The Education of a Catholic School Girl

When something you never wanted becomes exactly what you always needed

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Photo by Colleen Murphy DePaolo

I didn’t want to go. It was 15 and I had been in huge public schools for the last 6 years. This was all-girls Catholic school. The uniform, daily mass, strict rules, nuns. No, I didn’t want to go. I was leaving my friends to enter what amounted to prison in my mind.

But I was drowning in public school. Looking back, maybe I was too young. I started school a year early and maybe it had all caught up with me; maybe maturity wasn’t there. I remember that first day in my brand new uniform. A white collared shirt, pleated skirt, cardigan sweater and knee-high socks. I felt my freedom and my identity slipping away.

I was the new girl in a very small school. That made me a curiosity. In gym, a few girls approached me, hesitantly. My presence seemed to make them nervous. You went to public school? What was that like? They looked at me like an escaped zoo animal. It felt as if I had stepped into a very private world where outsiders never entered.

Classes were very small. I had to get used to being in math with 9 girls. It was a radical change after being shuffled around in the chaos of public high school. There was no hiding in the back with your head down. Everyone was engaged, everyone participated. These girls were smart. They spoke up in class. They challenged their teachers and asked any question they wanted without reserve. They didn’t try to seem cool and they didn’t edit what they said. As they days passed, I started to relax. I raised my hand, I got involved and I made friends.

The nuns were always worried about us. I remember how we would get in trouble for rolling our pleated skirts; they were boxy and knee-length so we would roll them at the waist, making them fuller and shorter. As we passed through the hallways the sisters would call us out by name when we had rolled just a bit too far. And daily, we would get little bits of advice like, don’t ever put your drink down at a party and walk away. Someone could put something in it when you aren’t looking. I still think of that one. Looking back, it was all incredibly sweet and loving.

As high school juniors, we were in a humanities program that linked our classes. In that program we studied English, History, Art History and Music. Each class moved through the same period of history at the same time. As we learned about the French Revolution, we saw the artwork produced, heard the music composed and read the novels written at the time. Everything had a context. It was not rote memorization. An amazing thing happened…I started to love to learn.

We passionately recited Macbeth, tomorrow and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day, to the last syllable of recorded time…and finally understood. As we spoke the words to one another, we acted out their meaning. It was finally clear and the foundation of storytelling was exposed to me through Shakespeare. We plodded through the unabridged version of Les Miserables, with Hugo’s long, arduous descriptions of the French countryside, the politics of the French Revolution, religion, philosophy and every aspect of life. But the threads were all pulling together, assembling a picture of the world.

We watched long slideshows on a huge screen display sculpture, painting and architecture. The wonder of Vermeer lighting a room became fascinating. What materials did he employ and how? It was no longer a boring Dutch room with wooden furniture and a bowl of fruit. A dark, severe painting became a study in light. It was innovation, ingenuity and inspiration.

The development of sculpture as an art form became my obsession. I was struck by the beauty of the stone. The way a Greek Kouros was shown in movement was fascinating; was it for structural stability or were they studying the human form in motion? These sculptures survived from 7th century. You can walk into a museum in any major city and see the creation of an artist that is literally centuries old. My eyes were opened and the world looked different. I had questions. I raised my hand and knew the answer. A fire had been lit.

History class tied it all together. What was happening politically informed the creations of artists, architects and writers. Each building, each painting, each novel made sense in its time period. Suddenly, the world was designed and well-reasoned. I saw patterns where I had previously seen nothing.

The creative spark and intellectual curiosity I was gaining in humanities spilled over into my other classes. I was sculpting in art class and writing for pleasure. In religion class, we learned guided meditation. Breathing and focus were introduced to me for the first time. I learned how to use my mind to quiet myself and how to pay attention to the feeling inside my own body. It was an incredible feeling of calm I had never experienced.

Everything about my life had changed with one simple adjustment, a different school. Exposure to the artistic explorations of others had changed my perspective. I wanted to get my hands dirty, to get out in the world. I was hungry for experience. And that is exactly what I received in the spring of senior year.

The culmination of the humanities program was a class trip to Europe touring France, Italy and Great Britain. I felt incredible wonder experiencing Notre Dame in Paris and I touched the Pieta. I attended mass with tens of thousands in St. Peter’s square with Pope John Paul II and made wishes in the Trevi Fountain. I marveled at the tiny room housing the David in Florence. I looked incredulously at the Leaning Tower in Pisa. Wandering the old Roman streets to the Pantheon felt like a walk through history. It was all a revelation; a textbook come to life before my eyes and under my feet. It is the first time I think I really looked up in wonder.

I think of the sisters often. They taught us with love and care and dedication and they brought insight and perspective to our education. School can be a miraculous experience when dedicated professionals truly care. High school expanded the horizon of my life and I benefit from the results of my education in my life everyday.

Art and education seem to wind their way back to me on the always expanding horizon of my career. I learned that changing just one element can change your trajectory in life. What at first seems new and strange can be the exact thing you needed to take flight. When change comes now, I try to remember to embrace it with open arms.

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