Sixty years ago today - on June 25, 1961 - I graduated 8th grade. Four years later, to the day, I graduated high school. This morning, I offered Mass for the intention of all my grade school and high school classmates, living and dead.
Our parish grade school (tragically closed in 2019) opened in 1907 in an old building, solidly built, but barely able to accommodate the 1400 or so students enrolled in it in the 1950s. In winter, the heat sometimes didn’t work, and we would sit in class with our coats on. Such privations probably would be unacceptable in most schools today, but then they seemed perfectly normal, completely coherent with how we lived – in apartment buildings where likewise the heat sometimes didn’t always work in winter!
As for the Sisters who ran the grade school and taught us, surely teaching anywhere from 50 to 60 kids five days each week had to be a real challenge. Some of my teachers were quite experienced, while for one teacher we were her very first class. The amazing thing, I think, about the parochial school system in those days was that putting a girl in a habit and sending her into a crowded classroom right out of novitiate and expecting her to control and teach a class of more than 50 kids somehow managed to work – and, on balance, really worked rather well. Again, what made it work so well was that it was so completely coherent with the rest of our world. And, of course, adults at that time fully supported the school, valued the Sisters, and almost always sided (if that is the right word) with them.
As I already said, parochial schools in those days were fairly basic. Ours had no kindergarten, just 8 grades. So, in the fall of 1953, my mother took me to the local public school, P.S. 91, for 1st grade. (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!) Then, the following year, I started in 1st grade again at the parish school. (Why I repeated 1st grade instead of transferring into 2nd grade is likewise still somewhat of a mystery to me.) School was so crowded that classes were half-day sessions through grade 5. By then the new parish high school had been built, and the old high school building became part of the elementary school, virtually doubling the amount of classroom space available. Except for 8th grade, my elementary school classes all had more than 50 students. Obviously, we lacked many of the educational resources of contemporary technology, let alone facilities for recess, but beyond all that we suffered no major academic disadvantage from such large classes, and we were probably at least as well educated as (if not better educated in certain respects )than some students are today. Side by side with an all-encompassing, seemingly “otherworldy” spirituality, we cultivated good spelling and penmanship, memorized our multiplication tables, received a rudimentary appreciation of art and music, learned practical social skills like the right way to write a “friendly letter” and a “business letter,” and studied civics and were taught to take seriously the responsibilities of citizenship.
I myself was a sufficiently good enough student that, midway through 3rd grade, I was “skipped” to the middle of the 4th grade. Having students “skip” a grade was not then all that uncommon either. I suspect it was one more way of dealing with the then widespread overcrowding! Of course, I had no say in the matter at all, but I most certainly did not want to “skip.” Being wrenched out of my class and dropped down into another one was certainly destabilizing. Also it meant dropping me into the middle of a grade the first half of which I had already missed. In particular, what I had missed that year was long division – something I struggled with for quite some time. I cried a lot that spring, struggling with my long-division homework. Of course, I eventually caught up and continued with my new set of classmates into 5th grade, where we continued to add, subtract, multiply, and divide.
This was, of course, at the height of the Cold War, when international relations were often the focus of the news. 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 we were playing in the park).
Needless to say, in parochial school in the 1950s, it was not politics but religion that permeated every day of the school year and every subject of study. Undoubtedly, the strongest influence in our world was the Church, physically embodied in the great Gothic parish church across the street from where I lived, It was by far the biggest and most impressive structure in the neighborhood and perhaps the most influential in that it served as the spiritual center and source of stability for most of our neighbors. What a sight it was in those days, Sunday after Sunday, as thousands of people poured out of the 13 Sunday Masses celebrated in both upper and lower churches! A local storekeeper once remarked that they probably made more selling newspapers to the people coming out of church on Sunday than on anything else the rest of the week! (That was also a reflection of the character of urban neighborhood communities, which were like villages in certain respects. One of the many unfortunate consequences of post-war suburbanization was the creation of communities in which churches were not longer at the center.)
In school, we prayed at the beginning and the end of the day (and before and after lunch). We recited the Morning Offering in the morning, the Angelus at mid-day, various other prayers throughout the course of the school day, and an Act of Contrition at day’s end. Was that because it was assumed that we must have sinned at school? That was certainly how it seemed to me.
Whenever a priest came into the classroom to speak to us or to our teacher, before he departed one of us would reverently request his 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 Spiritus Sanctus. Meanwhile, from celebrating Our Lady’s birthday in September, 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, while on the Thursday before the First Friday of every month we would all be marched class-by-class over to the Church for confession. And, of course, there were the special life-cycle celebrations, such as First Confession, First Communion, and Confirmation, for which the school faithfully prepared us.
From 5th through 8th grade, many of us also served as altar boys. That was considered a great privilege (although a quite common and widely shared one). We prided ourselves in mastering the complex maneuvers of moving the missal from the epistle side of the altar to the gospel side and then back again, kissing the cruets with the wine and water, ringing the bells, carrying the communion plate at the altar rail, and, of course, memorizing the Confiteor and all the other Latin responses, starting at the foot of the altar with an enthusiastic Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam! Serving as an altar boy meant Sunday Masses, weekday Masses, Low Masses, Sung Masses, Nuptial Masses, Funeral Masses, Benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament, Stations of the Cross in Lent, carrying "torches" at Forty Hours, and (the crowning event for me in 8th grade) serving as the thurifer at Christmas Midnight Mass. But we all probably most looked forward to funerals since they got four of us out of school for an entire hour!
It was a world of clearly defined moral rules and social expectations. Not everyone benefitted equally or fully from all those rules and expectations. For some, in the end, the burdens seemed to them to outweigh the benefits. But, for many at that time at least, the burdens seemed bearable enough 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 have eviscerated the opportunities available for working class families with modest educational background and have radically diminished the prospects of many for financial and social stability and forming successfully functioning families. Social change always has winners and losers. And, while many have certainly done well, nationwide there equally certainly have been lots of losers. And our economically unequal, socially siloed, and politically polarized 21st-century America has surely paid a price for the alienation those losses have produced.
Chris Matthews once said of Pat Buchanan: “To Pat, the world can never be better than the one he grew up in as a young boy. … No country will ever be better than the United States of America of the early 1950s.” In fact, there was actually quite a bit about 1950s America that was wrong and much that needed fixing. But there was also much to appreciate in the way we lived, much that was nurturing and nourishing and supportive and strengthening, the loss of which has in its way diminished us as a society.