A Trip Back to School

A Trip Back to School September 13, 2021


Today I took a trip down Memory Lane– or, as most people call it, High Street.

I went to visit the church and school where I received Holy Communion.

When I got to Saint Michael’s, it was noon. I recalled for the first time that the classes there were staggered so that some children would be at lunch and some at recess while others were still finishing classes, to fit everyone in the cafeteria. Some children were lined up quietly by the church, single file, just like I used to line up, going to eat their lunch in the church basement. I wondered if they still served that greasy, tasty  abomination known as “Mexican pizza” which left me feeling full all day. Some children were finished with their lunch and playing on the field. I used to wander around that field with my head in the clouds, composing poetry and getting in the way of soccer players. I wondered if they still called the school playground beside the field “The Big Toy.”

I wanted to go to the front of the church and hug the plaster statue of Saint Michael stomping on a dragon, but another group of children who weren’t yet on lunch break were getting a lesson from the teacher at his feet, so I prayed at a distance and left. I wonder if they still make all the children learn that sincere and truly silly song that ends “Oh Saint Michael, great Saint Michael, give us help today!”

I left Saint Michael’s school  feeling happy, somehow, even though as a child I didn’t do well there. I was too neurotic and anxious for such a big busy place. My parents took me out after two years and enrolled me in third grade in Our Lady of Peace school, further down High Street, which was much worse. There were atrocious bullies in the student body and also in the faculty. The principal was a cold fish who pretended to be concerned but would do nothing about them. The teachers punished every fight with “I don’t care who started it” and punishing both the aggressor and the victim, so I learned not to ask for help. By the time I got halfway through fifth grade I had full-blown trauma. I was homeschooled after that until college.

The children at Our Lady of Peace were also at recess, playing on the playground and kicking balls in the field. It’s a smaller student body so they only do lunch and recess in two shifts instead of staggered in a more complicated way. I wondered if they still called the volunteer parents who wandered the playground ordering children around “prefects.” I wonder if they still had a rule that you had to let someone else use the swing if you’d swung fifty times, and if the children still called out the numbers as they flew back and forth.

There was a chain stretched across the driveway ordering visitors away during school hours.

I drove by slowly, remembering.

Boundaries are a magical thing.

I often ran around the field and blacktop at Our Lady of Peace, looking for a place to hide if the bushes hadn’t worked. I was shooed away from cars and the basement stairwell by yard patrol teachers who wanted to keep an eye on us. They didn’t understand my desperation to be invisible. Once or twice I stood by the edge of the blacktop and wished I dared cross that chain and run away down the street. My grandparents lived in Beechwold nearby. I could have found my way there and hid. But I didn’t.

Why didn’t I? Because it was against the rules. The chain was the boundary of the school yard. I’d get into trouble.

Children think like that. It’s why they are so easy to abuse.

Boundaries fascinate me. They are artificial, something humans imagine, and yet they hold so much power.  Some boundaries are chains stretched across parking lot driveways. Some are border walls topped with barbed wire. Some are yellow lines painted on a road. Some are completely internal, rules we set for ourselves or have set for us by authorities.

Some boundaries protect and some destroy. A bully is an abuser who will cross a boundary whenever they see one, for the express purpose of causing pain.  There is another type of abuser who sets up boundaries around another person, to hurt them or in a mistaken attempt to care for them, and in doing so leave that person helpless. Sometimes an abuser ends up caging somebody in a box with bullies, so the victim has no safe boundaries and also can’t get away. That was not what the horrible staff at Our Lady of Peace meant to do, but it was what they did. They put a chain across the schoolyard and left me caged with bullies they wouldn’t stop. Normal children follow the rules but bullies will do anything they want, so a chain at the edge of a blacktop was as effective as locking sacrificial victims in the Labyrinth with a pack of hungry minotaurs.

Later in life, I tried so hard to set healthy boundaries with family, but they wouldn’t accept them.

I ended up in Steubenville and went no contact with many of my relatives. I will spend the rest of my life racking my brain for what I could have done differently, but I know deep inside that I had no choice but to do that. I tried to mend ties when Rosie was born, but it went miserably and I found myself no contact again. I had never gotten my driver’s license so I was trapped without a car, chronically ill and poor, in a small town with a limited bus route, and the boundary of my whole life was the last bus stop. I felt like the places I’d known before Steubenville were imaginary, or a different planet. They may as well have been.

I was trapped in one place, but I had developed boundaries inside, to protect myself from bullies. I am feisty now and am learning protect myself, though sometimes it’s still very hard.

When I finally got my license and that miraculous car, the boundaries trapping me in Steubenville started to dissolve. I could drive to Wintersville, to Weirton, to Wheeling. Finally, we had the opportunity to come to Columbus.

Suddenly, the world seems to have far fewer boundaries trapping me inside, and I have some nice new ones inside of me.

This is what I thought about as I drove back to my friend’s house where Michael and Rosie were playing with the dog.

I was happy when I left Saint Michael’s and sad when I left Our Lady of Peace. But now all I feel is gratitude.



Image via Pixabay


Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.
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