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Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Forbidden Tree

By Russell LaPlume

I find it peculiar, as I grow older and try to prepare for the heavenly country, to reminisce more and more about my youth. I can certainly apply the words of the author, “they were the best of times; they were the worst of times,” to that of my passage from youth to adolescence. And now, after having embraced the traditional Faith, which I had regrettably abandoned in my young adulthood, I can look back to see just how that abandonment came about.

I was born in 1950 to loving parents of French Canadian descent in Lawrence, Massachusetts, a large mill town filled with every ethnic variety known to man. My parents bore thirteen children, I being number eleven in the clan, and nurtured us all with great earnest in the Catholic Faith. I was sent to the same Catholic school that my siblings had attended before me, which really was a disadvantage, because, by this time, the nuns had learned all they needed to know, in expectation of what I had to offer, from observing the habits of my older brothers. And I did not disappoint them. I was impish and, several times, the nuns had to restrain me by tying me to my desk. Those knots — I don’t know how they looped them — would have defied the efforts of any sailor to loosen.

I can still remember the interior of that school, Sacred Heart by name, with its cavernous classrooms, shoe-stomping stairs, and basement lavatories which, being always poorly lit, were dungeon-like and a great inducement to stay put in the classroom regardless of your needs. And the nuns – oh, how I loved the nuns! They also were from Canada, the Sisters of St. Joseph I believe, and farm girls to the core. It was not uncommon to see them (and Sr. Paul Rita comes readily to mind quite personally) roll up their sleeves and deliver a nasty haymaker to the miscreant: another great inducement to stay out of mischief (or at least not get caught). I really cannot understand when former Catholics, being asked why they left the Church, almost always bring up some episode with a certain sister, blaming her for their departure. They forget the sisters’ patient tolerance of our unruliness, the endless hours they spent in teaching numbskulls the three “R’s” (and they were reading, ‘riting, and religion, I’ll have you know), and the sharing of their intimate faith to mostly distracted students. It was under their tutorship that dirty little boys became civilized altar boys, and giggly little girls learned the rudiments of becoming young ladies. And I’ll never forget the oak tree that stood exactly in the middle of our recess yard. In retrospect it reminds me of the forbidden tree in Paradise, for it was the great dividing line between girls and boys, always patrolled by clapper-wielding sisters ready to stretch the ear of any student whose shadow even crossed that line. And that brings me to the gist of this story.

Our classrooms, from grades one through eight, were arranged so that the boys and girls sat separated. There were three rows each for the boys and the girls, with a double space between the two. To walk down that double aisle without permission from the sister was tantamount to invading a cloister. Lavatory times were also regulated so that the girls went first, then the boys after. I can remember many times when the boys looked squeamish because the girls were running later than usual. “Ladies first” did not make much of an impression to us young boys. The cafeteria was separated also – we all took our lunch at the same time – but after we finished, we boys had to walk through the girls’ recess side to get to our side. Upon leaving the cafeteria, we encountered a line of nuns creating a corridor for safe passage to the boys’ side. At first I thought it was some sort of quality control, because the nuns would stop certain boys and wipe the remainder of their lunch off their chins or uniforms. Much later I realized its true purpose: that of keeping the boys and girls separated. All of these means were employed when we were young and innocent. The “why” is obvious, is it not? It was to impress upon us the biological fact that boys and girls are truly different, and always shall be, in body and temperament. And it was to remind us later that contact with the opposite sex should always be guarded and, unless married, should always be chaperoned.

That figurative oak tree should have stamped forever in my mind the need to separate the sexes and observe that no transgressions should ever occur. As devout as my parents were, for some reason they let us children roam the streets at will. There was minimal diligence in who we played with, or where we were, as long as we were back home before the streetlight in front of our house went on (in later years we figured out how to rig the light to not come on by removing the plate covering the electrical wires, making the connections just loose enough so that with a sharp rap to the pole, the lights would come off and on at will). It all seemed so innocent as children to have someone of the opposite sex as a playmate, but everybody grows up and that familiarity breeds problems. Sooner or later the game of tag takes on a whole new meaning. This pest of allowing children of both sexes to play or socialize together unchaperoned has grown over the past two generations into a moral crisis, even in Catholic families who should know better.

I will always remember the film, “The Quiet Man,” with John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. The film concluded with two courting adults riding in the back of a horse-drawn cart that was being driven by their chaperone. You see, even at their advanced age, courting meant being chaperoned. Courting without supervision is properly called dating and, for the safety of our children, should not be tolerated. Not employing this discipline in my own family resulted in several out-of-wedlock childbirths; but thank God we had given them enough of the Faith to repent of their sins and become good, Catholic parents. The sins of the father are visited on the children sometimes, for this blight of the age had happened to me.

In Pius XI’s encyclical, The Christian Education of Youth, he states that those who would not oppose the separation of the sexes, especially in sports, were guilty of denying original sin. The heresy of Americanism is mostly viewed in its spiritual sense; that is, the indifference in regards to other religions. But I think there is a more insidious side to this heresy – that of the discipline side – where we think that we are good Catholics because we attend Mass once a week, maybe say the family Rosary, and oppose abortion, and, therefore, all is covered in our spiritual life. We must remember the social side of Americanism – the side that constantly assaults our children with social activities that co-mingle the sexes. It is a battle for parents – a mighty battle – to keep their children undefiled in this world. We must monitor their activities constantly without letting them lose heart. Satan is seeking an opening to devour them, and if we keep in mind Our Lady’s words at Fatima that more souls go to hell because of the sins of the flesh than for any other reason, our untiring effort in keeping them pure will be rewarded. We need to keep the apple tree of Paradise in our minds and an oak tree in our children’s playing fields.

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