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Monday, May 15, 2017

By Radiator in Kindergarten, On Floor in First Grade

    I have fond memories of my nine years at Saint Columba School at the corner of Hamline and Blair, three blocks from my house in Saint Paul. I state this because as I choose memories to draft into my autobiographical sketches, I find stories I want to tell among the less-common, negative memories. Here, I relate two I found traumatic.

    The first is a minor incident that did not long stick with me—other than there must be some reason I remember it. I was a “good boy” in school. This came natural to me, but I was aware that there were five good Komives children at Saint Columba my kindergarten year. In the grades above me were four good girls named Komives. Yet, one day my friend Jim Dueber and I were made to stand in front of the radiator for several minutes. This was the standard punishment Sister Agnes used when kids violated the rules of her kindergarten. One of her rules, actually more of a nice tradition, required that children return to the large carpet and sit quietly when she signaled that free play-time was over by playing a little tune on the piano. Indeed it was a pleasant point of the day. This day, however, Jim and I were having a great time building something out of the giant blocks at our disposal—such a great time that we did not hear the piano nor notice that our playmates had abandoned the play area. Once we realized our mistake it was too late. Sister Agnes was not harsh with us, but as stern and consistent with her rules as I suppose she thought she must be. So, there I was, standing with my backside against the radiator, dying a thousand deaths for having been a “bad boy”. Of course, I knew I was not truly guilty because we had not heard the piano, but that knowledge did not help my embarrassed guilt. After several minutes Jim and I were allowed to sit down again with the group. The sense of guilt lingered. I am not sure for how long, but I suppose it was on my mind both at home and at school for several days.

    The more traumatic experience happened a year later, in first grade, in Sister Anne Steven's classroom. I do not remember what I did that was wrong or thought to be wrong. I assume I talked when I should not have or some such offense. What I remember is the trauma of the punishment. Again, it was standard punishment in this classroom. I was not the first nor the last. Sister told me to take all my things out of my desk and sit with them on the floor. There I was trying to participate in the classroom from the lowly station of the floor. This was not the punishment of a few minutes nor one day. It went on for what seemed like forever. Every day I suffered the humiliation of returning to the classroom and my little stack of books and pencils and paper on the floor near the window. Every day I hoped she would tell me to return to my seat. Every day I went home feeling bad. Again, I say it seemed like it went on forever. I never told my family. I just silently suffered. Was it days or weeks? I don't know, but my memory makes it feel like weeks. One day Sister did tell me to return to my desk. That was a relief for sure, but the damage to my self image had been done. I could not and do not forget the humiliation. I have no idea if the experience improved my behavior because I don't know what behavior I was supposed to improve. I believe I did leave that memory in that classroom. I survived the year, had a reasonably good year beyond my floor time, and had (I presume) a fun summer. I went to second grade with little or no thought of my floor-sitting trauma.

    I can almost laugh today at how sensitive I was in such situations. I can also cast some blame beyond myself--not to Sister Agnes who seemed to me (even at the time) to have found herself caught by her own rules. My humiliation was a small price to pay for an unfortunate situation. From my adult perspective, however, my memory of my first-grade humiliation by Sister Ann Steven includes blame with no guilt. That was cruel. Whatever I did, her punishment far exceeded my crime.

    (c) from date of posting, by Bob Komives, Fort Collins 

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