A Bigger Pasture

Do you remember your transition from grade school to high school?  His very first day of school, when his mom left him in a classroom with some thirty other six-year olds he’d never seen before, was his first introduction to the world beyond the walls of home.

Home was claustrophobic.  His dad, the baby of his family, was born in that house in 1923.  Dad’s parents lived in the back half of the house, while mom and dad and (eventually) ten kids lived in the front.  He was fourteen years old, average height, overweight.  Smart as a whip, shy as a mouse.  He had a small circle of friends, and a sincere desire to become a Catholic priest – at least, he thought he did.  He was looking forward to a new start in a high school some 400 miles away.

The high school seminary did not have individual rooms.  About eighty-five students all slept on the same floor, freshmen and sophomores on the west end of the third floor, junior and seniors on the east end.  Each seminarian had their own twin size bed.  The metal bed frame included a couple of large metal drawers tucked away under the foot end of the bed.  Each also had their own dorm locker, about five feet tall and maybe two feet wide.

The lockers were lined up down the middle of the 70 foot wide floor, dividing the 140 foot length equally into north and south.  Because there were many more freshmen than sophomores, juniors or seniors, the upper classmen enjoyed slightly larger personal living spaces.  The older students, sophomores on the west side and seniors on the east side, occupied positions nearest the windows; freshmen and juniors were assigned the interior spaces.

Now if you had your own bedroom back home in Detroit or St. Louis or Chicago or Grand Rapids or Kansas City or wherever else in the Midwest you happened to come from, you might have wondered how the hell you were going to manage any degree of personal dignity living with a herd of teenagers not unlike the herds of cows well within sight of the high school.  But if you had shared a bedroom with at least four other brothers for the first fourteen years of your life – in his case, two or three of those years were shared in the same twin size bed with his younger brother – you could not begin to believe your good fortune.  His personal space had gone from something like thirty square feet to a hundred – with his own drawers and his own closet (locker) that belonged to him, that no one else (well, no one other than the fathers, of course) could access.  Yes, he was now part of a larger herd – and this pasture was a whole hell of a lot bigger than his last one.

What All Human Beings Want

Some years ago I enrolled in a comedy sketch writing program.  I had long suspected (and, of course, everyone else already knew) that comedy was intimately, intrinsically connected with some sort of “higher” way of living.  Like court jesters and Zen masters, comedians saw things the rest of us didn’t – and they wanted to let us in on the joke.  The writing program confirmed that suspicion.

The program instructors reminded me of those Zen masters.  One of them told us that, at bottom, there are four things all human beings want:  to be seen (acknowledged, recognized); to be heard (making one’s “voice” or point of view known); to be touched (that emotional connection); and to be loved (what children look for from their parents, why we have friends, spouses, that sort of thing).

I’m not sure anyone saw me or heard me until seminary high school.  In my sophomore year I got my first indication that I might be good at writing.  I wrote some essay for an English class, maybe five hundred words about how alone I felt, how angry and frustrated I would get, how I never felt like I mattered anything to anyone.  My teacher was a teacher in the best sense – he taught me how to write, but he also cared enough about the person writing it.  He made me feel like I was worth a damn.

About six years ago, a few months shy of his 70th birthday, this wonderful teacher passed away.  I cried when I got the news; I hadn’t spoken with him for at least twenty plus years.  But I’ll never forget the kindness and generosity he gave to a kid who, back then, didn’t think he had a friend in the world.

I’ve wanted to do for curious minds what Fr. Hawk did for me so many years ago:  bringing what I love to the classroom and helping people learn how to think (NOT “what” to think).  With any luck, my students might come to see in themselves a passion they can’t live without, something that shows them they matter, as well as know that they are more than good enough to enjoy everything this world has to offer.