In economics, we talk about education as a way to build “human capital”, which will later be put to productive use in the labor market. It is one way that people can improve their chances of earning income, and the level of income earned. This is something that my parents, children of my immigrant grandparents whose education stopped at “continuation school”, knew instinctively as they navigated the world of education for me and my sister. This led them down paths that included religiously-focused education, at a Catholic grammar school and a Catholic high school. These decisions were often made at great costs to them. I remember my mother going to work at 5AM in order to get in some hours of work before we needed her to help us get out of the house to go to school. And, since these schools sometimes ran on a wing and a prayer (quite literally), I remember my dad spending Saturday nights calling BINGO at my sister’s grammar school.
When it came time for me to make decisions about education for myself, I found myself once again gravitating towards Catholic education, leading me to attend the oldest Catholic college in the U.S. as an undergraduate, and then what was the largest Catholic college in the U.S. as a graduate student (which, by the way, is in Massachusetts, and not Indiana), and to finally settle into a job at one of the first Catholic women’s colleges in the U.S. When it came time to choose a school for my daughter, we sent her to a very small Catholic grammar school, one that she will leaving soon, although it breaks my heart.
There are many reasons why these schools caught my imagination and helped form me into the person I am today. I have a clear memory of sitting in the chapel at school around Thanksgiving when I was in about 3rd grade, watching the reflection of a candle flicker in the window as we all learned to sing “Now Thank We All Our God.” I remember incredible women who taught us with no thought of reward, shaping my life in ways they could have no ways of knowing. Did the Sister who taught me to play the guitar in 3rd grade realize that someday I would meet my husband because we both were liturgical musicians? Or did the sister who kept me after school in second grade to study more math know that someday I would run a math department in a college? While they did not know this, they forged ahead with their vocations, day after day and week after week, in schools where knowledge was transferred not just for its own sake or to help us secure high paying jobs, but where knowledge of creation was seen as a way to understand the Creator. Once learned, it was assumed that this knowledge would be put to use for the good of the world. Such a perspective is one that led one of Ursuline’s graduates, Dorthy Kazel, to work in El Salvador where she became one of the martyrs in Latin America from the late 20th century.
The sense of “sacramentality” of learning that went on in these schools was priceless, but, occasionally, we realized that, at the pre-college level, we were missing some things that our friends at the public schools were receiving, although the schools at the college level and beyond were fine institutions of higher learning. Working on shoestring budgets, it was clear that our high school science labs were not as elaborate as those at the public schools, nor was our math curricula. I recall sitting in an introductory physics class in college, blindly calculating partial derivatives, only to walk across the hall to my Calculus I class to learn the math behind what a derivative was, a concept learned in high school by many of my classmates. Still, I believed that this type of education was something I wanted to pass along to my daughter.
This past week, I went to Mass at her school, where she and the rest of the uniform-clad students sat on the altar leading us all in song. This would be one of the last times I would be able to do this, and I was immensely sad. Because in this past year we have come to realize that she will need the services of a speech and language pathologist to a degree beyond what her school and our private insurance can supply. And so, unless we find a Catholic school that offers the appropriate services, we will be moving her to a public school, where such services are routinely available. As much as I love Catholic school, I love my daughter more.
This might be a good time to dig up the bumper sticker that someone once gave me. It reads “I survived Catholic School.”