It was an exciting day at Villa Maria Elementary school. We children were lined up to go to the auditorium! Why? Because we were going to see a MOVIE! I was in 7th grade at the Erie, PA Catholic grade school.
We so rarely had the pleasurable treat of watching a movie. Of course it was an austere Catholic school even in the late 70s and early 80s so we rarely had any fun at all really. Only 2 years before Villa Elementary (or “Little Villa” as it was called to distinguish it from the high school of the same name) had been taken over by a new principal. Sister Margaret Frank, a Nurse Ratched type character who did not like to see children enjoying themselves.
Movies in the school auditorium were a rare pleasure indeed. Once a year, the day before Christmas break, the entire school was marched into the auditorium to watch Old Yeller. No movies with happy endings at Villa Elementary! Movies were shown to teach lessons. The lesson gleaned from Old Yeller was presumably that a boy becomes a man only when he is ready, willing and able to shoot the family dog.
Every year I hoped that I had remembered the ending wrongly and Yeller wouldn’t get shot. But every year, BANG! Dog dead. Merry Christmas children! See you next year, haha! Get it?
But that day in 7th grade was nowhere near Christmas break. A movie? In the middle of a school day? Unexpected. A rare treat.
Each class lined up single file and quietly made their to the auditorium for the mystery movie. Silence was always demanded when we walked through Villa Elementary’s dark halls. At least it was back in the early 80s. Villa children were never permitted to speak in lines outside the classroom. The halls echoed and chattering students made the chronically cranky low paid teachers wiggy. Hallway silence must be maintained at all times.
We took our seats in the auditorium. The movie screen was already assembled up on the stage. Sister Margaret Nurse Ratched took to the podium. Always stage right for some reason. Never center.
“We have a very important movie to show you today.” She announced solemnly.
I was hoping it would be a sequel to the last movie we had watched there. “Old Yeller 2, Dog Survives!” No such luck.
“This movie is about something very bad.” Sister Margaret told us. “Something that is happening right now! We’re going to show you a film about abortion.”
Even in 7th grade I hadn’t heard very much about abortion. I wasn’t quite sure what to think.
Old Maggie explained to us that yes, people were indeed killing babies. They were murdering babies right now!
So the entire school …ok to be fair, I’m not really sure it was every student. Would they really make first and second graders watch an abortion movie? I only remember that every seat seemed to be filled. It seemed to me that the complete student body was in attendance.
And so without further adieu, Our Feature Presentation! This time, unlike the yearly Old Yeller screenings, there was no French kid chasing a red balloon featurette to open the show. They launched right into it.
A Catholic abortion propaganda film. Circa 19 seventy – something. Only problem was that my 7th grade self did not yet have an effective bullshit detector. I could not recognize obvious and ridiculous propaganda.
I was horrified. I took it all in with disgust. Those uncaring pregnant women that were killing their babies in multitudes. The clinics on every corner. The glaring , evil doctors who operated in foreboding dark rooms. But most of all the babies thrown into wastebaskets. Bloody arms , legs and heads thrown right into the garbage without a second thought.
I was appalled. According to this, ahem, “documentary”, thousands of chopped up babies were tossed into the trash on an almost daily basis. The movie ended with the baby in the trashcan money shot. Eerie minor key music and lights up!
Sister resumed her place at the stage right podium. She announced that we would all be headed back to our classrooms to learn and practice the new Pledge of Allegiance. WTF?!
What on God’s green baby killing earth did THAT have to do with what had just transpired?
Although I was astonished I had to remain expressionless. Sister Margaret had only recently called me into her office to tell me that she kept a special eye on me during assemblies. “You are always the one smirking, making faces and rolling your eyes at what I say.” She angrily told me. “And it disgusts me!”
Well, yeah. She had me there. I did find her pretty disgusting.
But, dammit, I did not want to remain silent after watching that film. As much as Maggie wanted to squelch my expression I wanted to talk about it! I had questions. But no talking allowed. No questions either. We made our silent procession back to the classrooms.
No time for questions anyway. Once we returned to our classrooms we had to practice the new Pledge of Allegiance. We had to be ready to recite it to the flag the very next morning.
Mrs. Evans, our 7th grade homeroom teacher, had obviously already been schooled with the new Pledge. Which was basically just the old Pledge with a very important addition.
After “and justice for all” we had to tack on “the born and the unborn”.
Well of course we did. The unborn needed liberty and justice too, right? What with them being yanked out of the womb, hacked to pieces and thrown into the garbage and all.
Some of my 7th grade colleagues had questions. But it was pretty obvious that Mrs. Evans had been ordered not to discuss what we had all just seen in the auditorium.
For anyone who has had the misfortune to attend Catholic school, you know that there is no small amount of holy horseshit thrown at you from every direction. Probably in the hopes that at least some of it will stick and stink up your psyche.
Quite a bit later in the school year we had just recited the Pledge as usual. Mrs. Evans interrupted us just before we could attach our new “born and unborn” addendum. “You guys don’t have to say that anymore.” she informed us. Someone started to ask “But why…”
“You don’t have to say that anymore.” she repeated more curtly. Subject closed.
What happened? Why not? Were we not praying for the born and unborn anymore? How was this daily baby slaughter going to be stopped without children’s prayers? Wait, is the Pledge of Allegiance even a prayer anyway?
For two more years my imaginative mind held fast to the images on that screen. Catholic propaganda success! It’s quite simple really. Take a young, impressionable mind. Shock them with bloody barbaric images overlapped by a terrifying narrative. Tell them that Jesus doesn’t approve. Forbid questions and discussion.
Now that I look back I believe that Old Yeller was a better actor than the “mothers” and “doctors” in that horrible film. Is this film still around? Was every Catholic grade school required to screen this cinematic piece of crap?
Sometimes when I relay my parochial school experiences to friends who had the great good fortune to have a public school education they look at me like I’m from Mars. “You had to clean the school after class?” ‘You had to go to mass?” “Wear uniforms?” “Watch a movie with bloody baby parts?” Yep. Sounds fun, doesn’t it?
I believe that film is no longer shown. I’ll never know why the Bishop and Sister Margaret decided to shock children that particular school year. And why was the “born and the unborn” removed from the pledge almost as quickly as it was added?
So many questions. If only we had been allowed to ask them.