Having attended another school in my old neighborhood for first and second grades, it
was my first year at the Catholic school in Southwest Philadelphia where I enrolled in the third
grade. My compass had already pointed toward my becoming an urban pirate and making a
movie about my adventures, with the radio, movies, comic books, and the TV as my mentors.
But it was the abuse at the hands of the clerics in the new school that drove me to become one, as
the BAGO Boy.
I wasn’t clear on some Christian doctrine and had lots of questions, but they went
unanswered, and I was often punished in class by the nuns, or worse, in the priests’ rectory, just
for asking. A typical example of this occurred on a Thursday before Easter.
All Fridays were good, the best day, because it was the last day of school, gateway to the
weekend. For me, it was an early “Thank God It’s Friday,” decades before T.G.I.F. was a “thing.”
Nuns at this school wore the full habits of their Polish American religious order, black
Muslim-like robes with a white inner hood and bib. Sister Olga, who I dubbed “Sister Ugly,” in
retaliation for her naming me “Little Heretic,” wore Ben Franklin glasses that magnified her
already bulging eyes. On that Thursday, Sister, standing at the front of the classroom, a black
teepee, solemnly raised her rubber-tipped pointer and said, “Class? Who can tell me what
Klara, the class kiss up, shot her hand up. “I know!” she said, proudly looking at the
surrounding students, self-righteously.
“Please tell the class, Klara,” Sister said, nodding approvingly.
Smiling smugly, she said, “Sister, tomorrow is Good Friday,” with a confident air.
“That’s correct, Klara. Thank you.” Sister Olga said, clacking out on the blackboard,
white dust flying, “GOOD FRIDAY.”
I agreed, but not for the same reasons. Sister explained. “On this day, Jesus Christ was
condemned to death by Pontius Pilate. He was forced to carry his cross,” she aimed her pointer
to a large crucifix on the wall above the blackboard, “through the streets of Jerusalem to Mount
Calvary, where he was crucified. Our Lord suffered and died for your sins!” She glowered,
raising her pointer, which I termed a “hit stick,” and swept it along over the heads of all the
students, third and fourth grades.
“When we do the stations of the cross, class, we commemorate Jesus’ last day on earth
as a man.” She grasped the metal rosary crucifix that hung from her belt. “And three days later,
Jesus rose from the dead.” Up went the hit stick, pointing at heaven. Glum faced, she said, “That,
boys and girls, is why we mourn on Good Friday,” she tilted her head, smiling, “and celebrate
the miracle of Easter.”
This was a problem for me. My hand went up and Sister reluctantly pointed at me. “Yes,
Mr. Bradley?” She said it with measured patience, frowning.
“What,” I asked, slipping my hands into my pockets, “is so good about Good Friday?”
Her eyes widened and mouth hung open a bit. “I mean, you said they beat up Jesus real bad and
then killed him. What’s good about that?”
Her face twisted into a pop-eyed snarl. I’d seen this look before and knew what was
coming. Sister, now red faced, her black gowns swishing, stormed down the aisle toward me,
waving her hit stick like a sword. The large rosary beads that hung from her belt clacked loudly;
her shoes drummed like a kettledrum on the wooden floor. Next to my desk, she pointed her stick
at my pants’ pocket. “Pockets! Out!” she yelled, in keeping with her policy that prohibited boys
from having their hands in their pockets for fear of inappropriate hand movements there. I
yanked my hand out defiantly. She leaned down, so close I could smell her breath.
“What–did–you–say?” She separated the words dramatically, lowering the stick to my butt.
What now? I couldn’t take back what I said. I’d have to go with it. “Well, why do you
call it good Friday?” I pointed to the crucifix on the wall, Jesus hanging pathetically. “That
doesn’t look very good to me!” The class broke out into laughter, and she slapped her stick down
on my desktop.
“Quiet!” she screamed, her voice cracking.
It goes downhill from there with her punctuating her words with whacks on my butt from
this point on. She told me, with weary anger and butt whacks, that God sent his only begotten
son down to suffer and die for my sins. I knew I had done nothing that awful and said so, earning
me more whacks as she screamed about “original sin.” I deepened the severity of the incident by
asking what somebody else’s sin had to do with me and was taken to the school principal who
sentenced me to the rectory for further “punishment.”
This is an example of the questions I asked and how things usually wound up without an
intellectually satisfying answer.
I began writing The BAGO Boy in 2016 as a childhood adventure story, Philly River Rats
-Young Urban Pirates, that included other exploits of my gang of Philadelphia pirates. As I
reflected on my life from about ten to thirteen years old, incidents emerged that shaped my life
and this story and are reported here. This is the story of how and why I became the BAGO Boy
and still am.