During Lent in 1962, Sister Mary Philips ushered her first-grade class into the Church of the Assumption on Staten Island for prayer and to participate in the Sacrament of Penance. I would have said celebrate, which is how we think of it today, but celebration was the furthest thing from our minds then. I know. I was in that class. We knelt in solemn prayer with our heads bowed and our hands folded together perfectly. I could feel the silence pressing on my eardrums as if I were under water. We sat like that until I couldn’t take it anymore and wanted to scream. And then the unimaginable happened.
Frank screamed. Frank was a classmate with bushy hair, big ears, and glasses. He wore a pocket protector. His shoes squeaked when he walked. He was the kind of kid who looked like he was fifty. Out of all of us, you wouldn’t have expected it from him. And it wasn’t a scream so much as a howl; a sharp, high-pitched slice through the beeswax-scented stillness of the church.
In a swish of black and beads, the nuns ushered him out a side door of the nave. The rest of us, thrilled momentarily, settled back to the task at hand: preparing for the confessional. I remember making up a sin about angel food cake. Not too creative, but it got the job done, which was all I wanted.
I haven’t forgotten that scream in all these years. Some things linger on. I have gone back and forth in my opinion about it. Sometimes it seems to have been the cry of a weak soul who couldn’t take the regimen of Catholic school in the sixties: polished, black leather shoes; blue ties; white shirts; pants with starched creases; a wave in the hair like Troy Donohue. And discipline. I loved the discipline even as it sought to crush me.
Other times, I have thought of Frank as a pioneer, a man with a vision and the guts to do what the rest of us did not dare. Was the rest of his life like that? Did he travel to Papua New Guinea, climb mountains, wrestle bears? But, of course, he was not a man then. He could have screamed just to see what it would be like, just to upend the cart to see where the apples would roll. That would have been all right, too.
Later, perhaps he realized that a scream like that could come in handy in life when things went south. A failed career, a broken relationship, money. Money. Just the other day I quoted Karl Marx to my class, which is not something I do on a regular basis. Marx is reputed to have said that no one has written so much about money yet had so little of it.
Was the scream the beginning of a new realization about life? Did Frank use it to reject, reform, resist the institutions that walled him in? If so, did it change as he grew older, moving down the scale from alto to bass? Was the scream ever silent?
I have used the scream from time to time, although I won’t complain about things going south. Everyone has problems, some much worse than mine. As I like to tell my class, failure and imperfection are two of the most dependable twin sisters you will ever meet, kind of like patience and fortitude, the two lions outside the public library on Fifth Avenue.
The thing I have come to appreciate about Frank’s scream is that it was his. No one else could claim it. It was an authentic and courageous act of individuality that at the same time was universal, because it was what everybody wanted to do. I hope he has carried that with him in the half century since.
I hope I have screamed in my own way like Frank. Such a scream is an answer to the universe that you are here, alive, ready to celebrate penance, not just participate with stories about angel food cake.
Lent lingers on. Everyday.
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