Catholic School Confidential

Christmas vacation is long over.

My children have long since been shoe-horned back into their uniforms and dragged out of bed and have had to face the grim reality that late-night watchings of Lord of the Rings and Star Wars have come to an all-too-quick end.

But the day I dropped them off and watched them march, uniformly, toward the school yard, I had a Vietnam flashback of my own. It was more than just the returning from time off that had me sitting behind the wheel thinking.

It was probably due to the recent appeal at Church for retired religious; an appeal made necessary because of the current dearth of nuns nowadays. Unfortunately, the nuns who used to teach in Catholic schools have become the punch line to jokes and the ones who remain in Catholic schools are as rare as Europium 63 on the periodic chart.

I attended 12 years of Catholic school, so I’m supposed to be damaged goods. Maybe I am but I can’t quite seem to get my arms around any particular psychosis, and since I still retain rudimentary problem-solving capabilities and two opposable thumbs, I guess I survived my Catholic education pretty much intact.

Just before Christmas vacation I overheard a parent at school complain about there being 25 students in his daughter’s class. According to the current experts this parent had read, this number constituted an unreasonable teacher-to-student ratio.

When I attended grade school at St. Elizabeth’s in the halcyon days of the ’60s, we had two classrooms for each grade, and each classroom had at least 50 kids in it. That’s a completely untenable teacher-to-student ratio unless the teacher is one of the nuns who taught at my school.

Horror Stories

When people write about their Catholic school education from this era, this is usually the place where you [place Catholic school horror story here]. This story usually includes some cruel, ruler-wielding nun with the compassion of Frederick Barbarossa and the gentleness of Lucretia Borgia. Actually I do have a cruel nun story to tell. Her weapon of choice was not a ruler, but a thimble.

A thimble, you ask? It almost seems quaint and certainly sounds fairly innocuous and harmless, but you haven’t lived life to its fullest until you’ve had a nun creep up behind you in full stealth mode while you were talking to your neighbor and ping the back of your head with the flick of a thimble-armored finger. I don’t know if I ever saw stars, but it certainly got my attention.

Now the next made-to-order horror that usually follows the harrowing recount I have just pulled forth from my subconscious is a long-winded extrapolation as to how that incident marred me for life and is the primary reason I no longer go to Mass or receive the sacraments.

As a disgruntled, Catholic-school-damaged fall-away, I am a failure. I never understood why a story such as the one I just told was supposed to interpret this particular nun’s thimble-happy thumping and the fact she never read a book by Dr. Spock into a thesis questioning the divinity of Christ, the Real Presence or the overall teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church. Maybe my failure to question those bigger issues was a result of brain damage from being struck in the back of the head one too many times by a thimble, but whatever the reason, I just never equated this woman’s mild-grade cruelty with the Church in general or my faith in particular.

I also never entertained the thought of running to my parents with explicit stories about the mean nun who thumped perfectly innocent little boys with thimbles all day long in one of the first grade class rooms at St. Elizabeth’s — because I knew, from a deep understanding of natural law I was innately born with, that my parents would side with the nun and I’d be in for a lot worse than a thimble-thumping.

Now for the part my disgruntled, fallen-away Catholic friends just don’t get.

I actually consider myself kind of lucky to have had these nuns in my life.

For the most part I found them to be women who were completely dedicated to the education of children and they were oh-so-sure of their faith. And contrary to popular myth, many did not avail themselves of tools of torture like rulers, thimbles and bony knuckles to augment their teaching techniques. Most of these women relied instead on their strong wills, powerful faith and, believe it or not, love for their students to make lasting impressions on us. They were builders, not dismantlers.

Public Sureness

Even my thimble-thumping first-grade nun falls into this category. She was as sure about Jesus and the Church as she was sure the University of Notre Dame’s football team would strike a blow against the errors of Protestantism by defeating USC every year. Well, two out of three ain’t bad. Whether she got on her knees at night in the convent and was wracked with grave doubt about the nature of the Trinity, or felt deep pangs of guilt over thumping the cute and completely innocent freckle-faced boy in row three, I never knew. But I thank her for her public sureness.

First graders need people like that.

No child scampers into their parent’s bedroom during a thunderstorm to hear their mother and father ask them how they “feel” about the storm or to explain to them that they too are sometimes unnerved at the vagaries of meteorological manifestations in the upper atmosphere. The child only wants their parents to be steady and sure.

It is that same kind of sureness I was blessed with as a child growing up in Catholic school.

Bigger questions, even bigger doubts could follow, but without that infusion of solid faith as exhibited by these nuns, who knows? I might be the head of Thimble Thumpees Anonymous.

So as my little ones go back to school they will be taught by laypeople. Good laypeople no doubt, but their Catholic education will be made slightly poorer by a landscape devoid of nuns. These remarkable women I knew wore their faith on their sleeves, in habits that left no doubt as to who they were and what they were all about.

And as I look back on those times, I realize they made me understand who I was as well.

Robert Brennan writes

from Santa Paula,