I heard a person talking the other day about their school days. Catholic school days to be precise. It was a mixed bag of pride and prejudice with sentences like, "Kids today! We would never have gotten away with talking like that to a nun," and then followed up with disparagence , "I had my hands rapped with a ruler every time I did anything. Those nuns were mean!" The latter seems to be the story often told by history as to what Catholic school was all about. Those who don't know any better have the definite perception that a lady in black stood there with a ruler constantly poised to rap knuckles at the slightest offense. As someone who went to Catholic school and obviously survived, I am here to tell you...the knuckle rapping nun may have existed but she was no more prevalent than the paddle carrying, swat loving public school principal. The only difference is....the wild eyed, mean to the core Catholic school nun always makes for a better story.
As a young child and we are talking very young, exactly four years old.....my parents started me to public school. Back then parents weren't so concerned about what benefited the child emotionally and more about what benefited the family. In our case, both my parents worked and since there wasn't the law that children had to be a certain age before starting kindergarten, it was easier to send me to school (1/2 day kindergarten back then) and only have to pay for a babysitter 1/2 day. The truth was, at four I was immature and a product of a home life that was less than stellar. In those years my parents broke up and got back together so many times, it seemed as if their marriage had a revolving door. I was a mess and it showed at school. My kindergarten year, my only friend was a little boy with cerebral palsy. Together he and I were the classroom outcasts. In fact Sammy, still to this day holds a very special place in my heart and in my memory.....so much so that I dedicated a blog to him a few years back. First grade was my biggest nightmare as I had a teacher who hated me. She spent the year using me as her personal verbal and physical punching bag and would delight in humiliating me in front of the rest of the class, not to mention swatting me with the ruler whenever I displeased her. My parents didn't have the money that the rest of the kids parents did....therefore she felt my well being was expendable. My second grade year may have been my saving grace as I had an older lady as a teacher who all the kids feared. From day one she showed me nothing but kindness and cared enough to scold my mother at a parent teacher conference telling her that I was too young to have been started to school at four and how much I had suffered ever since. My third grade year was a repeat of my first grade year. I was back to being made very aware that money was what was the difference between being treated well and being treated like the gum on the bottom of someones shoe. At that age, the kids will never give you a chance when the teacher doesn't!
It was the late 60's and public schools were in the midst of trying to end segregation. Regardless of what the history books tell us, it was a nightmare for whites and blacks a like. In the city I grew up in, probably like most, their was a definite black neighborhood that was located close to the midtown area. Just like the whites they had their neighborhood schools, stores, hardware stores, etc. Now the state was saying that their kids could no longer go to the schools in their neighborhood with the kids they had grown up with. Suddenly they were being bused miles away to all white schools and white kids were being bused miles away to all black schools. At the time I lived less than a block from my school and my parents got the letter from the district saying that my fourth grade year I would be going to a school in midtown that would require me to be on a bus for 2 hours one way. And so we moved a mile north and I was enrolled at St. Thomas Aquinas.
Apparently my mom had listened to my second grade teacher because when the principal at STA suggested I start their school as a third grader instead of a fourth grader, my parents didn't say a word. My third grade year (for the second time) proved to be one of the most tumultuous years for me personally and one of my best academically.
St. Thomas Aquinas was a fairly modern school by 60's/70's standards. At the time....it held kids from 1st through 8th grade with each grade at the time only having one class room. The school was a sprawling one story building and the church was in the basement. We had two priests, two nuns and the rest of the teachers were lay teachers (meaning not clergy). Every morning we would attend Mass and sit with our respective class before school. It was as mandatory as math or reading and if you couldn't attend for some reason, you had to have a note from your parent. Even back then I was a bit rebellious and one morning on my walk to school I drug my feet and dawdled. By the time I got to school Mass was well underway. Instead of just walking in late and sitting down, I decided to just hang out on the stairs outside the church. I apparently forgot that since we had two priests, if one was saying Mass....that meant I didn't know where the other one was. As I sat there day dreaming and secretly enjoying my little rebellious act (obviously consequences meant little to me then) I felt a tap on my shoulder. I nearly jumped out of my skin and then I almost died when I turned to find that the person tapping me on the shoulder was the other priest Father Allen. He didn't say a word to me, he just took me by the hand, walked me down the steps and into the church and walked me up to the front of the church and made me sit with him through the rest of Mass in the front pew. I was embarrassed and a little bit frightened as to what would happen now that the rebel in me had been squelched. As I recall....nothing happened other than Father walked me to class after Mass and said that he was sure that whatever made me late today would never make me late again. He was right.
What set Catholic school (or at least STA) apart from public school was obviously the religious based structure and going to daily Mass along with having a religion class as part of our curriculum....oh and yes we had nuns. We also had to wear uniforms. The thought behind this was that regardless of income or community stature, no one dressed any different than anyone else. The girls wore plaid sleeveless jumpers over white short sleeved Peter Pan collar shirts. We also wore knee high socks and the only fashion choices we had were our shoes (most of us wore saddle shoes) and how we wore our hair. The boys also had to dress a certain way although their clothes weren't quite as structured. If I remember correctly....they wore slacks and dress type shirts. The other thing that set STA apart from public school was their library reading material. Yes we had normal library reading but we also had literally shelves of books on saints. It was here that I learned both my love of reading and my love of saints. In my three years at STA I read every book on every saint and martyr I could find. It was also where I learned about nuns.
By the late 1960's Catholic schools were no longer prominently taught by nuns. In fact, nuns seemed to be a bit scarce. Wichita had its own convent Mt. St. Mary's, a beautiful place that housed most of the cities nuns as well as had a place that kept and took care of the aged and ailing nuns. The nuns were from the Sisters of St. Joseph and this is where STA's two nuns lived. If memory serves me, we had Sister Richard and Sister Ignitious. Sister Richard taught religion to the younger kids and Sister Ignitious taught it to the older kids. As I recall, Sister Richard got to prepare us for our first confession, first communion and also our Confirmation. Back then, Confirmation happened at 9 years of age instead of 14 or older.
Confirmation was important business as we were becoming "Soldiers of Christ" and there was nothing more important in our faith, unless of course you chose a life of service as a nun or priest. In preparation, Sister gave us a page of 100 questions that we must learn all the answers to. Daily in class, she would quiz us and as she asked the question we would have to stand by our desk and answer.
"Who made you?"
I would reply..."God made me."
"Why did He make you?"
"To know Him, love Him and serve Him."
And at home at night my mother quizzed me too. By Confirmation time, there wasn't a one of us that couldn't answer these questions in our sleep. During our Confirmation, the Bishop randomly chose kids and asked only a handful of the 100 questions we had learned. The answers were flawless and Sister beamed with each correct answer. I remembered being a bit bummed that I sat there in my beautiful white dress, my head full of all the answers and not once was I asked "Who made you?" The knowledge was not wasted though, for today if I was asked any of those questions I am sure that I could answer them without a second thought. Even better though....those questions gave me a much better understanding of Catholicism and what it means to be a Catholic, not to mention.....a soldier of Christ.
In fifth grade we transitioned from Sister Richard to Sister Ignitious. Quite honestly there is little I remember about Sister except that she was tall (taller than Sister Richard anyway), we prayed a decade of the rosary in her class everyday and she made rosaries. They were colorful rosaries made of plastic beads and she would sell them with all proceeds going to the convent. EVERYONE wanted one of Sisters rosaries and just last year I found that I still had one. I do remember that Sister very much had a servants heart and I think had a bit of a fundraisers soul. It was because of her that I got my one and only glimpse inside the gates of Mt. St. Mary. She invited us to the yearly craft show that the nuns had in order to make money for the convent. I remember it being quite lovely and it held a feeling of awe as I got a glimpse of what our Sisters did when they weren't teaching. If the array of tables were an indication, these women spent a lot of time crafting and baking, and these nuns were so happy to see each and every visitor that came up to visit with them. I still think of that day all those years ago whenever I happen to be in that part of town and drive by the huge gated convent, although I am sure both Sister Richard and Sister Ignitious have long left this world. God bless their souls.
My time at STA was much shorter than I would have liked. My parents, mired in their own issues finally stopped the revolving door of their relationship and.....got divorced. We moved and I left my beloved STA behind. It was the best and most influential time of my grade school years. Teachers, nuns and priests left positive and indelible marks on my life and even though miles and years divided the friendships I made during that time in my life, I am still proud to call some of those people friends today. In fact, not until we moved to Mulvane in my 7th grade year did I have teachers or friends like that again.
It makes me sad and sometimes even borderline angry when people bad mouth and undermine Catholic schools....especially back in the day. Did nuns discipline with rulers and were they tough? Yes. They believed in "Spare the rod and spoil the child," and like it or not....the kids that came from Catholic schools were often better educated and more prepared to face the world than public school kids. I can say this because I have seen both sides. And just so you know, neither Sister Richard nor Sister Ignitious ever laid a hand on any child that I saw. They didn't have to. We respected them as both teachers and nuns. What they said.....went. I also know that public school was just as "brutal" back then where corporal punishment was concerned. Teachers could rap hands with rulers, use dunce caps for missed answers and every principal had a paddle which they used indiscriminately and quite often. Nuns did not corner the market on discipline. In fact....it was the way of the world back then. Kids were expected to get in line and stay in line and if they didn't....teachers, principals and even nuns were expected to get them in line. Whats more.....no one screamed, yelled or sued the school because kids were disciplined. In fact....most of us knew that whatever trouble and punishment we got in at school, we could expect to get double at home. Trust me....school discipline was not just a Catholic school thing it was an expectation of the times.
Looking back, I realize what we all learn as age and wisdom take over our lives....EVERYTHING happens for a reason. Had I not started my scholastic experience in such a negative way, with true abuse in light of things I had no control over, then I might not have appreciated my experience at STA as much as I did. The priests, nuns, daily Mass and my 100 questions gave me a sense of who I was both as a person and a Catholic. The discipline both necessary and usually deserved helped me set boundaries and guided me to make good choices and have respect for not only those in charge but also my self. And finally....the education opened the door for me to love books and ultimately writing and also had me doing 8th grade level math and English in the 6th grade.
So next time someone makes a Catholic school joke or complains about those mean nuns, just remember.....there were just as many mean and even cruel teachers in public school. They put the fear of God in kids, made them feel small, insignificant and abused and they didn't even need a black habit to do so. In all fairness, I am sure there were nuns that took their authority to the extreme and their desire for obedience and perfection was backed up by a ruler. After all, meanness is not cornered by any specific group....it is equal opportunity. However, I think most nuns were far more in line with Sister Richard and Sister Ignitious than they were with the ruler wielding tyrants than lore likes to admit. My only regret is that Sister Richard isn't still here for me to tell her that to this day.....I still know why God made me!