IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Was An Atheist Teaching at a Catholic School (And I Was Fired for Having an Abortion)

I would hear things like “God, please bless all the aborted babies and show them mercy” and have to work very hard not to visibly cringe.
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I would hear things like “God, please bless all the aborted babies and show them mercy” and have to work very hard not to visibly cringe.

Finding a teaching job, especially in the early 2000s, was very difficult. 

I did get a few interviews, but with only 2 years of experience under my belt, I was always passed over in favor of other applicants with lots more than that. Finally, I was hired at a private, all-girls Catholic secondary school in my area. It was close to home, decent pay, and I could do what I love to do….teach math. 

Most importantly, the school knew that I was not Catholic, but it was illegal for them to discriminate based on that.

My Catholic High School, behind a very sturdy fence.

My Catholic High School, behind a very sturdy fence.

To put this in context, I have always been an Atheist. My parents had both abandoned the religions they’d been brought up with (Catholicism for my father, ironically) and raised me to always think for myself. 

But I didn’t see any potential conflict in taking this teaching position, because I could not imagine how anyone could allow religion to interfere with education. I figured it could hold me over until I found a job at a non-religious school, and I could take at least a little of the Catholic Church’s yearly multi-millions away from them.

The church nearby, at which many school functions took place.

The church nearby, at which many school functions took place.

Here were some of my duties as a “math teacher” with this school:

  • Lead a prayer at the beginning of every single period, every single day.
  • Attend Catholic Mass with my students at least once every month.
  • Sign up to chaperone at least five religion-related extracurricular activities during the year.
  • Have my curriculum content, discipline, and grading policies pre-approved by the nuns that ran the school.
The nunnery/convent that runs the high school.

The nunnery/convent that runs the high school.

First, I had never led a prayer in my life, and had only encountered them the few times I’d listened to “Grace” at the dinner tables of some Christian friends. Fortunately, I was allowed to use either the Lord’s Prayer or Hail Mary in lieu of an original prayer, so I hastily memorized them. 

Also, it was acceptable to call on a student volunteer to lead the prayer, which I did as often as someone raised their hand for it. Eventually, I got a book full of short, inspirational prayers and started reading from that every day.

The masses were not so bad, just rather long and boring, and hard on my knees with all the “stand, sit, kneel, and repeat.” At these, whoever wanted to could take Holy Communion. I watched in amusement as some of the girls whom I knew to have serious attitude and work-ethic problems reverently munched on the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

I tried to find the five least horrific chaperoning adventures in the list. Here’s what I ended up with: teaching 10 grade homeroom; designing/supervising the class skit; helping at the school fair; running the school fashion show; and going with the seniors to grad-nite at Disneyland at the end of the year. This latter would never come to pass, as I’ll explain later.

My curriculum was pretty much dictated by the textbooks the school employed (I think there were three I could choose from) and it’s difficult to make math religious, so they were just normal books. 

However, I had to learn some very precise discipline structures, and needed to meet a certain grade quota. This meant that I could not have “too many A’s” in my grade book, and had to give enough failing grades to maintain the standard bell curve of scores. 

I was understandably upset by this because my feeling was that students should get an A if they earn an A, and it should actually be a good thing if almost all of the class could work that hard.

But my most interesting experiences were with the students themselves.

I learned that there appeared to be two major demographics at this school:

  1. The nice Catholic girls who were very smart and wanted to excel and help others, and
  2. The “Catholic” girls who had gotten into some serious trouble and their parents thought that sending them to this school might keep them out of prison.

Three guesses as to which ones openly showed their dislike of me from day one. And it didn’t help that I completely botched the Lord’s Prayer the first time I tried to say it in class, and then crossed myself backward, and with the wrong hand.

The Elementary School attached to the church.

The Elementary School attached to the church.

Naturally, every girl at this school was required to take religion classes as part of their core subjects. Once I started having the students lead class prayers, I could always tell exactly what they had learned about recently in religion class. 

I would hear things like “God, please bless all the aborted babies and show them mercy” and have to work very hard not to visibly cringe. I mention this particular phrase because it will later become very personally relevant.

The students who didn’t like me did all they could to make me miserable, and it eventually started working. They were always breaking the dress code (the school had uniforms, of course) by rolling their skirts up high enough to show lacy thongs underneath. I gave them detentions for this, about which they complained to my bosses.

They would repeatedly try to cheat on quizzes and tests in very creative ways. At the time, cell phones were not the supercomputers that they are today, but they still had calculators and screens that could be shown to the nearest desk to pass answers around. They would write cheats inside the labels on transparent empty water bottles. Or, they would just have their backpack open next to their desk, with last night’s homework strategically showing. Nothing I tried could get rid of the problem.

This period in history was also the infancy of social media, before Facebook, Twitter, et al. I had joined one of these earlier (un-named) sites with a few of my closest friends, and we could read each other’s posts and reply. I had no idea of the dangers of exposing my private life online yet, so I posted things about not liking my job, and relationship problems with men.

In December of 2003, I found out I was pregnant from a one-night stand with a jerk. In February of 2004, I had an abortion. In March, one of the students who actually liked me asked to be my friend on that same social media site.

You can see where this is going….

Having no clue that being friends with this one good student would expose all of my posts to any other students at the school that she was friends with, I accepted her as a friend. Continuing to post about my personal life, I wrote about the pregnancy, abortion, and used several choice words in reference to the guy involved.

Next thing I know, in the middle of an Algebra class, one of the other math teachers came in and said that the principal wanted to see me in the office, so he would substitute the rest of my class. 

Puzzled, I went to the principal and saw, spread out on her desk, printouts of all of my posts from the website. One of the students who hated me, but was mutual friends with the student I had friended, found everything I’d written, printed and emailed them for a dozen other girls who were on my hit list, and showed everything to their families.

The school was flooded with calls from angry Catholic parents demanding that this hell-bound demon math-teacher must be fired at once.

So guess what.

I was fired at once.

Since the law did not really allow them to do that, I was able to make them pay for all of my lost wages for the remainder of the year, primarily by threatening to go to the newspapers about the situation. However, the money I got from them all went toward the lawyer that helped me obtain it, so I was left with nothing.

Statue of St. Francis of Assisi in the rose garden of the church.

Statue of St. Francis of Assisi in the rose garden of the church.

And I was devastated. Devastated to have my private affairs broadcast to such hateful people. Devastated to have to leave the really wonderful girls that I enjoyed working with every day. Devastated that I had been so naïve about the internet. Just, devastated.

The moral of the story? That depends on whether you, my reader, are atheist, religious, a teacher, and/or a woman. 

What I took from it was that I can never pretend to be something I’m not. It may seem like unbridled pride, but I will not dishonor my beliefs (or lack thereof) like that again. A secondary lesson was a reminder of just how heartless people can be. I won’t say that it’s only the religious that can be so cruel, but they were certainly the antagonists in this story.