Growing up in a suburb of Los Angeles in the 1950s, I look back now and realize how mellow and “normal” life seemed. There were challenges, of course, but looking back, now, I realize they were a “piece of cake”.
My siblings and I attended a private Catholic grammar school that was within easy walking distance from our home, and the social and academic education we acquired there admittedly prepared us well for later life. Still, there is one incident that happened, among a number of others over those eight years, that both stands out in my memory and has a special place in my heart.
The grades first through eighth that comprised my grammar school each had their unique flavor and demands, but as one progressed up those grades, there was an unstated recognition by fellow students of an increased status. I recognize now that this was part of the school culture that just got taken for granted, and influenced our behavior and expectations. But in any case, this meant that the eighth-graders (as we were called) were recognized as “the top of the heap”, so to speak, and were expected to set the example and standards for the rest of the school. In fact, it was precisely because of this aspect that I remember, as a first grader, thinking of the eighth-graders as veritable gods. I laugh about this now, this many years later, but it was serious business, then.
Each class consisted of 100 students, divided into two sections of 50. In my last year there, as an eighth grader, there was an additional benefit to being in that class, that year. The school was run by nuns, and that year, the eighth graders were assigned the two coolest nuns in the school, one for each of the two sections of our grade, each with its own “home teacher”. We were the envy of the rest of the school because of those two nuns, who I will call Sister Anna (my home teacher) and Sister Maria for section Two of the class. Additionally, by eighth grade, with the exception of a few transfer students along the way, all of us had been together in school for eight years. This of course included social activities and interactions, in which all of our parents participated, and so we all knew each other very well.
My parents always stressed and supported our best academic performance and so I made it a point to be a good student and reflect the values of responsibility stressed both at home and in the school. Thus, one afternoon, when our level of supposed maturity and responsibility was tested as a class, I found myself dealing with that challenge in a way I could not have predicted.
The school library was a large room in the center of the school, and set up to serve as an optional classroom, as needed. That afternoon, therefore, sisters Anna and Maria decided to combine our two class sections and use it for a music classroom, as it could accommodate the 100 students. About halfway through that class, Sister Anna, who was teaching the class, was called to the door by the school Principal. She returned from that brief conversation to announce that there was an urgent matter she must attend to, and that she trusted us to remain seated and quiet, until her return.
The library seating consisted of two banks of seats on either side of the room — one for the boys, and one for the girls. Everyone in school took such segregation for granted, in those days. So, it was not long before the quiet orderliness of the room began shifting into the state preferred by a roomful of 13- and 14-year-old boys. It began with scattered cat calls across the room, and we girls looked nervously at each other. It soon built up into loudness and increased numbers of participants in this behavior, and at the height of this behavior, the room was filled with spit balls flying back-and-forth across the boys’ section of the room. The girls watched in various degrees of shock, nervousness, and in a few cases, quiet smiles.
As I watched and listened to this escalation of behavior on the part of the boys — and after our favorite teacher had expressed trust in our ability to behave ourselves in her absence — I grew increasingly disappointed, and then angry. I was also very aware that the location of the library assured that the surrounding classes could hear the increasing chaos we were creating. As an eighth grader, it was mortifying to think we were setting such a bad example, besides disappointing Sisters Anna and Maria, who were sure to have to take the heat when our behavior was reported.
I remember the girl sitting next to me, my good friend, Teri, who was a neighbor as well as school friend, and the look of alarm on her face as she watched my own reactions to what was going on. At one point, knowing me, she desperately whispered, “Marcela, no!” But to no avail. Because there had come the moment when I could no longer resist. I stood up, faced the boys, and called out, loudly, to get their attention: “Will you please be more mature!”
There was a sudden silence, in response, until a few seconds later, when the shock began to wear off, and one of the class upstarts started to say something nasty to me, in reply.
And then … David Thomas. David Thomas, who already had attained both the size, muscles and the skills for football. David Thomas, who in first grade used to come over to my home to help me catch lizards in my backyard, for pets. David Thomas, who stood up at this point, raised his voice, and challenged all comers: “You know what? She’s right! And anyone who has a problem with that can come and see me about it”. For the second time that day, the room went suddenly quiet. Except this time, it remained quiet, until Sister Anna returned a few minutes later, totally unaware of the little drama that had transpired in her absence.
Now, so many years later, I realize that perhaps it was unrealistic to expect better behavior, under the circumstances, from a roomful of 13- and 14-year old boys. But that does not change the glow of appreciation I still feel for David Thomas’ chivalrous gesture on my behalf. That day, he was truly my hero.
*For those who might get a chuckle, I post this: Spit balls https://www.wikihow.com/Make-Spitballs