Many of my essays explore how early experience shape later development. Working with students who are undergoing teacher preparation studies provides much opportunity to do this, and for all of us to consider how we’ve been influenced by them.
In my Guidance class we have been discussing the underpinnings of moral development, and how significant individuals and institutions in a child’s life form the foundation for this area of personality. A major part of our discussions and activities center on developmental theory — which is important, of course — but which often take a back seat to personal stories shared by students and instructor, as appropriate.
These discussions have led me to reflect on my early experiences in Catholic church, which for me, came during my childhood in Atlanta, Georgia. While there is no doubt that this institution influenced my early moral and spiritual development, I think there were a myriad of other social lessons being learned in the many years spent there. It was not only Sunday mass that became a familiar part of my life, but school masses on the first Friday of every month (when we were happily freed from the trappings of the plaid school uniform and saddle shoes) , monthly confession, Stations of the Cross, and other major religious holiday activities. You became accustomed to spending time with family, peers, teachers, and the broader community in this space.
My earliest memories of attending mass was sitting in the Cry Room with my family — that isolation chamber at the rear of the church, intended to segregate all the poor families with small children who, for some reason, found it challenging to make it through a sixty-minute service without any boredom or upset. One Sunday an unfamiliar child sat beside me, pulled a piece of hard candy from her jacket pocket and presented it to me on her outstretched palm. I accepted it, silently thrilled, but dared not eat it, as I was convinced my parents had probably witnessed this exchange. The other girl matter-of-factly unwrapped her own piece, popping it in her mouth, swinging her legs back and forth as she sucked on it with relish. (This may have been an early lesson in both delayed gratification and not pushing one’s luck).
Mass was indeed a lesson in building self-control. And while I like to perceive myself as a pretty well-behaved child, at least two recollections indicate that I really didn’t “sit still,” a common admonition during those times and in other public settings. My younger sister and I sat on the kneelers together one time, facing the pew to have a “picnic.” This play episode, of course, was short-lived. On another occasion I lay down on the pew during a segment in the mass when everyone was standing (likely during the gospel reading). My grandmother was visiting at the time, and had accompanied us to church that day. As she prepared to sit, spotting me sprawled out on my pew-bed, she declared, “I’ll sit right on top of you if you don’t get up.” I bolted up in warp speed, of course.
Church was a great people-watching place. I must have been quite the watcher, as my mother frequently reminded me not to stare, gently placing her fingertips under my chin and turning my head forward. I used to practice staring ahead but shifting my eyes in either direction, to fool her, but this proved a painful venture, which was soon abandoned.
The aisle position was the coveted seat in the pew. It was usually my father’s spot, although I recall competing for it with both my younger sister and one older brother. Age always won out in this instance, with my father placing himself between the battling siblings. The lesson here may have been to deal with the sibling hierarchy, and know that your aisle-seat time was coming.
Receiving First Communion was a deeply important experience that we all took very seriously. It was an early right of passage in your spiritual journey. I have a memory of being able to sit in the first pew, so close to the altar, and feeling very special, excited, and nervous all at once. Monsignor Reagan, the church pastor, was a benevolent man with a beautiful singing voice and a gentle smile. He always used our saint’s names when giving communion, making us feel recognized and cared for. I can still hear him say, “Body of Chriiiiihsssst, Cecilia.” I was terribly nervous about letting the host touch my teeth — something we had been taught not to allow to happen. So I’d push it up to the roof of my mouth, spending the next several minutes attempting to peel it off with my tongue, with my mouth closed. No small feat. My fellow Catholics are certainly familiar with this challenge. One of my older sisters recalls how disappointed she was that she did not see a vision after receiving her First Communion. I was nowhere near her in this depth of spiritual reflection, wishing only to return to the pew without tripping or having the host fall out of my mouth.
Singing hymns was a major part of the Mass experience. Monsignor Reagan often led us in rehearsal prior to school masses, pulling us into tune with his ever-present pitch pipe. This was clearly very important to him. In a rare unguarded moment, during one practice, he reminded us to listen to the note, adding, “Some of us have tin ears.”
I loved the hymns. This may have been part nature, though I am sure it also stemmed from my mother’s love of music, and her background in voice and piano. She and my father always sang with reverence, my father in his low voice, and my mother leaning over to say, “Sing so I can hear you!” I remember having favorite hymns, and being deeply moved by those with sad or haunting melodies. (Folks who know me well know that I’m an easy weeper.) I can recall my throat closing up and fighting tears during some hymns because they sounded so terribly sad to me. I just listened during those hymns because singing felt impossible. This, perhaps, was an early lesson in self-knowledge.
On Mondays, in second grade, during religion class, we were expected to recall the homily from the Sunday before. Not one time did I ever meet this standard. Once I realized, though, that this was to be a weekly requirement, I strained to listen and remember the message and come to school ready to share. It never worked. I cannot recall how successfully my classmates were able to manage this task either, but I do remember our teacher sternly demanding the recollection, and then extolling on the theme. The rest is probably buried deep in my unconscious self.
The experience of confession was perhaps one of the strongest aspects of our moral development, though. In my experience, this was a monthly Saturday afternoon visit to church. You were taught to “examine your conscience” to carefully consider your own transgressions and misdeeds, and to ask for forgiveness. I was one nervous kid going into that dark room. I can still hear the screen sliding back as the priest greeted me. I tended to quantify my sins, typically recalling how many times I’d said something mean, or lied about something. It was so relieving to exit the confessional because I knew I was getting another chance — an opportunity to start over. One time during a school visit to confession, a classmate declared that she didn’t have any sins to confess that week. That really irritated me, and I silently uttered the go-to put-down for that year, which was “Oh, you think you’re so tough.” This thought was immediately followed by, “Oh, brother, now I probably have to confess that.”
My church was important to me as a child, I’m sure, because it was so intimately tied with my school experience. There were elements that felt inviting and others that engendered discomfort. I am not attempting here to put a value on this experience so much as share my effort to understand the other lessons experienced during the many years spent in that setting. Reflecting on these experiences, though, can provide insight into our present selves and the choices we make.
The instruction included everything from ritual to inner control to obedience to respect for authority. This is not any different from any other social, religious, or educational community in which children are raised.
But there were also lessons in kindness, regard for others, and care for those whose circumstances were brittle. These are often the lessons that support the development of a moral sense of self, through all these relationships and experiences — with family, friends, peers, and adult in their community. The sense of right and wrong, good and bad, getting along with others, making ethical choices, begins here.
But I’m wrong.
It starts even earlier. In infancy. According to a recent study at Yale University, we may show our understanding of good and bad at the tender age of three months. Amazing. (For a future discussion … right here!)
So … what were your first experiences in good and bad right and wrong? How far back can you remember? And how did they make you who you are today?