October 18, 2007
By Lea Cuniberti-Duran
Elementary school years
I was born in Italy in the year 1967, just a year shy of the rising of the Student Movement and the beginning of the political rising, which in Europe, led to the blood stained 70's. Italy, at the time, was very much a Catholic country; kids were named after saints, and prayers were taught in school.
I was born the odd kid out: my mother is Jewish but was raised Catholic, in an attempt to escape the brutality of WWII, and my father was a Catholic turned Atheist. It was decided that I would not be baptized. The official line was that I was "given more choices", and I would be able to pick my religion as an adult.
In the mean time, my dad forbade me to go to church. I guess he did not want me to cloud my judgment or give in to peer pressure. Never mind that for the vast majority of people being part of a group is some sort of security blanket, and for a kid, blending-in is key.
Blending-in for me was never very easy. For one thing, my name is Lea (can you find a name that’s a bit more Jewish, please?), and then there was the fact that I was not baptized and I didn't attend church.
I don't remember anybody giving me too much grief about not being baptized until I hit grade school. Enter Mrs. Renata Manzoni, the woman who was going to be my teacher for a very long four years. Mrs. Manzoni was one of those human beings that takes it upon themselves to straighten out others. As an extremely devout Catholic, she could spot good from evil, and saving souls was high on her priority list.
It didn't take long for Mrs. Manzoni to find out that I was not Catholic. At the beginning of the school year, she called me to the front of the class introducing me to everybody: “Class, this is Lea. She is not baptized and she is going to hell.” Whispers spread across the class. Suddenly I was not viewed as just one of the other kids, but more like a newly discovered alien species.
The news spread quickly to the playground, and I immediately felt like a celebrity; but I was not the "she can jump double-dutch" playground celebrity, I was more "here comes the she-devil" kind. It goes without saying, that being six years old and pointed to as the “spawn of the devil” is no fun; and although I felt that I was like everybody else, I was told that I was different.
I don't remember being teased because of my lost soul, but I do remember being shunned by some of the kids at school. One time I was having an argument with another kid, when we were interrupted by one of her friends who came to her rescue and shut me up by saying, "Don't talk to her, she's not even baptized.” I remember feeling stunned, then livid, my ears red and burning. I watched their group as they walked away, gazing back at me, looking and then whispering and giggling.
Some other kids talked to their parents about my impending damnation; I guess that Mrs. Manzoni had struck a chord with some of my classmates. Some of those kids told me that I was not actually going to hell; rather, I’d be in limbo, where non-baptized, innocent souls spend their eternity. To me, the limbo deal seemed very much like a technicality, and not much of a consolation.
My parents, of course, were doing a 'bang up' job in letting me know that "hell" is merely a form of social control enforced by the church, so I ended up not worrying too much about it.
As every major holiday and religious celebration came and went, I felt deeply alienated from the rest of my community. Although I attended a public school, we went to mass as a class a few times a year. Many of the social and community activities rotated around church; it was the major catalyst. At a certain level not being able to be a part of it, made me almost not be a part of the community at all.
I felt very lonely; I was literally the only one that I knew who was not at least baptized, even within my immediate family. If my parents had belonged to a different denomination, I could have had at least a few people that shared our same beliefs, but being the only one raised Atheist was one of those things that forge one's personality in ways that I am still discovering.
A few times I snuck out behind my father's back (with my mother as an accomplice) and went to the after-church activities with the other kids. I really craved feeling, experiencing and seeing what everybody else was doing on Sunday. I remember hearing all about the after church programs on Monday at school, and to me, watching a movie, buying some candies, hanging out while some of the older kids played foosball, sounded nothing short of fantastic.
One time, I was invited by my friend Bruna to join her and her family after service. I was thrilled; it kept my mind occupied for several days. Finally Sunday came, and everything was just as I expected: religious movie and the opportunity to buy liquorices and marshmallows. After the movie was over, we all exited the small room, which was outfitted with benches and an old projector. To my absolute terror, I spotted a priest who knew of me; I really could not escape his look of disapproval. He looked at me as though I had just stolen something. I felt so humiliated and ashamed.
When it was time for first communion, it was clear that I was the only one in the entire school (read: in the entire country) who was going to skip it. I lived vicariously through the other girls, listening to their descriptions of their white nun-like dresses. Some of them would give me that look of "ugh, what does she want?” if they realized that I was eavesdropping.
Others didn't say anything, I think they felt bad for me and didn't know quite what to say.
I stayed up late thinking about how it would feel to be part of that--to have that dress, to go to the rehearsals-- to feel like I belonged. My best friend mercifully didn't talk about the whole thing, and tried not to make it too much of a big deal.
After First Communion Mrs. Manzoni gave a gift and her teary-eye congratulations to every one in the class.
Except for me, naturally.