My parents enrolled me in a parochial school when I entered the first grade, and this was the year that I began my long descent into hell. (Actually, I had been taking little steps downward for a long time, but this is the time frame when the ground opened up underneath me and the fall was dizzying.) There were many ingredients that got tossed into a pot and stirred together to create the witches brew of my misery. But the element of the potion that I'll talk about for the purposes of this story was the eye of newt of Catholic school. I only spent a half a year there before I was yanked out and placed in public school but the damage was already done.
I remember one particular day standing alone against a brick wall during recess. It was a bitterly cold and windy day and my family was fairly poor so my coat was old and ratty and not very warm. My whole body was shaking and my teeth were making a sound like Spanish maracas. From across the playground two very well-dressed girls marched over to where I was standing and one of them said very emphatically, "I hope you freeze to death." So I did. Something in me went very cold and still from that day forward.
There were a lot of little deaths like this during my time in Catholic school. The children were cruel and the nuns were either oblivious or indifferent. But the thing that made this really unbearable for me was that it was all juxtaposed against the religious paraphernalia of the convent. Along with learning math and spelling and all that, I was learning God-rules. Mixed in with all the humiliation and torture and isolation was a stream of God-talk. Not God-talk like, "Jesus loves you, honey." It was all the little rules and corresponding punishments if you broke those rules. (Catholics in those days had really lurid ways of describing hell and emphasizing how very easy it was to offend God.) Every day these things were stirred together into a big hateful poison that pulsed through my tiny freezing frame.
There was one notable exception. One day my teacher told me that someone wanted to see me out in the hall. I walked to the door in a terrified stupor and imagined that I must have done something really horrible to be singled out this way. On the other side of the door was this beautiful little old lady: the mother superior. She was holding something shiny in her hand. She told me that she used to be my dad's teacher when he was a little boy. Then she held out her hand and gave me a little rosary that she had made just for me. When she placed the rosary into my palm I suddenly understood that she was God coming to rescue me. She was that same warm and loving presence that was so familiar to me. I loved her instantly.
It was just enough.
I suspect she knew something about the other storms in my life outside of that place and possibly even noticed the way I was fading day by day. Her kindness is something I'll always remember and treasure. But overall I would have to say that the church represented by that school failed me. It did not point me to God. I'm not blaming anyone here and I'm not even confident enough in the mechanisms of memory to say anything much about this at all.
Years later, I wrote this poem:
Every day I had three choices~
all the same:
three white blouses
three pleated skirts~
a green and blue plaid that pulled me into its threads, and tried to erase me.
It was easy to disappear into the fabric of the uniforms.
Even my rosary bead magic
which pressed against the skin of my chest
could not protect me.
My bare knees peeked out from under those pleats in the middle of a February blizzard,
and I waited for the numbness to rescue me~
welcomed it like a friend.
The snow became the green and blue of the uniforms,
and buried me in the avalanche of its conformity~
the world all green and blue.
I was the mismatched color~
the sin beneath the tons of snow.
Something of me was buried by that place. There was an opportunity to save me and that opportunity was lost. In the weeks after I received that rosary everything familiar in my life went away. This is not the place where I'll talk about that, at least not today. But even in the buried parts of myself there was some form of frozen life. Cold preserves things and I had not really died. My heart was being stored away for a time when it would be safe to resuscitate it. God was still holding me. In fact, I know for sure that he was suffering his own form of hypothermia, his limbs blue with shared grief.