Saved by nuns, and grudging, sort of

I was raised Catholic, have been an agnostic since my teens, and have only contempt for the hierarchy of the Catholic church.  That is why it pains me to come to this grudging conclusion–I was saved by nuns.

This blog post has been in process for some time, hastened along by something I read recently on  The author was urging her readers to send their children to public schools, even if they were wealthy, especially if they were wealthy, and could afford other options.  The title was provocative, claiming that if you did not send your children to public school, you were “a bad person.”  That would certainly be news to my working class and hard-working parents, who scrimped and saved to send me to a Catholic girls’ private high school. 

The other option–public school–was the one they themselves had attended.  When I was about to enter 9th grade, it had become an educational travesty, filled with violence, student riots, and loads of times when the school was forced to close halfway through the day because all control had been lost.  I had to change buses most mornings right across the street from that public school, and even the bus stop was a sad and scary place.

At the time, the private Catholic school was peaceful and classes were actually held for long and full days.  I was a successful student, was the editor of the school newpaper until I quit for what are now somewhat foggy political reasons.  I made friends there that I still hold close.  But as a teenager, my list of complaints were long.  There were no boys.The nuns were strict, and well, sort of irrelevant.  I had to go to church (which I refused to do.)  There was no overt feminist consciousness, which I considered a wasted opportunity.  We couldn’t grind against the odd boyfriend at high school dances (“Remember, girls, to leave room for the Holy Spirit. . .)  Really.  We had a course in our senior year called Marriage, in which we learned how to pack our trousseau, for one or two weeks, as the case may be.  The nuns tried to direct those of us going to college to local women’s Catholic colleges while I was just starving for the boy-rich and secular campus of Penn State.  I will stop here, though, on this kind of roll, I really could go on.  And on. 

At 60, here is some of the good stuff about my life.  I moved from the then slowly decaying streets of the North Side of Pittsburgh, graduated from Penn State, went to law school, and became a legal aid lawyer and then a law professor, a position from which I am about to semi-retire in reasonable financial comfort.  I am a lifelong reader and love books as much as I did as a child, maybe more.  I have traveled the world and learned about other cultures.  I read the newspaper every day.  I love language.  All of this–along with marriage, family and friends–cause me to say everyday that my life has been, and continues to be, terrific.

There is no control group in this life’s experiment.   I can’t go back and place myself in that public school in 1966 to see what would have been different. On a recent tour in southern France, one of my tour mates asked what or who I thought was responsible for my professional achievements.  There is undoubtedly a long list, starting with parents and a functional family, the library card my father got for me when I was 4.  The nun in the 4th grade who was the first to suggest I think about college ( this is you, Helene).  In reflecting on this since the question was posed to me, I am certain of one thing–my life would have been different, and worse, if I had attended that public school.  Education has meant everything, and it was education I got from nuns, (and Mrs. Henderson, honors English)  They were unhip, theocratic, terrorizing, and taught Spanish with a weird not-Spanish accent, but I showed up every day and in the end, learned something.  It may been an imperfect springboard, but it launched me into a life that, at 60, I realize was not an accident, and could not be better. 

So, Sisters, this is me, that smart but stubborn and mouthy kid who still likes to argue, saying–wow, this is hard–thank you. You changed my life for the better in significant ways.  I have, however, not given up the near occasions of sin while dancing.  Sorry, had to throw that in. 


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