Several times a week I walk through St. Boniface to visit my mother at the St. Boniface Hospital where she has dialysis. I lived in St. Boniface and went to school there for a year when I was in grade one, because my Dad was a medical intern at the St. Boniface Hospital. As I walk the streets of St. Boniface and go past the Basilica I am often reminded of the public school I attended nearby.
A priest came to visit our school once a week to provide instruction in the Catholic faith. My parents, good Mennonites that they were, asked that I be excluded from these lessons. Whenever the priest arrived, I was sent to sit alone in a desk in the dark and often chilly hallway. I had only my Dick and Jane reader for company. For thirty minutes I would shiver out there letting my imagine run wild, wondering what the priest could be talking to the boys and girls about that was so strange and disturbing my parents didn’t want me to hear it.
Then came the day everyone went to the Basilica with the priest to practice for their First Communion. Off trooped the boys all spiffy in their shiny shoes and dark pants. They girls waved good-bye to me as they flounced out of the room in pretty dresses, with their lace head squares perched atop their ringlets. That day I was allowed to go back into the classroom after the other children had left. I sat there alone for what seemed like a very long time, with only the hissing radiator for companionship. I felt lonely and “left out.”
We moved to the rather religiously conservative town of Steinbach in 1960 when I was eight. I knew we were going to live in a predominantly Mennonite community. No doubt it would be a place where I would “fit in” a little better, at least when it came to matters of faith. I was soon to find out that this was not the case. My parents had taken me to see only two movies in my lifetime Bambi and Mary Poppins. I quickly discovered mentioning this to other children in my class at the old white clapboard Kornelson school was a big mistake. “People who go to movies, go to hell,” I was told by a classmate.
I loved my grade three teacher immediately. She was fair and kind and seemed to genuinely like me despite the fact I hadn’t learned how to multiply in my grade two class in Winnipeg and was behind in math. Yet some of my classmates made fun of my affection for my teacher and told me in a shocked whisper that she was a Lutheran. Did I realize they wondered, that the tin containers where our teacher kept those colorful little pegs we used to figure out our math problems, were really tobacco cans? Our teacher’s husband smoked. My classmates let me know this was another sure ticket to hell. Although no one in my family smoked, my parents had never told me the behavior was sinful.
Obviously I had plenty to learn about what was right and wrong if I wanted to be accepted in Steinbach. It didn’t take me long to figure out that it would probably be best not to mention the fact that my grandfather served homemade wine for Christmas dinner or that some of my aunts wore lipstick. I also learned to keep quiet about which church I attended. The General Conference Mennonite Grace Church was known as the ‘TV Church’ by many in Steinbach because a goodly number of the members had succumbed to temptation and bought television sets. Some of the men at my church also wore colored shirts on Sunday and some of our worship leaders actually read prayers rather than praying them spontaneously.
I had been an ‘outsider’ in my predominantly Catholic school in Winnipeg, but I learned quickly that if I wasn’t careful ‘outsider’ status was just as easy to achieve in predominantly Mennonite Steinbach.
Reflecting on these childhood experiences lately has helped me put them into perspective. The religious exclusion I felt as a child I think served me in good stead, and made me try very hard to include all children and make them feel accepted in the school classes I taught, no matter what their cultural or religious heritage. It has colored my own faith, making me more open to learning from those of other religious backgrounds. I think it has made me less ready to pass judgement and made me more aware of how strange and narrow the ideas of my faith community might seem to others.
I am realizing more and more as I grow older that even the experiences that weren’t pleasant in my past were often helpful in shaping me in good ways to become a better person.
What next? I’m wondering if this morning on my walk I won’t try to find my old school in St. Boniface, take some pictures and then write about other memories I have of my year of education there.