What I learned—about Him and myself—at Catholic school in Harlingen.
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I WENT TO CATHOLIC SCHOOL because my parents didn’t want to burn in hell for all eternity. The burn-in-hell option hadn’t been on the table while we lived in Japan on Yokota Air Base, since there were no Catholic schools. But once the United States Air Force transferred us to someplace called Harlingen, Texas, and St. Anthony elementary was just a bike ride away, my parents had to do what Holy Mother Church required of all good Catholics: They had to send their offspring to Catholic school.
Sure, I’d always been Catholic. Hadn’t the bishop of Tokyo himself slapped me into full membership in the one true church on my confirmation? Hadn’t my family knelt in front of our statue of the Madonna and said rosaries to protect our father on his reconnaissance missions over Red China and the Soviet Union? Hadn’t I owned up during my first confession, at the age of six, to breaking the Seventh Commandment, believing that being “impure in thought, word, or deed” encompassed literal lapses in personal hygiene?
But in the end, all that was just Catholicism Lite. We did go to Mass, but it was in the same nondenominational chapel where my mother’s friend Judy Rashbaum went to temple and the Protestants got up to their suspicious Reformation activities, reading the Bible and such. I was even a little hazy on my club’s secret handshake. My sign of the cross was a wobbly circumnavigation that whirled in the general direction of shoulders, forehead, and belly button instead of being a set of crisp perpendicularities honoring Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. (Oh, Holy Ghost, oh, Casper the Friendly, tossed out along with the equally chummy Saint Christopher in favor of a vague, New Agey Holy “Spirit,” how I miss you.)
All this cozy Catholicism ended when we hit Harlingen. St. Anthony was the real deal, the full Vatican. I knew God had made me to know him, to love him, and to serve him in this world and the next. What I hadn’t expected was that he wanted me to do it while wearing a beanie and saddle shoes. Or that his special look for my brothers would be khaki uniforms with a little black clip-on tie, just like gas station attendants wore.
Given that St. Anthony was our third school in the space of a year, my mom was anxious that her Birdlets fit in as well as possible. So we made a special trip to Anthony’s Department Store (no relation to the sainted one) to acquire the beanies and clip-on ties; then my mother stayed up all night sewing skirts for my sister and me. Perfectly kitted-out as Catholic schoolchildren, prepped with special sign-of-the-cross briefings, we were ready to blend in. Sadly, we debuted at St. Anthony on picture day, the one day out of the entire year when students were allowed to wear civvies. So it was that my brothers and sister and I, and the children of a family whose mother’s consumption of the grape was not entirely sacramental, were the only ones in uniform that day.
Except, of course, for the nuns and priests. Never having seen a nun before, I was fascinated by what I guessed were women billowing about in cumulus-white habits originally issued by the Mother House for nursing African pagans with leprosy and repurposed for teaching American ignorami with ringworm. I don’t remember the name of the nun who taught my class, but given her deadly accuracy with a ruler, it might have been Sister Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS.
Uniforms, rigid hierarchy, allegiance to a higher purpose, females as handmaidens: Having grown up as a military brat, I was a natural for Catholic school.
St. Anthony was not just old school in the pre—Vatican II, not-yet-kumbaya-my-Lord way; it was downright medieval. Gone were the modest, unadorned crosses of the base chapel. In their place were crowns of thorn, bleeding stigmata, Jesus holding out a flaming heart, and saints dying with eyes rolled heavenward, arrows protruding from surprisingly buff, naked flesh. I was riveted. Every day at Mass, after fasting for a minimum of three hours so as to be in a fit state to receive Holy Communion, I devoured Lives of the Saints. Such a festival of gore and sadomasochism: self-flagellation, eye gouging, hair shirts, the rack, teeth pulled out with pliers, beautiful Irish saints burning at the stake rather than putting out for the Roman centurions.
Ever the overachiever, all I required was knowledge of a career ladder and I was on my way; I was going to be a saint. I wasted no time in setting up a shrine in the shelter of some pink oleander bushes, complete with the plaster Madonna crushing a serpent beneath her bare feet that we prayed our rosaries to. Unable to find a hair shirt at Anthony’s Department Store, I made do with kneeling on gravel. After a few minutes of this, I decided that, perhaps, I could know God, love him, and serve him in a slightly different way and gave the Blessed Virgin Mary a makeover with my mom’s eyebrow pencil and lipstick. My mother, after reclaiming the BVM, warned me that oleanders were poisonous, and I put canonization on hold.
The one, unalloyed gift of Catholic school in Harlingen was that it made me an honorary Latina. Something about the generosity and inclusiveness of Mexican culture allows it to find a spot for everyone. As a hitherto friendless, complete dweebo extraordinaire, this was an unparalleled social bonanza. Before I knew it, I was going to birthday parties, eating bizcochitos, and whacking away at piñatas. What bliss this was, a place where I had friends and the heavens rained candy!
Later on there would be quinceañeras, when my friends wore bridal gowns, had their hair done like Marie Antoinette, and either became a woman of the church or a bride of Christ. That last part was always a bit unclear, though they definitely looked as if they were going to get married and did have an unbelievable party after Mass and giving roses to the Virgin Mary. Limos and the girl’s first pair of heels were also involved. All in all, a major sweet deal. Unfortunately, my honorary status did not extend to my ever rating my own quinceañera. Still, I did get to consume a lot of Fanta grape and sheet cake with blue icing roses, and that was its own sweet deal.
Texas and Catholic school will be forever linked in my mind. My family and I left a fairy tale country of geisha and giant goldfish, docked in San Francisco, drove through a hole cut in a giant sequoia, took a left at Mexico, and came to rest in a strange world where the flowers could kill you but eternal salvation was just a bike ride away.