It’s that time again: Catholic Schools Week. Since everyone is used to hearing about the Catholic School of the 1950’s and 1960’s, I thought it might be fun to share memories of my own Catholic education: the Gen X version. If you think it’s all scarred knuckles, mean nuns and resentment toward the whole institution, then read on; you may be surprised.
Besides learning impeccable penmanship and how to diagram any given sentence, I had some interesting religion classes. It surely was not all Bible study, Church history and sacrament preparation. As we got older, our conversations centered around relationships and ethics. My senior year was spent doing Christian service, which meant tutoring kids at the elementary school.
One of my fondest memories was when Father Jerry would come visit for middle school religion class. He wore Jesus sandals with socks all year round, and his sense of humor brought a unique entertainment value to his sermons. Instead of just preaching to us, he brought in Bible stories re-written by guys in prison. At the same time it was not uncommon to run into him walking out of the grocery store with diapers in hand for a young mother in need.
For all the flack that hot lunch takes nowadays, I have to admit that my hot lunch career at Catholic school was pretty darn good. There were exceptions of course. Tuna casserole. Shepherd’s Pie. And something called “Slow Boat to China”. However the best part was the homemade, buttery bread (or sometimes rolls) baked fresh daily. Oh what I would give to taste that bread again!
I clearly remember celebrating mass with Father Hogan every week in the K-3 building. We did not have a church nearby, so we celebrated on the second floor of the building. There was a huge rug in the middle of the floor, flanked by two classrooms on each side. Every grade hunkered down right there on the giant rug, and an altar was rolled out from the cloak room. Each week a class was in charge of planning the mass, so students would do readings, pick the songs, etc. At that age, we stuck to songs that we all memorized and shouted out with joy. Songs with titles like “Friends are like Flowers” and “His Banner Over Me, His Love.” There were always little actions which went with each song. I remember them to this day, especially one song which I’ll just call “I’ve got that joy joy joy joy down in my heart”. Our favorite verse was, “And if the devil doesn’t like it he can sit on a tack…OUCH!” As we said “Ouch!” our little butts would jump in the air with glee. (Yes, sometimes it got a little wild.)
Later, in the 4th and 5th grade building, we would do an annual May crowning. A fifth grade girl would be chosen by her classmates to be the May queen, and she’d have the honor of putting the bouquet of flowers on the statue of Mary. Everyone else would bring a silk flower and make a big canopy of flowers for her to walk through. Because of this, two of my favorite hymns are May crowning songs: “On This Day Oh Beautiful Mother” and “Queen of the May”.
In junior high it was all about the Stations of the Cross for me. Every year I wanted to read Station Six: Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus. I never got to; some other lucky girl always got it. Not that I’m bitter.
What would Catholic school be without a uniform? From first grade until fifth grade it was a little plaid jumper. Once I reached sixth grade it was the plaid uniform skirt. Only certain solid colors could be worn with the uniform: white, light blue, navy blue, or red. Being a little style maven, I lived for “dress up days” where I could wear my civilian clothes. In the meantime I did everything I could to be as “non-uniformy” as possible. Or at least as preppy as possible. I wrapped Swatch watches around my ponytail. I had monogrammed button down collars and sweaters from the JcPenney catalog. I even tried suspenders and knit ties (it was the 80’s, people). I once wore leggings until some anonymous tribunal decided that they were not acceptable. Scandalous.
Sex Education (Yes, you’re reading that correctly.)
Some people may be surprised to hear that we had sex ed class. In fifth grade we were told the basics (a real Ah Ha moment for me), but in eighth grade we had a full out sex education weekend. It included a priest and some married couples from the area. The best part was that at the end of each day we could all submit anonymous questions about absolutely anything for the panel of married couples to answer. Sure, you didn’t hear anything like “Wow, sex sure feels incredible!” but I bet we got more honest answers than a lot of kids do nowadays.
p.s. The weekend started with the priest naming off all of the slang words he knew for sex. Unfortunately, I was sitting next to the girl with the most infectious laugh known to mankind. Jessica, you know who you are.
Why do I tell these stories? Sure, they may be entertaining, and I would like more people to know what it was really like growing up in Catholic school, not what they hear on television or from music lyrics or from fictional books. However, I mostly tell these stories because I want to revive our Catholic Schools. Some of these same traditions and surely plenty new ones are happening every single day in these schools.
I often think of and pray for my own school which has been struggling to stay open for several years due to low enrollment. People say “it’s not like it used to be.” Well, of course it’s not; it’s hard to offer the same experiences to a high school of 50 kids as opposed to 500 kids in 1964, or even 150 kids in the 1980’s. It’s nice to see local alumni still contributing to the school. However, the best gift they could give would be sending their own kids to the school. Like other religious schools, no one is turned away if they cannot afford the tuition.
It’s Catholic Schools Week. Check it out.