It’s Good Friday 1986.
I am in sixth grade at St. Wenceslaus, a weird and quirky Catholic school on the northwest side of Chicago. My classmates are working-class descendants of Polish, German, Mexican and Filipino immigrants. There’s a first-generation Peruvian American in my class, too. We are the model UN of Catholic schools, and our parents have scraped up enough cash to keep us out of the Chicago Public School system.
So it’s Good Friday, and I’m supposed to participate in something called the “Living Stations of the Cross.” In theory, it’s fun. You get to crucify Jesus. I should be having a ball, except I’m not.
At some point during the rehearsal of the crucifixion, I was mouthy. The nuns are pissed. I didn’t get a starring role as the mother of God, and I don’t get to be Mary Magdalene, either.
I was robbed.
Instead, I am relegated to the role of “angry woman in the crowd.” The group includes me, some boys with undiagnosed ADHD, and a few kids who don’t speak English. But, honestly, it fits my style. And I get to beg Pontious Pilot to free another prisoner at his Passover feast. Cue the spotlight — with all my might, I am asked to chant, “Barabbas! Barabbas! Free Barabbas!”
I embraced it. A little too much. “Free Barabbas! Free Barabbas! Come on! Give me Barabbas!”
Why the hell not? A stage is a stage.
The meanest nun on the block pulled me aside and issued a stern warning that went something like — Hey, it’s Good Friday. Knock it off, kiddo, because we’re taking this show on the road to Our Lady of Good Counsel infirmary. We are headed out on a field trip to show other nuns how Jesus died on the cross.
And I’m full of questions.
1. What the hell is a nun infirmary?
Well, a nun infirmary is a retirement home for nuns. While being a nun is a calling from Christ, it’s also a job with benefits. (Even now, that shocks me.)
2. Don’t these sisters already know how Jesus died?
These women used to know about Jesus and his merry band of pranksters, but now they are immobilized with Alzheimers. The infirmary cared for nuns in the final stages of life. (That’s right. Brides of Christ waiting to be reunited with their husband. Wrap your mind around that at the age of 11.)
3. Wait, this whole thing sounds awful. Why are we going to see this horrible place, again? Did my mom really sign the field trip form?
Well, technically, my Gramma signed it. (Dammit!) And my teachers thought this would be an important lesson on Good Friday. We saw the infirmary and much more than that. Many of these women were locked into frozen bodies with their mouths wide-open. We saw bed pans, dirty linens and the messiness of end-of-life car. We also met the people who cared for the nuns, and I remember wondering how you get a job like that. (Makes a kid want to go to college.)
Mostly I remember the smell. The whole experience left me feeling dizzy and sweaty. My eyes were drippy. My mouth was drooly. I stepped to an open window for a quick gulp of fresh air, and I remember thinking — the only way out of here is to jump.
But then I figured that this was a Good Friday test.
If I could just get through the day and focus on my core lines — “Barabbas! Barabbas! Give me Barabbas!” — Jesus would reward me for my perseverance. Maybe I would get a big Easter basket. Maybe I would get a new Duran Duran t-shirt. Maybe things at my house would calm down: Gramma would chill out, my dad would stop being a spaz, and my Mom would come to her senses and leave her second husband. Just get through the day and nobody gets hurt.
But, of course, this is Catholicism. Things had to get worse before they got any better.
They did get better, however. It wasn’t my faith in Jesus or my prayers to his mother, Mary, which saved me from a crappy life on the northwest side of Chicago. It wasn’t the intercession of St. Julia Maria Ledchowska or the Blessed Salomea who swept me up and spared me from the horizontal violence and chaos of my family life.
It was a boring Catholic education.
My education is an Easter miracle. My teachers, professors, and mentors have always saved me — even when I didn’t deserve it. Especially when I didn’t deserve it.
(I’m so fucking mouthy.)
And although I am not Catholic, I’m eternally thankful for the hassle and the relentlessness and the ritual. I’m thankful for people who taught me limits. And I’m thankful that I was relegated to the crowd.
I’m a better woman for all of the shenanigans at St. Wenceslaus, but I’ll always be on Team Barabbas.