I stumbled across this nostalgic look back on my Catholic school experience on my hard drive. I vaguely recall having published it online (in 2010?), but I forget where. At the time I wrote it I was angry about some of the rhetoric directed against alternatives to the current public school system like vouchers, school choice or charter schools. As a result the depiction of my Catholic school experience is too rosy; had I been more honest I would have included the janitor boozing it up in the boiler room and the Darwinian attitudes towards bullying. Still, it brings back some fun memories of my elementary school and I hope it might do the same for you.
A Catholic Education.
There is a good reason for mandating universal primary school education: basic skills you do not learn before the age of twelve you will never learn, and you will be handicapped for life. I am living proof. In 1985 I started first grade at Our Lady of Jasna Gora Elementary, a parochial school in an old Massachusetts mill town, and would study there for six years. Since it was built in the 1930s, this brick and granite rectangular block has introduced generations of small children to the wonders of reading, writing and arithmetic. At Jasna Gora I learned reading pretty well, but not spelling, and have long since given up trying to write without a spellchecker. In math class I never bothered to get my times tables down, figuring I could get by on luck and quick finger counting, so to this day I hesitate in that fuzzy zone between 6 x 7 and 8 x 9. Other basic skills I wish I had acquired are: how to put a spiral on a football, how to be popular with classmates, and how not to become a gibbering idiot in the presence of girls. Alas, Jasna Gora offered no classes in these subjects.
Beyond these basics, everything else we learned in class seems to have been useless. I have searched my memory for history, literature, or science learned in those years, and in spite all the “fun facts”, written assignments, and pop quizzes, I can only recall three things, and these may or may not be true:
Every morning in Moscow, old ladies scrub Red Square clean.
The Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay colony let their teenagers engage in a mysterious practice called “bundling” from which pregnancy could sometimes result.
George Washington’s teeth were made not of wood, but of ivory.
You can pick up an education just as good, and for free, in any non-urban public school outside of the State of California, but my parents saw fit to shell out a grand a year for me to go to Jasna Gora, because there are things you learn in Catholic school that you cannot get in public school.
At Jasna Gora I learned my prayers, and sometimes still use them. Every morning we recited all four: the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Glory Be, and the Pledge of Allegiance. Until third grade I thought “Lead us not into temptation” was “Lead us, snot, into temptation.” I took it to mean that before God, we are but snot, and deserve all the temptation we get. Years later I was surprised to meet another graduate of Jasna Gora who had believed exactly the same thing about the sixth petition of the Lord’s Prayer. God ignored my prayer, never leading me into the temptation I was so fervently requesting. I was grateful however that my trespasses were forgiven every morning, since trespassing on my neighbor’s property to poach fish from his pond and steal his apples was my favorite pastime.
Thanks to Catholic school uniforms I never learned how to judge people by the way they dress. I never knew who was rich or who was poor; boys wore sky blue shirts and navy blue pants, girls wore short plaid skirts, and that was all there was to it. I was fascinated by the girls’ legs for two reasons: first of all because they were girls’ legs. Second, because they showed that in spite of the profound psychological and emotional differences between the sexes, little girls are just as physically tough as little boys. There were no playgrounds or athletic fields at Jasna Gora, just cracked and uneven asphalt to play on. When I got tackled during a game of Smear the Queer, at least I had a layer of corduroy between my knees and the blacktop. If a girl fell playing Red Rover, it was on bare legs. She would just pick the grit out of her kneecaps, wipe away the trickle of blood before it stained her frilly socks and saddle shoes, and get back to the game – on a wind-bitten November morning.
On first Fridays we would march up the hill to Our Lady of Jasna Gora Catholic Church, by classes during the day for confession with Fr. Joe Shwarch, and then the whole school together during last period for Mass. From the outside, the church was a modernistic interpretation of the shrine of Jasna Gora in Poland, also known as Częstochowa, the fortress monastery guarding the icon of the Black Madonna. It was still a Polish neighborhood and many of the kids at school had last names that were unpronounceable jumbles of consonants ending in “-ski”. To most people the modern interior of the church was fantastically ugly, but since it had lots of stained glass, we kids thought it beautiful. It had a towering, cross-shaped window in the back that would turn the whole interior Mary-blue when the afternoon sun passed behind it. Jasna Gora means Luminous Hill in Polish.
Every Friday in Lent we prayed the Stations of the Cross in that church. We had little booklets with colored pictures of Jesus’ suffering on one side, and pictures of ordinary people on the other. On the left, Veronica offers Jesus her veil, while on the right a boy comforts a crying girl. Jesus falls under his cross, a little boy falls off his bike, both skinning their knees. Fr. Joe would lead us in meditation on the Stations as the church filled with the supernatural blue light, a visible sign of the pleasure God took in our piety.
Despite their best efforts, seven-year-olds do not have much to confess. Many kids just made stuff up, but I was determined not to start down that rout. Sooner or later you would have to confess that you had lied in confession; how then could Fr. Joe believe anything you say? In my first confession the only sin I could come up with was Taking The Lord’s Name In Vain back when I was five or six, having been charmed by Michael J. Fox’s way taking of it in Back to the Future. I learned it was a sin when mom slapped me around the kitchen table. I was glad to get the whole thing off my chest and put the affair definitively behind me. By the time I was eleven my sins had improved both in quality and in quantity, but the fun of sinning was already wearing off. Confession became less an exercise in long term memory than a chance to let the mask fall and present your real self, warts and all, to God for forgiveness.
Our Lady of Jasna Gora Elementary School, drowning in debt, shut down last year, dragging the Parish with it. It was not for lack of fiscal discipline. In my years at Jasna Gora I doubt there were more than eight full time employees, all teachers except for the principal and school secretary. A few other positions were rounded out by part-timers and volunteers, serving about 120 kids. Those doughty New England ladies certainly could have been making more money somewhere else, and in less Spartan conditions. But reality caught up with Jasna Gora just as it has with the rest of middle class private education in America. Noble intentions cannot compete with free, and education costs continue to rise. The rich and powerful will always be able to send their kids to private schools while they systematically deny vouchers to poorer parents because, as we know, it would overturn the very Constitutional Order Of America if a goddamn red cent of public money were to find its way into the budget of a religious school.
For all the horror stories about public schools, outside of the cities most of them do manage to teach the three R’s and the true nature of Washington’s teeth. Also, in praising the wonders of Catholic education, we sometimes forget that Catholic schools have a much easier time expelling chronic underachievers than do public schools. But all that does not cancel out the contribution of places like Our Lady of Jasna Gora Elementary School, where learning, community, authority, worship, America, friends, enemies, the blood on your knees, the secret thoughts of your heart, the very passage of the sun in the sky, all flowed into a dialogue of give and take with a higher power who held you accountable, but who never left you alone in the struggle. With the collapse of the Catholic school system, our society may or may not be risking its grasp on grammar and basic math. What we stand to lose are people with a cultural vision strong enough to support a life project, come the crises that may.