Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A Going Back to Parochial School Poem--Circa 1956

I know the following poem isn't about politics--but I'm posting it here anyway. Anyone else out there with not-so-fond memories of parochial school???

I wrote the poem for Tricia’s Monday Poetry Stretch - Back to School. My contribution is a wee bit dark. I attended a strict parochial elementary school in the 1950s. It was a drab, depressing place with dark corridors, desks and chairs screwed to the classroom floors, and bathrooms in the building’s damp basement. I became a school phobic...soon after I arrived on my first day of first grade.

Yes, I take the nuns to task in my poem—but I do understand the poor ladies were dealing with classes of approximately fifty children. I can only imagine what their daily lives were like in the convent that stood adjacent to my school. The nuns were often treated as second class citizens—as are most women—by the Catholic Church.

A Back to School Poem
by Elaine Magliaro

Even though the sun seared the sky
on the Tuesday after Labor Day,
I buttoned my stiffly starched blouse

with puffed sleeves and Peter Pan collar…
then slid on the green serge jumper
that pricked my skin with woolly thorns.
Above my heart
the diamond-shaped badge blazed SJS in gold.
I was a student at Saint John’s School—
a good Catholic girl bound up in dogma
who could recite lengthy answers
from the Baltimore catechism by heart,
who never ate meat on Friday,
who went to Mass every day before school during Lent,
who invented sins when forced to confess my transgressions
to a priest in the bowels of our church,
who dared not disobey the nuns.
Oh, the nuns—dark angels of my innocence,
their foreheads wrapped tightly in white wimples,
their bodies draped in layers of black cloth,
their shaved heads covered with veils
that spread out like ravens’ wings when they strode
down the dark corridors of our school.
These were the good sisters of discipline and doctrine
who did their holy best to crush my spirit,
to haunt my dreams,
to wipe the joy and exuberance from my childhood
with talk of Lucifer and mortal sin and eternal damnation.

It was September 4, 1956,
my first day of fifth grade.
Dressed in crisp cotton and scratchy wool,
a large drawstring bag slung over my shoulder,
I trudged off to school under a scorching sun
with a heavy load—
holy books, a metal lunchbox, bad memories—
and a prayer:
Good Lord Jesus,
help me to survive another year
of this parochial purgatory.


  1. Elaine - I can give you the perspective of a non-Catholic who suffered tangentially. When I was in the 3rd grade in public school, we had a weekly event called "Religious Education" - this is California in 1958, in PUBLIC schools, believe it or not. Two buses (one for Catholics and one for Protestants) would pull up to the sidewalk just at the edge of the schoolground and kids would get on them to be taught religion by volunteer church people. If that sounds vague, it's because I wasn't allowed to go, so I'm not quite sure what happened there. My mother thought religious education in public schools was a gross violation of the separation of church and state, so I had to stay in my classroom during that time. I don't remember anyone else being there with me (were there no Jewish kids in my school? No Muslims? No Buddhists or Hindi or...?) My teacher was a mean-hearted Catholic woman whose kids all went to parochial schools (a fact she reminded us of every day.) So she looked at me like I was a child of the devil. Not only did I not go to a good Catholic school and not go to the Catholic bus, I didn't even go to the Protestant bus! She was really disgusted with me and she let it show, and she made me do extra math homework - just busy work - during the time everyone else went to the buses. I think that woman was the only teacher I ever had, kindergarten through college, that I truly disliked.

  2. Forgot to say how much I like you poem!

  3. Thanks, Julie. I don't remember experiencing much joy in education/learning in elementary school. My school was a depressing place--at least it was for me. I was a sensitive kid and took everything to heart. Some of the things I heard in school about religion really troubled me. I was worried that my father was going to hell because he rarely went to church on Sunday. I was a devout Catholic...until I reached my early twenties. Then I became one of the growing number of "fallen away" Catholics.

    My daughter attended public schools--but went to a small Catholic college in New Hampshire (St. Anselm) and had four wonderful years there.

  4. Your rhetorical question cracked me up: "Anyone else out there with not-so-fond memories of parochial school???" I've never heard anything BUT not-so-fond parochial school memories!!! (Luckily, I have none of my own.)

    Great poem, no matter how dark and painful. You brought me inside your pain and made me celebrate the survival of your imagination!

  5. Mary Lee,

    I think things may have changed since I attended parochial school in the 1950s. That said, I can't remember much that was positive about my experience in grammar school--except that I met some classmates who are still among my group of closest friends.