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Wednesday, 10 October 2007

The Shawn of My Childhood

By Lia of the Yum Yum Café blog

My new school is connected to a church by a cracked-asphalt playground. There are faded court game markings criss-crossing the playground. Since there are no nets or goalposts anywhere, we do not know what games were meant to be played when the lines were first painted on the ground.

Instead, the faded lines are used to mark off territories: girls from boys, tough guys from the wimps, older kids from younger kids.

Occasionally, but only occasionally, some students play dodge ball. Only the most rambunctious kids ever get the nerve to play. If they play dodge ball, all the other students have to squeeze themselves around the playground’s periphery. It means the players have a guaranteed audience. Mind you, a disgruntled audience.

If students play well, meaning some of the players get properly whacked and fall down, then we, those standing on the side, start to cheer. This is what the players wait for, the moment their audience starts cheering instead of jeering. All of that effort just to overcome their boredom, and see whether they can make us temporarily overcome ours.

We go to the church for catechism classes. In my last school, the priest came to our class to tell us about purgatory and heavenandhell. Now we march across our school playground and through the church to the back where there are various rooms.

One room is equipped with folding chairs and tables. The Ladies’ Auxiliary usually meets here.

Each child pulls out a folding chair. We are here to learn about the Baby Jesus from Father Eugene.

I have to go to the bathroom and Father Eugene allows me to leave the catechism class. I walk down the corridor looking for a bathroom. There is a room with a vault used to store the Eucharist and the priest’s robes. Another room is a changing room for the alter boys.

There is a boys’ bathroom, but no girls’ bathroom. After a little hesitation, I enter the boys’ bathroom.

The bathroom is surprisingly large. Sunlight streams in through three large windows. Sunbeams dance across the floor and over the largest sink I’ve ever seen in my life - a fantastic, round communal sink with a fountain sprouting out of the middle. It is a sink of biblical proportions.

Shawn, a boy in my class, comes into the bathroom while I am running around the sink in circles, swishing my hand through the water spraying out from the centre of the sink. I’m making rainbows in the sunbeams.

Shawn asks me what I am doing. “Making rainbows in this neat sink”, is my clever answer.

“It’s not a sink”, he says, “It’s a urinal”.

“What’s a urinal?” I ask naively.

Shawn explains. I can’t believe that boys would stand around this sink and pee in front of everyone. Shawn shrugs his shoulders, as if to say, “You have to be there to understand”.

Shawn is the only redhead in my class. He is an alter boy extraordinaire. He is usually one of the alter boys serving when we go to mass on Sundays. I often watch him during mass because sometimes he nods off and I like to see whether the priest discovers this and reprimands him.

Shawn also served at the mass at my grandfather’s funeral a few weeks back.

He shyly offers me a piece of bubblegum from his back pocket. I refuse at first because I know that the gum is attached with a price tag I am not willing to pay. It means spending recesses with Shawn. Standing on the sidelines next to him and maybe even holding his hand.

This wouldn’t be a smart thing to do for it will “attract attention,” something I don’t want to happen. Rather, I am trying as hard as I can to remain invisible in my new school.

There are other kids that I wouldn’t mind standing next too, but not Shawn. I don’t know how I know, but there is some shadow hanging over Shawn.

He is one of seven children. Seven boys. He is the youngest. They all have red hair like their father. They are Irish immigrants. They speak with funny accents. The family is poor. And for some reason I don’t understand everyone looks down upon them.

So, when Shawn stands there in the boys’ bathroom next to me explaining what a urinal is and then offers me a package of bubblegum, my first instinct is to get out of there as soon as possible. Then I remember Shawn is a alter boy and that is sort of like being a priest, isn’t it?

Shawn tells me that being an alter boy is quite a cushy job and has certain privileges. You get first dibs on communion. You get to miss school for funerals.

He shows me the cupboard where all the priest robes are stored. There are different coloured robes for religious holidays like Easter and Christmas. Shawn tells me there is a special store downtown that only has robes for priests, nuns and alter boys.

He points out the vault where the consecrated hosts are stored. He explains that the priest consecrates the hosts during mass and so if there are hosts left over, they have to be stored for the next mass or eaten. It is a sin to throw away consecrated hosts. It would be like throwing away the body of Christ. I don’t know if I should believe him.

I ask him how long he has been an alter boy and he admits he only started about six months ago. But, he says he knows a lot about it because all of his six brothers were alter boys before him.

I ask him why he falls asleep during mass. He blushes from the top of his head to the bottom of his toes. It’s because he is hungry. His mother doesn’t allow any of the family to eat before mass. I start feeling sorry for Shawn.

It must be fun to miss school though. Shawn admits he doesn’t like doing funerals if they are open-coffin funerals. He spends all of his time trying not to stare at the dead person.

Then I remember how, at my grandfather’s funeral, Shawn had looked down at the ground the whole time. Father Eugene circled around my grandfather’s coffin sweeping the incense burner back and forth, back and forth, sending waves of smoke across my grandfather’s face. Shawn followed behind looking at the priest’s feet. Father Eugene then handed Shawn the burner to hold while he genuflected and prayed for my grandfather’s spirit.

There was so much smoke coming out of the incense burner, Shawn was choking. He decided to place his alter boy’s robe over the burner. Slowly, inauspiciously he delicately places the hem of his robe over the burner. The smoke stopped instantly. He let out a sigh of relief. But then, the smoke started coming up from the inside of his collar.

When I saw the smoke slowly crawling up his neck, I started to laugh. I put my head down in prayer, but my body shook up and down. Fortunately, my parents thought I was crying, so I didn’t get into trouble.

Shawn was not so fortunate. He told me that Father Eugene took him to task after the mass and then called his mother about the incident. When Shawn got home, his mother also yelled at him. His brothers teased him. His father ignored him.

Somehow, I sort of feel responsible for getting him into trouble. It was my grandfather’s funeral. Maybe I just feel bad because I laughed at him.

So, as we walk back to the catechism class, I ask Shawn whether I could have a piece of his bubble gum after all. He fishes out the package from his back pocket and proudly hands me a piece of pink gum. The gum is rather old looking and just a little bit sticky, but I put it in my mouth and tell him it tastes good.

He whole face lights up in a smile. I realise then that even though the gum comes at a price, I am willing to pay it. That day during recess, I stand beside Shawn in the playground and we watch the older kids playing dodge ball. This is the first of many recesses spent with him. Thankfully, we never held hands.

NOTE: This story is only loosely based on fact. All except for incident with the incense burner, which really happened.

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 02:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post



I loved it!

What an interesting and beautifully written story. This should be published somewhere. It makes me wish I could write like that.

I, too, loved it. I really believed in the little girl. It is a story one will not forget in a hurry.



Poor Shawn. I hope his life got better in later years.

I knew a lot of young fellows in his same circumstances in Catholic Elementary school.

I also know a few who started out like Shawn and made a huge success of their lives despite such a troubled start.

Great story!

A wonderful story!

You made me feel like I was right there in the bathroom with those kids! I loved this story.

Thank you all for your praise and encouragement. Even though I've written a blog for two years now, I only recently found out what my "vision" for the blog is: to tell stories. Your words bring much joy to me.

Nancy, Even though I know the boy's name was Shawn, I have no idea what his family name was. I don't even remember the name of the school! Google search can only help so much when the searcher is so forgetful. Yet, there are one or two people who I've known in the past who I'd like to know what happened to them. Though, now that I think of it, I'd only really like to know if these people did manage to overcome their adversity.

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