Law & Order & Jesus: A Perfectionist's Letter of Thanks to a Catholic Education
Hello, old friend.
I didn't grow up in a Catholic household -- my mother is not religious and my father denounced his own status as a Catholic before I was born. But I was baptized Catholic, then confirmed Catholic as a teenager and for nine years, I attended Catholic school. How this all came to be exactly, I'm not sure, other than the fact that my grandparents were extremely Catholic and that must have been how I ended up this way. This Catholicism has stayed with me through adulthood, though I no longer attend church and vehemently disagree with most of the church's stances on LGBTQIA people's general existence and how women should conduct their lives (and various other social issues, though Pope Francis has been making some notable strides).
But I do find myself enjoying moments of being part of "Catholics club," which consists of me and two other friends who sometimes find humor in things you only know about if you went to Catholic school. This past weekend, I attended a very casual alumni picnic at my alma mater, Christ the King. Setting foot on the campus for the first time in twenty years, I started to think a lot about how the first half of my education shaped the person I am today. The person who is a controlling, manic and unbridled perfectionist.
The first thing I noticed as I walked up to my old sacred stomping grounds was the side door I used to exit in order to bang erasers. Do kids still have to do this? Do classrooms still have chalkboards? To a 33-year-old person, thinking about seven-year-old me clapping two felt bricks together in a un-ending quest to get them clean seemed mildly Draconian. But here's the thing: I remember liking doing it. Catholic school was the birth of my eternally and mostly detrimental crusade to be a perfectionist.
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And it wasn't just the erasure-banging I took comfort in -- it was the whole damn Catholic school experience. Nothing heats up the cold, black heart of a Virgo quite like a building devoted to children learning the law-and-order of life. In Catholic school, there was no tardiness -- you were either in class or you weren't. I learned that you didn't show up anywhere late because being late is the same as not being there at all, a rule I then applied to all aspects of life. To this day, I refuse to enter a performance or movie or anything after it has started, waiting instead for a respectable entrance at intermission.
In Catholic school, if you disrupted class in any way, your name was written on the board. Another disruption would land a checkmark next to your name, and a third and final disruption meant a trip to the principal's office. I was so scared of ever being in trouble that I remember getting my name on the board exactly one time in first grade, when I was accused of participating in an illegal "social hour" that went down during class.
That singular incident was enough for me, instilling such a fear of upsetting anyone that it never happened again. To this day, I do not interject in conversations or public places where people are speaking until it is my turn. And I always I respect the person leading the dialogue. I like to raise my hand and wait my turn. Keep reading for more on the Catholic club.
When I graduated from Catholic to public for high school, I couldn't believe my fellow students could live with themselves if they came to class without their homework done. In Catholic school, this was unheard of -- not doing your homework was not an option.
I recall an isolated incident of trying to do my homework in the bathroom in secret in sixth grade and being so terrified of getting caught that I never did that again. You would think I was smoking cigarettes in there with the amount of guilt I harbored over not getting my work done. Even when I was in college, I adhered to this charter. To this day, I think it makes me a fairly good reporter when it comes to respecting a deadline, because I fear the guilt associated with disappointment more than anything else in the world.
In Catholic school, we had to wear uniforms, which was, from what I understand, meant to make everyone look the same. The point was to take the focus off of our aesthetic differences. This, of course, wasn't true in the least bit, because I could tell from a mile away that my Polo shirt wasn't a "real" Polo shirt and that I was one of the poor kids. At a school with kids whose parents drove Audis and owned vacation homes in Nantucket, being the one with parents who drove a Plymouth and vacationed in Best Westerns was embarrassing.
But once I got to public school and saw that most everyone had grown up just like me -- in a small house or an apartment in the not-rich part of town -- I felt relief. Though there were some trying times as the poor kid in Catholic school, it gave me humility. It also made me realize that my family was actually just doing the working-class struggle like everyone in my neighborhood and we all turned out okay.
As I wandered around the grounds of my modest little former school, I peeked into classrooms and saw that not much had changed. If anything, it was weird to be back in a place where I had spent so much time, yet wasn't even old enough to drive myself to. Seeing all of those statues of Jesus and Mary staring at me from their perches again gave me comfort and reminded me that if there is something I love, it is structure and order. There's no place like Catholic school.
Now, if you're excuse me, I'm going to go thank Jesus for this annoying gift of perfectionism that will never leave me. If anyone has some erasers I can bang together, let me know.
Be my voyeur (or better yet, let me stalk you) on Twitter: @cocodavies
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