Celebrating Catholic Schools Week
St. Augustine School brings some memories to the surface.
Last week was Catholic Schools Week, as evidenced by the celebrations taking place at Elkridge’s own St. Augustine School.
The pictures in the article, particularly the nattily uniformed students, sparked memories that, perhaps, could uncharitably be termed flashbacks.
I spent nine years at a Catholic elementary school, from kindergarten through eighth grade. My three younger siblings followed me, each hanging in there for the full tour. My father went to the same school and was taught by the same nuns. (He said they were old when he was a kid; today, 18 years after I left, they’re still teaching.)
Ste. Jeanne d’Arc School (all spellings correct; it is a school of French-Canadian heritage, in the French-Canadian Pawtucketville section of Lowell) ruled my childhood. To say the experience was formative is the grossest understatement imaginable. Outside of home, I’ve spent more of my life at SJA than anywhere else. No other school or job has come close.
I’ve been known to be a stickler for grammar, for proper syntax and accurate conjugation; this is owed partially to a mother with a penchant for red pens but mainly to nuns who wielded the literal fear of God in pursuit of impeccable phraseology.
When I was first placed in line and ordered to do coordinated calisthenics with a hundred of my fellows in the military, the process was oddly familiar; it was months later that I realized my elementary school principle had run gym class in the same way. (Not a joke.) About once a month, the entire school was lined up in matching blue-and-gold athletic gear for a few rounds of jumping jacks and push-ups, all lead by a pint-sized drill instructor in a habit.
Those gym classes, and the school, were (and are) ruled with an iron ruler by Sr. Prescille Malo, famous for intimidating unruly kindergartners and for her love of all things Mickey Mouse. (Yes. Mickey Mouse.) On her birthday, the entire school would gather outside her office to sing “Happy Birthday” and receive her traditional dispensation from homework in celebration.
There is a part of me that wants to call the whole thing a bit cultish, but the rest of me is still afraid of Sr. Prescille, so I won’t.
Catholic Schools Week was always an occasion for a bit of a break from the norm, a slight loosening of the reins with themed days and fun events. I never liked the dress-up days, “Backwards Day,” “Pajama Day” and “Crazy Hat Day.” I guess I was a staid little kid, but I frankly preferred the sensible routine and boring predictability of uniform shirt and tie. Uniforms certainly made for easy mornings. (Pseudo-psychological interpretations of a childhood conforming to matching attire leading to an adulthood in the military will have to wait for future ruminations, thank you very much.)
I preferred some of the other events, particularly any quiz-type of event that allowed me to measure my intellectual acumen against the competition (other sixth graders). Some kids preferred Field Day, or more crafty pursuits. When I was a kid, that’s really all Catholic Schools Week meant. A time when the tie was loosened, a few days outside the normal routine. This year’s celebration, though, means a bit more.
Catholic school made me what I am. It gave me my sense of loyalty and belief in social service. It shaped the bedrock of everything that is good about my character. Sr. Prescille and the other teachers, nuns, and priests gave me lessons about sacrifice, duty, all the things that have made me a productive member of society. In spite of its surface conformity, Catholic school is where I learned to vigorously challenge my own beliefs in order to find the foundation of faith. (As a matter of fact, St. Augustine himself was pretty good at that.)
So I hope the students at St. Augustine’s enjoyed Catholic Schools Week, even Crazy Hat Day. I’m sure they’re unaware of the deeper lessons that are being forged, but I’m just as sure they won’t forget them. They’ll probably resurface unexpectedly in about 18 years.