Parochial Perils

By Dan Sullivan

During my adolescent school years, no one could say that I didn’t have a prayer. However, many suspected it. Living rural and attending a tiny parochial school of limited resources, this kid with bad eyes seemed destined for doom. Nonetheless, no one could say that I didn’t have a prayer. To the contrary, I may have had too many.

Back in the 60’s, mainstreaming was not a matter of choice, yet the only option for education.   If labeled as disabled, it was more or less up to your hometown on what to do with you. In my case, I got platooned to the Good Sisters of St. Joe’s. Perhaps they could help with divine intervention and find me that elusive cure. At times it did indeed seem they were intent on doing so. Based on all the kneeling and prayers on my behalf, I doubt there was ever a group of nuns with more calloused knees, than those at St. Joe’s.

In this era preceding reasonable accommodation, the Good Sisters who now mentored me, came up with their own form of assistance. Whenever I butted up against barriers such as not being able to see blackboard lessons or read the tiny print textbooks, their refrain was always the same – “Just do the best you can and we will pray for you.” Of course, there were other approaches as well. I was forever relegated to being the classroom’s most uncool kid by occupying the front row desk. Whenever that did not suffice, I then got commanded to strut forward and read the blackboard with my nose almost pressed against it.   This oftentimes gave the class bullies a grand opportunity for refrains like “Get out of the way, Bozo.” To this day, I still remember the chilling episode when Sister Corene got so frustrated with Big John’s poor reading recitation that she shouted out, “Even Dan with his bad eyes reads better than you.” For several days thereafter, I did my best to avoid Big John on the playground.

With good intentions, one of the more assertive nuns obtained large print textbooks for me. So oversized were these behemoths, that I actually broke the handle on my bookbag from their sheer weight. The obvious oddity of these books created another opportunity for commentary by the mean kids. Just as bad, the text within these books did not always match up with the ones being used by my classmates.

My time at St. Joe’s was both an education and adventure. I often wonder how I survived it. On the playground, it always came down to either me or wimpy Willy being chosen last for the games. Although it bugged me, all I really cared about was being included.

Third grade was when my world first went haywire. During a music class drill, I got called upon to read an upheld flash card. When told to identify the music symbol, I just sat silent. I knew every symbol, yet this one I just couldn’t see. In this parochial environment of absolute obedience, I had to embarrassingly fess up that it needed to be brought closer. At the end of the day, I got sent home with a stern note and within a week found myself heading to the big city for an eye exam. My situation then got branded with a medical term that no kid could understand. It was called macular degeneration. Essentially, I was being told by the eye doctor of having bad eyes with no cure. Although this sounded like I didn’t have a prayer, I knew better. And so did the Good Sisters of St. Joe’s.


Editor’s Note: This story is an excerpt from the author’s memoir titled “Glimpse”, written under the pen name of D.S. Sully. This anthology chronicles his 50+ years of dealing with vision loss.

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