I seem to be on a nostalgia roll lately. Maybe it’s reading Jan and Gannett Girl's memoirs, or maybe it’s all the memories stirred up by the Pope and his apparent attachment to the Roman church of the past, but I find I have been taking my own trips down memory lane. As I remember myself in those early years, I think my greatest desire was to be approved of by the adults in my world and, if not liked, then at least left in peace by my peers. I did what was expected, thought lots and said little. Despite my run-ins with the priests over confessions, I still had total faith in the Church and her teachings. It would no more have occurred to me to question some facet of Catholic doctrine than it would have to ask if the sun was going to rise the next morning.
One thing I did question though was where I was going to high school, thereby creating more family conflict than anything I had done in my short life. For some strange reason I had decided that I needed to go to the Academy. All girls. Expensive. Upper class. Not the expected thing for the daughter of a sheet metal worker and housekeeper who lived in the lower class section of town and went to the German Catholic church. The kids from my school went to the diocesan Catholic high school if their parents could afford the tuition, or, if not, to the public high school. My father in particular was incensed by this ridiculous notion of mine. What, he demanded, was I thinking? Just who did I think I was, some rich kid who had nothing better to do than learn to walk around with books on her head? And just who was going to pay for this, he wondered? The public school was free, the diocesan school subsidized by the parish. The Academy was private, and we could not afford it. He talked to me, he even had the Pastor talk to me! But I was determined. In retrospect, I have no idea how I even learned about the existence of this place, let alone why I thought I should go there. It was out of my realm, beyond my world. I was the child of the working poor, blue collar. This place was for the daughters of the doctors and the lawyers and the businessmen. Truly I did NOT belong. But I had decided. I was going and nothing was going to stand in my way. So I contacted them about scholarships, found out there was indeed an accademic competition, entered it, and, I think, largely on determination alone, won a partial tuition scholarship and off I went.
To say that it changed my world would be a gross understatement. The sisters that taught in my grade school were primarily farm girls educated minimally to teach. They were mostly kind, sometimes smart, but they had never taken me an inch beyond the world I already knew. At the Academy, the sisters had Master’s degrees, sometimes more than one. They opened worlds of literature and language, art and music, philosophy and theology that I never dreamed existed. They saw in me a hungry mind and fed me well. I was introduced to de Chardin and Buber, Hammerskjold and Plato, Aeschylus and Dylan Thomas, Bach and Vivaldi and Munch. We went on trips to Chicago to the art and science museums and Minneapolis to the Guthrie. We sang great choral music and we sang it well (or else!). I learned to play the violin. I learned to think and reflect and question. I learned to dream of a bigger world than the one in which I had been raised. We had a chaplain of our very own. We went on retreats in which we were encouraged to think seriously about our own spiritual lives. I met women who were smart and funny and educated, and despite the fact that they were nuns, had traveled to interesting places and had wonderful stories of their lives and their faith they were only too willing to share. In truth, I found them much more interesting than most of my classmates, and developed crushes on some and true friendships with others. They challenged me to think about a future for myself that might include more than motherhood, or the blue collar world I was raised in. Again to the complete bafflement of my family, for whom the completion of high school was a new phenomena, so far accomplished only in my generation, I announced that I was going to college! My parents,who were getting used to their changeling-child by this time, shrugged and gamely filled out family financial aid forms. It was only years later that I could appreciate the real sacrifice they made. My father was an intensely proud and private man who hated to ask for any kind of help from anyone, and having to share his personal information to get that aid must have pained him deeply.
As I reflect on this, I have a sense of awe and immense gratitude. There is so much about all of it that is mysterious. Why I thought I had to go to a school that was obviously "not for me" and how I was able to persist in convincing everyone of that fact, and manage to get myself there amazes me to this day. I cannot even begin to imagine who I would be if I had not gone to the Academy, and my life had stayed contained in the small circumscribed world in which it began. Clearly God has a hand in all of this, as in all of our stories. "Surely it is God who saves me...."