That Dick and Jane series I referenced yesterday wasn’t the reading book I had as a tyke. I had the John, Jean and Judy series made expressly for Catholic school kids and chock full of what the publisher called “religious elements”. I had so many religious elements in my life as it was it’s no wonder I thought I was having religious visions when I fainted in church. Even in our house we had holy water fonts, statues of Jesus, outfits for the statues of Jesus and on and on, all sold to us by those excellent businesswomen the nuns.
Then every night for homework and every fear-filled day at school we had…. The Baltimore Catechism.
Catholic school kids learned to memorize, I’ll say that. We could recite both the answers AND the questions from that little blue book, waking or sleeping, forward or back, ornate language and all. Even today I can give it to you: “Question: What are the sins against hope?” “Answer: The sins against hope are presumption and despair.”
I was in Second Grade when I learned that one. and didn’t my mother wince when in front of a roomful of company I dished up the Seven Deadly Sins: “ Pride, Covetousness, Anger, Gluttony, Envy, and Sloth” I whispered sweetly. “And … and what is that other one Nan?”
“Lust” said my big sister, who was all of nine.
“Lust” I lisped with my toothless little-kid smile.
Turns out this sin-drenched curriculum didn’t just belong to the Catholics. The New England Primer was a textbook used by students in English settlements in North America from the time of its publication is 1690 until at least halfway through the 19th century. Over five million copies were sold. As the source I just read says it combined the traditional alphabet study with Biblical precepts. “Emphasis was placed on fear of sin, God’s punishment and the fact that all people would have to face death.” Cheerful!
Take these few examples from early in the alphabet: For the letter A, “In Adam’s Fall We sinned all”, for B, “Thy Life to Mend This Book Attend, for I “The Idle Fool Is Whipt at School.”
Shake my head as they say. Just kinda makes ya wonder what we’ll be teaching the poor kids next.