Today’s Writing Prompt:
Gratitude. Write a thank you note you’ve never sent, can’t send or can’t express.
Of my 18 years of formal education, I attended only 6 of those at public institutions. During grades K-8, only two years were in public school. For the remaining years, I was a plaid-clad Catholic school girl. The girls in my grade were not the type to wear pigtails and knee socks – we were more the rough-and-tumble tomboys who wore shorts beneath our uniform skirts so we could summarily trounce the boys in recess basketball games. I attended Mass each Tuesday morning with the other schoolchildren and on High Holy Days.
Our teachers liked to say that, in public school, you only learned your three Rs – reading, writing and ‘rithmetic, but in Catholic school, there was an extra – religion. One class period per day was devoted to the subject, or maybe it was just a few times per week (my memory is cloudy on that). When we were younger, we learned about the Catholic religion in the context of learning to be a good person – right from wrong, loving thy neighbor, etc – pretty basic good human being concepts. As we got older, we learned about the saints and martyrs. My favorite religion class was in 8th grade, when we studied the history of the Church – an incredibly white-washed history, to be sure, but by that time I was more interested in than the teachings and beliefs of the religion.
I remember not quite being sold on the stories shrouded in fear and myth. We were taught to be reverent and respectful, and I did my goody two shoes best to follow those rules. However, I remember what was probably the greatest revelation of my childhood.
One day, somewhere around 7th or 8th grade, we were studying the formation of the Universe in science class. Our textbook was the exact same one used in local public high schools, but I’d wager they were in better shape. Our books were never without brown kraft paper covers on them and we knew that defacing a textbook was surely a mortal sin. As we studied the Big Bang and the cosmos, it struck someone in the class to ask the inevitable question of our teacher – a layperson, Catholic, but not of a religious order – just a regular old teacher (having been educated in the 1980s and 1990s, we had only one nun in an administrative role at the school and two non-teaching priests in the parish).
Someone asked, “Wait. This makes sense – what we’re learning. But, aren’t we supposed to believe that God created the Earth in seven days and Adam and Eve and all of that?”
Our little spongey brains halted. Full stop. Hold on. Why hadn’t we thought of this before?
Our teacher said, with what I can only imagine must have been very slow and precise words, “You realize that it is just a story, don’t you? It is a story just like the parables Jesus told to the masses so they could understand his teachings. At least, that is what I believe and how I reconcile it in my head.”
The dramatic part of me wants to remember that there were audible gasps. I’m not so sure that there were. This was the year of the Clinton/Bush/Perot debates. We watched the MTV town hall where Clinton was asked about wearing boxers or briefs. The Real World was our only reality TV and it seemed more reality than drama. People didn’t seem as crazy and beliefs didn’t seem as extreme as they do now. (Also, just for fun, this was the year one teacher audibly used the “F” word in front of class. That drew gasps, believe me.)
Our teacher closed the science textbook on her desk and indicated that we should do the same. This was definitely odd. We had 30 minutes left before lunchtime. What was she doing?
She asked us something adults should ask children much more often. “What do you think?”
Then ensued 30+ minutes (we were late for lunch) of question and debate and philosophy. No one was right and no one was wrong. I very clearly remember her careful consideration of the merits of each argument and belief and decide that they were valid because the person believed it. I remember that beliefs changed and were shaped during those 30+ minutes. We learned from the questions of our peers and the respectful discussion that happened that day in the sunny classroom of the old Catholic school building.
As we prepared to finally go down to lunch, I remember the teacher saying, “That was the best science class we’ve ever had, even if it wasn’t very textbook-y. I think we used the Scientific Method. We conducted and experiment on our own beliefs. That is how we learn and grow. We question, we observe, we re-evaluate and ask a new question. Never forget that.”
And so, despite my misgivings about many, many things surrounding religion, I will always be grateful for my Catholic education. I was educated well. I was taught to seek out my own education, to seek out my own answers and to feel certain that doubt and even disbelief were not the end of the world. I was taught to be kind, to be respectful and to be reverent of those things that deserve reverence. I was taught to question, which I believe was ultimately what brought me to the beliefs I hold today (which may not quite be what was intended!). Regardless, I am thankful for the dedication and devotion of teachers and administrators, parents and community leaders who made sure that the tuition my parents paid was put to good use in shaping young minds.