My son Nick and I step out of the dusty, dark green station wagon into the empty parking lot. We have an appointment at St. Joseph’s Catholic School with the school principal, Sr. Josephine. It’s a late-summer break. We don’t see anyone outside except for a painting crew. They must be getting ready for school to open soon. There is a strong smell of fresh paint and new beginnings. A soft Maui island breeze moves through the palm trees and hibiscus plants, quieting down the summer heat.
I lightly grab my son’s small, thin shoulders and move him directly in front of me. I smooth down his freshly cut, golden blonde hair, making sure his multiple cowlicks aren’t showing. Next, I check his crisp, clean shirt making sure there are no surprise spots or dirty messes. Finally, I look deep into his mischievous, bright hazel eyes and give him a quick peck on the nose.
Nick should be going into second grade this coming year, but he can’t read. He doesn’t even know the alphabet. And worse, he shows no interest in learning. At his current Montessori school, he plays most of the time outdoors. No one at the school seems concerned that he is almost eight years old and can’t read. And there is no plan or push to get Nick going.
I straighten out my soft cotton dress and quickly check my own hair in the car window. I have to make a good impression on Sr. Josephine. This meeting has to go well. I take a big, long breath as we walk toward the school. I desperately want Nick to get accepted into St. Joseph’s. He must learn to read.
I am what’s called a “cradle Catholic.” I attended parochial schools most of my life, including high school, and then graduated from a Jesuit university. Unlike a lot of people, my Catholic school experience was mostly positive. I learned fast that the nuns and priests have certain expectations, and if you follow them, everything will be just fine. I was a compliant kid and model student who completed my schoolwork quickly and with skill. And so the nuns and priests liked and cared for me. I want this for Nick.
Sr. Josephine meets us in her school office. The space is small but well organized. The books in her small wooden bookcase look categorized by size. On her office walls are numerous school pictures and awards. Sr. Josephine is a petite, middle-aged woman in a nun’s habit. She has dark eyes and eyebrows. She does not wear makeup but is naturally pretty. Her clothing is plain and brown. Her black shoes look sensible and comfortable. She wears a large wooden crucifix on her chest.
I walk up to her with confidence. “Good morning, Sr. Josephine. Thank you for meeting with us,” I say with a bright, cheery smile as I shake her hand firmly.
“Ohhhh, she’s a church lady!” Nick interjects before I can finish my introduction. He points to her habit with wonder.
“Yes, she is,” I say to him pleasantly, looking at Sr. Josephine to gauge her response. Then he walks over and gives Sr. Josephine a big, long hug.
“He’s a hugger,” I say to Sr. Josephine, a little embarrassed, not knowing if a hug is appropriate. But she’s a nun, and he’s obviously happy to meet her, so I imagine it’s okay.
To recast the awkward moment, I make some quick, lively remarks about the lovely weather and then say something about how I like the school landscaping. I am working hard at small talk, trying to be as pleasant as possible.
“I have attended Catholic schools all of my life,” I tell Sr. Josephine, hoping to impress her. “We even have clergy in our family.”
Sr. Josephine smiles kindly at me and nods. She seems interested in what I have to say.
Now I slip in that Nick has been attending Montessori, but it’s not working out. “Nick likes school, but he’s getting behind in his studies,” I say. “So, we need to try something different.”
We begin to walk around the school. We look at the classrooms, the art room, the music room, and the cafeteria. It is a charming, small school that has been operating for almost 100 years. The red clay floor tiles are worn with the footsteps of thousands of children who have gone before us.
I like the school, and Nick seems to as well. As we continue to walk, Nick is getting into everything as usual. He is opening and closing doors to have a peek inside. He finds a broom closet and then a storage room. He runs in front of us, trying to figure out all of the secrets of this place. To him, this is a game. Sr. Josephine is carefully watching Nick the whole time.
At the end of the walk, we all go back to Sr. Josephine’s office and sit down. I think our meeting is going well. I like the facilities, the schools’ history, and the Catholic philosophy. St. Joseph’s has a strong academic reputation. And if you are Catholic, you must attend church every Sunday to get into school, which, fortunately, we do.
“I can see Nick thriving here,” I say to Sr. Josephine pleasantly. Despite my initial apprehension, I begin to relax. I think this meeting is pretty much in the bag.
As Nick stands beside Sr. Josephine at her desk, he begins to go through her drawers. “Nick,” I whisper to him loudly, “don’t do that. Those are Sr. Josephine’s private things. You can’t go through her desk.”
He looks crestfallen, shoulders drooping. He doesn’t seem to understand.
“Why not?” he asks plainly.
“I’ll explain to you later,” I quickly respond in a hushed voice.
Sr. Josephine looks kindly at Nick, then me, but gets right to the point.
“You have a lovely boy,” she says to me softly.
I nod at her knowingly, smile, and politely say, “Thank you.”
She goes on, carefully choosing her words as she looks deep into my eyes, adding, “But he is not a good fit for this school.”
“What?” I roar, shooting up from my chair. This is not at all what I was expecting to hear. T
“Why isn’t my son a good fit for this school?” I ask loudly, shocked. “We’re Catholic. We go to church. The Church has a responsibility to educate the faithful. We want Nick to go to a Catholic school, and so you must make this happen. It’s as simple as that. What’s the problem?” I demand, firing quickly at Sr. Josephine. Now that this meeting is not going according to plan, I am showing her a different side of me.
Sr. Josephine is not easily roused. It must be from many years of working with young children.
“You have a wonderful boy,” she says gently, starting all over again. “But at this school, we are strict. We expect our students to sit down and not talk for an entire class. They cannot get up and walk around. And, they must complete a big workload of material for their ages. It’s a lot to ask of a young person,” she admits.
After a few seconds, she adds, “This is not Montessori.”
“Well,” I say, trying to listen to Sr. Josephine’s words but feeling offended, “my son is very smart. He learns quickly when he puts his mind to it. He can remember almost anything.”
“Yes,” says Sr. Josephine, still calm. “I can see he is smart. But still, this kind of environment will not be good for him. Finally, she repeats, “This is not Montessori.”
The meeting is coming to an end, and I’m angry. The breeze feels like it’s stopped, and I’m a little dizzy. I can suddenly feel the heat of the day. I can’t believe my son won’t be admitted to the parochial school. This is an outrage! I grab Nick’s small, warm hand and push it into mine. He looks up at me, confused, not understanding the situation.
“Fine, Sr. Josephine,” I say to her harshly, my teeth clenched and my jaw set, trying hard to keep the ugly words I’m thinking to myself.
“We’ll figure something else out.”
“Yes, my dear,” she replies, still kindly, leading us to the school’s front door. “Farewell… and may God bless you.”