Sometimes We Learn Lessons the Hard Way

By Jim O'Brien

Jim O'Brien at age 7

It was snowing when I showed up for class in the second grade at St. Stephen’s School in Hazelwood. It was 1948 and I was wearing my dark blue snow suit. This old-fashioned, no-nonsense snowsuit was quite practical in bad weather. Covering my entire legs down to my ankles, it had a bib with two straps that went over the shoulders and tied in the back. It made good sense to wear it on cold, wintry days.

Age seven at the time, I entered the classroom, which was on the first floor of the pale-orange brick school building, when a few girls began making fun of me for my outfit. While I loved getting attention from girls, even back then, this was not in the way I had hoped. Finally, their teasing got the best of me and I hollered back at them, “My old lady made me wear it!”

My teacher, Sister Macrina, who was seated at her desk opposite the doorway, was as far away from me as she could possibly be. But, in a split second, she was up and out of her seat and squarely in my face.

Sister Macrina, I must explain, was one of the few nuns of the Sisters of Charity order who did not take Mary as her name when she became a nun. Instead, she took the name Macrina in tribute to a nun in the early days of the Christian Church who is revered as a saint in the Roman Catholic, Eastern Catholic, and Orthodox churches. My memory of Sister Macrina that day is hardly reverent. Then again, I was no saint.

She seized me by my snowsuit straps and hurriedly ushered me into the robbery room, or cloak room, where we stored our coats and jackets during the school day. Holding the straps away from my body, she proceeded to hang me up on a clothes hook. She stood back to admire her handiwork before she left to go back to the classroom.

Since that fateful morning, I never again referred to my mother as “my old lady.” Sometimes we learn lessons the hard way.

In any case, I was all too familiar with the cloak room, since it was also used as a “time-out” room. I am reminded of my days in that room whenever I see my grandchildren sitting in their “time out” chair in the hallway of their home.

Solitary confinement for sure, I missed quite a bit of schooling while spending my time in the cloakroom. A small closet in the room housed a box of candy bars intended to reward worthy students at the end of each month. There were always a few candy bars missing during my quiet and often cloakroom visits, since I knew I was not destined to get candy bars for being well-behaved.

In those days, nuns weren’t restricted in their replies to student misbehavior. I occasionally had a switch taken to my backside and a ruler with a metal edge strike the back of my hands. Fortunately, I am able to do my job and type my columns without permanent infliction. Imagine the trouble a teacher would get into today. But, that was routine punishment in my school days. One day while a college student at Pitt, I ran into one of my grade school nuns who shared her recollection. “You weren’t bad, Jimmy, just mischievous,” said Sister Mary Pius.

In truth, I remember my school days at St. Stephen’s fondly. I learned a lot, except for how to tell time quickly. Even today, I pause before I tell someone what time it is when asked.

At St. Stephen’s, we were graded on behavior on our report cards, in addition to the usual subjects of English, art, history, and religion. I did well in art and religion. My wife, Kathie, is still impressed with how well I do on religious topics when we play Jeopardy. I would always get a NS (not satisfactory) for the topic “is reverent at prayer and church.” As students, we attended Mass as a class on Wednesday, as well as with our families on Sunday. I must have done a lot of whispering during Mass.

Mary, the name of Jesus’ mother, was also the name of my mother and my sister, Mary Carole O’Brien. The popularity of the name “Mary” was widespread at St. Stephen’s. Five of my eight grade school teachers (grades one through eight) were Marys— Sister Mary Thomas, Sister Mary Patrick, Sister Mary Lucy (also known as “Liver Lip Lucy” because of her tightly-sealed lips), Sister Mary Pius, and Sister Mary Leo. The school’s principal, who I got to know quite well, was also a Mary—Sister Mary Barbara.

Regardless of my occasional antics, Sister Mary Patrick liked me. Knowing I was fascinated with American Indians, she would bring me copies of Arizona Highways magazine, which included many pictures of Indians.

While in her class, my mother thought school ran a half hour later than it actually did since I was in detention almost every day. I didn’t mind, though. I got an early start on my homework. Most of my friends were serving detention, too. Ours was a rough group. Out of 24 boys in that class, five went on to serve jail time throughout a portion of their illustrious careers. I am proud to say that I wasn’t one of them.

In seventh grade, I was “traded” and sent across the hall to be with Sister Ann Patricia. Apparently, the nun to whom I was originally assigned was under-experienced in dealing with the likes of me. Sister Ann Patricia was the most demanding nun I ever had, but we became life-long friends. Rather than hitting me for good measure, she would embarrass me with her critical comments of my actions in front of the class.

Sister Ann Patricia was from West Homestead and her father and brother both worked at Mesta Machine Company in West Homestead, along with my dad and his two brothers and, eventually, my brother, Dan, who became the company treasurer. Dan became a Hazelwood success story.

I kept in touch with Sister Ann Patricia while she was the principal at St. Luke’s in Carnegie, and I often visited her when she moved to a retirement home in Greensburg. I could share anything with her, and I often did.

Sister Mary Leo, my eighth grade teacher, once told my mother, “Someday your son is going to end up in Sing Sing.” Sing Sing is a prison in Ossining, New York. When I graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 1964, my mother sent Sister Mary Leo an invitation to the ceremony. “See, he didn’t end up in Sing Sing, after all,” wrote my mom, Mary Minnie O’Brien.

My friend and Pittsburgh’s iconic sports commentator Myron Cope cautioned my mother not to write that… not quite yet. “I think your kid might still have a shot at it,” said Cope, kiddingly.  Many years later… I am… so far, so good!

Columnist Jim O’Brien is currently working on the 30 th book in his Pittsburgh Proud series. His latest book is Looking Up: From the ABA to the NBA, the WNBA to the NCAA: A Basketball Memoir.

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