Catholic School Interlude: The Old Conservatism Part IV
After this "Catholic School Interlude," I'll write one more piece ("Part V") on the Old Conservatism -- and will return, from time to time, to that subject. As I've been toddling along, it strikes me that a major influence on my life -- and of many other conservatives, including William F. Buckley, Jr. -- was the influence of early religious teachers.
As a child, I went to St. Salome's School, on the edge of Sea Breeze (near Lake Ontario) in the suburbs of Rochester, New York. The teachers were all members of the Sisters of Mercy, and they dressed in what was traditional nun garb. They ranged in age from their late 20s to their early 70s, with most of them being in their 30s or 40s. Some of the younger ones, including Sister Gonzaga, played softball with us in the parking lot.
The student body was mostly from middle-income backgrounds, with a significant percentage of the children being from large families with low incomes. Certain students were the third person in their family to wear a pair of shoes. The nuns strictly forbid any status-bullying.
On a memorable (now) occasion, Sister Charlotte, fifth grade teacher, told her group of 42 students that the class smelled bad. From the perspective of age, I assume she was right. Her advice was to change our underwear and to ensure that our mothers washed our socks at least every two or three days.
Sister Charlotte taught all the usual subjects, but what I most remember was studying world history in her class. This was REAL history, from Sumerians up to the present. It wasn't Civics or visits to the Post Office masquerading as Social Studies. It was Pericles and Athens and, wonder of wonders, Sparta, with King Leonidas at Thermopylae saying, "Oh, traveler, tell the Spartans that we lie here obedient to their word." Wow.
I loved it, as what had happened in the past became revealed in all its fascinating detail. In college and beyond, I was still using information I'd learned in Sister Charlotte's history segment.
I'm suggesting that this is the kind of education it's hard to get anymore -- even if you're paying $20,000 per student. By third grade, my reading scores were making their way into the eighth-grade level, and I was not alone. Kathleen Burns, my neighbor, who later wrote the Patricia Hearst articles in Los Angeles, was reading way above expectations, as was my best friend Fred Hale, later owner of a major restaurant.
Two of my classmates, Sandy Petromalo and "Beaver" Becker lie in Arlington Cemetery, casualties of the Viet Nam War. Both were members of the 101st Airborne Division. Sandy was the "Fonzie" of our school. They reflected a warrior ethos prevalent among boys in our neighborhood.
I talked in my previous column about how various conservative figures influenced and supported me. My experience at St. Salome's was similar. The nuns encouraged me to read books well beyond "grade level." They identified me as someone with writing talents.
One nun, Sister Neri (fourth grade) encouraged me to enter an essay contest touting the importance of drinking milk. I finished 10th nationally, out of 30,000 entrants in grades 4-through-6.
Sister Neri told me that one judge wanted to vote my essay first, but another judge said he doubted a 4th-grader could have written it. She told me, "I assured them that you DID write it." In fact, I did.
A second-grade experience with the remarkable Sister Regina, who may have been 4 foot-nine inches in her bare feet -- which feet of course we never saw on this earth. She would ask students to come up to the board to solve difficult math problems.
I always volunteered, but on one occasion I couldn't solve the problem. I tried and tried, becoming more frustrated. Then, I started to cry.
Sister Regina came up to me and said, "Stephen, it's just an old math problem. Don't cry. Here, I'll show you how to solve it." And she did.
By the next year, Sister Regina had gone to some other school. No one ever knew exactly where nuns went. It was, like so many things in the Catholic experience, a "mystery."
When we were in 4th grade, Sister Regina came back for a visit. The students saw her and, if it's possible to mob a nun, we did so with her. It was probably the biggest group hug in the history of St. Salome's.
Clearly, I'm not telling one of those "Catholic horror stories" we've all heard. In general, this was an exceptional group of women, smart, dedicated, and loving. They had dedicated to serving Jesus Christ and teaching children, both activities forever linked in their hearts and souls.
My mother was a Protestant, but if the nuns ever knew that, they forgot it quickly when they learned she had a car and could drive! She took the sisters everywhere. On one occasion, when she was having trouble getting up one of Rochester's snowy hills, they began praying to the Virgin Mary.
My mother said later, "I was on the verge of saying that they might have to stop praying and start pushing."
The nuns taughts us right-and-wrong. They got across the point that there were some things that decent people just did NOT do. We weren't to refrain from such activities because we might get caught or punished. We were to avoid them because they were WRONG in the eyes of God.
I don't remember them saying God wanted us to be perfect. Instead, the message I got was that He expected us to be BETTER. When we did something especially bad it was another wound in the body of the Savior.
In traditional Catholic (and traditional Christian) thought the notion of right-and-wrong is one that's been available to all people at every time throughout history. We were not to do gratuitous harm to other people -- even when it seemed in our interest ot do so. We were to do the right thing because God loved us and it was our obligation to reciprocate His love by keeping his commandments.
Important as the teaching of people like Russell Kirk and Bill Buckley are to conservatism, I think the lessons promulgated -- and the behaviors practiced -- by the nuns of St. Salomes were the most significant.
In terms of my own religious faith, I've had my good periods and my not-so-good, mostly the former. But in my early experience, the presence of God as manifest in Jesus Christ, became a reality that's never really left me.
Many years ago, the novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky was asked if he believed in God. He said (in paraphrase), "The Russian people believe in God, and I believe in the Russian people, so my answer would be yes."
When certain things happen in the world -- for example, Hurricane Katrina -- most of us are at a loss to determine what God is thinking about. We are imperfect beings, so of course our faith is imperfect. As the KJB puts it, "We see through a glass darkly." At times, however, we might even think that, if we were God for a day, we'd do things differently.
However, if I believed in God for no other reason, I'd do so -- Dostoevsky-like -- because I believe so deeply in those marvelous, godly sisters at St. Salome's. They believed fervently in God and Jesus Christ, and their faith is reason enough to say that what worked for them will work for me.
Before I am a conservative American, I am a Christian American. Whenever something offered as conservatism deviates from the clear teachings of Jesus Christ, my choice is to go with Him.
As Thomas Jefferson said, "We are endowed by the Creator with certain inalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." That Creator is the foundation of the rights we use and joys we seek.
My novelist-hero, Dostoevsky, once said that, without God "everything is permitted." But since God is always with us, some things are permitted and -- as the nuns of St. Salome's would remind us -- some things are just NOT permitted.