Image from Pexels.

Image from Pexels.

Loads of people have seen Catholic high schools depicted in film and on television, and even more have probably heard their grandparents’ horror stories of angry, ruler-equipped nuns. But, what is it actually like? Forewarning: it doesn’t involve a glamorous NYC backdrop or walking “three whole miles in the snow!” It’s…well, I guess it’s somewhere in the middle.

Religion

As you can imagine, the Catholic religion is mixed into the entire school day. My school is covered in crucifixes and a lot of teachers have religious quotes or prayers on their walls. Every day starts with prayer and petitions, every student takes mandatory theology courses, and once a week, we all have mass. The weekly mass is actually a new update, as they used to be only once a month (you can only imagine the uproar and cries of injustice). Luckily for us students, the new mass schedule also gave my school a new chaplain. He’s a young guy who gives interesting homilies about his high school days (everyone likes it when priests talk about their pre-seminary girlfriends, okay? Everyone) and is overall just really adorable. He also leads prayer before our football games.

If you’re not Catholic, be prepared to feel a little out-of-place, because practically everyone is. My school’s masses and annual faith retreats are mandatory for all students, as are the 25 hours of community service required every year to earn a diploma.

However, it’s still totally possible to take part in the school community no matter your religion. One of my very best friends is Muslim, and she and I have run faith retreats, read morning prayers, and acted as lectors at Mass, all while not being Catholic.

The condensed descriptions of my theology classes are as follows:

  • Freshman year: Catholic practice and Catholic morality
  • Sophomore year: Biblical study and Catholic morality
  • Junior year: more Biblical study
  • Senior year: World religions, and you guessed it, Catholic morality

I generally describe myself as “at best” a non-practicing Catholic and “at worst” a non-denominational Christian. So it’s really hard sitting through a morality lecture and being told that my LGBTQ friends are grievously sinning against God and that they would do best to repent their evil ways. Or that my agnostic friends are “lazy” and just aren’t taking the time to decide whether or not they’re Christian or Atheist.

Opinions tend to get really heated in morality-centric classes, and a class conversation can go from uncomfortable to unbearable faster than you can imagine. Think of a YouTube comments section… only in live action with actual shouting people.

And that isn’t even to mention the times when I’m answering test questions regarding things like abortion and assisted suicide and I’m just sitting there going “…I’m seventeen years old… I never asked for this…”

However, theology classes aren’t all uncomfortable opinion talk. Even if you don’t view the Bible as a valid religious text, analyzing simply as a work of literature is actually pretty interesting, as long as you have a good teacher. It’s cool just going through and learning that the Old Testament isn’t really meant to be taken literally in the Catholic tradition because it’s made up of so much figurative language, and that each New Testament gospel writer wrote with a specific style catered to a specific audience. It’s not the most interesting thing in the world, but actually being able to have an educated conversation about biblical meaning and the intentions  of the gospel writers can only ever come in handy.

Academics

Like any school, this all depends on your personal motivation and work ethic. If you take all regular classes and give minimal effort, you’ll be sailing smoothly; however, if you’re slamming yourself with almost all APs, you’re going to be in for a seriously rough time. Because classes are so small and your teachers know you so well, there isn’t a way to pretend like you’ve done the reading or finished the assignment when you really haven’t. My school has a mega-strict honor code too, so you won’t be able to get away with fudging an assignment either (not that you would want to, of course). Also, the added theology class may seem like a joke to some people, but try memorizing all the differences between Theravada, Mahayana, and Zen Buddhism at 2:00am and get back to me.

You won’t be surprised to know that the stereotype of the bloodthirsty academic private school kid is alive and well. I know people who go into the guidance office regularly to take a peek at everyone’s class ranking (does no one tell them that it’s only updated at the semester?), and kids who self-study for upwards of ten extra APs just to give themselves a pathetic sense of self-superiority. Some people even refer to themselves by their class rank. I can’t make this stuff up- it really is that ridiculous.

However, despite all the competitive nastiness, I do have to acknowledge that I’m getting a higher-quality education here than I would at any neighboring school, and for that I’m extremely thankful. My school has forced me to work incredibly hard and I’ve become a much better student as a result.

Politics

Catholic schools tend to be conservative, and mine is no exception. If you happened to be a Democratic supporter in the last election, you were probably verbally abused in one way or another during election time. Heck, I said on my AP Government blog that I thought the government shutdown wasn’t such a hot idea, and one particularly nasty classmate called me a “damned Northern carpetbagging liberal.” Thanks buddy, but I’m from San Diego. Nice try, though.

I’m not going to lie: it does bum me out that I go to school with hundreds of people who think that “gay” and “feminist” are insults (by the way, anyone want to procure me this sweatshirt for Christmas? Or this one? I have a MIGHTY need). Sometimes it’s near impossible to express an opinion in AP Government without having people stare daggers at me.

That being said, it usually is possible to find people who share your point of view; just be aware that the group will probably be a small one (and in my experience, affiliated with the English and theatre departments).

Uniforms

My school only got uniforms a few years ago, just in time for my freshman year. The uniforms are definitely NOT the plaid skirt, ruffled blouse, and crest-emblazoned blazer ensemble modeled by any of the characters in Gossip Girl. It’s just a boxy skirt, polo shirt, and maybe an ill-fitting sweater if that’s your thing. Nothing fancy; however, the uniforms are expensive, which is majorly irritating. Like, “My tuition costs more than an automobile and now I have to buy a completely new wardrobe? SERIOUSLY?”

The enforcement of the school’s dress code is… a little more than unfortunate. I’ve seen guys get away with wearing black Levi jeans three days straight, and yet, girls get publicly called out for their skirts being a half inch too short. Since I don’t want this to turn into a rant, I’ll leave the uniform discussion there (but if you’re suspecting even the slightest hint of sexism, you’re on the right track).

Small Size

This one is largely defined by your personal preference. If you’re into the small school scene, then you’re probably in luck: every Catholic school I’ve been acquainted with has been super tiny.

As for me, I’ve come to embrace the miniscule nature of my school. Every teacher I’ve ever had remembers my name, and even teachers for classes I’ve never taken congratulated me for my performance in the school play. I can go after school and get extra help from any teacher I need to, for the most part. I’m in almost every class with my best friend, and I have at least three or four good friends in every class.

Even outside the classroom, small size has its benefits: a lot of extracurriculars aren’t as competitive at my school as they would be at a huge public school. Even our more elite athletic teams generally don’t cut over ten people, and you usually have a decent shot at making at least the ensemble in the school play.

However, small size does have its issues. Sometimes higher-level sciences (such as AP Chemistry or Biology) have trouble getting enough students to sign up for the course, and loads of our electives are never offered because there isn’t enough student interest.

In terms of the social scene,  being in close confines with the same small group of people for four years can breed a lot of tension and discomfort (this is exacerbated by the fact that a most of the kids from my high school went to Catholic elementary and middle school together). Minuscule incidents of drama end up becoming school-wide scandals, and cliques are a huge problem. The dating pool is atrocious, so loads of beautiful and intelligent people (aka: all of my glorious friends) are left single. If you want to find someone, be prepared to look long and hard and definitely outside of school.

Alumni

This is a small point, but I felt it was worth mentioning: our alumni network is really tight. My physics, government, and calculus teachers are all alumni, as is my principal, forensics coach, and assistant director. A lot of my classmates are second-generation students, which is kind of cool. Loads of alumni return for football games and the like, and our alumni field hockey and basketball games are always well-attended.

Would I recommend attending a Catholic school?

…Yes. With reservations.

If you want a quality education that you will work ridiculously hard to earn, can work out the scholarship money to pay for it, and don’t mind a pretty thorough blend of Church and State, then consider looking into one. If you’re expecting a Gossip Girl-style private school experience, then I’d suggest you check out Netflix instead.



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the author

Elizabeth Watson (just call her Beth) is a senior at an itty-bitty private Catholic high school in Virginia. In addition to writing for The Prospect, she writes and performs sketch comedy with her improv troupe, rehearses like mad for school theatre productions, suits up for forensics competitions, and writes poetry for her school’s literary magazine. A brief rundown of Beth’s favorite people and things ever to exist in no particular order: hole-in-the-wall bookshops, sweaters, Jane Eyre, peppermint tea (in a Troy and Abed mug, of course), Broadway musicals, British period dramas, Neil Patrick Harris, and Hugh Jackman. Beth’s long-term goal in life to is to become Julie Andrews, but for now she’s focusing on surviving the final stretch of high school and getting into college–hopefully as an English major

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  1. Katie on October 24, 2013

    I’m so sorry that your school hasn’t treated your opinions with respect.

    Please know that not all Catholic schools are like this.

    The official Church teaching will always stand as such: We accept gays as humans, but when they make that decision to act upon their homosexual tendencies, we cannot support them. Atheists are not lazy. Yes, we wish they would believe in God, but all we can do is pray.

    God bless!

  2. Brenda on January 7, 2014

    I agree with Katie’s statements about Catholic schools. I’ve also experienced a public high school experience in the Northeast where the majority if students are liberal-leaning and make similar nasty comments to you if your views don’t align. I think that’s a social aspect that could be found in high schools across the country.

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