Goodbye St. Didacus

It’s been 13 years since my wife Karen and I took our 5 year-old son Nicholas to meet Elizabeth La Costa, the principal of St. Didacus Parish School. Since then we’ve been going to teacher meetings, volunteering to maintain the library, writing the alumni newsletter, attending fundraising events and watching our kids grow up.

On Tuesday Karen picked up our 8th grade daughter Sophie at St. Didacus, making it the last day we would ever pick up a child there after school. Next year Sophie goes to high school. We had 13 years of investing memories in this place, with its plaster walls and tile floors, its blacktop playground, its long hallway that led from the south-end doorway to a school auditorium with the most uncomfortable seating I’ve ever known.

Sophie on her last day of school.

I grew up going to public schools so I suffered some culture shock when I first saw the Catholic school kids praying at a morning assembly. But before long I was charmed to hear the voices of children praying for everything from endangered animals, to soldiers in Iraq to unborn babies. Most of all, I saw my awkward, vulnerable son – who had been mistreated by other kids in a preschool where the teachers did little about it – in a place where he was protected by compassionate teachers who enforced a strict regimen of rules.

St. Didacus had a caring attitude that we noticed from the beginning. It was something we didn’t really see in the other Catholic or public schools we visited. Over the years, we had complaints about the place. Like the teacher who couldn’t be bothered to work with our son, who was having trouble in computer class. But we also remember the teachers who loved him and sent him home with encouraging notes and took the extra time to help him work through his learning disabilities. The years spent educating our kids and supporting the school were years of hard work that formed a lasting bond between us and the K-12 school. Our relationship with the parish coincided with a personal journey of mine that solidified my religious faith.

Now, we are moving on to a different part of our life, with one kid in college. The other will go to a Catholic high school where – a St. Didacus teacher joked – all you had to do was throw the money over the fence and let the school do the rest. No more setting up for Fall Festival or cranking out alumni newsletters. It’ll be easier.

As 13 years have gone by, the classes at St.  Didacus have been getting smaller. Fewer kids means fewer tuition payments. It’s a trend at almost all parochial schools in the U.S. I sometimes wonder whether my kids will soon be among the few who can look back on attending a Catholic grade school where the tuition was cheap, the classrooms were filled with immigrant offspring and the schools were firmly planted in an urban neighborhood.

We have been part of the long, imperfect tradition of Catholic education. I know that not all memories of parochial schools are fond ones. But with one of them my family shared a worthy task and many years of love and toil. Saint Didacus school is a place we’ll never forget.

 

 

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