Six Years Old, and Going to Hell

They look like mortal sinners to me

They look like mortal sinners to me

It was the fall of 1975 and I was in first grade. Our religious instruction at All Saints Catholic Church took place on Saturday mornings at the church in our small town. We called it Catechism.

The town I grew up in was chock full of Norwegians who attended various Lutheran churches, but not many Catholics. My little Catechism class had 5 small pupils–2 girls and 3 boys. We were 6 years old.

Our teacher was an unmarried, middle-aged woman who sang in the church choir (she WAS the church choir) and acted very pious during Mass and during every other moment of her life, as far as we knew. She wore modest gray clothes, had gray hair, did not wear makeup, never smiled, was stiff in front of children, looked at her pupils like we were unkempt heathens . . .  and she was apparently a good Catholic for all these reasons. Catechism lessons were not fun. 

In kindergarten Catechism the previous year, we had colored, played, and learned a little about priests, nuns, and God. (I don’t remember Jesus coming into the discussion, but I can’t be sure.) Our teacher, Mrs. V., was a sweet lady who seemed to like small children and spending time with us. She clearly enjoyed her church and wanted us to associate our church with happiness and security and comfort, too.

But in first grade Catechism, we were 6 years old, so there were no games, no smiling, no coloring, no arts & crafts, and no joy in religion, but there were certainly mysteries to be pondered. For instance, we learned that almost all people are going to hell, including ourselves.

I learned this when our teacher, Miss M., asked us one day, craftily, “How many people in this room do you suppose will go to heaven?”

I looked around the room. There was just our pious teacher and us little first graders. I distinctly remember thinking that we were only little kids and we hadn’t really had time to damn ourselves to hell yet.

But the question seemed like a trick. “All of us” seemed too easy. I stayed quiet and so did my 4 classmates.

So Miss M. told us the answer:  “Maybe one?”

I looked around again.

Miss M. said, “it’s really hard to get to heaven.”

That’s when I realized the “one” was obviously Miss M. and that the rest of us little bastards were going to hell.

It sounds trivial, doesn’t it. An angry, repressed Catholic spinster scaring a bunch of little kids into thinking they’re damned before they’ve even had a chance to grow up and do anything fun or awful enough to get damned for. But it made a big impression on me. I count this episode as the beginning of the end of my experience as a Catholic.

If I’m in the right mood, it sort of makes me laugh, too. I’ve told this story over beers through the years and I always get a good response. People hoot and holler over its absurdity.

In conclusion, I can only infer that Miss. M. had a case of the Mean Woman Blues. In her honor, I post this slightly provocative and always eye-catching photo, and imagine her consternation if she learned what a sacreligious, enthusiastic atheist I grew up to be.

Here's to you, Ms. M.!

Here's to you, Ms. M.!

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