When my mom dropped me off at St. Patrick’s School for Kindergarten, she was very pregnant with my little brother and very emotional that her first-born was entering school. She was teary-eyed and not wanting to leave when my soon-to-be friend Sonja’s mom walked up and told her that she had done this a few times before and that everything would be all right. She calmed my mom’s nerves and told her that she could become room-mom with her, making the day a little bit more bearable. I was completely oblivious to what was going on, running around my new classroom probably bossing people around, but the kindness showed to my mom was not lost on her and was indicative of what was to come at this little school that would become my home for the next 8 years. The school community was not always perfect, but the people there and the values and knowledge instilled in me is something that I will always value, especially in the times that we are currently facing.
Catholic School brings with it floods of imagery and connotation. Most of the things that come to mind; angry nuns, lots of plaid, kids with too much money, were not indicative of my experience, although some were. I will let your imagination decipher which. Actually, my experience at St. Patrick’s was dynamic and irreplaceable, helping to form the person that I am today in more ways than I ever realized. The greatest gift that I received from my years as a Catholic School girl is the world view that I acquired through teachers, religious education, and the students around me.
The school was small, probably just around 200 students in the K-8 classrooms. But the children learning in that very small environment were of a wide variety. Housed in our little school were Caucasians, Filipinos, Native Americans, African Americans, South Americans, Catholics, Muslims, Protestants, undocumented immigrants, rich and poor. And I knew every single one of them. Because of the size of the school, there were no groups of people based on color or belief, there was no separation. We were all students and friends who showed up every day in the same uniform with the same expectations to learn and to treat each other with kindness. Because of the small but diverse population that I was a part of, I was afforded many opportunities to learn about others’ cultures and to share my own. I was encouraged to talk about my Lutheranism and the way that the religion split from the Catholic Church. We were taught how to do traditional Native American dances and watched a dad whittle flutes. We were given presentations from classmates on Islam and how Allah was the same God that was revealed to Abraham. We were fed the best Filipino food on the planet I am sure, and we were exposed to Peruvian music and thought that it was just the best thing ever. Our classmates shared with us the struggles they endured when coming to the US and their reasoning for doing so. Because of the microcosm of our society that existed within the walls of our school, I was given the opportunity to see people for who they were at their core and not just as a part of a larger group based on their skin color, their religion, or their immigration status. Diversity was the norm and allowed me to grow up in a way that diminished the fear of the foreign that is so easy to acquire.
I remember sitting in class on more than one occasion and being taught about empathy. Sympathy, we were told, was fine but not enough. It was not enough to just feel bad for someone. Empathy allowed you to actually feel the pain of another along-side them. These discussions about empathy almost always occurred within the broader context of Social Justice. It was instilled in us from those earliest days of Kindergarten that with privilege comes great responsibility. We were taught about Christ’s teachings to this effect and were encouraged to do our part to help the oppressed and marginalized of society. The social justice we learned about knew no borders or false patriotism. All of the humans walking this earth were created in God’s image and in-turn are all our brothers and sisters. We were taught about Christ standing up and loving the lepers when no one else was willing and that He said, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” As a child, it was hard to see the impact this would have on my make-up. But now, looking back, I can see the weight that those teachings had on my development and my world view. If I think back, I can picture myself sitting in our classroom listening to the hardships endured by children just like me. My childhood was not all wonderful, but it was filled with love, determination and family. Learning about the lives of others and my responsibility towards them helped me to gain perspective on my own world, while also not feeling so alone. I remember becoming enraged when hearing about the AIDS epidemic, war-torn countries and children in our foster care system. I wanted to do something, anything to help. My little self just couldn’t comprehend how we could sit back and enjoy our lives while many in our own country and around the globe were suffering so much. I still struggle with comprehending that, actually. And I am thankful to St. Pat’s for giving me that sense of duty and direction. I am thankful that even though it is painful at times, I am able to see injustice and at least attempt to feel the pain of others.
I have been given so much in this life. Because I was born in this country, with a certain skin color, and to my family, I would have had to work really hard at ending up in a precarious state. I never had to worry about having to miss school to work or watch my siblings. I never had to deal with poverty or going hungry and what that must feel like. I never had to suffer through being a young child whose parent was sent to prison. I never had to come home to a drug addicted mother and constantly worry about who was coming into my bedroom at night. I never had to make the hideous trek from Honduras through Central America and Mexico in the hopes of finding a home for my family that wasn’t riddled with violence and poverty. These are the things that our brothers and sisters are going through on a daily basis. These are the same people that we chastise for choosing to have an abortion or dropping out of school or not being able to hold a job. All I ask is this: That we choose light and love. That we choose to lift each other up time and time again. That we see the frail reality of our own reflection in the face of the homeless, the outcast, the other. The idea that they are different from us is a figment of our imagination and a tool used to divide. With the wave of a hand, God could have sent any one of us to a much different circumstance. The fact that we are here does not mean that we are deserving, it means that we have been given a massive responsibility. If we could all accept this responsibility and work to eliminate our fear of the other, that would be a starting place. Maybe then we could come together and create an environment that reflects the best of us, not our worst inclinations. MEB