On my first day at Catholic school, a nun in an actual black habit with a severe white head covering escorted me up four flights of stairs and into a tenth-grade classroom.
I grew up in rural Eastern Oregon and I had never even seen a real nun decked out in traditional garb. I also wasn't Catholic or even a Christian.
The grim-faced nun said something to a harried teacher. I could only pick up a word or two in their sloshy Hessen-flavored German. The teacher nodded toward the empty seat nearest the door. A brown-haired girl stood up from the seat that shared my new desk and grinned at me.
I have rarely been so grateful for a ready welcome.
During the first break, I asked my seatmate in shaky German if everyone at the school was Catholic. She shook her head sympathetically. She knew a little English and between the two languages she conveyed that a few students were Protestant and I was seated with her because we were both among the Protestant minority. My mouth went a little dry, as she explained that only official Catholics and Protestants could attend our elite school.
Slowly I untangled what had happened to bring me to be the only Pagan kid at a German Catholic school. I was an exchange student, but my family had never had the money for excessive luxuries like that.
A year earlier I had come up with the notion that I wanted to study abroad and had applied for scholarships relentlessly until I received one from the bland-sounding Educational Foundation. My mother and I had fundraised the rest of the money, largely by selling Fimo jewelry that we made ourselves.
One of the last hurdles to my dream had been an intimidating packet of papers to be filled out by parents to detail my background. I remembered the evening when my mother, bent over the stack of papers, had asked me which religion she should put me down for.
The dilemma did not need to be spelled out. We had our beliefs but they were quiet and not made public in any way in our rural corner of early 1990s America.
"Other," I suggested. "Or none."
"There is no 'other' or 'none' box," she said. As it turned out there were only four options, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish or Buddhist. I was sorely tempted to check Buddhist just to mess with them. But cooler heads--i.e. my mother's--prevailed. She had been raised Protestant after all, so that option would have to do.
That was only the beginning though. When I arrived in Germany, I discovered that the EF staff had not communicated to my prospective school or even the host family that I am legally blind. I can see enough to tell what color the nun's habit is or that my seatmate is smiling when she's right up in my face, but even that's a stretch.
At the time, regulations in Germany did not allow for the integration of students with physical disabilities into standard schools, so the school I was supposed to attend rejected me at the last minute. I was scheduled to leave the host family and live at a highly restrictive residential school for the blind for my much-dreamed year abroad. But then this rigorous Catholic school had intervened and accepted me.
I was suitably relieved, though worried to find out that the reason I was accepted was that false checkmark in the religion section of my paperwork. My papers made me a Protestant and the only thing that saved me from expulsion was the fact that I couldn't speak German well enough to give away my immense ignorance of all things Christian. And by the time I learned German, my Protestant seatmate had become my co-conspirator in avoiding detection, instructing me on how to cross myself backwards the way German Protestants apparently did and other niceties.
Despite the initial shock though, the rest of my year at Catholic school was surprisingly untroubled. There were a few incidents with students or teachers who resented me because of my vision impairment but no trouble over religion.
I had to attend Protestant religion classes once a week, but these mostly resembled a specialized history class. Otherwise, the school was as free-thinking as any school I had ever attended in rural Oregon.
Instead of standing for the pledge of allegiance in the mornings, we stood and crossed ourselves while reciting a simple prayer. I did not find the experience much different from the mandatory patriotism of American schools.
The nuns were no doubt strict, but I managed to stay out of trouble, so I never really found out. And on the one occasion when political events intervened at school and students all over the country staged walkouts to protest anti-immigrant violence, the nuns handed out free candles and joined us.
Today as controversy rages in the United States over religion in schools, I can't help but compare my experience in Catholic school to my experiences in supposedly secular schools in the United States.
As a kid, I never had to be told not to come out of the broom closet at school. Kids bullied other kids just because they didn't go to the same church. There was never a school holiday program that wasn't specifically Christian in theme, history books always took the Christian side of conflicts and several teachers lectured us on being good Christians throughout my school career.
Today when I hear calls for faith-based schools in the US, I'm not entirely sure they would be worse. At the very least, one would know what one was getting into, as I had with the Catholic school in Germany. There would likely be less proselytizing because everyone would already assume the students had the "correct" religion. Religion classes would likely be added,
My own children attend a public, secular school in the Czech Republic. (Yes, that's next door to Germany, and yes, I did end up here as an indirect result of that year abroad in high school.) The Czech Republic is statistically the most atheist country in the world and while our local Catholic church rings its bells on Sundays, it remains almost entirely empty. Still my children come home with Christian songs to memorize for school and their holiday programs retain an assumption of religious conformity--atheist with an unconscious gloss of Christian culture.
My religious background is not as controversial in this time and place as it was in my childhood but both atheism and Christian culture are still overwhelming. My children routinely come hom declaring that this or that holiday or Pagan practice is "not real" or "made up."
I have in fact considered enrolling my children in a church school in the city, because it is more open-minded both academically and socially as well as more progressive when it comes to children with learning disabilities. And at least there when my children came home and said our practice or beliefs are wrong, I could simply explain that the school leadership follows a different faith and that I don't see them as wrong, just different. It's harder when the dogmatism is there but unacknowledged.
As a result, I watch the vehement wars over faith in the schools with some bemusement. Of course, I do not wish to see heavy-handed religious orthodoxy in schools. I don't want to see families left with no choice but to send their kids to a school where they will be a declared outsider, or even less that children will be turned away from schools because they don't follow the right religion.
But as for letting churches sponsor schools or allowing some children to choose religious education classes, i see this acknowledgement of spirituality as a progressive step. I hope that one day schools will foster spiritual development just as they now endeavor to develop the intellectual, physical and social fields. Just as there are schools that specialize in mathematics or languages, it would be lovely to be able to choose classes in Pagan, Christian, Muslim or atheist practice and concepts.
When schools are run by small-minded and exclusionary thinking, it doesn't matter if they have an official religion or not. Unacknowledged Christian or atheist dogmatism is still restrictive and exclusionary, even when it isn't discussed.
Atheism entails a leap of faith beyond science, as all religions do, and it can be repressive if it is dogmatically imposed on children. Atheism is not a synonym of secularism, which is an openness to all faiths and an official embrace of spiritual diversity.
Open-minded, inclusive leadership can and does make for a good environment even when the faith of that leadership is openly declared. My experience in Catholic school did not make me any less of a Pagan or in any way weaken my own path. If anything, it helped me to understand why I think the way I do. And it gave me an appreciation for those who can declare fully their beliefs without forcing those beliefs of others.