It can be hard to trace the origins of our deepest convictions.
I was raised primarily by a single mother, cognizant, essentially from birth, that women can, and do, do everything, especially when no one else is around. I entered Antioch College in 1993, the same year the school’s sexual offense policy was relentlessly, internationally mocked for introducing the idea of verbal consent. Not long after, I shaved my head at a Burmese monastery to persuade myself that I was not defined by my physical body.
But the most vital feminist education I received was at Catholic school, in the early 1980s, in the suburban Midwest. It was there that my most beloved teachers were nuns who taught us to help the poor, pray for the sick and send our milk money to El Salvador. It was there that I learned of the necessity — and the possibilities — of self-sufficiency and cooperation.
In their polyester pantsuits and orthopedic shoes, Sister Irene and Sister Betty — my first- and second-grade teachers — emanated a sense of joy and purpose I found infectious. Founded in 1923, Our Lady of the Elms, in Akron, Ohio, has maintained its all-girl population for nearly a hundred years. The school promises that “Woven into the experience of every Elms girl is Veritas, the pursuit of truth and justice.”
Perhaps because my own daughter is now in second grade, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about the ways in which I was taught to pursue truth and justice, and how inseparable these ideals became from my understanding of what it meant to be a girl.
In early December 1980, three American Catholic nuns and one lay volunteer were raped and murdered a few miles from the San Salvador airport. The men responsible were part of the United States-trained death squads upholding military rule in El Salvador. The clergy had faced disapproval from the Vatican for speaking out against the violent regime. As the writer Hilary Goodfriend explained, these women were “fiercely courageous” for risking “their lives to support the most vulnerable victims of U.S. foreign policy in their struggle for dignity.”
I was 5 when I began first grade in the fall of 1981. Sister Irene, with short, silver hair and oversize glasses, sat before my class in a little orange chair. With a map of Central America pulled down behind her, she passed around a badly photocopied picture of the sisters’ burned-out van. I don’t remember her words, but I remember the sensation: the gravity of the shock tempered by Sister Irene’s insistence on forgiveness.
We did not learn about “capitalism” or “revolution.” The nuns did not traffic in propaganda. We were taught to pray along the same lines, I later learned, as the Buddhist practice of lovingkindness, the recognition that all people want to be safe. As children, we understood fear. Sister Irene taught us that vulnerability didn’t separate humans, it connected us.
When I was in second grade, my bohemian father once packed nothing but smoked oysters in my “Pigs in Space” lunch box. The smell alone was humiliating. But as I tried to throw them away, Sister Betty stood with her hands on her hips, blocking the garbage cans.
“We don’t throw away food, remember?” she said, her hair in a halo of a perm. And I did remember: We didn’t throw away food because there were children starving in El Salvador. This helped us, I think, fixate less on what wasn’t fair at our own lunch tables and, instead, to imagine what wasn’t fair in the world. For everything I did not know, I understood there were people who did not have enough food.
While there’s no doubt that generations of kids being told to clean their plates because of hungry children in Ethiopia or Bangladesh spurred fledgling notions of American exceptionalism, our current habit of throwing away entire lunches (and outfits and everything else we buy without using) strikes me as far worse, part of an American myopia that never considers anyone else at all.
Until relatively recently, becoming a nun was one of the only ways for women to pursue higher education or a path outside marriage and motherhood. Consequently, for over 1,000 years, women around the world were called to undertake vows of poverty and celibacy.
Throughout the 20th century, nuns built and oversaw a vast system of schools and hospitals. But by the 1980s, demoralized after Vatican II failed to grant women the equality many nuns expected, the number of sisters was dwindling. The civil rights and women’s movements, along with expanding opportunities for employment and education, also meant that women who might have otherwise chosen to become ordained had different options.
My classmates and I caught what turned out to be the tail end of an era. We were surrounded by educated women who were not wives or mothers, who did not wear makeup, and who lived in group housing and shared a car. Equality was modeled for us. We were shown what we did not yet know was a completely different way to live.
My exposure to Catholic schooling was brief and, in my adult life, I’ve never considered myself Christian. But the nuns taught us generosity and introspection as directly as fractions and cursive. My education, in other words, was never only about me, but also about the world I was poised to inherit.
At a time when violence against children, against women, against the displaced and against the planet is so pervasive, I find glimpses of hope in the nuns’ conviction that compassion can be taught and forgiveness fostered. If we can learn to confront the existence of suffering not as a sign of hopelessness, but as an opportunity for love, we are all better positioned to take responsibility for that suffering. If we understand the necessity of truth, we can seek justice.