So a week or so ago I learned that my son’s Catholic high school – which has been in existence for over 125 years – is closing at the end of this school year due to a decrease in enrollment and rising costs. I can’t begin to tell you how sad this makes me because I know the quality of the education my great kid received there, as well as at his extraordinary Catholic grammar school. I also know that the moral and spiritual foundation that they built upon has helped him – and many other students over many years – become good, caring, honest and spiritual members of their communities.
I too was blessed to attend Catholic school my entire life, right through college. And not only was the experience extraordinary, I still have friends from grammar school (hi, Ginny!), high school (my beloved DC girls, over 100 of them) and college (the best man at my ill-advised wedding. As I’ve said before and am sure will say again, I got rid of the husband but kept the best man as my friend). My parents met their best friends of 55 years when their son and I started kindergarten on the same day. These men and women who came into my life via my Catholic schools are some of the finest people I will ever hope to know and I suspect many of them will say that their Catholic school education was the bedrock that their future lives was built upon.
In a time when most of our teachers were nuns – women who had dedicated their lives to teaching and God – my own mother was a teacher in my grammar school. It was the perfect job for someone who wanted to be home when her kids were home, at a school that is still open and celebrated its 100 year anniversary just a few short years ago. She taught first grade and one year had a class with 68 students. (I’ll wait a moment while you digest that number.) She never had fewer than 50 students in her classes and when she left the school to move to another state, so many children wrote her cards and letters (all of which she kept) that it was an embarrassment of riches. She was told again and again how she had changed their lives, not only through teaching the basic subjects but nurturing her students’ belief in God.
When the school had a Mass to celebrate its 100 year anniversary, all of the teachers who were present were invited to walk down the main aisle of the church to sit at the front. As they walked, they were met with goose-bump inducing thunderous applause as both parents and students from many years cheered them for all they had done, sometimes with little acknowledgement or appreciation and certainly at a tiny salary.
My Mom (and every teacher there) made virtually no money because Catholic school teachers are among the most poorly paid teachers there are. But they don’t teach at a Catholic school to get rich. They teach there because they know that shepherding a child through school doesn’t just mean book learning; it means teaching them right from wrong. It means showing them that you should never look down on another person unless you are helping them up. It means prayer to start and end your day (a practice I still follow). And it means remembering that you can be as smart as can be but if you haven’t learned to be a good person who practices the golden rule (or the Ten Commandments), it doesn’t matter how educated you are.
I was lucky (as were my parents) when my sister and I went to grammar school. There were so many people who belonged (and contributed whatever they could) to our church and sent their children to our school that tuition was free. When I started high school, I think our tuition was a few hundred dollars a year. (It doesn’t sound like much but it was actually a hardship for my parents to send me and my sisters there but they did it because it mattered to them so much. Thank you, Mom and Dad).
College was a whopping $2,000 a year when I went (and I was blessed enough to have won a full scholarship so I didn’t have to pay at all) but I know my parents would have found a way to get the money to send me there. They believed that continuing the education that shaped not only my mind but my heart and soul was an investment worth making.
Times have changed though and fewer of us go to church on a regular basis. Our schedules are too busy, the time for the services aren’t convenient for us, we have something else we need to do. As more people drifted away from church (and as their weekly donations dried up), tuition costs started to rise and admissions started to drop. By the time my son went to Catholic high school, the tuition was over $8,000 a year.
And trust me, it was a sacrifice to make it work but we did. Because I knew those dedicated women (and they were all women in my grammar school and high school) had – with every lesson, every discussion, every trip to church to say a prayer, every project – shaped and formed me into this person I am now. A person who still goes to church every week. A person who becomes incensed at the injustice in the world. A person who knows that there is a heaven, a heaven where I’ll see my darling Dad again. A person whose faith in God lets me be open to feeling his presence and accepting the signs he sends me (Baldheaded Woman for sure). A person I hope my son wants to emulate.
I have great respect for all teachers and in no way mean to diminish what teachers in public schools do. My wonderful cousin, Dan, teaches art in public school and makes the lives of his students better every day. But I am the person I am today because of my Catholic school teachers and classmates. And now a whole generation of children in my community won’t have that opportunity because yet another school is closing. I’m sad for them but I hope that they’ll take the best of what they’ve already learned from their great teachers and pay it forward. If they do that, then they’ll make their teachers proud, their parents happy and their communities grateful to have such caring and compassionate and smart people in their midst. Godspeed, Cardinal McCarrick High School, and thank you for making my great kid who he is today.