Saturday, January 28, 2017

Catholic School Memories

As Catholic communities throughout the United States observe this year's Catholic Schools Week, it is a commonplace to acknowledge that that fewer Catholic children attend a Catholic school today than was the case 50-60 years ago, in what we might recall as a kind of "golden age" of Catholic education in America. But for those who do the benefits are still evident. Attending a Catholic school cannot guarantee that one will continue to identify as a Catholic and actively practice the faith as an adult, but it does seem to make a significant difference. And, for those coming from poorer backgrounds, Catholic schooling can also make a marked difference in their future socioeconomic status. In short, Catholic schools continue to rank among the American Catholic Church's most admirable successes.  

All of which makes me think back to my own experience as a Catholic school pupil in a very different time. 

In 1950s New York where I grew up, parish and neighborhood were largely one and the same and were in many ways largely self-contained communities. Of course, people went out of their neighborhoods to work elsewhere in the city, and the wider world's influence was certainly felt within those communities. But, for most of us kids, most of our day-to-day needs, both social and spiritual, seemed to be met there in the parish. Such neighborhoods were overwhelmingly hard-working blue-collar, working class communities – at a time when strong unions and the general post-war prosperity instilled the forward-looking optimism that goes with a sense of collective upward mobility.

The parish school itself (see photo above) was an old, early 20th-century building, barely able to accommodate the 1400 or so students enrolled in it in my time. In winter, the heat sometimes didn’t work, and we would sit in class with our coats on. Such privations would be unacceptable today, but then they seemed perfectly normal, completely coherent with how we lived – in apartment buildings where likewise the heat often didn’t quite work in winter! 

As for the Sisters who taught us, religious life - apart from celibacy and not having children of one’s own – did not seem harder than the lives most working people lived at that time, and in some respects it may even have seemed more secure. But surely teaching anywhere from 50 to 60 kids five days each week had to be a real challenge. Some of my teachers, my 8th grade teacher, for example, were quite experienced. Others were inevitably less so. For example, for my 5th grade teacher, we were her first class. The amazing thing about the parochial school system in those days was that putting a girl in a habit and sending her into a crowded classroom barely out of novitiate and telling her to control and teach a class of more than 50 kids somehow managed to work – and really worked quite well. As I remarked at the time of my 50th High School reunion in 2015, we became judges and lawyers, policemen and priests, teachers and truck-drivers.  So, in that sense certainly, school did its job and did it very well. Again, what made it all work so well was that it was coherent with the rest of our world. Adults at that time fully supported the school and the Catholic sub-culture it represented, and they valued the Sisters and so almost always sided with them.

It was a world of clearly defined moral rules and social expectations, starting with gender roles and family life and moving onward and outward from there. Not everyone benefited equally from those rules and expectations. For some, in the end the burdens may have outweighed the benefits. But, for the majority, the burdens seemed bearable and paid off as guideposts toward a reasonably predictable and stable way of life.  In the half-century and more that followed, enormous economic and cultural changes would eviscerate the opportunities available for working class people with modest educational background and radically diminish their prospects for financial and social stability in successfully functioning families – something recent events, in particular the 2016 election, have made our society so much more conscious of. Social change always has winners and losers, and we should never pretend otherwise.

Parochial schools in those days were fairly basic. We had no kindergarten, just 8 grades. So in the fall of 1953, my mother took me to the local public school for 1st grade. Then, the following year, I started 1st grade again at parish school. (Why I could start 1st grade in public school but not in the parish school I can’t say, but I suspect it may have had something to do with the overcrowding in the Catholic school. This was the post-war “baby boom,” after all!) 

Unlike the public school, which involved a fairly long walk back and forth, the parish school was just across the street. I had laywomen as teachers in grades 1, 3, and 4, and Dominican Sisters in all the other grades. The school was so crowded that classes were half-day sessions through grade 5. By that time, a new parish high school had been built, and the old high school building became part of the elementary school, virtually doubling the amount of space available. Midway through 3rd grade, I was “skipped” to the middle of the 4th grade. Having students “skip” a grade was also, I suspect, one more way of dealing with the widespread overcrowding!

I most certainly did not want to “skip.” I craved stability, and being wrenched out of my class and dropped down into the middle of a grade, the first half of which I had already missed was certainly traumatic. In particular, what I had missed that first term had been long division – something I struggled with for quite some time. I cried a lot that spring, struggling with my long-division homework. But, long-division aside, I liked school. Each September, when school resumed and we got our new textbooks, I rushed to read through the entire history book as quickly as possible, so eager was I to learn, so in love was I with other times and other places.

It was, of course, the height of the Cold War. We were all caught up in the fear of communism and of nuclear war, a danger brought home to us by the semi-annual civil defense drills, when – at the sound of the air-raid siren - we would all crawl under our desks at school (or run and hide in a nearby building if it was summer and we were playing in the park).

Needless to say, in a 1950s parochial school, it was not politics but religion that permeated every day of the school year and every subject of study. We prayed at the beginning and the end of the day (and before and after lunch). We recited the Morning Offering in the morning, various other prayers throughout the course of the day, and an Act of Contrition at day’s end. (Was that because we had sinned so much at school?) Whenever one of the priests came into the classroom to speak to us or to our teacher, before he departed we would reverently request his priestly blessing. Then we would all (including Sister) dutifully drop to our knees while Father raised his hands in a semicircle and then made the sign of the cross over us, saying Benedicat vos omnipotens Deus, Pater, et Filius, et Spiritu Sanctus. Meanwhile, from celebrating Our Lady’s birthday on September 8, to the daily Rosary in October, decorating the crib at Christmas, and making the Stations of the Cross in Lent, all the way to Mary’s annual May Crowning at the end of that month, the calendar followed a set cycle of taken-for-granted devotions that punctuated the year and marked the recurring rhythm of months and seasons.

And, of course, there were the special life-cycle celebrations for which the school faithfully prepared us. On Saturday, June 4, 1955, at an 8:00 a.m. Solemn High Mass, I made my First Communion. But what I actually remember most about my First Communion was all the hours we spent practicing beforehand. The Sisters were not about to leave anything to chance!. As for the actual act of Communion itself - kneeling on the altar step to receive the sacred Host on my tongue, as the priest prayed, Corpus Domini nostri, Jesu Christi custodiat anuman tuam in vitam aetaernam, Amen – that memory is much less vivid. Perhaps that is because it merges in memory with so many other subsequent trips to the altar rail. For many of us in my generation (brought up post-Pius X), that would be at least once a week. That was a lot of Communions! 

As was the norm at that time, I had made my First Confession the day before my First Communion.  After that, confession also became another regular routine. On the Thursday before the First Friday of every month, the whole school marched over to church for confession. What a trial we must have been for the poor priests who had to listen to our trivial offenses for hours on end! I have often wondered if that experience may help account for why so many in my generation retained so little appreciation for this sacrament and approach it so rarely!

The other life-cycle sacrament was, of course, Confirmation, which I received in 5th grade on Sunday, September 22, 1957. The most memorable thing about that was the Bishop – a Dutch Augustinian, who held the exalted post of sacristan to Pope Pius XII. (A year later, he would be the one to administer the sacrament of Extreme Unction - better known now as “Anointing of the Sick” - to the dying pope, a service he would repeat in 1963 for Pope Saint John XXIII.) He visited our parish to consecrate the finally finished upper church and to celebrate the parish’s Golden Jubilee Mass, and so must also have been impressed into service for that year’s confirmation class.

But much more important to me than confirmation in my life at that time was becoming an altar boy. In those days, it was considered a great privilege to serve Mass. I eagerly went with my classmates to the rectory chapel where we practiced the complex maneuvers of moving the missal from the epistle side of the altar to the gospel side and then back again, carrying (and kissing) the cruets with the wine and water, ringing the bells, walking with the priest at the altar rail carrying the communion plate, and so much more. And, of course, there was the Confiteor and all the other Latin responses to learn, starting with Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam!

Serving as an altar boy – at Sunday Masses, weekday Masses, Low Masses, Sung Masses, Nuptial Masses, Funeral Masses (for which we got out of an hour or more of school), Benediction, Stations of the Cross, Forty Hours, and the crowning event in 8th grade, Christmas Midnight Mass – was among the more unambiguous joys of my Catholic school boyhood.

Unless one was serving at an earlier or later Mass, all of us were required to attend the Sunday 9:00 a.m. Children's Mass, at which each class sat in its assigned pews. We went to Communion in perfect formation, and at the end genuflected together in response to Sister's "clicker," before exiting the church again in perfect formation.

Once I was in high school and could go to any Mass I wanted on Sundays (in a parish with 13 Sunday Masses, I usually attended the 11:00 “High Mass.” I loved the music, but above all I loved the ritual, beginning with the Asperges, when the priest appeared in an appropriately colored cope and went up and down the main aisle sprinkling the congregation with holy water. I suppose I was already was developing into an embryonic liturgical enthusiast!

Since I went to the parish high school, that transition was less abrupt than it might otherwise have been. School was still just a block away, and the priests who formed much of the faculty were already familiar from the parish where I had served their Masses as an altar boy. We were about 30 in a class, and many classmates were new guys from other parishes.

Our principal liked to say that one should learn as much in four years of high school as in eight years of elementary school. The principal was also our math teacher, and he was devoted to the “new math.” as it was then called. In fact it was so “new” then that for the first month or so of my freshman year we had no textbook and had to used mimeographed copies of the first few chapters of the text until the books finally arrived! We also took lots of standardized tests on various Saturdays. Such tests were the rage at the time and especially loved by our principal who aspired to heighten the school's academic standard.

Then as now, sports were an important part of high school life and of the social hierarchy adolescents (with adult connivance) create for themselves. But my extra-curricular activities were safer ones like the school newspaper, the yearbook, and the annual school musicals.

In 1929, in his encyclical Divini Illius Magistri, Pope Pius XI had warned against coeducation.  My elementary school classes were co-ed through 7th grade, but we had separate boys’ and girls’ sections in 8th grade – almost as a rehearsal for high school. Unlike the many exclusively all boys’ or all girls’ schools, our high school was what was then called “co-institutional.” In a “co-institutional” school, both boys and girls were enrolled and shared the same building, but in separate “Departments.” These were in effect separate schools each with its own separate faculty and administration, its own separate entrance and stairway, separate lunch periods, and of course completely separate classes in our separate sections of the building. The system had its advantages and its disadvantages, as any system does.
Other than attendance at school Masses and the annual Holy Week retreat in the lower church, one of the very few official school activities in which boys and girls participated together was the annual school musical. Each year, the school put on a variety show, directed by someone who went from school to school putting on such programs. These were light-hearted musical reviews, with corny titles like Just for Kicks (“JFK”) in 1961 and Mad About Manhattan in 1962. Being in the “chorus” of those shows every year was for me one of the highlights of the spring term. To be sure, I didn’t discover any latent talent, but I had a great time and genuinely enjoyed the whole collaborative project, both rehearsals and performances, as well as the “cast party” on the final night, at which one of my favorite priest-teachers would get up and sing The Chattanooga Choo-Choo.

It was a very different time - virtually another world. But it suggests that when school and surrounding environment are coherent with one another, great things can be accomplished!

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