“We think this is best for your future,” my parents said when they enrolled me at Hill Murray Catholic High School. After eight years of public school, they wanted me to jump on board the private school wagon. I was upset and confused. My family wasn’t considered to be “good Catholics.” Good Catholics were the ones who appeared in our church’s newsletters. The only time we would have been featured in the newsletter was if they were running an article entitled, “Fair-weather Catholics – Only in it when we need to win it.”
We just attended Mass was during weddings and funerals. My parents even waited until I was 13 years old to enroll me in classes to obtain my First Communion. This is a sacrament that is most commonly received at 7 years old. My 9-year-old brother, Billy was also in my classes. He was far from the model Bible study student. Instead he took every opportunity to question what we were being taught. “How do you know that happened? What proof do you have?” he’d ask after each lesson.
All of this left me wondering why my parents were now pushing for me to attend a school in the name of a religion we seldom participated in. Sure, my dad happily ate the delicious Booyah stew that the practicing Catholics spent an entire weekend cooking for Sacred Heart’s Annual Fall Festival, but he rarely set foot in our church. Even when invited to a wedding, he would skip the church part and we would pick him up on our way to the reception. My dad had mixed feelings about the church after an incident with a priest back in 1977 . . . and it’s not what you’re thinking. My dad has spent his life questioning authority. He grew out his hair from 1970-1978 in an attempt to take a stand against a fascist regime whom he felt was trying to oppress his generation. He opposed the war, government control and believed in civil rights for all, but instead of starting a letter writing campaign or protesting in the street, my dad grew out his hair. Every political statement and feeling he had at that time was communicated through his light brown wavy locks. My dad (a heterosexual white man in America) once told me that just like the African Americans during the civil rights movement, he too was persecuted for having long hair during a time when long hair on a man was not well-received. I know his intentions in saying this were good, but he was way off.
His dislike for the church came after a priest, who was to marry my parents, referred to him as a, “Doubting Thomas” during one of their pre-marital counseling sessions. This infuriated my dad and caused him to snap back by saying, “Christ himself was a doubting Thomas when on the cross he asked, God why have you forsaken me?” According to my dad, the priest had no response. “He thought I was just a dumb kid with long hair, but I showed him.” Leaving a priest speechless was one of my dad’s proudest moments and he takes great delight in telling this story over and over and over again (usually after consuming a couple of Budweisers). After that encounter, my dad wrote off the Catholic Church and what he referred to as their “hypocrisies”.
Catechism classes at my church were awkward for me because I was the only girl who needed to wear a bra under the traditional white communion dress. I was surrounded by 7-8 year olds who often mistook me for our teacher. While standing in line waiting to receive the body of Christ for the first time during my First Communion ceremony, I felt awkward and embarrassed. I spotted some of my classmates from junior high sitting in the church pews watching me and laughing. I envied them. Their parents had followed proper Catholic protocol and they were able to sit back and relax as I stood there in shame. I was at least a foot taller than everyone else so it was impossible to hide. I prayed for a miracle that day. I closed my eyes and prayed that my classmates would be mauled by bears on the way home from church so that they could never tell the embarrassing tale of seeing me receive my First Communion. Unfortunately, there weren’t any bears in St. Paul, Minnesota. I should have prayed for timberwolves.
The following year, I began taking CCD classes to obtain my next sacrament – Confirmation. I was excited because I was in class with people my own age. I was also able to choose an extra name, which in the Catholic Church is called, a Confirmation name. At first, I contemplated choosing the name, Mariah Carey, who was one of my favorite singers at the time, but was informed that it had to be the name of a Saint. However, I still believe Joleen Marie Mariah Carey Lunzer would have been a beautiful name. I ended up choosing Frances after my great grandmother whom I loved so much. She had the softest hands and told everyone she met how “beautiful” they were.
Classes were on Wednesday nights and they were long and boring. Most of the teachers portrayed themselves as holier than thou. One teacher in particular, took great delight in boasting about how her family not only attended Mass on Sundays, but also 4pm on Saturdays, too. In her mind, this made her family the best Catholics in our church. Never mind that they had two boats, but couldn’t seem to scrounge together a couple bucks when the collection plate circulated through the church during Mass. And when she wasn’t talking about how devout her family was, she reminded us young ladies that, “God hates pre-marital sex.” According to her, women who participate in sex before marriage contract incurable diseases and will be judged harshly once they reach the pearly gates. Now had Google existed in 1994, I could have discredited her theory, but since it had not, I spent 1994 and 1995 believing that any boy who talked to me wanted to infect me with forever diseases.
My first day at Hill Murray High School in Maplewood, Minnesota seemed like I was on another planet. For the first time in my life I was forced to wear a uniform, which consisted of a white or blue dress shirt, a gray pleated skirt and penny loafers. The boy’s uniforms consisted of a white or blue dress shirt and gray pleated pants. Many girls also placed a penny in the slot on top of their loafers and tied a navy blue cardigan sweater around their waists. Most of the girls looked very different than I did. While they had sun-kissed skin and bright white smiles, I had pasty skin and a clunky device referred to as an expander that hung just below the roof of my mouth. It made me speak with a slight lisp and every time I ate, food got stuck up there. I had to turn a small key in the expander a couple of times a day. This was a painful process (both physically and emotionally) that I now believe prepared me for a life of humility that would later lead me into comedy. Later that school year, they removed the expander and replaced it with braces. In addition to the braces, I received hot pink headgear that I was required to wear every night. All of this compounded with the fact that I was really interested in theatre, made me a nerd.
Most girls in our ninth grade class appeared to have been genetically engineered to make me feel bad about myself. One girl at my new school even modeled for Teen Magazine. When I told my mom that I felt ugly compared to the girls at school she said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I would just die to look like you.” However, I found it hard to believe that she’d actually die to have an abundance of freckles, a sun allergy, a large port-wine stain birthmark in the middle of her back and a mouth full of metal that accentuated a crooked smile. Maybe she was drinking that day.
The boys at my new school walked down the halls with a confidence I had never before seen. They carried themselves as if they had something to offer besides a ride in their parent’s Volvo and a cold sore. They were not as attractive as I’d imagine they’d be after seeing the girls. Most fought the good teenage boy fight of acne, greasy skin and sporadic facial hair. Despite all this, they didn’t seem to notice their normalcy. Instead they walked the halls like they were the New Kids On The Block circa 1990. I assure you, they were no NKOTB. As I looked at them, I could never imagine myself wearing a giant button with any of their faces on it.
After two semesters of private school I didn’t understand why my parents thought they were doing me any favors. Sure these private school kids had better grammar than most of my public school friends, but that didn’t mean they were better people. Actually, they were just as maladjusted as any public school kid I had ever met.
There were rumors that a group of boys spent religion class pleasuring themselves through holes they had cut in the pockets of their uniform pants. A large 10th grade girl stole my favorite pair of Vans shoes from my gym locker. She even had the audacity to wear them to school the next day. When I reported it, she denied that they were stolen. Instead I was supposed to believe that she too had a pair of green Vans with an identical bleach stain.
By the end of my ninth grade year, I was lucky to have a handful of friends that I really grew close to. Ironically, most of them were girls who grew up in the same working class neighborhood as I did. Despite meeting some great friends, I missed my public school life and my old friends.
After spending the last month of the school year crying, pleading and kicking a Doc Marten sandal into the ceiling fan of my bedroom, I threatened my parents with, “If you don’t let me go to public school next year, I’m going to start doing PCP.” I didn’t quite know what that was, but in our 5th grade D.A.R.E program, Officer Kavalovski told us that it causes people to jump off buildings because it makes you think you can fly so I thought it would be an effective threat.
I was a 15-year-old girl so melodrama came easy for me. I lacked clarity, emotional maturity and good judgment. Proof of that was the fact that I believed the Counting Crows were the greatest band ever. When my PCP threat was unsuccessful, I invited my public school friends to join the fight. Through our excessive nagging, we finally wore my parents out and they enrolled me in public high school. My mom was devastated. At the time, I thought this was because she was afraid I would fall prey to the “bad kids” of public school. However, I later realized that she wanted me to stay in private school because she had made friends with a group of moms while working at school sponsored events where she earned money to put toward my tuition. While I resided in Dork City, she had successfully entered a popular clique of moms. They were the moms of classmates who had dismissed me upon first glance. For the first time in her life, she felt like the Queen Bee. This 40-year-old woman had successfully infiltrated a premiere social group while I sat at home in my headgear instead of attending school dances and football games. “Do you know Joleen Lunzer?” she’d ask my socially superior peers while hanging out with their parents. “I don’t think so,” they replied. “Me neither,” she said.