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SCHOOLS DIE, INFLUENCE REMAINS

Their long empty corridors, waxed shiny, are the ones we wander in our night dreams.

In my own I am anxious, searching for my classroom. I stop at each door. No one inside looks familiar. Are they in the wrong place? Or am I?

Our elementary schools are where the sprouts of ourselves strengthen and grow. My first school was bulldozed years ago. My second, I learned recently, will turn off its lights and be abandoned in June.

St. Mel's Elementary School was not one of the landmarks mourned so loudly in the newspapers, when the Archdiocese of Detroit announced recently it would close 18 schools. Attached to the rear end of our church in Dearborn Heights, our school was not important to anyone but us.

I began fifth grade there the year the school opened. I am only 51, and it has been pronounced dead.

I expect schools to live longer than their boys and girls.

I tell new friends that I attended Catholic school for "the formative years," fifth through eighth grades. Our uniform skirts had to touch the floor when we knelt down. Our blouses and shirts were buttoned all the way up and kept secure with a "tie," a folded ribbon boys and girls alike slipped over the top button.

Forgetting or losing your tie meant punishment.

Our teachers, Felician nuns in heavy brown habits with ropes around their waists, were paid pennies for their devotion. In the fifth grade, Sister Mary Henryann managed 63 of us. She cried once in frustration, but usually a smack of her ruler on an unruly kid's desk did the job.

We won permission to play records during our lunch hour, when most of us ate at our desks, but that didn't last long, because some boy brought in a new song by the Rolling Stones called "Satisfaction." Stunning us, Sister Henryann yanked it off the record player and that was the end of music at lunchtime.

I can't remember any of us ever failing to do our homework. Our parents made sure of that, and our mothers made cupcakes and sold hot dogs at lunchtime to raise money for the school everyone assumed would produce generations of good Catholics.

We stood whenever a nun or priest entered the room. We learned to pay respect, whether or not we felt it in our hearts.

And, we learned a certain inappropriate arrogance. The public school kids who used our classrooms for Saturday catechism were from "the dark side," one schoolmate remembers, "because they wrote graffiti on our desks." He admits he was scared of them. So was I.

My Catholic school education lasted four years and forever. Rules. Respect. Shame for my sins. Sitting up. Lining up. Paying attention.

But what the nuns tried to keep from us eventually infiltrated. In college in the early '70s most of us young women rejected the old rules, of sex and gender, and vowed never to become our cupcake-baking mothers.

Neighborhoods like the one I grew up in grew gray. None of us reproduced like our parents had. Tuition rose as the ranks of nuns shrank, and parishes subsidized Catholic educations for more and more non-Catholic kids.

I'm not surprised that any of these schools are closing. The Catholic Church is a business. Income is shrinking. Obligations are soaring. Leadership remains inflexible.

By losing its school, my old neighborhood loses its young, vital, hopeful heart.

Soon it will exist only in our dreams, a school of neat children in plaid uniforms, lined up for the future on floors that will always gleam.

Knight Ridder Newspapers

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