The Unique Weirdness Of Being A British Asian Muslim At A White Catholic Girls' School
The Debrief: How hidden altars, religious discos and communal swimming costumes ultimately made me a wiser Muslim
By the time I enrolled the nuns had left but there were still some pretty wacky moments during my years at a Christian college:
Catholic schools like to go nuts on the Catholicism
As you’d expect, Catholicism was high on the agenda at a Catholic school. The student uniforms were embroidered with the school motto Per Crucem Ad Lucem, which meant ‘through the cross to the light’, and even the buildings had religious names like Villa Madonna and Our Lady’s Hall. A hidden altar was concealed behind a set of concertina doors in the assembly room that were opened on special occasions, and I attended hundreds of masses. I took part in Harvest festivals and celebrated Pentecost, Easter and the Immaculate Conception.
I was jealous that my classmates got to miss lessons for confession and was super curious about what a Holy Communion wafer tasted like. I imagined it tasted like a Milky Bar Button – and the wine like Ribena – so I felt rather hard done by during the sacrament of the Eucharist because I was a fatty who was perpetually hungry. I settled for a blessing instead, which involved lowering my head in front of the priest and crossing my arms over my body so that my hands rested on opposite shoulders. It looked like I was (a) giving myself a lacklustre cuddle or (b) an emo contestant in an X factor promo.
Bible tests were all the rage
R.E. was compulsory at my school and I had a GCSE exam on St Mark’s gospel. All my peers had a copy of it in their school bags and we had to memorise the parables for a closed-book paper. We also went on a religious retreat to a Yorkshire lodge, the highlight being the disco on the final day where everyone played their favourite CDs. Billie Piper’s classic hit Because We Want T0 was a firm favourite and yet I, believing myself to be wiser than my 14 years, had brought along George Michael’s comeback album Older, featuring that catchy track Jesus to a Child. I was, quite rightly, mocked ad infinitum.
Even the extra-curricular activities were religious
I was a member of the school choir and took part in the annual carol concert. My friend was forced to join too but she sounded like a startled horse with hiccups and so wasn’t called upon to add her dulcet tones to the chorus of Gaudete. On one occasion during practise the music teacher abruptly stopped playing the organ because he was angry that one of us was singing the word ‘Christmas’ with a hard ‘t’. It was me. I still to this day couldn’t tell you why I did it. And I’m sure the teacher must have found it hilarious that a chubby brown girl wearing a long green skirt and a ‘tache the length of a tugboat was exposed as the ChrisTmas culpriT.
Some of the teachers were hideously mean
When I was in year 7 my PE teacher made me wear the CLASS COMMUNAL SWIMMING COSTUME after I forgot my swim kit at home. And yes it was as horrid as it sounds; it was soaking wet because it had just been used by another girl in the previous session. All I remember is the clammy feel of that saturated costume against my skin coupled with the distinctive smell of a hot changing room filled with teenage girls who had, I can only gather, been wearing the same pair of tights for a fortnight. It smelt like powdered Parmesan, chlorine and sweet vanilla.
I remember being fat and embarrassed so would try to nab the one cubicle with a curtain to get changed alone. That didn’t stop the class bully from telling everyone I had hairy armpits (I did and I sometimes still do so what you gon’ do?). She also said my hairbrush was made for dogs but again I’m going to let her have that one because I think it actually was (my dad loved bargains and although we never had a dog we had pet grooming brushes, a birdcage without birds and a set of drinking glasses that said Carlsberg on them despite our Muslim household’s teetotal stance).
Some of the religious stuff was enlightening
My parents sent me to a Catholic school on purpose – they encouraged me to learn about other faiths to help strengthen my own. When you’re in a minority you’re continuously forced to test your mettle against the majority, whether you want to or not. So you may as well start early right? My Catholic education has definitely made me a wiser Muslim.
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