The news last week that nearly two dozen Catholic elementary schools in Brooklyn and Queens are slated for extinction hit me like a rap on the knuckles with a ruler. It’s not that the signs haven’t been in the air. The Catholic Church and its educational system, after all, wield nowhere near the mighty force they did a few decades ago. Mass attendance is almost nonexistent. Priests are dying off or being shipped off to the pokey for crimes they committed when my generation was still in uniform. And it’s come to pass that even in my Brooklyn neighborhood, where statues of Saint Anthony are a front-lawn fixture, the school is marked for the ax. The idea of a city bereft of Catholic schools stuns me, because it means that eventually we’ll be a city without that most valued asset-the Catholic-school survivor.
My stint in the parochial system was spent on the other side of the river, in Jersey City and Hoboken, where an enduring legacy of lackluster public schools continues to keep the Catholic institutions aloft. Growing up, the schools were local characters in and of themselves, tough guys with nicknames like St. Al, St. Dom, St. Nick. My family sent me to them in part because they wanted me to become a pious, virtuous young lady. They also wanted me to have the kind of functioning literacy and grasp on basic math that public school might not guarantee.
There, Catholic schools weren’t merely for the offspring of rosary-clutching madonnas with a stash of holy water in the house; they were for anybody concerned about the ass kickings that were a more common sight in our numerically named counterparts. Half the kids I went to school with weren’t even Catholic. We just came from families that preferred the scariest person in the classroom to be wearing a wimple. If eventually I bonded with a girl named Jeannie Weinstein, it wasn’t over a mutual love of Jesus, but a comrades-in-arms fear of the assistant principal. And what I didn’t realize at the time was that the camaraderie would stay with me and my tartan-clad kin the rest of our lives.
To be a Catholic-school veteran is to never be truly alone. It’s a membership in an elite, dysfunctional family-a fine addition to the dysfunctional families most of us already belong to. It means you can bicker with someone you’ve just met over whose nuns were the toughest. You can discuss the merits of a giant wall crucifix as an anti-cheating device. And you can bask in your glory days on the liturgy committee.
If you’re a man, Catholic school has probably provided endless inspiration for your punk band, for the quirky independent film you financed on your credit card, or for your stand-up act. Last week, I was in an audience when the comedian onstage spotted my red hair and asked my name. When I told him, he hooted to the audience: “Catholic girl? You need to get laaaiiiid!” What would a poor guy like that be doing for jokes if not for people like me?
Which brings me to another point: If you’re female, convent school is the greatest pickup device ever. The phrase “I went to an all-girl Catholic academy” is universally translated as “I’m a freak.” My eight years of religious education may have been cruel and often grueling, but they paid for themselves in getting me action. You want to take away Catholic schools? O.K., but don’t come crying to me in 20 years when you have to go tapping the Mormon states to find the kind of girls who can give you something to repent about.
Catholic school is a legacy that stays with you for life. Years in uniform left me sartorially crippled for most of the 80’s, and I’m still paralyzed when confronted with my school colors. But today another part of me embraces the whole Peter-Pan-collars-and-blazers-with crests megillah. Even now, when I return to my hometown, I know to tread carefully when I pass a girl with her plaid skirt rolled up to butt-skimming levels, because I know how tough those girls can be. And when I see the boys running screaming down my own street every afternoon at 3, loosening their little ties, I make a quiet note to myself of who to keep my daughters away from in a few years.
That’s the power of the uniform: It’s a social leveler, it’s your gang colors, and it is, of course, a fetish object par excellence. Could Britney Spears have launched a career if she’d strutted down that hallway in regulation public-school jeans and T-shirt? Au contraire. When I once mentioned to a man that I still had my high-school uniform and my old candy-striper garb, he hopefully inquired if I’d ever also been a storm trooper.
Whether the doors are officially locked for good or not, the Catholic schools I once knew are already gone. Priests who resented saying Mass in English, and punishment-junkie nuns with names like Sister Davita, Sister Veronice and Sister Maristella, are long dead, replaced by a more easygoing generation of lay teachers. Yet much of what I learned in Catholic school stays with me, and much of it actually goes beyond an appreciation of Virgin Mary night lights and an aversion to Mel Gibson opuses. To hear “love thy neighbor” and “turn the other cheek” every day for years is to be prepared forever to brave the F train and the bagel line without totally blowing a gasket. To wear a uniform means to not be fooled by Vogue or Lucky-it is to know unshakably that plaid and pleats make you look fat, girlfriend.
We can blame the decline of the Catholic schools on any number of things: population shifts, predatory priests, a loosened grip on our overall piety. They certainly all contributed to my decision not to send my daughters there, despite being charmed by a girl named Catalina who took me around St. Charles Borromeo and beamed as she spoke about her school and her teachers. And I’m fortunate that my district is teeming with other options. I wouldn’t want to be a parent in one of the several less desirable areas now facing the prospect of sending my kid to the overcrowded, underperforming local public institution.
Catholic school may have given me an enduring cynicism about the Crusades, and a piece of lead in my knuckle from where Jeanette Samra stabbed me in our own holy war. Yet when I think of our city streets wiped free of the image of identically clad, catechism-quoting children, it fills me with a certain nostalgic sadness, and it’s not prurient or ironic at all. Because those kids are pure local color, in shades of blue and gold or burgundy and gray. They’re a fuhgeddaboudit accent, the peal of church bells, they’re St. Patrick’s Day and San Gennaro. And we wouldn’t be the same without them.