The early school years amount to a pretty forgettable time for a lot of adults. For Kerry Trotter, those were her glory days. Well, glory days with braces. Today she extolls the virtues of her little Catholic school education, and the friendships born out of shared, uniformed experience.
I preened in the mirror one last time, fluffing my 34-year-old flattening hair to capture some of its early-90s hugeness. My husband stood and watched, flummoxed.
“So, wait, who again are you meeting tonight?”
“A bunch of folks from my Sacred Heart Class of 1992,” I said, squinting to gauge the severity of my crow’s feet. “Grade school.”
My husband shook his head in disbelief. “Grade school? I so cannot relate to that.”
His is the reaction of many with whom I’ve shared stories of my kinship with these classmates. I’ve found the norm is not to keep in touch with the majority, if any, from one’s elementary school era (Facebook reconnections notwithstanding). High school? Sure. College? Definitely. But a small K-8 Catholic school? Our abnormal closeness tends to confound outsiders.
The nineteen of us ‘92 grads, give or take a few, have not only kept in touch, we’ve grown as friends. We’ve been in each other’s weddings, attended our children’s birthday parties, shed tears at parent’s funerals. Even when we go months without speaking, the reunions effortlessly pick up where we left off, our goofy humor and good-natured ribbing a portal to our innocent, insouciant shared past.
Maybe it’s a Catholic school thing, maybe it’s a Sacred Heart thing, maybe it’s a Sacred Heart Class of 1992 thing. I don’t care what it is, I’m just glad it’s a thing.
Sacred Heart School, in Winnetka, Ill., has bested a century of existence—through the jam-packed classrooms of the early 1960s Catholic school boom to the dark days in the late ‘80s when grades were consolidated due to perilously low enrollment. Those were the days I remember, when the number of total students dipped into the low-80s, and panicked parents who had been so intimately tied to the school for so long whispered about the unthinkable. But something happened—a little PR here, a little more fundraising there, one or two giant families moving to the area here and there—and the numbers started to perk up.
From what I understand, it’s doing well now, boasting about 300 kids and a skilled and caring staff. In fact, some former classmates of mine have children who attend the school. That sort of blows my mind.
Turns out, Sacred Heart’s history serves a decent microcosm of national trends in the declining enrollment and increased closings of Catholic schools. In the 1950’s, 60 percent of Catholic children would spend at least one year in Catholic school, with enrollment cresting the five million mark; in 1991, the number dropped to 20 percent—about 2.5 million students—according to data from the National Catholic Education Association. In the 2010-2011 school year, 172 schools closed or consolidated nationwide. Only 34 opened.
Despite the depressing downhill march of enrollment, I was pleasantly surprised to read that there are over two million Catholic school students in this country (that’s primary and secondary levels), which was more than I would have guessed. The Archdiocese of Chicago, Sacred Heart’s home, leads the nation in number of Catholic students at nearly 128,000.
Catholic high schools boast very high graduation rates (about 99 percent) compared with public high schools (about 75 percent), and watch 85 percent of their graduates go on to college, as opposed to the public schools’ 44 percent.
This is, of course, not knocking public schools, which are beholden to political and economic forces beyond their control and will, and have a leg up on Catholic schools in a number of realms (special education funding, notably). This is hardly a “Catholic=good, everything else=bad” manifesto. Catholic and/or private education is not a panacea for our or our nation’s educational troubles. But heck, I happened to love my experience, especially grade school, which was the very same one where my parents met and, a decade later, married in the adjacent church. SH and I? We’ve got history.
My graduating class comprised fourteen boys and five girls, excellent statistics for us girls if we hadn’t been so laughably naïve—and if I hadn’t been related to a bunch of them. We did cycle through our roster of male classmates for boyfriend material, but “dating” consisted of putting on one’s best turtleneck-sweatshirt combo, meeting the boy du jour at McDonalds on a Saturday afternoon, and not speaking to one another.
Parents, hide your daughters.
But this profound innocence that was either fostered by or occurred parallel to the school allowed something pretty extraordinary to happen—we became friends. Close friends. I count seven of the nineteen as some of the dearest confidantes I have, statistics that trump both my high school and college experiences (to be fair, both of those were Catholic schools, too). But this place allowed us—forced us—to be children, a luxury with which so much of today’s youth is unfamiliar.
I have theories about what Catholic education does for kids—separate from faith formation and educational excellence—and it has to do with instilling confidence and a sense of humor in children at a time that is so often awkwardly fraught. This gal, her formative days spent with David St. Hubbins's hair and a mouth full of mangled metal, is a testament to that. Small classes foster closeness and trust among students, in effect enabling kids to be friends with everyone, rather than choosing a group. In addition, small schools allow participation in sports, music and drama (whatever still exists of each given the schools’ diminishing presence) and a safe environment in which to experience failure. Voila, the confidence bit.
But Catholic schools also tend to be a little stricter than their counterparts, and include Mass in some capacity, so kids become very aware of what they are not to do, and where they are not to do it. This leads to my point: all humor stems from incongruity—events happening where or when they shouldn’t.
And the “where” is invariably church.
Enter the sense of humor.
Don’t get me wrong, we weren’t disrespectful or bad, we just experienced priceless lessons in the fundamentals of comedy given our restrictions, and the mild discipline we endured as a result was well worth it. We were rebels who did no harm, partners in crimes that left no mark, armchair comedians with a guaranteed-friendly laugh track.
And that’s what we hooted about at our informal 20-year reunion last weekend, and in the email thread that preceded it. We rehashed tales of vomiting in church (really, quite funny); the drop-to-your-knees disappointment of showing up at school having forgotten it was a non-uniform day; running amok through town in an era, not that long ago, when kids were still relatively unsupervised and smartphone-free. We were all funny kids, and kind kids—not a coincidence given the school’s religious affiliation. We weren’t perfect, and I remember truly sad moments of mean behavior and bullying, but we grew out of it, and grew from it, and we did something pretty profoundly Catholic—we asked for each other’s forgiveness.
And we got it.
My mom recently relayed a story of a young parent in town who asked her what she thought of Sacred Heart, given her four children who attended.
“If you want your kids to be a social beat behind and remain totally innocent, that’s the place for you,” my mom joked, then turning serious she added, “and if you’d like them to forge some of the best friendships they will ever have, there’s no place better.”
I have a few good pals who would agree.
Kerry Trotter is the content manager at Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. She still has pretty big hair.