• David Salazar

catholic schools: faith, education and the mix therein

During Holy Week—that long week where Jesus dies and is reborn, my Science teacher spoke about the Shroud of Turin.

It was a bit of a surprise, considering my school isn't all that faith-based, all things considered. For a Catholic school, it keeps prayers to the morning and mass is a yearly thing with some luck. However, with the pandemic, it seems as if they have clung onto everything that makes their school what it is, and one of those things is faith. Thus, in my senior year of high school, my Science teacher took up the entirety of the one-hour Google Meet call talking about the Holy Shroud, the one that Jesus was allegedly wrapped in after his death. Carbon dating says it was from the thirteenth to the fourteenth century, and she created long-winded explanations as to why that could be wrong: because of a fire, or people from that time touching it.

Nonetheless, the Shroud of Turin took up an hour of class we could have spent talking about viruses or something of the sort, a timely material we had picked up on as soon as the school year started in March—as if we didn’t have enough information about viruses with the news of COVID-19.

Most of the time, we compartmentalized. We had Religion, where, depending on what teacher we had, we would either slog through the New Testament and do classwork about it or watch widely panned movies with a quick moral to pat ourselves in the back. In sophomore year we had the latter, which was loads of fun—he talked to us about politics once the protests broke out and showed us horrible movies, from Battle of the Year to God's Not Dead. I was watching that last movie in class when I first started talking to my boyfriend and we bonded over having to watch it. Now we do not even have Religion anymore, because of our movie fan teacher getting fired (perhaps because of the movie watching) and not having found a replacement in time for quarantine.

The school I was in from first to sixth grade was a completely different story, in terms of observance. Every day at noon sharp we would sing a song in Latin about Mary, to give perspective. My grade went to mass once a month and we had a calendar as to who would read the psalm, who would read the First Reading, and who would be the acolyte. I got assigned either of the reading jobs consistently, as the grade's designated bookworm, but even with my doubt in everything Christianity at ten years old, I desperately wanted to take the boys-only job of acolyte, just once; looking back at it, that was incredibly transgender of me. No wonder I realized I wasn't cis as soon as I found out that not being cis was a possibility.

When I moved away from the city I had grown up in, I was anxious about my schooling possibilities. The school year starts in March in Chile, and so with my father getting his job in mid-October, there weren’t many choices. After six years of Catholic schooling, of having to stand in line for twenty minutes listening to the liturgy for the Month of Mary, of only having religious songs in Music class all the way up to fifth grade, I was not a fan of the idea of going to a Catholic school again. My mother tried to send me off to a private secular school, supposedly the best in the city, but they had no spots for new students left. So, after much grumbling, I let myself be signed up to the public Catholic school there, terrified of having to go through another six years of painfully religious schooling.

There was a surprise behind the doors of my school, though—it wasn't all that Catholic in the end. It housed a little over a thousand students and there were two classes per grade, and thus there wasn't the time to have students go to mass every month at the school chapel. Devotion was lesser there, too: in my first year there, seventh grade, I was wide-eyed at the tattoos poking out of my Literature teacher's sleeves. When I asked her about it, she rolled up her sleeves and showed me line drawings made by her children she had gotten permanently inked onto her body. That same teacher told us, while dealing with myths and legends in class, that the Bible was the text with the largest amount of myths. I was flabbergasted, thirteen years old and used to the infallible faith of Catholic school teachers—the way she called the Bible full of myths so effortlessly made my jaw drop, and I immediately took a liking to her and was sad to see her leave the school. During Religion, the movie fan teacher handed us a paper that asked us what our parents would think if we converted to another religion and I, having just found my interest in Judaism, answered eagerly how they would be very supportive, as me not being baptized was to give me the freedom of choice.

My parents are not particularly religious, which makes my almost-entirely Catholic schooling an enigma to some people. The PreK-12 school I was in for preschool and kindergarten had its first-grade class be too big for my mother's tastes, sitting at around sixty kids, so she wanted to change me to a smaller school. There were plenty of options in my city of twenty thousand people, but most of them were mediocre or bad. The best option was the one that had the best results in the Chilean standardized test that assessed schools’ performances, the SIMCE (its full name translating to Education Quality Measurement)—which was a private Catholic school. My mother was raised Evangelical and vaguely believes in God, praying from time to time, while my dad was raised Catholic and considers himself agnostic. Neither of them liked the idea of sending me to a Catholic school, but it was my best chance at a good schooling, so they sent me off there. Now in ex-Christian circles with my friends I call myself "ex-Catholic adjacent", to explain the fact that I live in a culturally Catholic country and have gone to Catholic schools throughout all of my schooling, but I was not raised as it per se. Many of the hang-ups but none of the Sunday masses.

The way Christianity percolates into education is an interesting facet of its hegemony. From children in American public schools reciting a Pledge that reads "under God" every day, to them being fed creationism in Science class even in quote-unquote “secular schools”, to Christmas being considered secular simply because of its grip on most of the population, to being taught about the Shroud of Turin during Science class with faulty logic about carbon dating. I only hope one day the differences in religious affiliation will be accepted by everyone, no matter where or when. Religious schools have the right to their religious affiliation, of course, and I am sometimes glad to have learned more of myself by having been in them for twelve long years, but education and religion need to stay healthily separated to some extent.

Cover image by Trac Vu @tracminhvu