With my daughters at home for school, I am finally getting a Catholic education

Students work online via the computer at their home in Rotterdam, Netherlands, April 3, 2020. (CNS photo/Utrecht Robin, ABACAPRESS.COM via Reuters) 

“Good morning, Reverend Brown Bears!” My wife stands at the kitchen counter, and my twin daughters rush to her side, belting roars appropriate to their school’s mascot. She is a school counselor, and if anyone has the patience and skill to handle two homebound first graders, it is her. 

“In the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” We cross ourselves and then say the Our Father and the Hail Mary before asking Our Lady of the Lake to pray for us. It then gets silent for a few moments—a miraculous event for nearly 7-year-olds, accomplished by standing between them—as we send our special intentions to heaven and then conclude with an amen.

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For my daughters and wife, this was nothing new. They have lived in the world of Catholic education. But for me this was a window into parochial education. It has been a revelation of sorts.

Remote learning for my daughters means their daily lives of school unfold at our kitchen table, and it has been quite the education for me.

Here in New Jersey, like many other states, all public and private schools are closed due to the coronavirus. At first it was for two weeks; now school is closed through mid-May. We expect that date might be pushed even further. The traditional rhythms and events of the Lenten season and the spring are gone. Mass is suspended throughout the diocese. Gatherings, religious or otherwise, are postponed. 

Despite all of this, I am trying to embrace the blessings that remain—especially the blessing of being home together. Remote learning for my daughters means their daily lives of school unfold at our kitchen table, and it has been quite the education for me. Although I am a lifelong Catholic, I am one of the only members of my family to never attend Catholic school. My father went to Catholic elementary school and then a Jesuit college, the College of the Holy Cross, where priests were his professors. My sister attended Georgian Court University, founded by the Sisters of Mercy. My older brothers went to a Catholic high school, as did my wife and all of her sisters. My wife’s mother has worked as a secretary in Catholic schools for over 25 years.

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I was going to attend the same Catholic high school as my brothers, but unfortunately the school was on its way to closing, so my parents made the decision to keep me in the public school system. For the past 16 years, I have taught English in public schools, and I think they are an essential part of the American education system. But I have always wondered what it would be like to be a part of Catholic, faith-centered education.

I am getting a window into the daily lives of my daughters, and I truly understand what my wife has always told me: Catholic schooling has defined her view of the world.

Now I am getting a window into the daily lives of my daughters, and I truly understand what my wife has always told me: Catholic schooling has defined her view of the world. After the “remote” morning announcements, our daughters recite the school mission statement, which reads, in part: “As a Catholic school community, we believe that through modeling kindness, forgiveness and compassion, we can make a difference in God’s world.” This might be a small thing to those who have gone through Catholic education, but for a former public school kid like me, there is something beautiful about starting the day with communal prayer and affirmation. Kindness, forgiveness and compassion: I can’t think of things that we need more of in this world, especially now. 

Math practice is followed by reading and vocabulary work, which is followed by reading and illustrating Bible stories. Then comes the special classes: Spanish, music and art—drawings of horses, unicorns, dogs, cats, rabbits and the occasional fox. We all look forward to recess: flying kites in our yard, following a trail into the woods and hunting for pine cones and rocks. 

During Holy Week, the girls read about the Last Supper and how Jesus said we would be known as his followers based on our love for each other. The girls shared how they show love for their family and friends: helping, praying and a lot of hugging. Good Friday, always a day that brings out tears for the girls, felt especially solemn and real this year, but they and their classmates read from Psalm 33:20: “We still hope in God who is our help.” 

This has been the refrain from their teachers and school: We are here for each other, and we are united in faith.

We are all missing out on a lot right now. My daughters miss seeing (and hugging) their teachers and playing with their friends. But their teachers have been wonderful; despite our distance, they have never felt distant. They truly love their students.

The shift to remote education comes with real challenges—but it is an example of how we must deal with the unexpected in life. The key is that we remember what matters: that kids feel loved and nurtured and that they see academic growth as essential to reaching their full potential. 

Catholic faith was an important part of my home life as a child; my mother and father always taught me that being a Catholic meant to see God in all things. But I never realized how much a Catholic education helps kids see the ways in which God suffuses the world and how learning to accept the paradoxes and ambiguities of life readies us for the most challenging moments of our existence. 

“If the virus comes back when I’m older and I live in my own house,” our daughter asks, “can we still hug each other?” It is a question that we are unable to answer—but it is telling that the girls always go back to a communion of touch and hearts as what holds us together, even in the most unexpected moments. This has been the refrain from their teachers and school: We are here for each other, and we are united in faith. Catholic school prepares kids for the struggles and joys of living. 

Learning at home is not always easy. First-graders are full of impossible amounts of energy, and we are all living right now with the peculiar strain of the unknown. Despite this, we must find the blessings of our moment. A faith-centered education is a beautiful way to learn and see the world, and I am grateful to finally receive the Catholic school education that I never had.

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