Saturday, June 02, 2007

First of all, thanks to TG for offering to goad her children into misbehavior so I can save face! Don't think it'll be necessary, though. I'll be over myself by then.

Let me explain why I am so weird about the religion stuff.

As regular readers know, my dad was Catholic, my mom was Lutheran, and they chose to raise me Catholic. Now, when I was little, I didn't really understand the differences, except that they went to different churches, and Daddy's church had the big cross behind the altar and Mummy's church had the big, fascinating, and creepy picture of the Agony in the Garden on one of the walls. Despite that, though, I could tell that my dad's family thought a little less of my mom because she wasn't "part of the fold." even if she was a good woman.

And, I could tell that, despite the fact that my dad loved my mother deeply, there was a little part of him that didn't like the fact that she wasn't willing to consider conversion to Catholicism. That was one of the few things that kep my family growing up from being just about perfect (well, that and my dad's drinking, and my mom's occassional depression, get the picture).

I went to Catholic school for elementary school, so as far as I was concerned, everyone in the world was Catholic (except for Mum, of course). On some level, I believed that, even though I had evidence to the contrary in the form of the Methodist nursery school, the Presbyterian preschool and vacation bible school I attended, and the Baptist neighbors who always wrapped tracts around the candy bars they handed out at Halloween - no one cared because they gave full-sized Hershey Bars. Anyway, I was pretty content in my little Catholic world.

Until fourth grade. I've written before about how incredibly hurt I was that I wasn't allowed to be an altar server because I was a girl. I knew in my head that only boys were allowed to serve in my church, even though girls could serve in my mom's church, but in my heart, I really wanted to be a server. I was fascinated by the ritual of the Mass, and I wanted to know more. I wanted to really understand what was happening, which I wasn't getting out of my religion classes. When Fr. David Kriss (he's dead, and I hated him, so I will use his real name) pretty much told me I was a bad person because I questioned that inequality, I started to question other things too.

I quietly questioned and went on with my life for the next couple years, until 7th grade. That year changed my life in so many ways, some good, some bad. I started in the Pittsburgh Public Schools Middle School Gifted Program that year. I got pulled out of my school once a week to attend special classes with students from all over the city, from both private an public schools. I loved it. I was challenged academically and intellectually, which I wasn't getting at my home school. But more importantly, I discovered that the whole world was not white and Catholic. I went to school with African-American students for the first time, my closest friends and Banksville were a Hispanic Lutheran, and African-American Baptist, a Jewish girl and a Jewish guy. We bonded one day when we realized that the one that everyone at out table in our IEP class had in common was that the KKK hated us all. We talked about religion from an intellectual perspective - well, as intellectual as bunch of sheltered 12 year olds can be. It was awesome.

Back at my home school, I was on our Spelling Bee "team" (I can't think of a better word than that - there were three of us who represented the school in the Pittsburgh Press Spelling Bee, and one alternate). In addition to practicing at home, we were expected to give up recess two days a week to practice at school. Guess who our "coach" was? If you guessed Fr. David Kriss, you are right. At first, it wasn't that bad, but as the Bee got closer, he demanded more of our time. At first, he'd keep us 10 or 15 minutes into our lunch periods, leaving us with 15 or 10 minutes to eat. Then he insisted on more days, so that we were giving up recess all together (he actually was a little bit ticked with D and me for our one day a week at Banksville). He also became more and more harsh in practice. He insisted that we spell words in syllables, and even if we got them correct, we had to respell them.

Well, I had trouble spelling in syllables. My brain just didn't memorize words like that. Instead, I tended to see them in letter groups. It worked for me, but he didn't like that at all. He yelled at me all time. It got to be really, really stressful.

Everything came to a head one Thursday. He started giving us words we hadn't studied yet, and at one point, he gave me the word "leukemogen" which, if you are interested, is an agent that causes leukemia. I spelled it wrong the first time, and I didn't spell it in syllables. He completely lost it. He made me, for the rest of our study session, say each syllable and then spell it - of that same word. This went on for about 20 minutes. By the end, I was in tears, and I could tell that M, K, and D were uncomfortable on my behalf. He kept us all the way through lunch that day.

Now our principal, Sr. Paulita (don't mind giving her name either - she was wonderful), insisted that we take as much time as we needed to eat lunch when he kept us late. Unfortunately, I had pre-Algebra right after lunch, and my limited math skills didn't let me miss a minute of class, so I usually just bolted lunch. On that particular day, though, I first of all didn't feel like eating, and second, had no time as class was already starting. So I told Mrs. F (who worked in the lunchroom on Thursdays instead of my mom, who worked the rest of the week), that I was skipping lunch and went back to class.

Sr. Mary Agnes (she was pretty OK, too) had been alerted that we had been kept through lunch, and was surprised to see me in class. I couldn't lie to her and say that I had already eaten since I had my full lunchbag with me. I told her I just wasn't very hungry. It was obvious that I had been crying.

Somehow or another, Sr. Mary Agnes must have gotten word to Sr. Paulita using some special nun-ESP, because a few minutes later, she came and pulled me out of class. She took me into the gym (which was the closest unused room), and asked me what was wrong. I tried to keep it in, and tell her everything was fine, but she was pretty darned perceptive, and she didn't believe me. I finally broke down, and through tears told her what had happened, and about all the other times Fr. Kriss had yelled at me, and that I was sorry I couldn't do things his way. I told her that I'd try to fix things if I just knew why he hated me (this kind of thing had been going on since that day in 4th grade, to one degree or another). She told me it wasn't my fault, and told me she'd call my mom to come get me. I didn't want to miss math, though, so she sent me back to class, and called my mom anyway. I didn't have to have any more classes with Fr. Kriss (I even got to help out in the computer room when he taught our religion class), and he got transferred right after that school year.

I also had other issues at my home school that year. SR, my rival all through school, had gone from being merely a rival to being my arch-nemisis and bully. She was the de facto leader of the popular girls, so where she led, they followed. I got picked on a lot that year. I wasn't pretty, or athletic, or rich. I had "developed" earlier than the other girls who were just starting that. Then, I went to a different school one day a week , which, according to them, made me think I was better than everyone else. I thought nothing of the sort, of course. My self-esteem was low enough then that I pretty much thought that I was inferior to everyone. It made for a miserable year.

That year marked a seminal moment for me in my relationship with the Catholic Church. I didn't understand why this man, who was supposed to represent the Good Shepherd on Earth could be so mean to me, how these girls, who professed to believe what Jesus taught every week at Mass could pick on me to the point where I went home in tears, and the kids I knew at Banksville, who weren't Catholic, or even Christian in some cases, could be so nice. I didn't understand how I could stick out like a sore thumb with people who were supposedly just like me, an fit in perfectly with people who weren't. That was the year I started to question the institutional Church, and organized religion in general.

I'll write about my high school years later today. Right now, I need to go get my laundry out of the dryer and go get something for...whatever meal you eat at 3:30 p.m. when it's the first meal of the day.

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