Early wonder years in Catholic school
Forty-nine years ago this month, I put on an itchy wool-plaid jumper, beanie, blazer, maroon knee socks and regulation oxford shoes to venture out to the bus stop — alone — for my first day at Sacred Heart School in southern New Jersey. Back then, our pastor could waive the kindergarten requirement if parents made the case that we were ready for first grade. Mom lobbed a convincing pitch.
An exasperated nun rushed down the school’s iron steps waving, her full black habit billowing in the rainy wind…the bell had rung and everyone was inside. “Are you Christine Valentine?” she barked, mispronouncing my last name to rhyme with my first. I flinched as she pointed me to her classroom. I didn’t know how to address nuns or what was expected. I sensed I’d be learning PDQ.
A stack of new books was on every old desk, and Sister Julia hustled me to my seat. She began reviewing numbers out loud, asking each row to count upward in unison. I had no idea. Suddenly we were on to identifying colors, with her pointer slapping large color-circles above the blackboard. Again, no idea. Everyone knew I was out of sync — they were giggling and side-glancing.
But I caught on. By November, I knew the alphabet, colors, numbers, telling time, basic prayers, printing, and simple reading — and began cursive writing, which seemed like personalized art. What Sister Julia didn’t realize about me was, I wanted to learn and had looked forward to school. I tried hard to win her over. We knew our parents wouldn’t respond to school complaints — we had to sink or swim.
I remember Sister teaching us our first Bible story about Adam and Eve. She hung a giant Bible reader above the board, and with her pointer, had us read the large words aloud. I was transfixed — these two people listened to a snake and ruined life for everyone over an apple? I was enthralled with the artwork — flowers, brooks, animals, fruit groves and angels — and secret gardens. It began an enduring curiosity in me about the nature of God and of people, how things came to be — and what’s in store ultimately.
There were years with congenial teachers, and with tough ones. We were taught to obey, adapt and keep going. Our individual hang-ups were not paramount — the teacher was. Her priorities became ours, but we were always accountable. We respected authority, even if we didn’t relish or agree with it. It prepared us for responsibilities of all sorts.
We learned more than we realized. Life is demanding, people aren’t always affable, and their expectations not always comfortable. Every day has its duties, bright spots and disappointments, and we were held to a disciplined regimen. But in that old stone Catholic school with no air conditioning, cafeteria or gym, we had order, safety, and something more. We went to weekly Mass, received sacraments regularly, had parish priests guest-teaching our class, jump-roped with the nuns, and learned our place … for now and later.
I look back on those fledgling Catholic school days with great gratitude. We got so much — solid girding of faith, durable work ethic, lessons in perseverance, obedience, and humility. Pearls for a lifetime.
CHRISTINE VALENTINE-OWSIK is Legatus magazine’s Editor.