I often think about how much Catholic school bled into my life especially since I send my kids there, which really punctuates how much how much of those years formed so much of what I think and who I am, on both on a spiritual and indelible, impressionistic level. For those of you who attended Catholic schools. (I went through college), you can relate to the mint or vanilla covered cinder blocks that were the cornerstone of your brick home away from home.
UNIFORMS: Let’s talk plaid. Though very much a fashion statement now, plaid is still the fashion trend of every Catholic teaching institution. It has such an alluring come on that some public schools have adapted the concept as well. It could be tartan plaid with green over and undertones. Grey plaid with red threading. Heavy red with green, or many combinations. Either way, it was a symbol, much like an orange jumpsuit is today. “I am in prison. “ I go to Catholic school.” Not that I equate prison with Catholic school, but the similarity that everyone is equal, and fashion individuality is not allowed in these hallowed halls is evident. I remember my “jumper” in St. Margaret’s, which really could not accommodate my growing boobs, really, but first grade or eighth grade, we all wore the same. The first graders just looked like shrunken version of the eighth graders, with no boobs. I remember my side pocket housed dirty tissues, Halls cough drops, and maybe a pencil. I had these synthetically woven navy blue socks that I used to flick the elastic on my calif for entertainment in seventh grade social studies. I used to watch the dust and dry skin particles exfoliate and fly into the atmosphere. Good times. Our gym uniform was not a uniform. Unlike the sweats and logo paraphernalia of today, we separated into gender appropriate classrooms, and learned how to change our white Peter Pan collared blouses into our chosen gym shirt, using a contortionist movement similar to a Cirque De Soleil trapeze artist, so no one could see your bra. We put our pants on underneath our jumper, took that off and headed to Dodge Ball Mania.
As a parent, I understand now that uniforms are important. Not only for laundry purposes, but in pulling students down to a level playing field. “The clothes make the man,” but not in a Catholic school. They make us equal. Nothing to show off or promote envy. And with five of my eight children being girls, well, need I say more?
OOOOO…THAT SMELL. I’m not sure if it’s just me, but every Catholic school I have been in just smells the same: “Eau d’Rosary.” They say that smell is one of the strongest memories, both bad and fragrant that remain with you from baby to senior citizen. I’m not sure if it’s a combination of 1960 plaster, paint, or the cedar chips they throw on third grade vomit, but it never, ever changes. I visited my grammar school not that long ago, and just the first whiff when I walked in the door brought me back to Sr. T’s first grade classroom. As I perused the hallways, the emanation of the aroma of glossed over paint chips, just brought me back. And the gym always seemed to smell like flan. It must be the same generic hardwood gloss provided by the Archdiocese, because it’s in every Catholic school gym I’ve been in. Our cafeteria was also used for Sunday Mass back then, so in the middle of the cafeteria barracks, (Our lunches then were massive and similar to an army mess hall) was an altar…right..an altar. There was no sacristy or host present, but the combination of extinguished candle, frankincense (especially during Holy Week), peanut butter and jelly with a dash of bologna on Wonder Bread has cemented in my brain. Only occasionally on pizza day, and I could swear Fr. McKenna showed up with a thurible that housed a powdered version of burnt pizza crust, was there a change in cafeteria redolence to promote the next “Pizza Day: 2 slices and a can of Jamaica Cola for a dollar on the cheapest paper plate you can find east of Bethlehem.” Imagine 200 kids at one time drinking cartons of WHOLE milk, then chucking them in massive garbage pails. That was the dessert smell before we headed out on the “blacktop.”
TAKE ME TO HEAVEN: This is the title of one of the first tracks in the musical “SISTER ACT,” but, trust me, from 1974-1981, none of the nuns I had were singing. I think they were so confined in their habits with attachable headpiece that they got nodes on their vocal chords. They could yell, though. I was taught by Dominican nuns, and my aunt was an educator, principal and Franciscan nun, but their get-ups were different. My sisters were still donning penguin-like hues, and if you put them in a line up with their backs turned, well, literally, sorry sister, you are all going down. They seemed ageless…like Sister A.L. She taught third grade, and was actually very sweet with one of those wobbly nun singing voices three octaves above her actual key which sounded like she was crooning while riding a locomotive. She looked like she was about 106, but in retrospect, she was about 50. Sister A. taught the other first grade and was hip rebel of the group…no headgear…just the billowing white polyester a line habit.
She seemed really young to me then, but she could have been 73 for all I know. Unfortunately, having heard my principal, Sr. Anne Connolly just passed away, whom I loved, I realized our sisters must have been waaaay younger than originally predicted in seventh grade. I will say this, they had a devotion to our Lord that remained in me since I was six, and a devotion to Our Blessed Mother, drilling in the Mysteries of the Rosary into our little noggins like one of today’s rap ballads, with a monotonous cadence that sounded like we were marching into battle. But, it was this monotonous cadence that stuck with me my whole life and is glued to my soul as the anthem and gold standard for any Catholic prayer. When in doubt: Always pray the Rosary. And try not to have nightmares about the first sorrowful mystery: The Agony in the Garden.
NO FREE LUNCH…LIKE EVER. My kids have it so easy…the luxury of “ordering in” …in school…Catholic school. We have several lunch options and programs available for even the pickiest eaters, and yes, all with the swipe of Mommy’s credit card. I asked my second grader, Camilla, “What did Federica order you for lunch today?” She just looked at me with those huge brown eyes, with a matter of fact, Mom you are really dumb, look “the special.” The special. The special? Do you know what the “special” was in St. Margarets’s in 1976? Whatever my mother could negotiate shoving into a black Bamberger’s bag with a very neatly sliced orange. I wasn’t allowed crap like Wonder Bread and peanut butter and jelly from my very classy Italian born mother. But, that seemed to be the uniform lunch, just like the plaid uniform to match. Kids had uniform brown bags pulled from the 100 count multipack at Shop Rite …or then, Grand Union or Finast. They would have an old pill bottle filled to the brim with Nestle Quick powder to add to their uniform white milk. I used to drool at the processed foods, especially the bologna sandwiches, when I had a meatball from Sunday on Branola bread or “tonno in olio” on wheat. But no matter what you ate, it seemed to be an uninflected sundry of lunch options prepared by weary Catholic school moms who packed lunch the night before.
A DECORATOR’S WORST NIGHTMARE. I can recall my first grade classroom as clearly as my present bedroom. I think that’s because from first to eighth grade everything looked the same, except larger as the years went on to accommodate larger butts, legs and whatever else grew on you in eight years. Every classroom was equipped with the big wooden crucifix at center stage, with the copper plated Jesus hanging in the middle. The Lord is watching. At every angle…he is there. The Blessed Mother was usually perched on a plainly painted white pedestal to assist her son, and you with day to day tribulations. Her arms were open and giving, with never a sour look. This is why to this day, she is my surrogate mom. Today, it’s a very spiritual, warm concept. Then, it was like “Oh shit,” I better not cheat on this spelling test. There was bulletin board molding that decorated the upper edge of the wall, equipped with thumb tacks to hang up cardboard decorations announcing the seasons. Sometimes if you scored a 100 on a test, that might go up there too, heralding your elementary brilliance. But, that was the end of the glitz, or personality, if you could even call it that. Every room was the same…mint green or vanilla walls, institutional like desks made of probably very toxic metal, with the paint peeling from the book pocket from overuse. There was a very handy pencil holder carved right into the top of the formica topped faux wood finish…for modern convenience. There was a girl in my class who wrote in her notebooks and on her tests with the force of a jackhammer penetrating macadam. She would make holes in anything she could. She found her talent so compelling that she carved S-H-I-T into a fifth grade desk, and of course every kid prayed that would be their assigned seat. The teacher’s desk was a simple block of wood with four legs, and a block of wood called a chair to match, with a skinny cushion for comfort. I mean like how “blah.
SO WHY NOW? Anyone who attended Catholic grammar school can relate to even a modicum of my memories which is exactly why I send my kids to Catholic school…even Catholic college now. I consider most kids who can afford any private education at all, to be quite privileged. This generation as a whole is very privileged and the competition on the best highlight and Instagram posts alone is quite riveting and actually distressing as a parent. So , for the six hours of your learning life, stay simple. Stay equal. Stay fair. We start an end our day with a prayer to the Lord, and I know they are receiving Christ at every moment in those six hours when I’m not beating it into their head. Everyone is God’s masterpiece, and a parent’s masterpiece whether you are an honor student or struggling to stay afloat. Catholic school brings soon to be, burgeoning, judgmental adults to an even playing field, where we hope they see each other for what they are as friends and people before they graduate. The Kumbaya concept and hand holding doesn’t have to be so dramatic. You can’t connect with everyone. You don’t have to like them, but you have to love them as a creature of God.
This is a pretty tough concept when kids are innately cruel. Not that they won’t be cruel or taunting when they get home to their sibling,or make fun of the worst batter on their little league team or the chubby kid who wears a shirt boasting, “Eating pizza is my cardio,” but at least we can give them less to taunt about. We may lack the modern glitz of other educational facilities…but Jesus wasn’t exactly a flamboyant individual. He was as simple as a tunic woven from top to bottom in one piece, and handmade leather sandals. His message was not judgmental, critical, mean, boastful or self-serving. It was about the challenge of accepting one another for the imperfect beings we are, and remembering we were all created in the same image…that’s why we all wore plaid.