“Like A Good Catholic Should”
by Maria Pagliarulo
What do a lapsed Catholic, a practicing Muslim and a powerful Monsignor have in common?
I live on an ethnically mixed street in theBronx. My neighbors, a Muslim family fromBangladesh, live in the two-story brick house next door. From the day they moved in, my contact with them was minimal: polite smiles, careful hellos, a brief wave. On occasion I would see the Muslim family in their backyard from my small second floor balcony and ask the two children – a young boy and girl – how they were doing in school. They always responded with quiet enthusiasm. Their parents also greeted me kindly, but I sensed the palpable distance between us: it was an almost hermetic response expressed simply from what they did not say. It was actually a welcome change, since most of my neighbors were loud and rambunctious.
In mid- June, as I was walking up the stairs to my front door, Sayed, the young boy, approached me. He was wide-eyed, nervous. He spoke in a breathless rush, telling me that his parents could no longer afford the tuition of the private Catholic boys’ high school he had been attending for the past year. Sayed’s father, a diabetic, had been forced to cut back on what had once been a grueling work schedule. Now the family was in the first throes of financial ruin. Sayed’s academic record was excellent; he was eligible for a scholarship, he explained, but he and his parents had inquired about one for months without any response from his school’s principal, Brother Stan. Sayed asked me if I knew of any other programs that might be of help. He also asked me if I’d be willing to speak with Brother Stan.
I was a bit overwhelmed by the intensity of the moment, but also moved by the fact that his parents felt comfortable enough for him to come to me, to reach out to me from their seemingly hermetic front. I told him that I would do some research on scholarships, that I would give his principal, Brother Stan, a call. But first I needed to see his report card.
Before Sayed walked through his front door, his mother called down to him from an upstairs window, speaking in their native tongue. They invited me into their home. I looked up at the window and, for the first time, saw something more than the woman who wore her religion and her culture like a perpetual shroud. I saw a mother deeply concerned about the future of her child’s education.
I entered their small, modest apartment and was greeted by Sayed’s parents. His father extended a hand, then thanked me for my willingness to hear his family’s dilemma. And quite a dilemma it was. Sitting at their small kitchen table, I learned that Sayed had spent the first few months of his freshman year at a specialized school for science, only to end up a victim of racism. He had been assaulted by several students because of his name. Hussain. It was clearly – almost painfully – Muslim. Promptly, Sayed was pulled from that school and placed in a Catholic school close to home, where he excelled easily. But as the family’s financial situation darkened, so too did their hope in Sayed’s education. Sayed’s mother had tried to meet with the principal of the Catholic school for months. The elusive Brother Stan was never available. With a sad smile, Sayed’s father ended the conversation by saying, “You see, everyone thinks we are the Taliban. I am simply a Muslim American, trying to raise my family, trying to give my children an education in a safe environment.” He then handed me his son’s report card. Sayed had a grade point average of 97 and had been exempted from his final exams. This kid was definitely a candidate for a scholarship.
I left their home resolved to help them. I thought seeing Brother Stan would be quite simple, but I was wrong. In the weeks that followed, I went to the school on several occasions, but I could get no further than his secretary, Ms. McMillian. So I pursued other options. I did as much research as I could with the allotted time. The fall was approaching, the school year was creeping up, scholarship deadlines at other schools had already passed, and the few money-bag people in my life simply weren’t interested in helping with this cause. So, two weeks before school started, I went back to the school for the last time. Ms. Mcmillian said to me in a whisper, “Look, the only person who can really turn this around is The Monsignor – Monsignor Collins. He controls the purse strings. Go see him at the rectory and maybe he’ll do something. Just don’t tell him I sent you.”