As my old Commonweal colleagues will attest (they helped clear out my office), I’m something of a pack rat. If anything has any conceivable future use, I save it. Admittedly, I save things in a way that makes it hard to quickly put my finger on them again. In my defense, my filing “system” makes up in comprehensiveness for what it lacks in efficiency. In other words, my papers are a god-awful mess.
We recently moved from a suburb of New York City to a small coastal village at the eastern end of Long Island Sound. We had lived in the village for twenty years before moving closer to the city, and the possibility of returning had long been on our mind. In an impetuous moment just as Omicron was blossoming, we took the plunge. In a span of about forty-five days, we sold our house, bought the new one, and moved. That proved to be more exhausting and disorienting than anticipated. But we are back in a cherished place and, much to our delight and surprise, we are surrounded by old—in both senses of the word—neighbors and friends.
I’m now in the forlorn business of unpacking boxes of papers and books. One of the “treasures” that appeared in this exhumation process was the textbook I used the one year I taught “religion” at a large diocesan high school near our current home. The dogeared textbook brought back mixed memories.
I have often described that year as “the longest in my life.” Several challenges contributed to that assessment. I taught five classes of “ethics” to juniors and one of “comparative religion” to seniors. The class of seniors was relatively small, but the ethics classes were large—usually thirty or more students. Like most first-time teachers, I found classroom management to be a struggle at first. The seniors were smug and disdainful, the juniors mostly indifferent. They all shared an exasperation over having to do homework for something as impractical as religion class. In the class of seniors, students inserted scraps of paper into the electrical outlet used to plug in the filmstrip projector, causing a brief fire. When I graded the first set of tests for the ethics classes, I discovered that more than half of the students had cheated.
This was almost as amusing as it was discouraging. Not having attended parochial school, I was under the misimpression that “religion,” a required course, was considered a serious subject. That did not turn out to be the case. My freshly minted master’s degree in religion was more a hindrance than a help in understanding this novel terrain. On the other hand, the school’s football and basketball teams were champions. Much religious ardor could be found on the playing fields and in the stands.
I think the attitude of the students can be attributed to several factors. First, most had gone to Catholic schools and had taken religion instruction all their lives. It had become repetitive and boring. Second, peer pressure was intense, and few of the popular kids took religion class seriously. You were thought to be a “goodie-goodie” if you did. Third, this was the early 1980s, a time of deep confusion regarding Vatican II’s reforms and what they meant for Catholic practice and morality. One of the principal reference tools for the religion classes was a complete video library of the Phil Donahue Show, where the show’s host, a Notre Dame grad, pushed a so-called “progressive” agenda when it came to Catholic issues, especially on sexual morality. In other words, the curriculum for religion classes was a muddle. As a result, and much to my surprise, the students had only the flimsiest grasp of certain basic Catholic teachings.