Complicated Catholic Childhood

Ultra religious people often make me uncomfortable. This year, for me, has been about sitting with my discomfort and understanding where it comes from. I can’t remember the first time I attended church. I suspect my first time in a church was my baptism, but alas, I have no memory of being only months old.

My parents were not habitual church goers, we mostly went for special occasions like weddings, Easter or Lent so we could have the ashes drawn on our foreheads. Both my parents were raised Catholic but they didn’t marry in a Catholic Church until I was 7 years old, it was a last minute prerequisite in order for them to baptize my sister. We had taken a vacation to my dad’s hometown in Mexico, the Catholic Church had different rules there. I was the flower girl and also their wedding photographer.

One of my earliest childhood/school memories was attending Catholic School. Have I told you how I didn’t learn English until I started school? It’s somewhere in another post and it’s not the point here but it adds a little context. For Kindergarten I attended a public school and then my parents decided Catholic school would be “better” for 1st grade, because private school is always better? I’m not sure their reasoning but, for me, it teetered on torture.

The first day of school was me with my 1990’s oversized Little Mermaid backpack, packed full of things I probably didn’t need. This was followed by some kind of reprimand from my new teacher because according to her I “didn’t need a backpack yet”… I’m sorry for being prepared.

My teacher turned out to be pretty nice from what I remember, she often had me run her an errand of fetching her very hot water from the teacher’s lounge water dispenser (if that wasn’t an accident waiting to happen, I don’t know what is). Also, who sips extra hot water?

My first grade report card says something about how I’m not very social and need to engage with other kids more. I suspect there was a language barrier problem, private schools didn’t have as many ESL students compared to the public schools and my English was still improving. Playgrounds were intimidating enough with the whole not understanding everyone so well, getting picked for teams has never been my forte. I am not particularly athletic. Additionally, I am not fond of balls flying at my face, so dodgeball? Absolutely not.

My parents insisted that I try harder at recess time. I knew one thing I was good at that didn’t involve teams or balls. Enter my Little Mermaid backpack chocked full of arts and crafts supplies and me leading my own “arts and crafts class” under the stairs at recess time. My teacher was not keen on me bringing on my own scissors to share. My days as an arts and crafts teacher were numbered.

I don’t remember if I ended up playing games during recess, the most vivid memory was the fact that the first graders were segregated from the rest of the school via a staircase and the meanest playground monitor, Miss Garza. I don’t even remember my first grade teachers name but you can bet I remember the evil playground monitor’s name. I spent a lot of my early life indulging in petty revenge, but that part is in my second grade story.

Circling back, this is a story about my relationship with religion. This part is rather important because it shaped my views on organized religion, the Catholic Church, and grade school. First grade was not completely awful but second grade was a whole other story. We attended mass and we practiced for communion regularly. I remember being confused that I didn’t have enough sins to confess. “Lord forgive me for talking back to my mom, for not listening to my dad, for forgetting to put my toys away”. Seven year old me had pretty minimal sins.

In second grade I had a very sweet teacher, maybe her name was Miss Carrillo, but I am not certain. She reminded me of Phoebe Cates and Drop Dead Fred was one of my favorites movies at the time, so I loved her by association. It was the same odd respect and admiration I had for Marco Antonio Soliz because I thought he looked like Jesus when I was 4 years old.

Aside from my kind teacher, everyone else of authority was mostly garbage. Miss Garza was still the fascist of the playground, she looked like a toad and was a dictator with everyone. I suffered from UTIs (urinary tract infections- I probably didn’t drink enough water) around this time and my dad would make me a special tea to help it pass. On one instance he told me to make sure I drank it all day, so during recess I took my tea bottle out with me. Miss Garza did not approve and made me dump my precious tea even when I insisted it was medicine and not just a drink. I had already let pass the times she wouldn’t let me go to the bathroom or use the water fountain. Dumping my tea was the last straw.

After this, my plotting began. Anytime I was allowed to use the restroom, which was in an old two story building, down a long hallway and around a corner, I would take my time and take paper towels and soak them, make balls of them and throw them up to the ceiling until they stuck. Over and over. “Forgive me father”.

Miss Garza wasn’t the only demon at this school. Our P.E. teacher was also an ungodly being descended upon us from the underworld. She would yell like what I imagine a drill sergeant to be. I was yelled at enough by my mother, I did not need another angry female screaming at me in my daily life. I could not handle it. I would cry and plead with my parents to take me out of that school. It gave me anxiety, I remember crying and shaking before being dropped off in the morning, I hated it. My aunt tried to console me, telling me she would be hiding in the bushes and watching out for me. I would spend P.E. class staring out at the bushes on the street trying to see if I could find her.

There was also a bully, her name was Kristen but eventually I shut her up. She loved to exclude me, to pick me last or not at all for group games, to jump in first and be in charge of the ball. She would ways be the pink power ranger and I had to be the yellow one. She got to be Nancy Kerrigan although in reality she was definitely Tanya Harding. Whatever she could do to cross me, she would do it. Looking back, that little girl was probably neglected at home but hindsight is 20/20 and 7 year old me only knew that she was super mean and needed to be taught a lesson.

So, one day during my long hallway trips to the restroom, I snuck into our classroom which was left unlocked. Our backpacks were all hung in a walkthrough closet area directly behind the teachers desk. I knew exactly which backpack was hers. I took the ajax and the window cleaner bottle and dumped their contents directly into her backpack.

Take that, Kristen. Also, this is probably worth three Hail Mary’s so no big deal.

I think she knew she had crossed me that day. When she discovered what had happened she ran to tell the teacher and rat me out. The teacher told her to go back to her seat and called me up to her desk. My heart pounded as I made my way up the aisle. I got to her desk, she leaned in and said “I know you didn’t do it, go back to your desk”.

I think it’s safe to say that Catholic School didn’t teach me much about being a god fearing 7 year old. My pleas to my parents didn’t work and I finished the school year at St. Josephs. My third grade life involved us moving to Nebraska and the highlight year of my childhood. I never returned to the torture that was Catholic School. The idea of attending Catholic mass has always produced an immediate yawn out of me, all that kneeling and standing over and over, the reading passages in the most monotone of voices. It’s not for me. I also felt like the whole ‘sins, confessing, praying, forgiveness’ cycle was apt for corruption. I definitely thought I had hacked the system at one point.

As a kid, I sometimes felt alone in moments where I thought “why would God let someone be so cruel?”. Adulthood involves a lot of unpacking of these childhood experiences and imprints. It’s only as of recently that I’ve begun to re-examine my childhood experiences with religion, a few adults seemed to have tarnished the institution for me pretty early on but I feel like it was inevitable.

As an adult, I’ve clung to knowing that my relationship with God is personal. I don’t need a lot of external concepts like elaborate buildings or people dressed in special clothes to have a connection. Most importantly, I don’t need permission or approval from anyone to have a relationship with God. I felt like Catholic School was a chore list of do’s and don’ts, it very quickly showed me that religious people do not always equal kind people. It was a lot to take in so early on in my life, it was an impression that stuck with me for a long time.

I knew that my parents didn’t go to church regularly but I’d watched my dad buy a whole family breakfast after they’d asked him for money one morning outside a McDonalds, always followed with con dios los bendiga. I remember a day when my parents pulled over and picked up two young men who had just made their way over the border, they brought them to our apartment and made them dinner and then sent them off with cans from our pantry. I knew my dad was religious in his own private way, the way he would pray and bless me every night before tucking me in. I would eventually make the connection that you could be a good person regardless of your church attendance record or total hours logged bible reading.

More recently, I’ve come to understand that hurtful people are usually hurt people; they do what is most familiar to them. Releasing judgement allows room for grace in every situation. I don’t know what said “religious person” is going through and thus it isn’t my place to judge them. My morals were shaped by several influences including my upbringing, which thankfully came from good hearted people who wanted only the best for me. I now know that my parents meant well when paying for me to attend Catholic school, even if it was a waste of money.

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