As a product of 14 years of Catholic education, I often have a hard time explaining what my educational experience was like as there aren’t many relevant pop culture references. Amy Sherman-Palladino and Curtis Sittenfield seems to have nailed the prep school scene, Josh Schwartz and the producers of Laguna Beach had Southern California down, while Cecily von Ziegesar covered the NYC private school experience (or at least some fictional, soap-opera version of all these high school experiences). But what about me? How was it like to attend a small Catholic grammar school for 10 years and then an all-boys Catholic high school for four years?
“It kind of fucked me up,” I proclaimed to a co-worker over lunch one day last week. “Not academically, but socially. I don’t think everybody experienced these problems, but I remember learning in school that things like sex and drinking were bad and would send me to hell and deeply believing it. I think it took me a couple of years to kind of ‘un-learn’ everything I learned growing up and learn how to have fun.”
The funniest part about the problems I had reconciling my Catholic school upbringing from being liberal is that the majority of classmates growing up couldn’t have cared less about their souls or such big existential questions. I often recalled my classmates asking why my skin was so dark or joking that they couldn’t see me whenever someone turned off the lights—not even realizing that that is not an okay thing to say.
In particular, I remember one event during my sophomore year in high school. In an attempt to control the class, my theology teacher rearranged the seating and put me in the back. At first I was dismayed and thought that my grades would suffer, but I began to become entertained as I listened to my classmates’ conversations with each other. One day, one of those classmates turned around to me. I was writing in my notebook when I felt a tap on my shoulder.
I immediately turned around and saw this classmate staring at me, smiling. How strange, I thought to myself. As much as I enjoyed eavesdropping on the conversations around me, I only did just that – this was the first time I had actually spoken to one of them. What could this student have to say to me?
“There was no homework due today.” I said simply.
“Oh, I know that Valcy. I just wanted to ask you something….”
“You know how you’re Black?”
I perked my head up with a look of interest and chuckled. “Yeah. I know that I’m Black.”
“…but the palm of your hands are white.”
“As are the bottom of my feet,” I replied.
“Is your penis, like, white too?”
Before I could respond, this classmate’s friend jumped into our conversation. “Haven’t you ever seen a porno? Of course his penis is Black!”
My classmates’ unfiltered adolescence came across as ignorant and rude—and some may even say racist, but I don’t think that was their intention. There were very few African-Americans in my high school and I think that their questions came from a desire to actually sort racial stereotypes—like the Black man with the big, dark penis—from reality.
Catholicism seems to have a lot of rules. We’re expected to go to Church every week and take communion. We have to confess what other people define as sinful to a complete stranger on a regular basis. We can’t engage in any sexual behavior before marriage. And even when we are married, there are strict regulations on our sexual behavior: only unprotected vaginal intercourse is allowed. Breaking these rules is viewed as mortal sin; and if we die without having confessed these “sins”, the Catholic Church claims that we will go to hell.
The problem with this idea of sin is that it tends to relegate people into definite spheres and give life an air of simplicity. We can all assume different roles; indeed, just as a man can be a bad husband but a good father, somebody can be a “bad Catholic” and a good person. I know several people who assume roles that are at odds with Catholic beliefs—like the gay teenager who wanted to become a priest or promiscuous girl who teaches Bible study classes during weekends. In this same vein, it’s interesting to note how many people actually follow all the rules of religion: I was hard pressed to find someone in my community who actively followed all the tenets of the Catholic Church—which was probably because these individuals weren’t exactly sure what they believed.
For me, college was about reconciling my Catholic upbringing with a college mindset. Indeed, I truly thought I was liberal before matriculating at Yale as a freshman only to realize that conservatism applies to more than just politics. I didn’t drink or party during my underclassmen years and I was always in the library working hard and doing my best. My reputation at Yale was centered on the idea of being a “good Catholic boy”; even though this wasn’t my reputation in high school.
Even to this day, I have to reevaluate my upbringing and divorce my true opinion from what I was told to believe. If I were to masturbate, does that mean my soul will perish? If I supported my best friend’s decision to have an abortion, am I assisting in genocide? As much as I’d like to commend the Catholic Church on taking definite stands, we have to realize that life isn’t black and white. I don’t believe that a person who acknowledges their sexual nature deserves to end up in the same place as a murderer. And a low-income teenager who realizes that she can’t afford to be pregnant (let alone raise a child) should not be condemned for trying to break a cycle of poverty.
Indeed, just as my high school classmates challenged their conceived notions of race through blatant inquiry, I too have learned to question the world around me through observation and inquiry. As of now, I’m not sure where I stand on many of these issues on religion, sex, and politics–but I’m glad that I’m beginning to at least grapple with them.