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Rules Rule

Vestiges of a parochial education

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Rules and I have a weird relationship. Sometimes I have this automatic flipping-off response to them, yet in other circumstances I'm a dutiful follower. Recently I found myself surrounded by hundreds of people way younger than I am, praying to at least escape a mob stoning for sticking out so much, when one of them practically taunted me to break the rules. Here was the question: where did I stand?

I suspect my schizoid rules attitude took shape during the 10-year sentence I served in the parochial school system. Now this was the real, penitentiary deal up in Philly, not the "ultra-lite" version they have here in the South. We were mostly taught by priests and penguins (our un-affectionate nickname for nuns) who stalked the halls in creepy total black, instead of lay people who tend to be more laidback because at least they're getting laid.

Our uniforms, the ones for the girls, anyway, were flat-out ugly, unlike the fairly normal outfits the kids sport at Catholic schools around here. It was an obvious conspiracy to make us girls look hideous -- how else can you explain the fact that we had to wear saddle shoes, which the boys did not? Not only are they blazingly unattractive in that harsh, black-on-white way, they're heavy and rigid, like cement booties. Forcing adolescents to wear embarrassing shoes is one of the cruelest punishments you can inflict upon them, yet our crime was unclear. It was like we were being made to suffer in advance for any potential transgressions.

Rules begat rules in that school lockup until a tipping point was reached and everything slid over into a kind of black-robed theater of the absurd. Most of it struck me as an endless cascade of bullshit, setting me up to be suspicious of anything presented as a "must-do" because I'd been pummeled by so many of them that were divorced from reason. Then I transferred from Catholic Incarceration High to a Quaker school which was such a cushy epicenter of permissiveness I nearly got the bends.

I probably drew the first deep breath of my life when I was finally sprung from the rat-maze corridors of parochial school where the psychological equivalent of an electric shock awaited any infraction of the numberless rules. Yet I noticed that a certain irritating inefficiency went along with the free-floating atmosphere of my new school, whereas the nuns ran things like a Swiss train station.

The programming I was subject to must have worked, because when it comes to organizing or executing anything, I now tend to be a stickler for sticking to the rules. There's rules for rules' sake, and then there's rules that are right, as I was reminded in that youthful crowd.

So there I was standing out like a sore thumb in line for tickets to an event at the Merchandise Mart that turned out to be quite a scene. We were two hours early, and apparently the people who show up way ahead of time for these things are the very young and strong of leg, because nobody when we first got there looked over 21.

People were staring at me with distrustful expressions, like they suspected I was a spy planted by their mothers or the law. Whenever you're in the minority, your first instinct is to try to at least be accepted. You can sense it in your skin whether the group is for or against you.

The guy in front of us with a pierced tongue and cryptic tattoos struck up a conversation and I relaxed a little. I was starting to feel, if not exactly one with everybody, at least not quite such an oddball, when somebody tapped me on the arm. It was this ultra-cool dude in a black T-shirt with a symbol on it instead of words, and he wanted to know if I'd let him cut in front of us for 20 bucks. We were in the second of three lines, and I could feel people on all sides waiting to hear my answer.

Now half of me thought any one of these cool kids would probably take the money and let him cut in line, and that if I wanted to seem hip, I should do the same. The other half of me, the parochial-school-student part, reared up and yelled, "No Way! That'd be breaking the rules!"

The schoolgirl in saddle shoes won, so I told him no. He wheedled, and, flushing, I still said no. To my surprise the guy behind us also answered with a resounding "No!" when he asked him. One girl in front claimed she'd have "gotten ugly" if he'd asked her.

My confidence was boosted. I'd become one with my crowd by the unlikely route of following the rules. I turned to the hulking fellow behind me and declared, "He picked the wrong people to ask!"

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