Editors’ note: Some names have been changed.
I learned to lie and cheat in Catholic grammar school. And I did so with utter conviction.
Mrs. Renalto, my eighth grade math teacher, would collect our tests, grade mine, and give all of them to me in a sealed manila envelope
She would summon me, rolling my name after her tongue — “Annnndrea” — in her impossibly deep, operatic baritone. I would come up to the front of the class and take the envelope.
The expectation was that I would grade my classmates’ tests, using mine as a guide for the correct answers. Since I usually scored no lower than a 98 percent, the task was relatively easy.
The first few times, I handed them back, all corrected, the next day. No “thank you” required. In Catholic school, it was a privilege to do the teacher’s job without pay. You were special if you were chosen for this elite task.
I never told my classmates what was in the envelope. There was a tacit acknowledgement among the few who suspected. No one asked for confirmation at St. Finbar’s R.C. School.
But after a few weeks, the arrangement took a shadier turn.
This time when Mrs. Renalto handed the envelope to me, the tests of students she tutored for extra money after school had already been graded by her. No, strike that — they were altered, to achieve the desired result: Not merely a passing grade, but a score that would indicate those parents’ tutoring dollars were being well spent.
Our mini-conspiracy seemed as familiar as my brown loafers, but as uncomfortable as my wool uniform skirt. However, this could not be grist for the confessional. There was no number of Hail Marys or Our Fathers to achieve absolution. It was Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, a neighborhood where forgetting certain circumstances tested well on the streets. And, as I mentioned, I was the kind of student all the teachers loved.
My guilt melted as quickly as a banana split from Jahn’s ice cream parlor, compliments of Mrs. Renalto.
I had falling arches, but I was graceful at this dance of half-truths throughout my youth. The holidays were no exception.
Every Christmas Eve, we visited with Uncle Al and Aunt Marie and my cousins. Less than 24 hours later, we would hop back in the Buick Skylark.
Ding dong! We rang the doorbell at a second semi-attached brick house with a stoop. Behind this door was the same Uncle Al — but this time with Aunt Liz and a another set of cousins.
They were two distinct families. Their very co-existence meant no slip-ups from all those in the know.
Even though I had to wear the same red velvet dress two days in a row, all was well in my little universe. It was not as if my uncle would say, “Weren’t you wearing that last night?”
“Merry Christmas, doll,” Uncle Al would say, a twinkle in his eye. “Here’s a $20, and go play with your cousins.” I scooped up another cannoli from the table and did as I was told.
Silent Night, Holy Night.
In the fall of 1985, I was an incoming journalism student at Long Island University’s Brooklyn Campus. I was ready to make my mark at the student newspaper. I had my skinny reporter’s notebook and Bic pen ready. I had watched too many re-runs of “All the President’s Men.” I was hungry to scour the darkest corners of the university’s halls of power to uncover the Truth — whatever that meant.
A dean from the admissions office summoned my mother and me to his office on Flatbush Avenue right after Labor Day, before the start of classes. Dean Sacher was a burly man with red curly hair that matched his red furrowed eyebrows, a brooding comic figure.
“You see,” he said, “if you just agree to fill out the paperwork for financial aid, the university will benefit.” We sat in his inner sanctum. A long, cluttered desk was between us. It was the desk of an important man.
I was at LIU on a full scholarship already. I fidgeted in my hard-backed chair. My mother unflinchingly held his gaze and let him continue.
It was the 1980s. Reaganomics meant money was trickling down, at least in theory. This college was no different than my childhood church. Both were deft at passing around the collection basket.
Drawing on his many years’ experience of sizing up prospective students and their families, Dean Sacher knew an only child of a single, widowed mother with limited resources would be eligible to receive federal and state grants. Except, because of my scholarship, I didn’t actually need them.
He was asking us without asking us to double dip. Accept the scholarship money, but neglect to tell the government and apply for aid too. That way, LIU would be guaranteed two paid college educations.
Dean Sacher was charismatic, the best type of bully. Unnervingly calm and intimidating, he spoke his intentions without really saying anything untoward. If you could just provide the documentation and fill out that aid paperwork …
The doublespeak was a perfect accompaniment to the side step I learned as a child. If the journalism thing did not work out, I remember thinking I could always launch my own song and dance act.
My mother finally broke the uncomfortable silence in the room.
“Everything was destroyed in the fire,” she said dryly. Then she turned to me as if on cue. No rehearsals required.
“It was devastating,” I said.
“We lost everything — all our financial records, statements, years of taxes,” my mother continued. “Sorry, we won’t be able to apply for the aid.” I nodded in agreement. My head was slightly bowed.
This was before the Internet. Paper ruled. With it, you could apply for financial aid. Without it, you could not. Flustered, Dean Sacher offered condolences — for himself, for us, for LIU. It was not clear.
He abruptly stood up. We left. We never spoke of it again.
I never really knew why my mother did not go along with Dean Sacher’s ploy. Maybe she found it immoral. Maybe she did not like to be told what to do by a man. Maybe it was because his name did not end in a vowel like ours did.
By the time I was a senior, I was receiving stipends for my work on the student newspaper, a few hundred bucks to cover books and incidentals. Meanwhile, the university was doling out “golden parachutes,” academic-speak for six-figure pay-offs to administrators — many with skeletons in their closets — to exit quietly. I never found out if Dean Sacher received one.
What I did learn was more valuable. It was okay not to go along, even if you were a Catholic school girl from Bensonhurst.