Iam looking at my eighth-grade class picture from Blessed Sacrament School, the Catholic elementary school just east of Chevy Chase Circle. The black-and-white photo of the class of 1961 contains mini-portraits of 53 13- and 14-year-olds, caught in a moment of time, each head smaller than a postage stamp. In another 6-by-81 / 2-inch photo, the eighth-grade class that sat directly across the hall from us is similarly preserved, 50 kids with their hair smoothed into submission, their collars somewhat straight for picture day.
Every grade at Blessed Sacrament was divided into two classes then, with 50 or more kids in each room. Each class was presided over by one Holy Cross nun.It’s a teacher-to-student ratio that is unacceptable by today’s standards. We didn’t shuffle down the halls and change rooms for different classes. We were fused to that one nun and she to us every day from 8:30 until 3:15, except for a brief mid-morning recess and a lunch break.
Yet somehow we managed to read and write, solve math problems, learn world history and geography and, importantly, how to conduct ourselves in public. Taking in the picture, I spot at least 20 kids whom I’ve seen in the past five years, people who I know have become respectable adults (even you, Philip), mothers and fathers, grandparents, and hold responsible jobs and are admired in the community. Under the iron rule of that one nun, tiny Sister Gonzaga, these 53 kids spilled out into the world of high school, from which they might graduate in 1965, then on to college, from which they might graduate in 1969. Here are your children of the ’60s on the launch pad of that tumultuous decade, boys with flat-tops and girls with Peter Pan collars.
We lived in Northwest Washington or in Chevy Chase, many of us in lovely houses by the standards of that era. They were not the houses of Chevy Chase today, with two-story additions, master bedroom suites, open kitchens and one bathroom per occupant. Our parents didn’t hire landscapers or put country wreaths on the front door. And those three- or four-bedroom homes often held five or six kids, or as many as 13. They probably had one telephone line, one television and one car in the garage.
Most of us walked to school, and by eighth grade we had shed book bags and lunch boxes as symbols of childhood. We carried our books stacked on one hip, our lunch in plain brown bags that sat, unrefrigerated, in the coat closet until noon, when it was united with a small carton of room-temperature milk. The milk would arrive just before lunch in a crate, with the contents marked on the side. In 1961, for my class it read: 52 chocolate, one white. I still know the name of the boy who drank the white milk.
There were plenty of dysfunctional families, though “dysfunctional” was a word we never would have pulled from the sky back then. And by eighth grade, we pretty much knew which households were troubled. But we came to school and didn’t talk about it, put it aside on the playground each morning as we marched into class as a unit, ready to have chaos come under control for the next seven hours.
As I go over the class picture, I can tick off almost every name — even some middle names. Every month or so I have a casual reunion with two of my girlfriends and five of the guys from this class, and what one of us can’t remember the other seven are likely to be able to amplify in full. These small get-togethers have become “planning” meetings, a preamble to our 50th reunion, which is to take place at a restaurant near Blessed Sacrament on Friday night.
Through various methods, including social networking but more effectively guilt (we were, after all, raised as Catholics), we have rounded up about 60 classmates and their partners. On Saturday night we will join again at Blessed Sacrament to celebrate the parish’s 100th anniversary. There we will see alumni from all of the school’s classes — the many brothers and sisters of our classmates, the older boys who taunted us, the younger girls we teased. Maybe even the boy who tied my sister to a pear tree.
It is not likely that anyone there will try to reinvent himself. When you’ve come through the crucible of Blessed Sacrament, or perhaps of any Catholic school, from kindergarten through eighth grade, when you’ve grown from child to man surrounded by 100 other kids who knew you as a lump of clay, it’s not likely that you can feign pretense or affectation. And if you did, some nun would set you straight.
Jeanne McManus, a former Post editor, is an occasional contributor to the op-ed page.