Once “The Spirit of Vatican II” blew into Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Religion classes at Christ King School changed quite a bit. We had started out in first grade with a book called The Baltimore Catechism, which I really liked because it had cool pictures and clear explanations of difficult concepts like sin, purgatory and the Trinity:
I was pretty disappointed when it was time for Religion class one day and the Baltimore Catechism was gone, replaced by—well, replaced by not much:
Instead of talking about really interesting and useful things like “Purgatory and How to Avoid It,” or “Is it a Sin to Eat Mincemeat on Fridays in Lent?” we now spent most of our time talking about how important it was to be kind. I did not, even in my limited third grade mind, dispute the relationship between avoiding Purgatory and being kind. I just missed seeing the connection made explicit in vivid detail:
Instead of sitting at our desks, which we did for the really important subjects like Spelling and Math, for Religion class we now sat on pillows, often drawing pictures or listening to music. I still remember the day Mrs. Lane teared up when she put Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” on the turntable, telling us as it played, “Do you see? Jesus loves Mrs. Robinson, and He loves you, too! More than you know!” We also did a close analysis of “Richard Cory,” which, according to Mrs. Lane, was a tale of what happens when Christians are unkind (for those unfamiliar with Simon and Garfunkel lyrics and the poetry of E.A. Robinson: suicide). Now, I had been a Simon and Garfunkel fan from the start; my brother Johnnie, whom I adored without reserve, had both of their albums and I knew all their songs by heart. I also knew that Paul Simon’s parents were Hungarian Jews. It seemed unlikely to me that this nice Jewish boy was writing songs about Jesus, but I didn’t want to let Mrs. Lane down, so I said nothing. Nonetheless, I really missed the Baltimore Catechism.
If my training in religion had begun in the third grade, I would have thought, with good cause, that “Christian” was a word meaning “golden-hearted.” It was hard not to notice, however, that my fellow third graders talked a good line in Religion class but all of their touching and luminous reflections on kindness disappeared the moment their feet hit the pavement at recess. Suddenly, the very girls who had been exulting about how nice it is to be nice were forming groups to play jump rope and making it clear that I was not welcome to join them. It would have been helpful to start recess immediately after looking at pictures like these:
instead of pictures like these:
To be honest, I didn’t seriously mind not being included in the daily recess routine; the girls in my class just looked sweaty as they jumped rope while chanting about their future spouses. The “spouse options” were doctor, lawyer, or Indian chief, with “Indian Chief” being the booby prize—not a very kind attitude, when you think about it. When they weren’t jumping rope to the rhythm of our future marital choices, they were writing “recipes” for their Easy-Bake ovens. I was used to standing against the chain link fence and watching everyone else while my mind wandered; I often took that time as an opportunity to daydream about the dog I might someday get, a dog who would adore me. I did, however, inherit from my mother a nose for hypocrisy, and I was starting to take note of the stark difference between the angelic discourses in Religion class and the Jungle Laws of recess.
Intrigued by this discrepancy, I went home one day and shared these thoughts with my mother. Her imagination was captured by this conversation. It was unusual for me to approach my mother with any of my school problems; I had apparently decided early on in life that my mother had a lot to deal with already, so my sister Susan was my “go-to” in all situations. It was also unusual for my mother to take decisive action because of something I told her about school. My parents weren’t the only ones in the 1960’s who left their children in what they assumed were the capable hands of the school system; it was nearly unheard of for a parent to question any decision a teacher made or to suggest a better way of doing things than the one already in use. My mother did have a particular dislike for religious hypocrisy, however, and my playground observations hit all her buttons in that regard. She requested a conference with Mrs. Lane to discuss the discrepancy between Religion class and Playground Culture.
When my mother complained to Mrs. Lane that her charges were dropping their Christianity at the door when they left the building for recess, Mrs. Lane was galvanized to make an immediate change. The day after she talked to my mother, she announced to the class that from that day forward, all the girls had to play with each other, and so did the boys. No groups, no teams—just girls together as one and boys together as one. As she made this announcement, she kept beaming at me and very nearly winked; I was squirming in my chair, fearful that I would be discovered as the Girl Who Ruined Recess Forever.
To my surprise, however, my classmates took to this new idea of Christian recess with gusto. As far as I could tell, no one suspected me as its source (really, though, no thanks to Mrs. Lane.) And in fact, recess that day was great. I don’t remember what game we played; certainly Mrs. Lane’s “Everyone Plays” rule limited our options. But I do remember playing something, and I remember having fun. Things were definitely looking up.
The next day, Mrs. Lane didn’t mention anything about the New Rule for Recess before she sent us forth to the playground at 10:20, and it was back to business as usual. The girls split into small groups and the boys did whatever it was that boys did at recess. I shrugged, and took up my usual station near the fence, thinking about what I would have for a snack after school and ruminating about names for the Dog I Might Get Someday. I don’t know why I never told my mother that Christian Recess lasted exactly one day, nor do I know why my mother never asked me how things were working out. Even less do I understand why Mrs. Lane never followed up on Christian Recess, but I suspect that her memory wasn’t what it once had been, and what memory she had was largely taken up with her dead husband, about whom we heard a great deal in the classroom every day. He used to call her His Rose, and when she married him—Mr. Lane—her name was “Rose Lane.” We third graders (well, at least the girls) loved this stuff, and never complained if stories of the late lamented Mr. Lane spilled over into our time for Math. Mrs. Lane was a good-hearted soul, but her finest days in the third grade classroom, I suspect, were behind her. She meant well, though, and I knew that.
Religion class never really got any better after third grade. We never went back to the Baltimore Catechism, much to my chagrin. We did, however, continue our Close Religious Study of the songs of Simon and Garfunkel. By seventh grade, we had advanced to Sr. Collette saying, “Do you see? It’s Jesus! Jesus is the Bridge Over Troubled Water!” I never did bring up the fact that Paul Simon’s parents were Hungarian Jews. It wouldn’t have been kind.