Catholic School Back To School Shopping: Myths vs. Realities

Ah, Back-To-School Shopping : such a gentle, consumeristic way to get over the end of summer vacation. However, as two life-long Catholic school students, our experience wasn’t everything the Staples and J.C. Penney commercials led us to believe. I’m watching the cycle all over again with my nieces and nephews – the public schoolers getting cute new outfits and the Catholic school kids getting their first necktie at age 5. [Find me something cuter than a kindergartener in business casual.] In honor of our ’90s and ’00s memories, here is a study in the contrasts between back to school shopping for Catholic schoolers and, if not real public school students, at least the too-cool public schoolers we saw on TV.

Clothing

File under: My childhood as a walking Irish Catholic stereotype.

Expectation: I’m going back to school with a new wardrobe that will mark me as one of the cool kids!

Reality: I am wearing the same plaid jumper from the same Plaid Jumper Store as all of my classmates. Somehow, kids manage to sort themselves into Cool and Uncool anyway.

[Note: there is a 50/50 chance your uniform is a hand-me-down, or your mom bought it at the used uniform sale your school holds at the end of the school year.]

Expectation: At least maybe some fun, cute outfits for after school!

Reality: Those are called “play clothes” and they don’t come from the store, they come from a trash bag your aunt drops off every time your next cousin up has a growth spurt.

[Note: I realize there are Catholics without cousins but I’ve never met one.]

Accessories

Expectation: And don’t forget the accessories!

Reality: … Which are knee socks, a navy blue cardigan, and a shirt with a Peter Pan collar during that five-decade range after Peter Pan collars went out of style in the ’60s and before they came back in style on Zooey Deschanel.

If you’re fancy, please add a headband in the same plaid as your uniform.

Jewelry

Expectation: Wearing some jewelry, I guess.

Reality: Bracelets are not allowed. Non-post earrings are not allowed. Necklaces are a pendant on a thin chain. If you want to consider rosaries jewelry (“WHICH THEY ARE NOT” – every Catholic reading this post, before I could even say it, right?), you can have those. But you cannot wear them, for Pete’s sake.

School Supplies

Expectation: Lisa Frank binders! Lisa Frank notebooks! Lisa The Frickin FRANK IT ALL UP.

Reality: There is a specific, solid color that every subject uses. Does The Vatican secretly operate the Mead company?

Expectation: Don’t forget a trapper keeper to stay organized!

Reality: Trapper Keepers strictly verboten.

Hair

Expectation: It would be so much fun to try a bright color or a crazy new ‘do to show people how much I’ve changed over the summer!

Reality: “No extreme hairstyles” – Catholic School Student Manual 29:11

Shoes

Expectation: I will narrow down the most in-style looks and then pick out some sneakers, a pair of cute shoes, and maybe something a little dressier.

Reality: Your uniform requires shoes that meet all of the following criteria: black or navy blue. No laces. No wedges. No mules. No sneaker soles. Heel must measure less than one inch at the highest point. No ballet flats.

You are left with orthopedic nun shoes.

[Note: If you’re really wondering how we sorted out the cool kids, their moms bought them cute shoes that skirted the Shoe Canon of the student handbook, whereas uncool-kid moms followed it to the letter. As to what camp I was in, let’s just say I still like a sturdy pair of Clarks.]

 

 

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Seriously, You Guys, Catholic School Was Fine

At a party in college, a friend from my city asked me about the high school in my suburb. “Well, I lived there, but I actually went to Catholic school.”
“Oh God,” he answered, “I’m sorry.”

But the thing is? I’m not sorry at all. People sometimes assume that, because I grew up into a politically liberal adult who likes outfits, my Catholic school years were probably unbearable — a wasteland of conservative repression and hideous uniforms. Or that since I don’t regularly go to a Catholic church these days, I’ve probably turned against it and am all bitter about it.[1] It’s true that I could go my whole life without wearing another jumper or hearing On Eagles’ Wings[2] again, but for the most part, it was a pretty non-traumatic way to grow up. Here are some misconceptions I’ve run across, and how things actually played out for me:

A nun named Sister William Gerald[3] probably hit you with rulers. First of all, most of my teachers weren’t nuns. They were middle-aged married women[4] wearing adult jumpers. And the nuns that were there were actually pretty nice, usually. True, they didn’t take crap from anyone, but generally in a typical old-lady sense. And I’d be stern too, if I were them. My piano lessons were in the convent, and they had the saddest, smallest, antennaed black and white t.v. – and this was in the mid-90s. Vow of poverty and all that. I mean, you all know how we feel about t.v. around here, right?  Also they had to listen to 6-year-olds play Hot Cross Buns and Ode To Joy all day long. They had a tiny chapel with stained glass windows in the convent, and that was pretty cool, though. But having my own personal, tiny church would not make up for a sub-par television experience. I guess that’s what you get for marrying a famous guy who is also invisible (read: Jesus).

You were denied self-expression because you had to wear uniforms. This probably is just me being a nerd, but I loved my plaid uniform. I liked that I didn’t have to think about what to wear every day. Before a dress-down day, I would look through my entire wardrobe and consult with 2-3 friends by telephone to plan my outfit. There is no way I could have handled that pressure on a daily basis. In retrospect, it was nice that you never knew which kids had tons of nice clothes and which ones didn’t.  Everyone, rich or poor, tall or short, fat or thin, had an equal opportunity to look shapeless and terrible. In terms of creative expression, I had things like crayons and school plays, you know? I creatively expressed myself through clothing in my off-hours, and let me tell you, the results were less than spectacular. Lots of stirrup pants, really, as was the style of the time.

By first grade, this uniform hadn’t stopped me from becoming 39 lbs of concentrated sass.

Your teachers were unqualified, and you only learned about Jesus(/Mary/Joseph). This is the only misconception that I take sort of personally: first of all, I know I received a really good education, and second, my mother is mega-educated and is a Catholic school principal. All of our teachers had masters degrees, just like yours. The graduation standards of my high school were well above my state’s regents diploma. I started college credit courses my sophomore year, and I think senior year was an all-AP schedule for me. I swear we learned about evolution and all of that.[5] We just had religion classes on top of it. This paid off in college, when I entertained friends with Bible Story Time With Molly, where I’d share ridiculous, gruesome, or filthy stories that actually appear in the Bible. In high school I developed a theory that some of that stuff was written by ancient Israelites who ate bad desert mushrooms, etched their musings on stone tablets, then stashed them in a bunch of holy scrolls where they assumed nobody would ever look.

My former elementary is now a public school, but there’s still a cross on top, which I guess is allowed??

You didn’t know about any other religions. In college, I remember meeting classmates and friends who had gone to public school and didn’t know the difference between Catholics and Protestants (or “Catholics and Christians,” as a few maintained that the two were mutually exclusive. Ugh.). I’m not saying that public schools do a bad job of teaching about world religions, I’m just saying that going to one is no guarantee that you are better-informed than a Catholic schooler. My schools did a great job teaching about other religions, and my class even had an awesome partnership with students at a school in Israel. I’d also like to point out that (1) not everyone in my school was Catholic, or even Christian, and (2) like public schoolers, I had … you know, neighbors and friends from outside of school and stuff.

Those were the kids who got beat up in my neighborhood. Yep … okay, yeah. I can’t refute that, because that’s potentially very true. On Sundays, public school kids from our church used to use our classrooms for religious ed. Those punks used to mess with our desks every single week! They even left the cover off of our incubator when we were hatching baby chickens. Luckily the teacher checked on them right after, so no harm there. We were so pathetic that we got out our big classroom chart paper and wrote them a letter asking them to please stop taking our things, if you don’t mind.

1 I would absolutely go to a friendly, non-judgmental church! But do I have to memorize the new mass responses?
2 On Eagles’ Wings is engineered to make people cry at funerals, and vows that God will “make you to shine like the sun,” like a new car or a Twilight vampire.

This song was part of the “contemporary” Catholic music movement of the 70s and 80s. Usually this kind of music is performed by a “folk group,” which is comprised of 4-7 elderly people, one of whom has a guitar. All of the ladies have wavery old-lady church voices. In many churches, the “folk group” is still a “hip” attempt to “reach out to the youth.”

3 My parents have verified that, in the ‘50s and ‘60s, nuns with men’s names were all-around more terrifying that nuns with ladies’ names. So, if your substitute was Sr. Damian Louis, you knew you were worse off than if you had Sr. Margaret Elizabeth.
4 One time someone asked if my mom was a nun since she’s always worked in Catholic schools, and I was all, I don’t think you really get how this nun thing works…
5 In the interest of transparency, our health class was lacking. It was one semester long, and sex ed was basically just graphic descriptions of STIs, and a warning that condoms had tiny holes for AIDS to get through (maybe it was just my teacher? When talking about the id he pronounced it “the I.D.”. He was only on staff because he was a coach, and I think this kind of thing happens at public schools too, maybe? I am basing this opinion entirely off of Mean Girls.) That lasted for about a week, and the rest of the time we watched outdated TV movies about Tracy Gold overcoming things. On a related note, there were like 3-4 pregnant girls my senior year.