What I Learned in Catholic School

Wow, I couldn’t believe my ears, what an awful thing for a Nun to tell kids!

By Roger A. “Pete” Peterson

The secrets of the universe are hidden in the details of our experience. -Pete

When I turned five, I started attending school at Holy Family, a Catholic Church School in Lewiston, Maine. The first class of the day was Catechism, or religious instruction. The elderly nun teaching our class was discussing Genesis, the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. As the story unfolds, Eve, beguiled by a snake, takes a bite from an apple off the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and convinces Adam to do the same, knowing it is against God’s wishes. As punishment, God banishes them from Eden to fend for themselves. According to the nun, “by eating an apple from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil against God’s will, Adam and Eve committed a mortal sin. Because they committed a mortal sin”, she went on, “all of their children are born in sin, which makes all mankind sinful or basically evil.” Finally, she added, “and we cannot trust our flesh because it is corrupt and will always betray us.”

Wow, I couldn’t believe my ears, what an awful thing for a Nun to tell kids! With my mouth open and my eyes wide in disbelief, I turned and looked around the room at the faces of the other kids to see how they reacted to this terrible information. Until this moment all I had seen in the faces of my classmates was beauty, joy, and innocence. How could this old churchwoman* say such horrible things about us? I was outraged and voiced my objection angrily. She told me to be quiet, so I turned my back on her in protest for the rest of the class, in effect, telling her I didn’t want to hear anything else she had to say.

The next morning, as we stood in line outside her classroom, she stiffly walked up to me and asked, “Are you going to learn your catechism today?” Looking her straight in the eye, I said, “NO!” As if expecting this response, she grabbed my right wrist with her left hand and pulled a heavy wooden ruler out of the folds of her Habit (black robe). I knew what was coming so I tried to pull my hand away. Swinging the ruler down as hard as she could, she beat my knuckles repeatedly, until I cried out in pain. It was as if she was trying to destroy my resistance to the church’s beliefs by inflicting pain and fear in me. I didn’t want to cry but I couldn’t help myself. Turning my head to look at my classmates through tear-filled eyes, I felt a great boiling anger rise up in me at the church and this nun for the pain and humiliation I felt.

The following day, when my eight year old brother Dicky and I arrived at school, I knew I couldn’t go inside. I told him, I’d meet him after school for the two mile walk back home, and headed into the woods behind the church. I remained hidden until school ended, scared all the while because Dicky and his friends had told me there was quicksand in the woods, and I knew what quicksand did to people from watching movies. My mother often made Dicky take me with him to get us both out of the house. That was fine with me because it was always an adventure to go places with him, even though he didn’t like having me around and was often mean to me, like telling me there was quicksand in the woods to scare me.

(One day, when I was three or four, Dicky and I were headed home through the woods behind our house, We heard several strange metallic sounds coming from behind us and above our heads. The sounds were followed by a loud, dull thump as something heavy hit the ground. Turning around, we saw a full grown man dressed in a very realistic devil’s costume standing a dozen feet away from us. Eight or nine feet above his head was a narrow metal bed frame tied between several trees for support. There he could lie in wait for little kids like Dicky and me.

He held a trident in one hand and his tail in the other as he spread his arms wide and made an awful sound as he prepared to chase us. Even though my brother and I knew it was only a man dressed in a devil’s costume, we both screamed in terror, turned, and ran like hell. As I ran, I wished I was big enough to turn around and kick this guy’s ass for scaring us so much. Years later, my oldest brother, Rudy, told me it was a seventeen-year-old high school student in the neighborhood who liked to scare little kids for a laugh.)

After school I walked home with Dicky and told my mother what happened the day before. I also told her I was never going back to that school again, and meant it! When school officials corroborated my story the next day, she gave them a piece of her mind and immediately transferred Dicky and me to Garcelin, the nearest public elementary school. This wasn’t much better because the message we got there was almost as bad. While the church school tried to convince us we were bad and couldn’t trust ourselves, the public school tried to convince us we were a blank slate that needed to be written on. In response to my question about student/teacher roles, my new teacher literally said, “Sit down, shut up, and do as I tell you because I’m the teacher here and I know what’s best for you!” Yikes! What was school, a prison camp run by bullies? Fortunately, I met several teachers along the way who were “people” too, and one, in particular, who was unconditionally loving. She treated everyone as though they possessed intrinsic value. Needless to say, she was my favorite teacher and I worked hard to earn her respect even though I knew I didn’t have to.

After quitting high school in my senior year (being defined as a “High School Dropout” was another negative definition I had to learn to cope with), I entered the Air Force. After almost five years of thought and healing, I was ready to go back to school. I was going back to study and pick people’s brains. I didn’t care what authoritarian games they wanted to play, I wasn’t going to let it affect me. I was on a journey of self discovery and no one was going to get in my way. I wanted to live in a world that is more loving, empowering, forgiving, and freeing. I knew it lay hidden within us, all I had to do was find it and figure out how to actualize it. To some degree most of us are stuck in a negative world view, one that saddles us with unnecessary fear, limitation, conflict, and suffering. The only way to change this collective world view for the better is for each of us to change our personal world view for the better. No one can do a better job of creating our reality than us! What we are is good and we need to realize that.

* In larger terms, is it possible this church woman was an angel in disguise, a messenger? If it was not for her comments and behavior I would probably not be so consciously aware of this negative aspect of church and public school teachings. Frankly, I can’t think of anything more “evil” than telling someone, especially a child, that they are basically bad and can’t trust themselves because the truth is, we get what we concentrate on. If we seriously look for evidence to support ideas like “you’re basically evil and you can’t trust yourself” we’ll find it, if not in ourselves, in others.

When we accept ideas without question, we’re creating our reality by default. To consciously create our reality, we need to take full responsibility for what we choose to believe. In other words, we need to see things for what they really are if we want to change ourselves, and the world, for the better.

© Copyright 2007, Roger A. “Pete” Peterson


We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

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2 Responses

  1. […] Currently, our world view and therefore our life experience, is dominated by two basic core beliefs. They are: we’re separate and there’s not enough to go around. When we step back and look at these two self-defining core beliefs we can see how limiting and divisive they are, and how they attract associated ideas like survival of the fittest, dog-eat-dog, and devil take the hindmost, predatory concepts we see dramatized in life, work, and art every day. In an environment of ideas like this, it is not hard to see why so many of us define success by the amount of money, power, and prestige we acquire. When we insist on believing we’re separate and there’s not enough of what we need or want to go around, we create a foundation for the fear, competition, violence and suffering we see in the world. It’s no wonder two additional core beliefs, or negative self-concepts are part of the mix: we’re basically bad and we can’t trust ourselves. (See: What I Learned in Catholic School) […]

  2. […] held belief throughout the world, spread by the Old Testament story of Genesis, Creation (see: What I Learned in Catholic School). When Adam and Eve ate an apple from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil against […]

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