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.

One of the Worst Times of My Life

I had a difficult time wrapping up the master’s portion of the graduate program.  The oral examination consisted of topics / questions / issues in the history of philosophy.  Even as I think about it now, I’m not exactly sure what it was I was supposed to have expected.  I guess what I learned after failing it miserably was that, while my examiners wanted to see what I knew and what I didn’t know, maybe more importantly, they wanted to see whether I was comfortable talking about these topics with them, whether I would respond with expansive enthusiasm.

Now at the time, I was much more comfortable being concise.  When one of them asked me a question, I would answer – briefly.  No more than thirty minutes in, I started seeing something in their faces, something that said I wasn’t doing well.  I pretty much shut down for good.  They began asking even easier questions, and mostly all I could say was, “I don’t know.”

So the examiners decided that maybe I would do better with a written exam.  About six months later I took it.  I thought my ordeal was over – but one of the examiners was not satisfied.  So the next remedy was that I should write a master’s thesis.  Took about another six months, but I did it – fifty or so pages on the topic of philosophical complementarity.  Even then I think the same examiner voted against accepting it – so it passed two votes to one.

That night after the oral exam was easily one of the worst times of my life.  I had planned to celebrate passing the exam with a couple of friends over dinner – but I was an absolute mess.  I went to my tiny student housing studio apartment, turned off the lights, laid in bed curled up in a fetal position, and cried myself sick.  My friends did come by, knocked on my door – but I didn’t answer.  They soon figured out that things didn’t go well, yet still wanted to go out, encouraging me, telling me to forget about it, it wasn’t the end of the world.  I was inconsolable – it was the end of my world.  I was as shell shocked as I had been after I first came back from the seminary in January 1979 – all at once, the world in which I thought I was meant to be was gone.

Fall ’71 – Part One

We spent the summer getting ready to pack up and ship me off to the high school seminary in Edgerton, Wisconsin.  It’s not really fair to say “ship off” – I already had three brothers before me attend the place.  The parish organized a bus to take a whole bunch of interested eighth graders out to Wisconsin (maybe a seven hour drive) in the spring for a weekend to get an idea of what the place was like.

From what I can remember, I was looking forward to going there.  Of course, once you were there, it was a slightly different story.  There was the expected homesickness, but nothing intolerable.  I don’t think the fathers made us write home every so often, but I do remember writing home fairly regularly that first year.  Some years later, I remember Mom telling me those letters were some of the nicest things she ever got from us – just a few short pages every so often from her boys telling her about the latest goings on, how they missed her and loved her and was looking forward to coming home for Christmas or summer break.

It was a small high school.  There were around seventy, eighty students that fall, maybe sixteen seniors, and a lot of freshmen, forty of ‘em.  As far as priests and brothers go, these are the folks I remember:

Father Leo was rector.  His brother Robert was also a priest, stationed in my home parish in Detroit; he recruited many Holy Redeemer eighth graders for seminary.  I didn’t know Father Leo very well; I think we thought of the rector as CEO, president and king of the joint all wrapped into one.  He might have been approachable, but how would you ever know?

Father Walt was second in command, the school principal.  He was fun to know; very friendly, a full melodious FM radio kind of voice, pleasant to hear.  Occasionally he would dress students down every so often for unacceptable behavior – part of his job.  I’ll tell you more about Father Walt in the senior year Parents’ Weekend story.

Father Martin was the school bursar; he handled the money for both the school and the religious community.  He wasn’t unfriendly, but he didn’t have much interaction with the students, so it was difficult to get to know him.  Father Marty was a tall guy, very sturdy too – not heavy, not thin, sturdy.

What Breaks YOUR Brain?

I’m kicking myself for at least not trying to chat with the woman who was sitting maybe twelve feet away from me but left the room maybe thirty minutes ago.  I’m not sure if she’s gone for the day or not – still have a little less than four hours remaining for today’s free “write in” – but I’d be lying if I said she wasn’t on my mind right now.  Tall slim brunette, around 40?  I can never tell, especially when some people take such damn great care of themselves.

I like pretty (beautiful? gorgeous?) women – sue me.  I spent a huge part of my life trying to ignore that – otherwise, women will obviously think I’m just another one of those superficial men who care only about what a woman looks like, not who she is.  Frankly it took me a long time to allow myself to even look at women, for fear that she or someone else might catch me “gawking” at her and call me out about it.  And even before that, I shared the feeling with Jimmy Carter (and the Bible, I guess) that whenever you look lustfully at a woman, you commit sin in your heart.  I wanted to respect women, even though I had no idea what that really meant.

I’ve resolved the matter at least a little bit by believing that you respect others when you get to know who they are and, regardless of whether what you come to learn pleases or displeases you, you accept them as they are.  And I think that works in nearly every area of life, except for one:  sex.

Sex is the brain busting puzzle of my entire existence.  Being raised Catholic didn’t help matters, of course – in what other religion can you have so little information about sex and still wind up with so many kids being born?  Although, come to think of it, perhaps that’s EXACTLY what to expect with so little information.

Six of the seven boys in our family went to seminary.  The one that didn’t go is married (now over forty years, with three kids, four grandkids).  The next six boys:  married, then divorced (and now deceased), priest, married (two kids, nearly forty years), never married (me), married (two kids, twenty years), and married (two kids, thirty years).  My three sisters:  never married, married (one kid, now divorced) and married (no kids).  What did they figure out that I (and maybe my older sister) didn’t?

High School Seminary

Even though I had three brothers attend high school seminary before me, I didn’t have a very clear idea of what the place was like.  I think I expected a quiet, dignified, solemn place, with holiness the object of students and faculty alike, to love God with their entire mind and heart.  What I found was a raucous, chaotic, bawdy place; the upper classmen’s goal was to torture and/or humiliate the incoming freshmen class, and the faculty’s goal to get through each day in one piece, square the child monsters away enough by 9:30 PM to retreat to their side of the building for a scotch or a brandy or some other intoxicant for a much needed break from the asylum of hellions on the other side.

Those first few weeks of high school were straight out of Lord of the Flies.   Establish dominance, and leave no doubt that you will not be intimidated.  If you couldn’t physically do that, you relied on a strong vocabulary, a crafty wit, and the ability to run faster than the angry sophomore or junior or senior who would chase you and pound you silly once he caught you.  I learned the verbal boxing talents I needed in the new environment by fending off the taunts of four, five, even six siblings at once during those cage matches my parents lovingly called “suppertime.”   I was not, however, as gifted in the running department; while I would manage to escape the occasional lumbering upper classman, the rest of them were much faster and much stronger.  Once you were caught, you were pounded accordingly.

I soon accepted that little if anything going on there was holy.  In my sophomore year, I saw teenage hormones revved in full gear.  While growing up in Detroit, my grandparents had the only pet in our household, a female tabby named Fifi.  I was probably ten years old when, one day, I noticed Fifi was sitting up high in a nook of the backyard pear tree, slightly flicking her tail but otherwise looking quite composed.  A second glance at the yard revealed something I don’t think I had ever seen before – at least twenty other neighborhood strays were sitting around the bottom of the tree, eyes glued to Fifi.

Fast forward five years.  With a new typing lab set to go, the school a hired a new typing class teacher – a woman.  There were no other women teachers at the school at the time:  just priests and laymen.  The student body reaction was a mix of curiosity and libido in overdrive.  I knew where I had seen this before:  if there had been a pear tree and Ms. Smith had had a tail, I would have bet she would have found a nook beyond the reach of that teenage horde of hormones, flicking a bewildered tail.