Saturday, December 8, 2007

The St. Alphonsus Arrows

Some of my favorite memories stem from my time at St. Alphonsus Grade School. Opening its doors in 1846, the school served the German immigrant population that was fleeing Europe and settling in Dearborn, Michigan. Almost 150 years later, St. Alphonsus opened its doors to me, an immigrant fleeing a different part of the globe.

For about 9 years, I attended the Catholic private school, and by the time I left, I had felt very much a part of the parish community there. For the entirety of those 9 years, I attended church regularly at 8:30am on Tuesday where Father Mike preached the Gospel of either Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John -- depending on the theme for his sermon that week. Young children, faculty, and loyal church-goers would congregate for the student's mass. If you were lucky, and chosen amongst your peers, you got to read the Gospel reading for that week in front of the entire church, and I found myself doing that more often than a non-Christian should have been able to. Our favorite songs to sing were "On Eagles Wings" and "Sing a New song", and we often sang them energetically. They were as catchy as most of the pop tunes of the 90s, and I am proud to say I still remember every word. That's not the only thing I remember. I remember the prayers: the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and the Apostles Creed. I remember the Stations of the Cross, and I wonder now, how the elderly church goers persevered through the hours of standing, kneeling, sitting, standing, kneeling, sitting...

I remember when most of my classmates received the "Body" and "Blood" of Christ during Communion. Then there were the few of us who weren't Catholic. More often than not, this group was comprised of Protestants whose parents had swallowed their pride for good schooling. We placed our index fingers in front of our mouth as a gesture implying that we weren't up there for the Bread, but rather a blessing. And Father Mike would gently lay his hand on my head, and he would bless me every week.

Kind nuns like Sister Mary Ann always had a parable to share, and young children flocked the tenderly woman daily. But even at a young age, you knew to steer away from the not-so-pleasant nuns in the convent who had no patience for young children.

I remember Mrs. Pazur who had a heart of gold and made me feel secure. I remember how she told me that she, too, had been teased for her height growing up and that we had a lot in common. I respected Mrs. Pazur and so that made me feel good. When I arrived to St. Als, English was a second language, if one at all. Interestingly, I left as president of my 8th grade class. I remember Ms. Horner's sharp tone and quick tongue. I remember how much I respected her for her discipline and wit. I remember how these women, and many others, took pay cuts because they believed in this school when the city of Dearborn and state of Michigan started to doubt. With that doubt came less money, and with less money, St. Alphonsus became just another charter school. A school that opened its doors in 1846 would become just another historical monument. An aerial view of the church yields one of it's most beautiful attributes; shaped like the Cross, you can easily find the church prior to landing at DTW airport.

People ask me what compelled my Druze father and Muslim mother to send me to a Catholic private school, opting out of the free and Arab saturated elementary schools around the corner. The answer lies a generation removed. My parents left Lebanon with the notion that a good education was a private school education. My grandmothers were widowed in their 20s and raised 3 and 5 children respectively, yet they shelled out the money they didn't have to send their children to private schools. While my family has come a long way, the life of a new immigrant is always a struggle, yet my parents felt they had no choice but to make the same sacrifices their parents made to send them to the best schools. I cannot thank my parents enough for the lessons I learned at St. Als and the community that welcomed me. Had I gone to the Dearborn public schools with other Arab children I would have never been exposed to the cultural differences; I would have never been uncomfortable...and then comfortable again; I would have never read the Bible from cover to cover... enough times to quote scripture in my sleep.

Some of you are probably waiting for me to criticize the idea of religious coercion, the way it was instilled, the politics it alluded to. I can't do that, though. I didn't feel unwelcome at St. Als. As for the times that people didn't understand me, well, it made me stronger to teach them about the rich culture I came from. It made me more passionate about being Arab, and it taught me how to have these conversations in the future. I have nothing but thanks for the teachers, families, and parish I grew to love.


Anonymous said...

An awesome article, It was worded perfectly....A Deraborn citizen, A Divine Child Graduate, and a parent of St. Sebastian school children!

Anonymous said...

What beautifull sentiments you expressed!Your positive experiences will only help to bridge understanding and tolerance between Muslim and Christians.Its apparent that your education at St.Alphonsus went far beyond the academics.May you spread the peace of God in your heart wherever life takes you! Go Arrows!

Nick Kovach said...

Hi Sirene, i just stumbled upon this post- you've probably long forgotten about it, but i felt like posting for posterity's sake.

I think you hit the nail on the head when it came to St. Alphonsus. As I look back now I realize how profound some of my interactions at that school really were. I think i was two years behind you, but in my class of thirty we had just about every type of kid you could think of- poor, middle, and upper class. Black, white, latino and arab. Dearborn and Detroit. Certainly, there were a lot more whites kids when i started in Kindergarden, but by the time i got to 8th grade no one was in the majority- (sadly the school would close a few years later).

For me it was amazing to have been a part of such a diverse group of people- to be more than just a class, but a real group of friends. Sure we all had our differences, some cliques here and there and even some tensions, but we all got along. Ill never forget Ali Mashour breaking up the potential fights between the black kids in our class and the local arab kids when we went to the end of the year picnics at hemlock park. I'll never forget the real bond i had with my friend abe lopez who introduced me to pulse of southwest detroit, where his family started a mexican restaurant. I guess the list could go on, but i'll stop there.

Anyway, I know there was always a lot of resentment towards St. Als. I know i hated how many of my classmates left after 6th grade as their parents thought the school and the neighborhood had gone to hell. Oh well- I just hope some people can look back as positively as I can.

Go Arrows