I remember a schoolbook from when I was eight and nine. Reading To Some Purpose, always abbreviated by our teachers to RTSP. I understood that RTSP was easier to say but if you were reading to some purpose why would you abbreviate it? And why only RTSP? Why wasn’t there a WTSP? Weren’t we also being taught to write to some purpose such as expressing ourselves?
Which reminds me of catechism. The teaching style of the era involved learning by rote and one of the things to be learned was catechism. We had to learn the rules of being catholic from a green book of rules.
It wasn’t like poetry. I wasn’t hugely interested in poetry yet I’d learn lines from the poems but I couldn’t learn responsorial rules from the catechism. It wasn’t like the times tables. Multiplication could be boring though I could understand the need. Many of the questions and answers in the catechism made little sense to me so I found them hard to remember.
One of my friends told me you just had to learn it to get by. He died secretly before his next birthday (leukaemia I learned years later). We weren’t allowed know he was mortally sick so the school principal told us we could bring him back to school with our prayers. I did pray for him but perhaps I wasn’t heard because I refused to learn my catechism. Then he was dead. I was ten and allowed to think I had something to do with it.
Next thing you know, I’m serving at Mass, reading epistles and singing in the choir. Guilt had been conveyed. I was already confirmed, it was too late to learn the catechism. It was my fault.
Then again, we were told he was in a better place. Being in boarding school made that easy to imagine.
Becoming a Boarder
The problem at eight and nine and ten was already the mixed message. Even at this stage, I found myself confused by adult contradictions. Learn this. Why? You’ll need it later. What for? Questions unanswered from that day to this.
I had respect for my elders, loved them dearly. Maybe I didn’t trust them completely, hard to know. I was told that our grandparents and parents and aunts and uncles loved us back. That could be hard to imagine when gagging on semolina and strawberry jam. But the older ones, they would often fall asleep and sometimes, earlier in the day than you might expect, they might even fall over when you tried to engage with them at family gatherings. They were mostly generous and kindly disposed, when one-on-one, but noticeably less so in family groups. Sometimes we were a burden and occasionally we were told just what a burden we were.
Let’s be clear. I was a difficult child who smoked, bunked school and got caught in these stupidities and more besides. I was told these things were wrong. I wasn’t necessarily told what was right. It was childish to drop spinach out the bedroom because I gagged on the slimy taste of it. I wouldn’t have even been in the bedroom if I’d been able to eat it at the table. The beating I took was because I was ungrateful and deceitful but it didn’t stop me being fed for the third time, the same over-boiled, cold spinach recovered from outside my window. Remorse finally saved me from the dirty spinach but not from the buttock pain that persists after five decades of the grocery.
I sometimes think society was relying on osmosis and example and religious instruction to inform me. The problem was that the words and the actions of adults were as mismatched as anger-red written on a spinach-green background. As hard to understand as apothegms being the the plural of apophthegm, which is how Dominus Vobiscum was explained to me. It’s an apophthegm said the grandfather we all called Papa. A kindly man with a sense of humour using a Greek word to help me understand ‘The Lord be with you’ in Latin. My nine year old brain couldn’t yet handle such games. Mind you, I still remember the word and I still love puns and word plays that he and his youngest son used incessantly. Anyway, I got sent to boarding school when I was ten and served seven years in resentment.
I found out later that my incarceration was for my own good. For years I had thought it was punishment for embarrassing my parents and the grandmother that brought me to school one May Saturday. I was due to be confirmed by the Archbishop. It was awkward because everyone got dressed up to come with me and I’d got the date wrong. I was a week early and the principal politely asked if I was better, knowing full well I’d not been sick for the last few weeks that I’d bunked from school. The bunking of school caused me to meet some so-called insalubrious people and this worried my parents. I had thought these were friends of my parents who were annoyingly bringing me home or making sure I was safe. No, I was told, those two weren’t looking out for me. I learned later that they were homosexuals, living together up the road from our home. So I got packed off to an all male boys boarding school. To save me, apparently.
The decision had been made to board me and I was confirmed the week following my mistaken attendance. Somehow Archbishop McQuaid spared me while asking catechism questions of the boys either side of me.
‘What is Confirmation? Confirmation is a sacrament which makes us
strong and perfect Christians.’
‘What is confession? Confession is a sorrowful declaration of our sins made to a priest in order to obtain forgiveness.’
Here’s another article that reminds us of the dangers of authoritarianism and mixed messages.
Some rather sad memories of childhood there. Your mention of the question “Why?” reminds me of something Richard Feynman said about how that question made him become a scientist. He found it fascinating how if you kept asking “Why?” his father would eventually have to say “Just because it is!”. As an example, Feynman has a small cart on wheels with a ball in it. When he turned a corner, the ball hits the side of the cart and doesn’t stay in the middle.. He asked his dad “Why?” – “That’s because of momentum. An object in motion want’s to stay in motion.” – “Why” – “Just because it does!”