Parochial Lessons

The fifties were an odd time to start school.  America had had its religious problems, but in the wake of World War II it had largely solved them through a strict, tacit policy of segregation.  In an odd manifestation of the separation of Church and State, we did our best to ignore religion during the week.  We worked and even played in fraternal heathenism.  Come the weekend, we suddenly acquired religion and  split apart.  Each denomination went off to its segregated shrine and attended its segregated services.

At its best, it was an odd system, but one that mostly worked.  I think it worked because of how it made us feel.

First, we were able to feel benignly tolerant of each others’ delusions (we were, after all,  reassured on a weekly basis by our denomination that we were the specially favored ones).  Second, we could feel comforted that our fellow citizens, while being less spiritually wise than we,  were at least religious in some sense and therefore could be trustworthy Americans. Finally, we could feel proud that our nation, in contrast to the rest of the world, had reached a balanced, sensibly democratic, live-and-let-live system that allowed us to dwell and work together while jealously protecting our uniqueness.

The most obvious downside to this practice was that it left us (most of us, anyway) dead ignorant of what went on in our friends’ chapel/synagogue/church.  The age of ecumenism did not come along until the early sixties with Pope John XXIII.  Until then, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, etc. were actively forbidden to attend each others’ services.  It was a condition practically guaranteed to preserve every racial and religious fable we had ever heard about each other.

On those rare occasions (e.g. the predestined disaster of a “mixed” marriage) when we did find ourselves at one another’s services, we were lost, confused, and hopelessly out of step.  If you are Jewish, imagine trying to explain the odd rocking of the old men in a temple to a Catholic.  Or the huppah.  Or breaking the wine glass.

Or the reverse.  If you are Catholic, imagine trying to explain the synchronized sit-stand-kneel of a Catholic mass to a Jew.  Or a Protestant.  Or how about all those statues?  Or if you really want a challenge, imagine trying to explain transubstantiation to either one.

A low church Protestant might be reassured by the barrenness of a Conservative synagogue (as opposed to the manifest idolatry of the Catholics).  But they would find the Hebrew even more baffling than the Latin.

Enough!  The point is that our ignorance of each other was profound and the very rare visits probably made the confusion worse, not better.

As I said, at its best, this system made us feel tolerant and proud.  At its worst, it made us defensive and mistrustful.

The schools we attended often deepened the sense of separateness.  Seen from the outside, the buildings and the people often looked strange and foreign.  Inside, they were the places where fables about our own uniqueness and the sins of those “others” were repeated and passed down the generations.
I happened to have been raised a Catholic.  Which makes my schools special cases.  But so are we all “special cases.”  I am willing to bet that many of you can find parallels in your own upbringing.

My grammar school was run by Dominican nuns.  I can only imagine what the neighbors thought about that.  They were about as alien a presence in California suburbia as one can imagine.

First, there was the matter of dress.  I am not talking about the students (although I remember wearing heavy corduroy uniform pants in summer with no affection).  I am talking about the nuns.  The Dominican habit of those days was a wimpled black & white, with the face shrouded in a stiffly starched black hood that gave them (according to a friend of mine) a look as if they were wearing hollowed-out Sears Diehard batteries on their heads.  They moved along with a constant, rhythmic, rattling sound caused by long rosaries with huge wooden beads that stretched from their wide leather belts almost to the floor.  The habit also had the power to completely mask the shape beneath, changing these women into sexless aliens who looked something like us but were clearly not like us.

To an outsider, I suspect they looked like a heartwarming vision out of some medieval story about the Inquisition.  If the neighbors wondered what dark secrets they were teaching us it was understandable.

And not too far wrong.  The truth is the nuns trained us in ways the Church might not have intended.

I remember Sister Mary Leona (for some reason, they all had three names, but the second  was always Mary).  She was a sweet little old lady who delighted in telling us gory stories about what happened to those bad little boys and girls that committed horrible sins like eating meat on Friday.  She also regaled us with nice, bloodcurdling tales about the martyrs of the Protestant Revolution (no “Reformation” for us!) and miracles involving severed parts of saints’ bodies called “relics.”  And on and on.

Her duty, it now seems to me, was to inculcate in us every beloved bit of inaccurate lore and popular legend the Church had unwillingly acquired over the centuries.  Her stories helped, as such stories do, shape our identity as people separate from the others.  They also fueled many a nightmare for me and I suspect I was not alone.  (Later, to absolutely no one’s surprise, she had a mental breakdown.)

Then there was Sister Mary Agnes.  It was apparently her special task to teach us about discipline and the fear that goes with it.  She was one of the largest women I have ever seen, shaped like a bullet, with an eagle eye for bad behavior.

That eye was totally disconcerting, as its actual field of view didn’t match the way her eyes were pointing.  Even when she called on you in class and looked straight at you, her eyes seemed to be focused on someone else entirely.  She could be clearly looking away from you and yet nail you for some nearly invisible peccadillo.  Those alarming eyes also seemed to have x-ray vision into the soul;  she an infallible talent for knowing exactly who didn’t know the answer so she could call on them.

If Catholics have a fixed idea about the ubiquitous and omniscient vision of God, as well as a pervasive feeling of guilt, you can chalk it up to Sister Agnes and her spiritual sisters.

In fact, each of the nuns played her part in molding us into Catholics, a separate people in a hostile world.  (The hostility was very real, by the way.  What we would call “hate crimes” against Catholics were not uncommon in those days.)

After grammar school I went to a Catholic boys’ high school (FYI, Catholic grammar school went from grades 1 through 8 and high school from 9 through 12).  It was run by the Servite Friars and was a revelation in more ways than one.  The priests all seemed to smoke, the first human action I had ever seen a religious perform in public.  The order’s U.S. base was on the South side of Chicago which gave them a toughness I had also never seen.  When faced with some students wearing a forbidden style of jacket (the kind the local bad kids wore), they simply went through the lockers, removed all the taboo items and burned them in the parking lot.  Theirs was a Draconian God.

As with grammar school, there were any number of errant lessons learned in high school: Football coaches teach American history.  George Washington had wooden teeth.  The Civil War was fought to free the slaves.  American History is the dullest subject ever invented.  But these lessons were secondary.

Truth is, I don’t remember what I learned in my high school classes as well as what I learned in grammar school.  In grammar school, your teacher is your parent substitute and carries the same single-minded importance.  In high school, the teachers are still the arbiters of your fate, but adolescence has arisen and it is hormones that really monopolize your attention.  Unfortunately, we were not situated where we could learn much about the subject that really held our attention.

Even had we been less shy, I suspect few teachers of that day would have been helpful in matters of sex.  Priests were less than useless.  Their intimidating presence blocked the questions you wanted to ask.  Their attitude about sex (Don’t.) was daunting.  Their expertise on the subject was doubtful.  Finally, it was not a subject they wanted to tackle.  I still remember how gentle Father Tash, our biology teacher, managed to run out of term just as we got to the chapter on human reproduction.

This, of course, left us lost on that fertile plain of misinformation, our peers.  Talk about the blind leading the blind!  In my entire life I have never encountered such a desperate need for information coupled with such dizzying inaccuracy.  They beat Sister Leona all hollow.

Consider all we didn’t know: Yes, I know it’s down there somewhere…but where?  Fore?  Aft?  Who ever heard of lubricity?  A clitoris?  Labia?  What feels good?  What doesn’t?  What the hell is foreplay?

Do you remember your own discovery of the odd noises connected with sex?  The smells?  The flavors?

Of all this we were not-so-blissfully ignorant.  There seemed to be no one to whom we could safely go for enlightenment.  Instead, we swapped erroneous tales about girls who did and girls who didn’t.  We tried to glean vital knowledge from personal tales of triumphs so laden with false (not to say anatomically unfeasible) details as to be useless.  There was the experienced air of bravado in public matched by shared bafflement admitted between close friends.

The question, I suppose, is what one could do about it.

I suspect that the lessons, the myths, and the misconceptions of grammar school burrow deep and haunt us forever.  Unless we have recourse to therapy, they stay buried and silently define our basic attitudes and postures.  There just is not much one can do to unlearn them without vast effort and upheaval.

High school class lessons do not seem to affect us so deeply.  By that stage we take in most errors as simple data, one of the stream of facts we are supposed to learn and regurgitate on command.  (Parenthetically, perhaps the most pernicious error from school in general is the idea that life consists of simple and discrete questions to which there are simple and discrete answers.)  Happily, for the rest of our lives we can just live with the misinformation and never willingly have anything to do with American History as long as we live.

With sex, our hormones closed that option to most of us.  It was not a set of errors we could simply ignore.  Instead, each of us was forced to become our own doctoral candidates, conducting our own sweaty, embarrassing  research in back seats.  I suppose it was the first independent study most of us had ever done.  I can’t say we became experts or corrected every error we had learned, but the number of babies we produced shows pretty clearly just how committed we were to our quest for empirical data.

It’s all in the motivation.

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