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Snapshots from a teacher's life depict Catholic school milieu.

See that row of nuns lining the balcony and that four-year-old sitting among them? That's me at a high school basketball game my father is working. That little girl over there in her First Communion dress carrying a backyard bouquet and wearing "Mary, Star of the Sea" pinned to her dress is me as part of a living litany at my school's May Crowning. Oh, and there I am in the fifth grade holding up my art project portfolio of famous paintings of the Madonna that we had to find (Christmas cards were so helpful) and then tell about. And then on video, over there, I am that teacher in a Catholic high school offering a reflection at an all-school Mass.

Everybody loves stories, especially if they have pictures, so I'd like to tell you and show you one about Catholic education and me. As you can see from that first photo, my association with Catholic schools started long before I was old enough to attend one. My dad had been a teacher and coach at that school that I would also attend, and as a youngster I loved to 90 to the games with him where the Dominicans, some of whom he still knew, would "look after," me. My grandparents lived next door to the convent and half a block from the church and school. My family and I lived one block away from, them, so I literally grew up in the shadow of the cathedral and pined as the kids streamed past my house to and from school.

Once I entered first grade in a Catholic school I would never leave it except for one year of graduate school. Obviously my parents chose Catholic school for me initially, although it wasn't much of a choice. All the kids in the parish went to "Cathedral," grade school and high school. When my family moved to Kansas City, Mo., when I was a teenager, a main priority in housing was proximity to Catholic schools for my brother and me. I chose a Catholic college for myself, and I have chosen to spend my entire teaching career in Catholic high schools.

Often in a story we don't realize the importance of certain events until after the fact. The significance of my Catholic education might well be illustrated in these next two photographs, taken halfway around the world. Firs there I am in the Uffiziz Gallery in Florence, Italy, mesmerized by Botticelli's "Madonna of the Magnificat" with tears in my eyes. You see, I "own" that painting. It was the one I chose for the cover of my fifth grade art project, my favorite of all the Madonnas, and here I am seeing it in person for the first time. The wave of emotions encompassed a gratitude for having been encouraged to do such a project in a Catholic grade school.

In this other picture, I am also crying (I tend to get emotional). It is the last day of my two-week trip to Italy, and I came back to St. Peter's by myself to feel once more the total sense of belonging to this place, this culture, this larger-than-life expanse of grandeur. I have my difficulties with the institutional church, but every time I have entered that basilica, I have left those difficulties at those great doors, feeling both very small and larger than life myself as one with this 2,000-year tradition. Those feelings would not have been possible without the rich liturgical traditions I enjoyed as part of a large cathedral parish, as a member of its youth choir for years and privy to all the resources the cathedral made available to us students next door.

In speaking to another Catholic schooler about this piece, he offered his own reflection:

"It will soon be 30 years since I was a student in a Catholic school. When I reflect on the 16 years of learning and growing in classes and activities led by Dominican and Franciscan sisters and Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, Jesuits and dedicated lay teachers, I become increasingly aware of how Catholic education's intellectual, social and spiritual elements have influenced and continue to influence my life. Intellectually, Catholic education not only provided me with a solid foundation for lifelong learning, it fostered in me a desire for it. Socially, it reinforced one of my parents' basic expectations, to always be respectful of others.

"And spiritually, it nourished the development of my most important personal resource, my faith and love of God and the Catholic church. My faith provides me with the quiet, yet constant confidence that God and my church are always with me. It is my belief that Catholic education, helped develop my whole person. Thus, my life is fuller and holds significantly more meaning than had I not spent 16 years in Catholic schools."

I share those feelings. My 16 years in a Catholic school were but a prelude to my life's work. Fr. Andrew Greeley, in reflecting on the nature of story, wrote that "stories are as essential to life as oxygen;" that we need stories to "put order into the confusion."

I would like to show you one more photograph. Don't look for me in it, although I hope I'm there. This is a composite picture of hundreds of teenagers; I'd like you to look at their faces and see in many of them the beauty of recognition in Jane Eyre, the hopefulness of reconciliation in To The Lighthouse, the sudden understanding of the nature of redemption in Crime and Punishment. Another may just have become aware of the God-likeness of Lucky in Waiting for Godot (and, sadly, how easy it is to miss), or of Capote's search for spirituality in Music for Chameleons. Whatever piece of literature touched them, each face registers a new awareness of self and world. Greeley goes further to say that every storyteller is a theologian, and every story is about God. I know that is true of the literature I teach, and I think it is true of my story as well. If God is the ultimate meaning, as indeed God is, and stories help us make meaning of our lives and universe, then every story is truly a "God story."

By teaching in a Catholic school, I can reference that truth. I may speak of the Divine. I must draw on the totality of my experience as a lifelong Catholic layperson from my living litany days to my Ash Wednesday homily. That's why I think I'm in this final picture, even if you can't see me.

Some conventional wisdom holds that teachers don't teach subjects, they teach themselves. I have been steeped, stretched, shaped and molded by Catholic schools. This is who I am. This is what I teach.

As Toni Morrison wrote in Song of Solomon, "Pass it on."

Judith Bromberg teaches literature and serves as a counselor at Notre Dame de Sion High School in Kansas City, Mo. Her book reviews appear regularly in NCR.
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Title Annotation:Catholic Education
Author:Bromberg, Judith
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Mar 27, 1998
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