It is often assumed in today's largely secular society that attending a parochial school will lead to a parochial mind. I think I thought this too, when I entered a Catholic high school. Having only ever known the public school system, I knew only stereotypes and generalizations. There were the same harmless ones -- kids with guitars sitting in prayer circles singing Kumbayah -- and then there were harsher, more dangerous, characterizations of narrow-mindedness that fostered intolerance. I don't know what I believed by the time I started my freshman year. But what I experienced was far from any archetype I may have expected.
In public school, we were thrown in together with all of the same kids from kindergarten to eighth grade. We were all virtually indistinguishable: Irish, Italian, Catholic, upper middle class. Kids from other schools were foreign, rumors, not one of us.
In Catholic school, however, I was among the kids from other towns, which was unusual. Amid the odd first-time experience of having to introduce and teach everyone around me about myself like I was selling a presentation (in public school you had always been there, everyone had always known you, and there was no room for you to change), I was fascinated to see what it was like to live in a far away (45 minutes) town, to have grown up in a tiny parochial school, and even more interested to realize that beyond our different backgrounds, there were common threads and traits that bound us together. Seeing all of the new and different people around me caused me to incorporate them into my rapidly broadening schema of what a vast variety of people existed in the world.
During my public school years, I went to church every Sunday and my family said grace before dinner every night. This, which was more than most others in my school could say for themselves, seemed enough to me to say I was religious. I thought that not actually understanding what was said at Mass, hollowly reciting prayers, and having a sense of detachment and formal impersonalness toward God was what organized conviction was supposed to be like. I was worshiping a greater, distant and too-holy-to-reach power while living an entirely separate daily life. I had blindly accepted and foundationlessly defended my beliefs because I had no education. I knew no difference between "Catholic church" and "God" and if asked could not explain the basis for any of the practices I unquestioningly followed -- yet somehow found myself justifying any and every action of the church that was challenged.
There is a large difference between "theology class" and "CCD," which is what I expected it to be like the first time I walked into my period G course on "Who is Jesus?" But I did not find church mothers volunteering their Monday nights, which is what I had expected. Instead, educated theologians who took their subject very seriously. They offered us in-depth analyses of Scripture, Christ, traditions and what was more, encouraged us to challenge them. Debates were common place. In fact, in parochial school there were more vocal skeptics and cross-examiners than I had encountered in secular education. I never realized that one could not simply accept all or none of Catholicism, but handpick personal aspects with which to agree or deviate. Being taught through the lens of a Catholic education has actually caused me to disagree with many facets of the Church and disregard some of my former beliefs, but simultaneously strengthened that which I do attune with.
Challenging my beliefs is the only thing that taught me what I truly believe in. Being educated in the foundation for each doctrine I had previously accepted, I was able to affirm my true beliefs and disregard others. What I don't believe in, I can justify for, and what I do, I can defend. I have discovered what true open-mindedness is, and of the need to listen to and consider what others have to say, because there is always room to learn.
One of the early weeks of freshman year, we were allowed to abandon our uniforms and wear normal clothes to school. It was the first time we had seen what each other dressed like, and to our shallow minds it was a moment of truth revealing who we all really were. I remember walking toward our lockers, modeling my painstainkingly picked Hollister shirt and jeans, and seeing a friend of mine dressed in splatter painted skinny jeans, a neon jacket and Converse. As I approached her I thought, "Wow. If I had seen her on the first day of school wearing that I probably never would've introduced myself."
It was true. I would have assumed based on her appearance the type of person she was, though not necessarily a bad person, and decided that we wouldn't be compatible. I would never have become friends with her. I would've missed out on a new and broadening experience, and, just as if I hadn't been exposed to the new viewpoints I had learned, I would be a little less open-minded because of not attending Catholic school.
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