When Catholic School Feels Like a Foreign Country

A flashback to bullying circa 1990.

Illustration by Emily Thompson

Every morning when I wake up, there’s a 12-year-old girl standing at the side of my bed in her school uniform. She’s staring at me, and I’m fairly convinced she’s never going to leave. Ever.

If I learned anything from my parochial education, it’s that, every day, you pick up your cross—those worries, fears and problems a “good Catholic” is supposed to handle without protest—and move on.

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From 1986 to 1995, I attended the now-defunct Holy Saviour School in Norristown. It shaped me, it built me, it broke me. My class consisted of roughly 20 students. The majority of them teased me daily, making fun of my complexion, weight and general weirdness. The others ignored me. Today, it’s called bullying. Back then, it was more like, “That’s life. Not everyone’s going to like you.”

The early ’90s were a turning point for Catholic schools—before the mergers, shutdowns and scandals, and just after the demise of harsher forms of punishment and nuns in full habits. Things are different now, and parents praise the kinder, gentler environment.

My time at Holy Saviour was the closest I’ll ever come to living in a foreign country. When I boarded the bus, I hopscotched the shins thrust out to trip me. Once seated, I dodged the debris hurled toward my head. Each day started with prayers, the Pledge of Allegiance and special interces- sions. From second through eighth grade, we took turns mentioning sick relatives, grandparents in nursing homes, flushed goldfish, etc. Apparently, reinforcing the prospect of our imminent demise was a pretty effective tool for keeping us in line.

Our Lady of Perpetual Nope would’ve been a more fitting name for Holy Saviour. The list of forbidden acts was about as long as the Old Testament. At 12, when I contemplated kissing a boy, I was informed of a potential trip to purgatory.

Nuns didn’t actually hit us—they found other ways to intimidate. I remember them prowling the aisles as we worked on math problems, pointing crooked fingers at incorrect answers and pounding their fists on desks to signal especially woeful computing. “I’ll take you and shake you and throw you through the blackboard,” snarled one sister when I failed to correctly figure my fractions. Tears flowed down my acne-speckled face as I stood in front of the class.

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“Can I go to the bathroom?” I asked. “What?”

“May I please go to the bathroom, Sister?” (Other than the basement, it was my only refuge.)

If anything, Holy Saviour made me tough enough to withstand far worse in the real world. Tough enough, yes—but with a few scars, too.

King of Prussia’s Katie Bambi-Kohler would only join a convent if she could later be the governess for a sexy sea captain. Visit her blog at cheesesteakprincess.blogspot.com and follow @chzstkprincess on Twitter. 


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