Why I accidentally miss Catholic school
by Maddie Pillari; illustration by Eboni Statham
An all-girls Catholic school is exactly like you would expect it to be, and nothing like what you would expect it to be.
In many ways, my time at Convent of the Sacred Heart was the most stifling eight years of my life. It was an independent private school, not legally bound to the Catholic Church. It was a good school, too—the kind of place where out of 80 girls in a grade, 10 would go to Georgetown, 10 would go to Boston College, a handful to Ivies and the rest to other brand-name colleges and universities. The academics were competitive, the teachers were tough and my classmates were smart.
But the institution was airless. I sometimes found myself fighting to breathe underneath the oppressive and active administration. When you are a senior in high school, being chased down the hall by the Student Dean because your socks aren’t white or your kilt doesn’t fall two inches above your knees, it’s hard not to feel just a bit resentful.
Our daily morning meeting began with three minutes of silent prayer. Someone would read a passage from the Bible or a poem, and then ring a little Tibetan singing bowl to cue silence. During this time, study guides and flashcards that girls brought in preparation for tests first period were stored beneath chairs, phones remained in pockets and teachers scanned our bowed heads, ready to catch anyone not praying diligently.
There are things about an all-girls school that are wonderful and strange. There is a lot of unrestrained emotion. Singing, dancing, crying—it didn’t matter when, where or why. My peers became an intimate part of my life, whether I wanted it that way or not. Eight years of all-girls Catholic school shaped me in a very definitive way.
I didn’t make it easy for myself. Once, at the very end of my junior year, I was teetering on the edge of some kind of psychological break after the infamous junior workload came to its climax during finals week. My Spanish final was the only test left, and I had been carrying around a stack of study guides and flashcards for three days. Dress uniform was required that morning for an end-of-the-year mass. I forgot. Without the necessary uniform navy sweater with the school logo, I was the perfect target for the tired and cranky Assistant Dean.
She pulled me out of the swarm of girls filing into the auditorium for the service, and began her diatribe: “I sent out two emails and made at least three announcements this week about dress uniform. I find it so disrespectful that you chose to ignore the rules. This is a formal mass, it isn’t that hard to remember a cardigan.”
Deliriously stressed and overtired, I did what any other Sacred Heart girl would have done: I started to cry. Standing in front of her, hiccupping, my study guide crumpled in my hands, I fell apart. The Dean took a step back, surprised and confused as I struggled to catch my breath between sobs.
She reached a hesitant hand out to comfort me, and I flinched backwards.
“Get away from me,” I said, talking back to authority for the first time in my life. It was she who then took a step back, shocked. “Don’t speak to me like that,” she replied.
“Just stop,” I found myself repeating, over and over. “You can’t speak to me like that,” she said again. My fight-or-flight instinct kicked in, and the urge to get as far away from school as possible overwhelmed me.
I took one last shuddering breath, turned on my heel and fled to the parking lot, into my car and home. My mom went into the school later that afternoon, met with the Dean and the incident was forgotten. I took my Spanish final, did okay, finished my junior year and my senior year after that. But that bizarre tension, between the heightened level of emotion at Sacred Heart and the rigidity of the administration, continued to chip away at me and my classmates.
However, when my Catholic school education came to a close, I felt something I swore I never would: nostalgia. I can blame it on Stockholm Syndrome, maybe. Or perhaps it can be attributed to a dissipation of teenage angst as I embarked into adulthood, or the solidarity and bonds that soldiers form in the gruesome conditions of the trenches. And in many ways, my classmates and I were together in the trenches: under constant fire, getting yelled at for uniform infractions, enduring morning prayer, collecting warning slips and detentions, failed tests and rejection letters. My sisters in this holy war.
And yet, I became irrevocably comfortable at Sacred Heart. The friends I grew up with, the teachers to whom I swore my eternal and unwavering wrath, the uniform that allowed a blissfully mindless morning routine; I can always visit when I’m home on break, but it isn’t the same. I’m not a part of it anymore. In a lot of ways this is a good thing—free of the endless restrictions and censorship, I can finally breathe. Colorado College is probably the opposite of my high school. But although my memories of high school are not fond, they are tinged with a sweet sentimentality, a wistfulness. A bizarre homesickness for that comfort and security that at once choked and enveloped me in its arms. Straining against the rules becomes habit, and there is an ease that comes with the familiar battle.
We wore green plaid kilts, we braided each other’s hair, we filed into chapel everyday as stern teachers shushed our giggles. “This is a sacred space,” they would whisper-shout at us. And maybe it was.