WHAT THE SISTERS TAUGHT US
I received a letter recently from a fellow who frequently reads my columns in the Dziennik Zwiazkowy. He was disappointed in some of my recent columns, especially the one defending Art Spiegelman’s Maus, a book about the Holocaust. This reader thought my article was a waste of time and simply opened up a lot of unhealed wounds. He suggested instead that I should write articles about Catholic schools in Chicago. He feels they are losing students because they are under attack by atheism, LGBT culture, and the forces of Anti-Catholicism in America.
My first response to the letter was to just ignore it, but then I started thinking about how much going to a Catholic school changed my life.
I started at St. Fidelis, a parochial school in Chicago, in 1954 when I was 6 years old. I was a refugee and could barely speak English then. The sisters at that school pretty much made me the person I am. They prepared me to be the university professor I was for 35 years and the poet and novelist I am today. Without my Catholic schooling by the nuns at St. Fidelis, I don’t know what I would have become.
Thinking about all of this, I thought about the other students at St. Fidelis and how the sisters changed their lives. I’m in a Facebook group devoted to St. Fidelis. There are about 500 former students in the group, and I asked them what they learned from the sisters.
Here’s what the other students who attended St. Fidelis told me.
Probably the most important lessons were in the area of basic skills: reading, writing, and mathematics. Reading and writing were primary. I felt that way myself. I came from a working-class home where my parents had very little experience with either reading or writing, but by the time I was in second grade I had my own library card and was a frequent visitor at the Humboldt Branch of the Chicago Public Library. The nuns were also committed to make us math champs. Some of the former students talked about playing Baseball Math, a blackboard competition to see who could answer math questions the fastest. I remembered Sister Xavier expecting us to define math terms as fast as we could. She would shout out words like “minuend” and “subtrahend” and expect us to shout back the definition without hesitation.
These basic skills were supposed to prepare us for high school, and they did. Many of us found ourselves in college preparatory classes in high schools.
Today, looking back on all this, it seems remarkable. A number of students at the school were first generation Polish Americans or Displaced Persons who had come over from refugee camps after the war. We were the children of moms and dads who spoke little or no English, and still we were transformed by the sisters at St. Fidelis into people who became college professors and doctors and medical researchers and scientists and army officers and journalists and writers.
Thanks to those sisters.