I sat in the dark panelled hallway beside a rattling radiator. I pretended to look at the Dick and Jane reader my teacher had given me. It was 1959. My family was living in an almost exclusively French neighbourhood in a large city because my father was completing his medical internship at a Catholic hospital. I was in grade one in a local public school.
In spring the priest started coming to our class once a week, to prepare my classmates for taking their First Communion at the nearby cathedral. My parents asked that I be excused from these sessions. So when the priest entered the door, all my classmates turned to look at me, as I exited the room, to sit alone, on a wooden chair, in the hall.
I was curious. I tried to peek through the window in the classroom door. I put my ear to the wall to see if I could hear what the priest was saying. What were the other kids learning that my Mennonite parents didn’t want me to know about?
Most of the school’s teachers were nuns and they taught us to say French prayers together before we ate our lunch. After a time I could rattle off those prayers along with all the other kids and make the sign of the cross when I was done. When I demonstrated my new prayer skills to my parents, they gently suggested that I not repeat my Catholic prayers in my Sunday school class at the Mennonite church we attended.
When I was eight my father joined a medical practice in a small town. We left the city for life in an almost exclusively Mennonite community. During our first months there I learned from my grade three classmates in the public school I attended, that some things my family did were a sure ticket to hell.
I had seen two movies Mary Poppins and Bambi. My grandfather served homemade wine at Christmas. I had aunties who wore lipstick. My parents had chosen to attend the one Mennonite church in town that allowed members to have a television, hence it’s nickname The TV Church.
I soon learned to be careful about describing my family’s activities or talking about events at our church, especially to certain classmates, who seemed to be authorities when it came to my less than favorable odds on making it into heaven.
I’m a grandmother now, but my childhood experiences remain vivid reminders of how the different ideas between faith communities about what is true, or good, or right, or worthy of judgment, can impact children. I try to remember that the children are always watching and listening and wondering.