide. His parents ran the waffle booth at the St. Joe’s Lawn fete every year, and as I helped my folks work the game booths, I would always see him. He was such a gracious man. He always asked me how school was going, and sincerely cared. I felt so horrible for the way we behaved.

One summer, years later, I had returned to town for the lawn fete, and was helping my parents in the ticket booths. They’d gotten out of the games booth, after their child labor force (my siblings and I) had grown up. I stopped by the waffle booth on my way across the parking lot, and said hello to Mr. Crimando. We talked for a while and I apologized for my behavior all those years before. He told me he felt he was partly to blame for the way things turned out, and admitted that he wasn’t a very happy person at the time. I felt as horrible as you might imagine, standing there, seeing him be so gracious about it all. He told me that in a way it had helped him realize that he did not want to teach elementary and middle school kids, and that his real passion had been to teach at the college level.

One of the other things about a small town is that even when you leave your Mom will keep you informed of the goings on of everyone you ever knew. I heard from her that he had received his PhD. and was now teaching history at a University in Rochester. She said he seemed happy, and whenever he saw her he would still ask how I was doing. I would like to say that the story ends there, with forgiveness and redemption, but it does not.

About 6 years ago, he was walking to his car after a faculty function one night in Rochester when he was struck and killed by a drunk driver. I can remember the hollow, sick feeling I had in my stomach when Mom told me. He deserved so much better out of life than what we gave him that year. All the sorry’s in the world can never make it right. I am sure he had long since forgiven, if not forgotten us. He was just that kind of compassionate soul.

I would like to close this story with some grand philosophical paragraph about life, but instead I’ll just end it the way his life ended, prematurely, and with words left unspoken. And I will pray that somewhere he’s received the respect and adulation that he so right deserves.

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