After reading my three posts on attending St. B’s Catholic school for 8 years in the 1950’s/60’s, my son Frank commented, “It sounds like you had a terrible time in school.” It’s true that fear of the nuns permeated my school days, especially in the primary grades, when I wondered if and when their physical acts of violence with rulers, pointers, and open hands would turn toward me. Like the time Sister Hubert hauled off and smacked the face of Joey B, who was sitting in front of me, and her back swing inadvertently caught my mouth. You could say I was collateral damage.
Verbal threats could unnerve us students as well when the nuns would spout things like, “The next time one of you does that, I’ll hang you outside the window by your toenails.”
Okay, that’s pretty much my last hurrah on the aspects of Catholic school life in the 50’s and 60’s that made me swear that I would never send my own child to a Catholic school. After writing those 3 posts, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3, I think I have used up my allotment of negativity.
No, Frank, I didn’t have a terrible time in my Catholic elementary school school (gr. 1-8). The word “terrible” is too harsh. As I age, I have come to realize and value the benefits and blessings of my Catholic school education. I have to admit that I didn’t live every day in dread of passing through the doors of St. B’s, and I remember the sunny times.
First and foremost, the nuns in my school incorporated the teachings and traditions of the Catholic Church into our daily lives. Unlike the public school Catholics who went to Christian Doctrine (CCD) classes for an hour once a week, we lived it five days a week. To use a term from the archdiocese of Milwaukee, we learned in “Christ-centered zones.”
For example, we learned the significance of every step of the Mass and were taught some of the Latin that the priest spoke throughout the Mass. As a lector at Mass in my adulthood, I find the readings to be more meaningful when I understand the context from which they come. I feel educated in the Catholic faith.
We learned the stories of David and Goliath, Jonah and the Whale, The Prodigal Son, and the Good Samaritan. We knew why Jesus walked on water, what happened at the wedding at Cana, and how he fed a crowd of thousands who came to hear him speak.
As I write this, I recall today’s first reading, which cites the end of the Exodus from Egypt. The Israelites lamented that starvation was near, but then God provided for them by raining manna down from heaven. I have a boomer friend who is a nonpracticing Catholic. He grew up Catholic but attended public schools. He also attended CCD classes. But when I asked him if he knew what manna was, he did not. Believe me, if you attended a Catholic grade school, you know what manna is . . . and the story around it. . . and much more.
We knew the Ten Commandments through and through and were encouraged to love thy neighbor as thyself.
I carry my knowledge of the Catholic faith with me as a badge of honor.
If for no other benefit, attending a Catholic school afforded me a huge advantage in the heaven department . . . or so I thought. One of the nuns let us in on a little secret. She told my class that if we said a certain set of prayers every night before bed, we would be guaranteed a place in heaven. What a boon! Wait . . . What? Really, Sister? Isn’t that promise a little above your pay grade? Well, back then we believed it, and I began saying those prayers every night. I sometimes asked myself, “What if I forget one night? Will that forfeit my spot in heaven?”
I have been saying those particular prayers ever since the day Sister enlightened us, but I suspect that it will take more than that to get this sorry sinner into Paradise. Besides, if missing a night of prayers cancels out the fast track to heaven, the window closed for me long ago. As I continue to age, and I forget where I put the scissors, what I was going to add to the grocery list, and why I entered the bedroom, I’d better go to Plan B and work on getting into heaven the sure way according to the Catholic faith.
Back in the 50’s and 60’s, Catholic schools were at an academic disadvantage. Most glaring was that they didn’t have the funding that public schools enjoyed. There was no tuition for Catholic schools students then—at least that was true of my school— so the diocese depended a lot on donations of cash, paper, and other supplies. We didn’t have the “sophisticated” equipment and technology, such as it was, nor the top notch teachers that public schools possessed. Nuns and lay teachers at St. B’s were paid substantially less than their counterparts.
Worse, most nuns had no teacher training. Some didn’t even graduate from high school and were learning on the job. Huge class size was also a detriment to learning in that a struggling student got little one-on-one assistance.
But what St. B’s lacked in those categories, it made up for with a commitment to hard work and instilling self-discipline and responsibility. Academic standards and expectations were high. Heck, to get an A, you had to earn at least a 93%. Sixty-nine percent was considered failure. It was drill, drill, drill. All work and no play . . . outside of recess. Like Einstein said, it was 100% perspiration . . . mental perspiration, that is.
Woe be unto you if you didn’t learn your multiplication tables lickety split. Flash cards were our constant companions. If you misspelled words on your spelling test, you repeatedly wrote them until your hand ached. And you surely knew the difference between a noun, a verb, and an adjective. Nobody knew how to diagram sentences better than a Catholic school kid.
I memorized the presidents in order, the Gettysburg Address, and the first stanza of “The Raven.” I still remember standing in front of the class reciting Emily Dickinson’s two-stanza poem “I’m Nobody! Who Are You?” I can still recite it and much of the aforementioned assignments. The nuns thrived on memorization as a teaching tool.
I reiterate that although our teachers had little or no professional training, worked with a low end budget, and engendered fear like Fido’s at the vet, somehow we learned . . . . and we learned well. The only subjects in which I felt inferior upon entering public junior high were two “specials” that St. B’s didn’t offer—phys ed and sewing in home ec.
In gym class, it was embarrassing to be assigned to the lowest of four mats—right alongside other Catholic school kids who didn’t know basic gymnastics like tumbling. I caught up in a year or so and actually became quite competent on the trampoline.
As for sewing, the public school girls were ahead of me by two years. In ninth grade, I was thrown right into the lion’s den of dressmaking. No pillow case or apron to get my feet wet; I was required to make an empire waist dress. I felt overwhelmed at first, but my mother was a master seamstress, and she “home schooled” me through that project, for which I earned a B+. By college, I was making my own clothes regularly.
In spite of the academic demands, I have plenty of fond memories of St. B’s, especially how we celebrated the major milestones of our Catholic faith. First Holy Communion and Confirmation were awesome sacraments. See my post Remembering First Holy Communion in the 1950’s.
How we looked forward to the special holidays and programs! Every year we celebrated our pastor’s feast day. All of us students and teachers gathered with Father in the all-purpose room, where we sang songs and entertained him with simple performances that we rehearsed for weeks. It was one of the few breaks we got from the school day. It was a big affair.
The only party that I recall was a Christmas party each year at which we sang carols, played games like Bingo, and received gifts. We always got a box of hard candy and a little religious memento like a plastic statue of the Virgin Mary. They were small gifts but highly prized.
The month of May was a wonderful time because it was not only closing in on the end of the school year, but it was also the month of Mary, and at the start of every school day, we would have a May crowning in the classroom. I’ll be writing a short post on that next.
One of my favorite memories was movie day. In particular, I recall watching the movie How the Earth Stood Still for the low, low price of ten cents.
Frankly, Frank, not all of the nuns were mean. Of the seven nuns that I had at St. B’s, two of them were actually amiable. My second grade teacher, Sister Annette, was young, attractive, and benevolent. She never raised her voice, yet we behaved well for her.
But my favorite teacher was Sister Anastasia, whom I had for algebra and literature in eighth grade. Unlike the other nuns, that smart cookie had a college degree. We were tracked for those two subjects, and I was in the top group. She treated us like adults. It took 8 years, but, finally, we had met up with a teacher who did not require us to stand up to answer every question. She judged the practice to be unnecessary and a waste of valuable learning time. You wouldn’t believe how hard it was for us to break the habit!
I appreciated Sister Anastasia; she was a blessing for my self-confidence. She once assigned us to write a Thanksgiving poem. She read mine to the class and gave me an A+. I still have that poem and laminated it years ago. She also chose me to be on the panel of debaters who would present arguments for and against the Vietnam War (in 1965). I was flat out proud and grateful to her because we were to present in front of some bigwigs who were coming to our school from New York.
By the way, there was one area in which St. B’s outshone the public school. They offered algebra in eighth grade; the public school did not. Therefore, when those of us from Sister Anastasia’s class went on to the public school in ninth grade, we had to retake Algebra 1. We had no choice.
So, Frank, it couldn’t have been too bad at St. B’s because starting in early elementary, I wanted to be a teacher. I played school with my dolls, made up seating charts, tests, and report cards. I taught real live kids in front of my chalkboard whenever I could find ones to humor me. (Don’t worry; I never whacked them with a ruler or made them stand with gum on their noses.)
I end with the final sentences of my “autobiography,” a seventh grade assignment, proof positive that eight years at St. B’s did not alienate me from school:
*Some names have been changed to protect the innocent and the guilty.
KAREN GENNARI is the author of The Crab Hollow Chronicles, a fictitious memoir based on her experiences growing up in a neighborhood full of boys in 1961/62. It also explores the merits and challenges of life in a Catholic family of seven.
Join nine-year-old Karen Schmidt in her attempts to navigate Crab Hollow Road amidst the overwhelming male majority who beleaguer her at every opportunity. Does Karen have the fortitude to weather toadnappings, midnight escapades, false impersonation, and more? Along the way, relive the people, products, music, sports, and headlines of the early 1960’s. Virtually every page references the 1960’s. Lots of your favorite toys are mentioned in these pages.