I used to think that St. Patrick’s Day was a national holiday.

I attended Catholic schools in Los Angeles, and all the Bishops at the time, the ones who set the calendars for all the Catholic schools in the Archdiocese, were Irish. Thus St. Patrick’s Day was always a school holiday. Always. Along with Lincoln’s Birthday, Washington’s Birthday and All Saint’s Day.

Then our school got a young new principal, Sister Nathaniel. She was Italian American, with dark brown bangs peeking out of her white habit, a matter-of-fact way of speaking and a brisk, efficient stride. She declared that since St. Joseph’s Day (March 19) was about the same time as St. Patrick’s Day (March 17), we would celebrate both saints’ days together. I have often thought of this story as one which shows the difference one person can make. Because she was Italian American, she understood the importance of St. Joseph’s Day to our many Italian-American families; no one else even knew.

That year our St. Patrick’s - St. Joseph’s Day celebration included Irish jigs with bright plaid scarves pinned over the shoulder, a spaghetti dinner fundraiser and a Mexican hat dance, too (we also had a large hispanic American population). Not bad for the 1970s.

When my family later moved to northern California where the Bishops were not all Irish, I was surprised to discover that St. Patrick’s Day was not always a school holiday, that St. Patrick was not the most important saint. (When I graduated from Catholic high school and entered the secular world, I was really surprised to discover that St. Patrick’s Day had become a drinking day rather than a holy day.)

Still, on St. Patrick’s Day, everyone wore green and all the Irish-American students wore their bright and cheery “Kiss Me I’m Irish” T-shirts.

At other times, the Italian-American students wore their red white and green “Kiss Me I’m Italian” T-shirts.

However, no one ever wore a “Kiss Me I’m Mexican” or “Kiss Me I’m Polish” or “Kiss Me I’m Chinese” T-shirt. Those did not even exist. We were not necessarily ashamed of our ethnicities; it just did not occur to us to be proud of them, and there were no ready-made gifts and knickknacks to buy in the mainstream Miles Kimball and Lillian Vernon and Harriet Carter mail-order catalogs to prove it. (Thank goodness, actually.) If there was no stuff to buy, obviously no one else thought it was important, either.

Instead, everyone else had ethnic jokes. “Did you hear the one about the …”

When I was a kid, I used to love collecting stickers, and I once found a sticker of the Taiwan flag somewhere. I was excited to stick it on the back bumper of my father’s old Dodge Dart. He stopped me. He said it could be dangerous because it would identify us, and people who did not like Taiwan or China might damage the car or harm us.

I still wrestle with the fear of being too public. Essayist Richard Rodriguez writes eloquently about our private and public selves, our private and public languages. When my oldest daughter was in preschool, she wanted to wear a Chinese qi pao for school pictures one year. My automatic instinctual reaction was to say no. Chinese clothes (and language and food) were private, for home, not for parading out in public where other ("normal") people might see and take offense.

Then I realized what the message of that would be. I took a deep breath, and I let her wear her pride to school.