The other day, my dad rented a movie, Waiting for Superman, not knowing it was a documentary on America’s deplorable and nearly hopeless public school system. As it explored the lives of kids and their families trying to get out of the downhill district public schools and into successful private or charter schools, I noticed one element consistent in each case: mom was always there. Mom was the one willing to travel 45 minutes every morning with her 7-year-old son so he could attend a better school. Mom was the one pulling off three to four jobs to pay the $500 Catholic school tuition every month. Mom was the one who believed in her 9-year-old daughter’s dreams of going to medical school despite living in the worse school district in Harlem. Mom was behind each kid’s hope for a better future beginning with a better education.
Undoubtedly, education is a particular concern each mom has for her child. After all, why invest so much time and attention raising a child only to have it undone by sending him or her child to an ineffective school 7 hours a day? Mom and Dad are the primary educators. The education they give their child can either reinforce or demolish the values they instill in him or her.Naturally, my own mom would be concerned about me upon reading an article about my own high school alma mater (which actually means “fostering mother”). While I was at work earlier this week, she sent me an article with the message: “I just wanted you to read this and tell me if you have been hurt at all.” The article was entitled, “AP Exclusive: Abuses surface at Legion school.”
“Where is this happening? Which school could this be?” I thought to myself, perturbed and perplexed. I kept reading, anxious to get to the bottom of it before my work lunch break ended. I read “…at the Rhode Island school.” Then, it clicked: Immaculate Conception Academy. My alma mater. My “fostering mother.” My precandidacy. My discernment school. My boarding school. My high school. My second family.
I went on to read the accusations former students, also known as precandidates, made against the precandidacy: improper medical care, psychological disorders, feelings of being worthless and rejected, and the list continues. I acknowledge that certain rules or “norms” at the precandidacy years ago weren’t in the favor of the proper maturation of teenage girls. However, at the same time, those errors have certainly been acknowledged as well and, after much discussion, research, and advice from psychologists, doctors, and other professionals, have been replaced or adjusted to suit a teenage girl’s discernment of a vocation. When the bulk of these changes began taking place (when I was in 10th grade), we would frequently hear of updates and the progress that was being made following many meetings and conferences. We saw the sincere efforts and sacrifices the lay consecrated women and the Legion and the Movement were making to provide us with the necessary means for our personal discernment and maturation. Communication with family and friends has become easier through personal email accounts, cell phones, Skype, and longer home visits; friendships are encouraged; shorts can be worn for sports; and even the schedule has changed to include more free time. Additionally, the lay consecrated women have been more attentive to each girl’s needs, seeing if discernment of a vocation is right for her according to her particular situation. Moving to another state, attending a boarding school, and discerning a supernatural vocation is a big change in a teenage girl’s life. Naturally, if a girl is already experiencing problems at home or contending with personal issues, she will not be in the capacity to discern or even to function properly. Additionally, the emphasis at Immaculate Conception does not focus solely on the discernment of consecrated life, but more on laying the foundation for such discernment, beginning with developing a friendship with God and an openness to his will. All of the changes, I can say without doubt, were extremely beneficial to my own maturation and discernment and that of my peers.
I cannot speak for those who put forth the accusations. However, I can speak for myself and on behalf of my fellow precandidates, classmates, and friends. The picture painted by these allegations is certainly not the precandidacy, the Immaculate Conception Academy, which I know today. It has come a long ways. In my own experience, as a proud member of the 20th graduating class of the precandidacy, I would not trade my four years at ICA for anything else. The consecrated women and the formation I received instilled in me valuable life skills and convictions. There, I developed a strong and healthy self-confidence by discovering my talents and by valuing myself for who I am in God’s eyes. In ninth grade, I trembled at the very thought of saying one scripted sentence before an audience during one of our annual parent’s weekends. By the time I graduated, I had participated in several oratory contests, I was invited to give a presentation at the RI Water Works Association annual board meeting and to be a guest speaker at the RI Annual Human Life Guild Conference, and last but not least, I gave the valedictorian address to my class.
Most importantly, I have formed a deep conviction that God is the center of all that I do and that my Catholic faith is my foundation and stronghold. Although, I have discerned a path other than consecrated life and will be attending Boston College in the fall, I feel in no way rejected. The lay consecrated women and my peers have been my best friends and, alongside my parents, the first to support and congratulate me. To this day, I stay in contact with all of them and they are the ones who have proven to be true friends regardless of the distance that separates us. Although it may not have been clear in its early beginnings two decades ago, the purpose of Immaculate Conception Academy is clear today: to discover who Christ is in one’s life and to discern what he is asking.
As for the care I received at the precandidacy, it was to say the least, exemplary. I do not take pride in probably being the sickliest precandidate at some point during my four years due to my hereditary digestive disorders and…well, just bad luck I guess! From pneumonia to a fractured jaw, the lay consecrated women, my formators, were there for me every step of the way, notifying my parents, taking me to doctors’ visits, and making sure I had the proper nutrition and enough sleep. I remember being in Spanish class when the consecrated in charge of me called me out and told me we were going to the hospital at that very moment to dispel any doubts about my ongoing cough. After we found out it was pneumonia, she sat down with me to completely break down my schedule and work it around my frequent and needed naps. Personally, in terms of health and discernment, my formators even encouraged me to go home or to take a gap year after graduation to recuperate my “delicate” health so I could discern better.
Being gluten and lactose intolerant, I was always given access to the dietary food I needed and given time to create my “culinary creations” as everyone would call them. At the precandidacy, we all learned of the importance of proper nutrition and exercise. I used to despise sports, which I viewed as “sweaty and discomforting” and avoided any such exertion in the prior fourteen years. I have come a long way. My “Jell-O” willpower firmed up and, miraculously, I began to enjoy sports to the point that I now run frequently. The formation of will power and choosing to act rather than passively following a schedule is an aspect of the precandidate formation that is a necessity for what I do today.
Reflecting on my spiritual, intellectual, human, apostolic, and physical well being, my formation at the precandidacy has helped me reach goals and discover horizons I never knew even existed. The choices I learned to make at ICA have become the foundation for the choices I make today. Without doubt, the precandidacy has changed over the past years. After all, what would an institution be if it did not seek to improve? Despite what others may say, these changes are not an experiment. No, the precandidacy, Immaculate Conception Academy, is an experience. I only desire that more high school girls could have this same experience. As Christ said in the Gospel, “Come and see.” The precandidacy is not the product of words on a paper or the sum of rules and norms. It is an experience, an experience that each girl must make for herself. I attended all four years of high school at Immaculate Conception Academy, I was a precandidate, and I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything else.
The issue at hand concerns the present day Immaculate Conception Academy. From my experience, I have never seen any signs of rejection, anorexia, psychological disorders, denied medical attention or abuses at the precandidacy. Many people inside the Regnum Christi movement and outside of it have met us, have worked with us at summer camps and retreats across the country, have followed our pilgrimages to World Youth Day, Lourdes, and Rome, have seen us volunteer at the local parishes in RI, have witnessed our growth and maturation, and have shared in our discernment. It would be foolish to dismiss the great things that are happening at the precandidacy today. All the changes that have occurred are necessary and important. Today, Immaculate Conception is filled with girls who choose to be there and sincerely want to and are ready to discern God's will. One can simply ask any of the 14 recent graduates or any of the present-day students of Immaculate Conception. We willingly chose to come to the precandidacy to discern, we are grateful for what we have received, and our experiences have been very positive.
So Mom, don’t worry, you placed me in the right hands. I know you care about me and love me and that you have always wanted the very best for me, just as every mother desires for her daughter. Thank you for being with me through these years. The formation I received at the precandidacy reinforced everything you and dad taught me. A biased article and the accusations of others will not change the experience I have and hold within my heart. It will not change or tarnish the story of my discernment, of my journey in search of what God is asking of me. I know and believe in what the precandidacy is today. This is the experience of a graduate of the Immaculate Conception Academy Class of 2012. This is the experience of a precandidate. This is my experience.
NOTE: Margaret wrote about her decision to attend college in an earlier column.