On Being Catholic
by Deirdre Sinnott
When I was growing up, there were two elementary schools near my house: Sunset School, the public one that I went to, and Our Lady of Lourdes, the Catholic version of the same. Even though I was a Catholic, I hated the kids that went to Lady of Lourdes. There was one girl in particular who looked like a prim, ladylike version of me. Every morning she walked right by the teachers’ parking lot looking clean and righteous. She carried her books like an actress clutching an Academy Award. Miss Perfect, I thought.
So one morning, I tripped her. Now I was already a seasoned sibling fighter, engaging in fierce battles with my older brother and sister, but this girl meant business. I never expected that she was a coiled spring just waiting to explode. She turned into a clawing, hair-pulling, roll-around-on-the-ground fighter. What had I gotten myself into? I struggled to snatch some of her hair as she ripped out a chunk of mine. Just when I thought that I couldn’t take any more my sixth grade teacher, Mr. Fay, came out and dragged us apart.
“What’s wrong with you?” he screamed, his round face turning bright red.
I said nothing. I had no real explanation. I just wanted to fight.
“Don’t you know how to be a lady?” he went on, dragging me by the arm toward the principal’s office. “I’ve seen the way you dress. You should be ashamed of yourself. You act like a boy. I’m not going to teach you anymore until you dress more like a girl.”
He presented me to the principal, who presented me with a note for my parents. That night, as I practiced forging their signatures, I thought about what Mr. Fay had said. I acted like a boy. It was true. I loved to roughhouse and act tough.
The girl from the Catholic school was my age, but totally different. She looked sweet, wore skirts, and kept her hair in place with two matching pink barrettes. I hardly combed my hair, and I wore pants and ripped tee-shirts. I didn’t care how I looked. I wanted to be a boy, unconcerned with stupid stuff like barrettes. Nobody messed with boys.
My forgery efforts must have worked. I never heard about the incident again. Mr. Fay, however, made good on his promise. He sent me home later that week when I appeared in his class dressed in my favorite outfit—torn jeans and a peace-sign tee-shirt.
“Don’t come back in here until you put on a dress,” he commanded. After my mother read Mr. Fay’s snide note, she grumbled about not having time for all this hassle and sent me right back to school, in better pants and a button-down shirt. Somehow in the shuffle, my peace-sign tee-shirt got lost. About a month later I found a small piece of it in my mother’s box of cleaning rags.
That Thursday I ran into the girl I tripped. All of the regular Catholic school kids were dismissed early on Thursdays because we public school Catholics had to be given religious instruction. Once a week we were forced to stand up, leave Sunset School, and march over to Our Lady of Lourdes. Since half the class had to go, real lessons couldn’t be taught. Everyone who remained did some fun assignment. We banished Catholics used the classrooms in the parochial school for Jesus 101.
When I saw the pretty girl that I fought with on her way home early, she seemed tougher. Her eyes narrowed when she recognized me, her chin shot up with a challenge. But I never attacked her again; not after the beating I got.
Once inside the abandoned classrooms, we listened listlessly to the nuns tell us how we were sinners. We studied the Ten Commandments and the Holy Trinity. It seemed to me, as I stared up at the crucifix, that the commandment about “graven images” somehow got lost. In the church there was a life-size statue of the suffering Jesus on the cross, hip bones protruding, muscular arms stretched out, and a cloth precariously dangling over his private parts. I stared at it during services, my eyes caressing every sinew. Poor Jesus. I tingled when I looked at him.
My journey into the mysteries of Catholicism didn’t last long. I quit right after confirmation, when I was almost twelve years old. The seeds of my discontent had been planted three years earlier, around the time of my first communion. An ancient priest came to our religious instruction class to prepare us for the communion ceremony.
“Are both of your parents Catholic?” asked the priest. He wanted to be certain that the communion wafer, which I was convinced was literally the body of Christ, didn’t go to any non-Catholic.
“No,” I admitted.
“Which parent is not Catholic?”
“My mother.” She’s some kind of Protestant.
“If your mother is not a Catholic she will go to hell, you know.”
I looked up at the priest in horror. My mom going to hell? Terrified I ran home, burst into the living room and yelled, “Mom you’ve got to become Catholic!”
“Why?” she asked, looking up from her book. She seemed unconcerned about the fact that her soul was going to be burning in hell for all of eternity.
“The priest just told me that if you’re not Catholic you’ll go to hell.”
“That’s bullshit,” she said.
I stopped. She seemed pretty sure. I thought about it. If that was bullshit, maybe the rest was bullshit as well.
May 1, 2007
On Being Catholic