As a litmus test for the aged, someone on Facebook recently posted a picture of a street lamp with its light glowing and asked what that meant to a kid growing up in New Orleans in the 1960s.
Of course, cracking the code was easy.
In those enlightened times in New Orleans when street lights actually worked, that glow in the gloaming of an August evening was a message from the Housewives of Hathaway Place: It was time for the kids to stop playing “kick the can” and come home.
Hathaway Place is a horseshoe street in Gentilly just off DeSaix Boulevard, and in those days, it was crawling with kids. There were six Finneys, nine Chalmerses, five Sabrios, four Davises, three Fabregases, two Meeks, two Cousinses, two Rapps and two Renshaws.
Except for the Renshaws, who weren’t Catholic, just about everyone attended St. Leo the Great School. We actually didn’t hold that against the Renshaws because they qualified for full club membership by virtue of setting up the neighborhood ping pong table in their driveway.
Everyone in the Hathaway crew already had eaten dinner, but those two hours of street play after supper were a social laboratory in kids teaching kids how to make the rules of the game, adjudicate disputes, wipe blood off skinned knees, practice ethical guile and boost teamwork.
In other words, a slice of heaven.
No one would have dreamed of spending those two hours inside watching TV. After all, there were just four channels — if you counted WYES and “The Lawrence Welk Show” — and the only TikTok was the silent clock in your head that told you it was exactly the right time to clamber down the huge magnolia in the Davises’ yard and, while the protector of the can was preoccupied, kick the can down the asphalt.
The new school year didn’t start until around Labor Day, which meant “summer” lasted a full three months.
And yes, we did walk ourselves to school and back most days — imagine that — but not in the snow. The most challenging part of that five-block walk was the St. Bernard Avenue-Gentilly Boulevard traffic circle, an ingenious design that somehow allowed three heavily traveled streets to converge into a Busby Berkeley chorus line without causing an explosion.
The St. Bernard traffic circle has another cherished place in family lore: It’s where one of my sisters first met her future husband. She was crossing the street, probably reading a book, while a distinguished crossing guard in khakis, three years older, held a red flag to keep the cars at bay.
Can you imagine what the insurance actuaries would say today about a sixth grader stopping cars in the middle of the craziest intersection in New Orleans with a stick of wood and a handkerchief?
With yet another new school year upon us, memories of my Catholic school upbringing continue to flash:
— The entire school attending the 8 a.m. daily Mass celebrated by Msgr. James Gillespie. It was either in Latin or in Irish.
— Dominican Sister Mary Edmund Gibson, our principal, utilizing a classic nun’s technique of crowd control, picking the straightest of the 16 class lines outside the cafeteria to have the privilege of filing in first for lunch.
— The good news from the Underground Gourmet: Shepherd’s pie, a platonic dish worth far beyond 15 cents.
— The bad: Pickled, red beets, which only recently have been allowed to pass aging lips that were traumatized on so many “Beet Wednesdays.”
— The “freeze bell” at recess, when students turned themselves into pillars of salt, giddily freezing and remaining silent in mid-stride. Those nuns were so smart.
— Reciting the Rosary immediately after “big recess” and having your soaked shirt stick to the back of your chair.
— Helping a struggling classmate with homework.
— Seeing one of our older, “holdover” classmates pull up to the Abundance Street bike rack on his motorcycle.
The street named “Abundance” defined St. Leo the Great School back then and still fits Catholic education today. Parents who sacrifice to send their children to Catholic school are practicing divine abundance, giving even when the giving hurts because there is a child at stake. Their child.
As students this year charge their iPads the night before class and prepare to collaborate once again on their Google sheets and 3-D printers, the miracle of Catholic education goes far beyond academics. It resides in students growing in wisdom and knowledge so that they can draw closer to the source of all knowledge.
Catholic schools have kicked that can down the road for decades, and for those multi-generational blessings, we can be thankful for such a joyful, rattling noise.