Busted Halo
feature: politics & culture
March 18th, 2009

Double Life

A mother is torn when options are limited



I lead a double life.

To some that might sound glamorous; to others, intriguing; and there are those who might think it sounds plain exhausting. To me it is just something I have to do, because my son and daughter attend different schools.

Now, in New York this is not unusual. Our city offers, in general, something for everyone; parents have the choice of public, parochial, or private; single sex or coed.

Back in the day, where I grew up in The Bronx, every kid in a family went to the same school — either the parochial or public one in our neighborhood. The thinking was that it just made sense, and of course it was convenient for parents. There were no interviews or “spend the day with us” days to see if the school was the right fit.

I guess I am a product of my environment, because my dream was that my children all attend the same Catholic school — the one I set my sights on when my first child, a boy, was only weeks old — the school we have so enjoyed being a part of. My dream did not come true.

Holiday seasons, such as the Lenten one we’re in now, are blatant reminders that though we all may be the same in God’s eyes, not all Catholic children can get educated in Catholic schools. In NYC, there are no Catholic schools devoted to teaching children with special needs. So my daughter, who has ADHD and requires a small classroom setting and non-traditional teaching methods, must attend a secular school catering to children who learn differently, then attend religious training classes once a week for 75 minutes.

That is why I divide my mommy time between non-secular and secular schools.

And yes, she goes to church, even sings in the choir, and has thus far made her Holy Communion, but I know she is being shortchanged by not having religious instruction in her life on a daily basis. My son is surrounded by pictures of Jesus in the classroom, says prayers to start and end the school day, and has religion class each day. Because of these things, I believe he is more in touch with what it means to be Catholic. He can incorporate his religious beliefs into day-to-day situations more readily than my girl can. When faced with a challenge, she needs an extra reminder of what a Christian would do.

Over the years though, I have come to accept that she is where she needs to be. So I have learned to let go of much of my disappointment, and suppress the rest.

Though we all may be the same in God’s eyes, not all Catholic children can get educated in Catholic schools. In NYC, there are no Catholic schools devoted to teaching children with special needs.

Acceptance is how I have been able (to their faces, at least) to admire my children’s seasonal handiwork equally. I still treasure the crucifix my son made of clothespins several years ago during Lent. The choice of material may sound silly, but trust me when I say, it is beautiful and holds a place of honor in our home. That same year, my daughter came home with a 3-D flower motif made of construction paper and pipe cleaners, which was a tribute to spring. I can still work up tears when I think about it.

Suppression is what enables me to go from my boy’s Christmas pageant — where hymns are sung and a moving reenactment of the Nativity is performed — to my daughter’s holiday concert where, after the salute to Kwanza and Hanukkah, Christmas is honored with a rousing chorus of “Jingle Bells.” Even though the children are cute singing and playing instruments and evoke plenty of “ah” moments, with the faith drained out of it, it’s just your basic school recital.

There are other Catholic mothers at my secular school with whom I can share where to buy a Communion dress or something the priest said at Mass the previous Sunday. But I am mostly surrounded by people with different or no beliefs. I often give myself the “tolerance” pep talk.

It is the strong death grip of Jesus’ hand on my tongue that has kept me from saying something I might regret (and something which could be taken out on my child) to the person who said that although he really liked the Radio City Christmas Show, they left before the end because he and his wife don’t want their child to see that “religious thing” at the finale. Or to the mother who took umbrage when another Catholic mother and I did an Easter egg decorating project with our girls’ kindergarten class. Or to people who look at me in an unflattering way because I show up for pickup with ashes on my forehead or are taken aback when they hear me greet another Catholic parent with, “Merry Christmas”, instead of, “Happy Holidays”.

My son will soon continue his Catholic school education through high school. My daughter will continue on to middle school as a Catholic girl in a secular world. And I shall keep living my double life, praying twice as hard that I can keep it up.

The Author : Lorraine Duffy Merkl

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  • Natalia

    Just because a child goes to a Catholic school, does not mean that s/he will be in touch with the faith. I went to Catholic school my whole life and loved it. But several of my friends turned away from the Church, either in high school or college and now they are outspoken atheists. I value Catholic schools, but it does not mean that a child will actually believe in what s/he is surrounded by everyday. A glowing example like Mrs. Merkl is more encouragement than any religion class. Mrs. Merkl, I admire your perseverance, juggling two schools is a tremendous burden.

  • Sarah

    As a DRE for a large parish with an elementary (K-8) school, I see a big gap between the families that attend our parish school and those who have children in the public school system and the struggle of those families that have children in both. Those who attend the public schools are looked down upon and questioned. It makes it extremely difficult when we do sacramental preparation in the parish because the public school children feel isolated and ostracized.

    Our parish organist sends her child to public school because her son has been tested as gifted. She has admitted to me and my catechists that several people in the parish have questioned why she doesn’t send her child to our parish school. It frustrates her to hear people ask her this question. She knows that her child is getting a good Catholic education because she and her husband take their responsibility of being the primary educators of their son especially when it comes to his religious education.

    I find this to be true for a number of the families who come to our parish’s religious education sessions. They take the role of primary educator to heart and make sure their child is present every week. They want to know what their child is learning in the sessions so they can carry on the discussion when they get home. I try to provide as much support and resource material as possible for my public school parents because I know they want to be a part of their child’s faith formation. The biggest struggle is for them to feel like they are valued members of the parish. Because they are not part of the parish school, they are not involved or invited to many of the programs and groups that exists within the parish.

    This is not uncommon among the neighboring parishes either. The DREs in my deanery meet on a regular basis and often we end up discusssing ways to improve the social dynamics between our parish school families and our public school families. We have yet to find a good solution but we remain aware of the issue and continue to try and address it.

    I think that Catholic schools are a gift to a parish, especially those that can afford to support one. But I also think the hard work that a parish’s catechists put in one day a week for 60-75 minutes is also a gift that is often undervalued and underappreciated. While our religious education program is small, the children who attend are eager to be there and make lasting friendships. My catechists and I know that we are doing God’s work. We may only plant a seed but it is through God’s grace that the seeds we plant today will bloom and blossom in their lives in the future.

  • Jan

    Thank you for touching on something that we struggle with in our home. My husband and I are both proud graduates of Catholic schools (K-College). We always assumed our children would attend Catholic schools. Yet, we find ourselves in uncomfortable IEP talks with the public school system. We went to see the local Catholic school – and we both felt the comfort of our childhoods there. And, while our parish school is willing to have a trial with our son with mild special needs – we know that for now he needs to attend the public schools as they have the services and professionals that he needs to learn how to go on.
    And, I find myself volunteering to teach his CCD class – so I can assure myself that he will get a good religious education regardless of his learning challenges.

    I find it interesting that you send your other child to Catholic school. Our younger children are not school age – but we have already started to question if we should send the younger ones to the local Catholic school or keep them all together in public.

  • Ellen

    I too have a child with special learning needs and difficulties. It put me with three children in three schools in two different towns. I do not recommend it, but it was right for my children. Now my oldest is off at college, so I navigate two schools. However, it is the youngest with ADD and Ld who is in a Christian school. It has been a huge blessing to her. I am living the ‘opposite’ of this author.

    However, my belief is that we are to be an example of God’s love. We may be the only “God with skin on” that some people know, so I need to present myself to others with more than tolerance, but with love.

  • Leah

    Mrs. Merkl,
    I can only imagine how difficult it is to navigate 2 different school systems. I have children in 3 levels (elementary, middle and high) all within the Catholic system and that is time consuming enough, but it must be frustrating dealing with different mores and expectations.

    In reading Brian’s comments, I must admit that I am in agreement with him. We do need to take more seriously our parental role in forming our children in faith. We are so much more resrouced than were our parents.

    I’m sure that you were not complaining, but please count your blessings that your public school system can accomodate a different learning style. When I was in elementary school, the brother of my best friend had CP, and while he was extremely bright, he was schooled with children with low IQ’s because no other school would try to understand his belabored speech. It broke his mother’s heart, but she catechized him herself and made sure that he received the sacraments when other children his age received them! She has been my role model as I have been raising my children.

    Even though my children are in a Catholic schools and thankfully not suffering from any disabilities, I still spend two nights a week with them using the Sadlier We Believe website http://www.webelieveweb.com/home_proclaiming_faith.cfm to prepare ourselves for Sunday worship. I also use the Sadlier study guides to discuss topics I know that they are covering in school. And of course, faith sharing is always a part of mealtime conversation.

    There are so many other good Catholic catechetical resources for parents (many web-based and free of charge)…we are at best foolish and at worst negligent parents if we do not avail ourselves of these.
    May God’s blessings be upon you and your family as you continue on the journey.

  • Brian

    I worry that sometimes we think that Catholic School is the be all and end all of Christian formation. In reality, the Church teaches that parents are the primary faith formators of their children. I think if we actually take that seriously, the formation that happens in any school setting should pale in comparison to the formation that happens in a loving home. This of course requires that we take adult faith formation seriously as well, which I am all for. I have been educated all my life in Catholic schools, but sometimes worry that Catholic schools end up being chiefly top-rate academic institutions, with religion classes tacked on. I think Catholic schools have a great ministry to do, but sometimes get too focused on measuring themselves by standards other than the Gospel. Thank you Lorraine for your thought provoking article.

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