Crossing the line

I don't know what President Obama was thinking.

Speaking in Northern Ireland last week, he said Catholic schools are divisive: "If towns remain divided -- if Catholics have their schools and buildings and Protestants have theirs, if we can't see ourselves in one another and fear or resentment are allowed to harden --that too encourages division and discourages cooperation."

Begorrah. What was he thinking?

I was lucky to attend a Catholic elementary school through the eighth grade. I didn't know it at the time, but our church and our school reflected a religious tradition that was brought to America by millions of immigrants, many of whom arrived to work in Pittsburgh's mines and steel mills 100 years before I was born.

The immigrants built magnificent Catholic churches that were the centerpieces of their communities -- churches that advanced simple values that seeped into the local culture: Be charitable and kind, tell the truth, take care of those less fortunate, don't cheat on your taxes.

And they built Catholic schools. My parents bought our house because it was within walking distance of St. Germaine Catholic School and Church. They wanted us to receive a solid education -- something parochial schools still do way better than public schools -- and be taught solid values.

And boy, were the nuns determined to teach us both.

The nuns were all business, you see. Their business was to work us hard in math, science, reading and writing. They had no interest in or patience for obsessing -- as too many adults do now -- over our precious little egos and self-esteem.

When they weren't ramming home our lessons, they were teaching us to embrace the virtues: prudence, temperance and courage. They taught us about the competing ideas, too, the Seven Deadly Sins, and demanded we fend off every one of them: pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed and sloth.

And when they weren't ramming home lessons or virtues, they made us sit up straight and keep our shirts tucked in. They made us say "please" and "thank you." They didn't suffer fools gladly -- they didn't suffer fools at all.

We envied the public-school kids. They got to wear blue jeans and tennis shoes to school -- not uniforms and hard shoes. They didn't fear their teachers half as much as we feared ours -- and nowadays, public-school teachers fear their students.

Though the old Catholic school was often unpleasant for a daydreamer like me, I have incredible, fond memories of my time there.

My older sisters, both fine artists, helped me create a beautiful picture for art class, but Sister Mary Angela refused to believe I created it alone -- it was hard to fool the nuns.

Tommy Guillen and I got into big trouble on the last day of classes one year for riding our bikes to school and locking them out front.

And my eighth-grade nun confronted me in front of the class when I got a "B" on a test that she knew -- had I studied for it -- I should have gotten an "A" on.

Looking back, I realize that my Catholic school experience was marked by clarity, order and a sense of purpose -- the seriousness of our teachers made us feel that we really were on Earth for a special reason and we'd better do our best to accomplish it.

That is why Obama has it wrong about Catholic schools: They teach tolerance, kindness, compassion and understanding -- concepts central to Christianity -- not division.

And while many of us former Catholic-school students frequently fail to live up to these high standards, we know when we have crossed the line.

We know when Obama has, too.

TOM PURCELL is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

humor columnist and is nationally syndicated.