“Is it as clear as mud?”
Answer: “No, because mud isn’t clear!”
We were often tasked to repeat this answer to our teacher (shown above) when she explained any number of directions which she wanted followed.
Yes, that person up there, that’s Ms. Mary Campbell, she was a Nun, ya’ know ( Sister Mary Damien)? Or at least she used to be, prior to becoming a lay teacher at St. Francis de Sales Parochial School of Charlestown, MA, during the decade of the 1980’s.
The 1980’s, a time for myself, and many of my peers that was fraught with the obstacles of adolescent development and socialization. A time where we were dependent upon the teachers that taught us at school, and the parents that reared us at home; to be able to sincerely guide us in our pursuit of excellence and discovery.
I knew this woman for a solid eight years, and probably a bit more, and I’m rather conflicted about how to go about recounting my characterization of her during that time.
I mean do I talk about how she was a force to be reckoned with? That both parents and children knew to cut her a wide path. Her large personality, only a second, to our beloved Pastor.
Maybe the physical attributes, then?
When I met her, she was at the back-end of being a middle-aged woman, moving onto the fall of her life. Very sturdy, and built like a German Frau, despite being Irish-American through and through. She had salt and pepper hair that held a green tint, that’s how steeped in her Irish pride she was. She exuded green. I often thought her hair looked like the slivers that the guys in the Irish Spring commercials cut from the bars of soap during the commercials of that era.
Her daily wardrobe consisted of boat shoes or penny loafers, tweed or khaki pants, and any of a variety of polo shirts that was left unbuttoned and exposed her flushed neckline and pale chest.
Very casual, very Butch.
Most of the women, if not all of the women we came into contact during our early years, did not dress like Ms. Mary Campbell. Skirts were generally the rule or slacks and more feminine offerings. Which meant what it meant within the context of the time. I have no idea, truly, what Ms. Mary Campbell identified as, but she seemed comfortable within herself.
She wore a Claddagh Ring which she was always fiddling with.
Her hair cut short, and parted, with a comb over the front. Square featured, weak chinned, bushy eyebrows, and dimples on the smile. She had bony elbows and bigger than average forearms, thighs, and a large barrel breasted chest.
Worth noting in the most immature boyish way, she had a perpetual hard nipple. No, not nipples, nipple. One was always hard and one wasn’t. Talk to the boys, talk to the girls, we all observed this mystery. No matter the time or seasons.
Her voice, congruent with what you might expect of a woman of her age and time. There being a range of inflection and a hint of some accent, that I cannot place. Perhaps, Southern United States?
She used this voice (probably her greatest asset) as a tool to teach, discipline, and from time to time wield sarcasm and sardonic wit upon her charges.
In my experience, what she said was never as grievous as how she said it. Inflection drawn to an extreme, tension drawn out for maximum effect, and the ambiguity of not knowing exactly what was coming, often led to existential fear of her admonishment and reprisals.
The majority of the time I knew her, I engaged her in school, but there was the odd sighting of Ms. Mary Campbell up the Bunker Hill Park, as she liked to bring her dog Erin to the basketball courts to play fetch.
Erin was a miniature black poodle, and outside of school, they seemed to be attached at the hip. Erin was fond of fetching a thrown tennis ball. And, on occasion you might be able to get Ms. Mary Campbell to allow you to throw it for Erin to fetch.
After a lot of back and forth, Ms. Campbell would take Erin over to her parked car and open up the hatchback for Erin to jump in.
She owned a light blue Plymouth Horizon, and it could be seen docked at 50 Belmont Street, many a day and night. Tommy Macneil and I used to gather fallen crab apples and gun them at her car from high atop the hill behind her home, that abutted St. Francis’s Cemetery (sorry I outed us bud, but the statute of limitations is up on that crime. in addition, we never did any real damage to her vehicle.)
It is also known that for a time in our very young years, she used to babysit for my best friend’s parents. It is alleged that she would bring a small supply of her favorite drink with her when she came to call. Apparently, she was a St. Pauli Girl-Girl.
I like to think of her sitting on the couch of my best friend’s home, slinging back bottles of St. Pauli Girl Suds, and holding down the fort with kids abed.
In school, it was a different tale. Ms. Mary Campbell was the Queen of her domain. By the time you got to her seventh grade class, you had already had six years of her gym class.
Given once a week. It entailed going to your class coat room, and changing into your sneakers, then lining up outside your classroom and waiting for Ms. Mary Campbell to come to escort you to the annex building that abutted St. Francis de Sales. Depending on your grade, you would have to traipse downstairs or through huge silver metal doors in order to get out the side entrance of the school and into the annex.
We would be brought into this structure, and asked to play a variety of sports, and physical activities, on a dirty white tiled floor, with yellow taped put down to mimic any of the many courts that one would play on. These yellow lines would constitute the start and stop points of many activities.
Two of the more memorable activities involved relay races and volleyball.
For relay races, we would divide our class by two and stand behind the yellow line that was closet to the Boston Skyline as seen in the picture above. We would line up on either side of Ms. Mary Campbell as she would say: “on your mark! get set! GOOOOO!”
We would have to race to the other side of the annex, towards Bunker Hill Street, and we would have to touch an old vintage Frigidaire and then race back to the line.
On occasion we would have to do relay wheel barrow races. The added bonus: we had to race up to the fridge and back, and it only counted if the wheel barrow person touched Ms. Mary Campbell’s smelly penny loafer or boat shoe.
Volleyball was another activity through which we were berated for our ignorance for the finer points of the sport. Most if not all of us came to the sport without any knowledge of its inner workings. Well, in short, she thought we all came to her with a working understanding. After many failed attempts to choreograph the proper rotation of players, we eventually got it.
Again, I think that many reading this piece will understand the exclamation:
After every volley and point scored, she would shout this to the group, expecting perfection.
Now, don’t be mistaken, despite outward appearances, in this sport, she was a player/coach, and she participated. She jonesed for the opportunity to get involved in these matches. I have vivid memories of her protecting the net and jumping up to protect a tapped ball from coming over to her side, exposing her pasty beer belly and on occasion the underside of bra cups. We all snickered and giggled, but when the game was on the line, it was on the line, and she was ready to throw down.
On occasion, we would mix classes 8th and 5th grade, and so on and so forth. There was a great rivalry in these activities, but also it served for opportunities for us younger kids to take the lead from our slightly older peers in how to deal with Ms. Mary Campbell. Well, one time, a kid name Brian Howell, known for his comedic talents, and wise-cracking abilities, was given the ball to serve. Well he took a longer than normal time to prepare his serve, so much so that Ms. Campbell grew impatient enough to take the Lord’s name in vain, and told him to “Just serve the Goddamned ball!”
Well, he smirked and did just that. With all of his might, he teed it up and served the ball. It went over the net in a flash of fire and dipped squarely into the face of Ms. Mary Campbell.
I cannot express the level of satisfaction this bestowed upon all but one in that building that day. I can still hear the sound of his hand hitting the ball, and the sound of the leather ball coming to crash upon Ms. Mary Campbell’s face.
It sounded like a pizza dough being handled wildly and then slapped against the torso of an adult walrus.
She was a tough old broad, and despite the disorientation, she walked it off. Class ended, and whispers about Brian Howell’s errant/purposeful served circulated for weeks.
For those of us there that day, it was majestic, magical, and memorable.
Four notable things from being under her direct care and supervision for the entirety of my seventh grade experience in 1987: she was an unapologetic muzz, she enjoyed embarrassing people in front of the class, she used class time to satisfy her want of leisure, and she made a great mistake of underestimating our class resolve.
Unapologetic Muzz -we had a morning break, and a lunch, during these times, if we didn’t have a lunch mother to monitor our class, Ms. Mary Campbell would shuffle around the class and take food taxes from us. If we had a bag of chips, she would insist upon sticking her sausage fingers into the bags to collect her share. Mind you, unwashed hands. For me, it was beyond reproach, as I didn’t like to share snacks. She would always find me, and if I couldn’t get through my bag of Dipsy Doodles quickly enough, she would fist the bag and pull out the corn, shaking off excess back into the bag, of course. Then she would hold the claimed chips above her tipped head and let them fall into her mouth. She was never satiated. Always on the prowl for more snacks.
Enjoyed embarrassing people in front of the class -being a very large woman, she sat behind a very large desk. She would invite us up to her desk to correct our work. It was very public, and she offered her criticism loud enough for all to hear. When called you would bring your papers and books up to her. You would have to stand on the stage, while she pulled the little shelf out of her desk to correct the work upon, and she would lick her fingers between each page turn and finish with a flourish of her red pen. Also, if the class was reading an assignment, and she determine that you weren’t paying attention, she would call on you to continue reading. Naturally, she knew you didn’t know where we were in the reading, but she liked to see you squirm. She would admonish you by saying something like, “Wake up, Hickey! You’re in Never-never Land”
Used class time to satisfy her want of leisure -during the later parts of the day, we had a study hall, but it was really an excuse to keep us occupied, while she selected a few students to play Scrabble with her. Our classroom was set up in clusters of four, so she would commandeer one of the clusters and choose four students to play. She usually chose one of my best friends, Kenny, to play, and whoever else was not on her shit list. Ultimately, she would Donald Trump her way to victory through lying, making up words, and outright bullying. Any time she was called out on her shenanigans, she would get dismissive and petulant. I remember one time, and one time only, when Kenny called her out on a word not being a word, and he was right. Her concession came, but I do remember her being a bit colder to Kenny after that.
Made the great mistake of underestimating our class resolve -at year-end she made a great theatrical showing of how she had our science final in her hands, and that it was ready to be passed out the following day, and that there was nothing we could do about it, but study hard. She taunted us with the answer key. Literally rubbed it in our faces. She then proceeded to rip up said test and answer key in the most dramatic fashion deposit it into the waste paper basket beside her very large desk, and for effect, wiped her hands together multiple times to show her work was done. Enter scene: Brian Santos. It was his turn to take the discarded trash to the lavatory trash barrels in the basement. I don’t know how we all sort of figured it out, but there was several looks and nods and somehow, as she sat there smug, Brian took the trash to the lavatory, and several of us decided we had to go the bathroom. Somehow, it escaped her satisfied mind. Hubris is great, isn’t it? We would never dare, would we? Well, we convened in the bathroom, ripped open the bag, and retrieved the test and answer key. Our pockets were full, our plans fuller, in truth the hardest part of the whole thing was convincing everyone not to score 100% on the test, that we all had to score within our means, so to speak. I think I got 1 or 2 wrong, hey, I along with Brian took the greatest risk. Happy to say, we all passed that test. The best fuck you we could deliver to her, for such bold pageantry.
The past is the past, but is it? I often wonder how events and instances that occurred in those times, directly came to bear on decisions I’ve made in my lifetime.
This woman contributed, for certain. For better or worse.
Years in School-8
Years with Ms. Mary Campbell as gym teacher: 8
Years with Ms. Mary Campbell as direct teacher: 1 (7th grade)
Years with Ms. Mary Campbell as a part-time teacher: 1 (8th grade)
Times she made me cry: 0
Times she made others cry: 6 or more
Times the she made me uncomfortable: infinite
Times she yelled: infinite
Times she used passive aggressive remarks to discipline: infinite
Times she rolled her eyes, or used excessive dramatic gestures to make her point: infinite
I think you get the picture.
I’m willing to bet a great many people who I know reading this post, would be willing to admit that they fit into any of the categories above, and witnessed firsthand the behaviors alluded to.
Here’s my take:
Despite, the methods, and delivery, I think Ms. Mary Campbell made a lot of us stronger people for having known her, and for having been subjected to her behavioral whims.
She taught us the valuable lesson, that the world does possess people who are hard to get along with, sustain, and not everyone is going to blow sunshine up your ass.
Yes, I think there was that, but I think she operated from a very human perspective, and definitely tried her best to do what she thought was right. After all, she was an educator, and she did spend time with us in preparation for our futures.
There are those of us that liked to shit on her while we were there, and probably those of us that have a hard time forgiving her humanity, but I suggest that in embracing the Ms. Mary Campbell’s of our world for their imperfections is a path to compassion that is much-needed in order to coexist with our fellow travelers to the grave.
She prepared us for that.
“Is it as clear as mud?”
The truth is…
I don’t really know, even after all this time.
Smile and spread smiles
To bring out the best in you ...