Why Smoke-Free Restaurants Remind Me
Of Switching from Catholic to Public School
As anyone who attended Catholic grade school in its heyday (the '50s and '60s) will attest, the experience leaves its lifetime mark on you. Like a youthful stint in the Marines, the experience of having survived Catholic grade school's baroque institutional rituals shapes the personality in ways that become increasingly more obvious over time. The perceived injustices that were once a source of youthful complaint and resentment progressively grow more endearing as they recede further in time.
I happened to shave a single year off the prescribed rituals. After attending St. Clare elementary from kindergarten to seventh grade (where my classmates included future stockbroker Frank Gruttadauria, now serving a term in federal prison for having perpetrated one of the biggest investment frauds in American history), I decided to leave the place for eighth grade. I wanted to play hoops, you see, and in those days there wasn't much in the way of organized sports in Catholic grade schools (hard to imagine today). And so for a brief time I found myself in one of those unspeakably bizarre places known as American public junior high schools, where there was no dress code, and the girls actually got away with smoking in the bathroom. Generally, it went well, except for one memorable twist.
In Catholic school in those days, when the teacher called on you, you stood up to deliver your answer. It wasn't so much drilled into us as it was like a form of breathing. We may have learned to do it once, but I can't for the life of me remember learning it. We just always did it on cue. Anyway, the habit proved hard to break in public school. For at least the first three or four months of eighth grade, I could never remember not to stand up when called upon. My classmates found it hilarious. It was as if I was performing a cartwheel before spitting into a jar every time the teacher called on me.
I hadn't thought of that episode for years, at least not until I walked into a downtown restaurant the other day, and asked for a no-smoking section. "Oh, you must not be from around here," the young host said. "We're all non-smoking now." Indeed, I had forgotten that the new law banning smoking in public places has now taken effect. Once again, I think it's going to take me some months to remember to break that deeply ingrained habit.