If you attended grade school in the ‘60s, there were few things more important than numbers.
It started with math — addition, subtraction, division and multiplication. Your age defined you. If you were just 7, it meant you were close to 8 — and 9 wasn’t too far away. Everyone had favorite numbers and mine was 7.
It was more than just numbers. It was a time of precision, clarity, accuracy. And if you were attending a Catholic grade school, with instructors named Sister Monica or Sister Judith, then your moral palette had only two colors and neither was gray. The Apostles were 12, the Commandments 10, the world was created in seven and our sins were two — mortal and venial. Lent was 40 days and Advent was four Sundays. It was a numeric, precise, clear cut, exact way of living your life. Trains ran on time and so did network TV.
(See, for instance, theHeidi game
, in November 1968, where NBC broke away from the Jets hanging onto a slim lead over the Raiders to show the made-for-TV film ‘Heidi’ at 6 p.m. The Raiders rallied to win in a controversial finish, but the entire universe was left to watch yodeling.)
And when it came time for confession, precision was at a premium. And if that confession was your first, as mine was some 46 years ago, then you needed numbers. Fighting with your brother was not prone to “sometimes” or “what do you mean by fighting? I mean, sometimes we yell but no one got slugged.” No boy taught by the Dominicans ever said, “I lied to my parents from time to time, but I really can’t pin it down exactly. So let’s move on to cussing, which is kind of vague to me, too.”
God knew and he had a calculator. Cough up a number, pal, and hurry because six classmates are waiting behind you and one is getting light-headed and another is about to have an accident.
Reducing sins to numbers showed appropriate reflection and prayer — and the reality that all boys were repeat offenders. Who could argue?
Well me, I suppose. You see, Microsoft’s Excel spreadsheet came 30 years too late. With two pesky brothers, two sisters, a grade school with lots of rules and a Dominican convent across the street, I had many temptations. And that was before my older sister started dancing around the house singing, “Can’t get no satisfaction.” It was hard keeping track, and if you guessed and were wrong, well, back to the end of the line, buddy.
In 1968, I sinned a lot. My kid brother Marty told me that. He was, as the expression goes, a travel agent for guilt trips. But how many times?
So naturally this led to guidance from the most saintly person I knew: Mom.
“I don’t know the numbers of my sins,” I told her.
“It’s OK, just do the best you can.”
“But someone said I lied 10 times.”
“Marty needs to mind his own business,” she remarked about something, worth adding, that was not possible.
“If Marty sinned can I include that in my confession?”
“No,” she said. “His turn is next year.”
And when the day arrived, I have a distinct memory of waiting to enter the confessional. But once it was my turn, things get hazy. I probably began with “forgive me, I have sinned” and tossed out the default list: fighting with my brothers, yelling at my sisters, swallowing my gum, littering, pulling Pam Brown’s ponytail at recess and a few others from the stock list.
Satan was at my doorstep, no question. One thing I do remember very clearly: Marty got clipped by the bus in my recitation of transgressions. Hesinned all the time.