Why think of these things today? I don’t know, but somehow I found myself thinking of my first year in high school. Just a function of my age, perhaps, bits of memory floating in and out, attempts at finally understanding something or other in the shrinking remainder of one’s time on earth.
It was neither a particularly bad time, nor especially good. The only remarkable thing about it was that my little world became slightly less so, I had to take two buses to get there and I met a new bunch of teachers and fellows from other parts of the city. It was a Catholic school, as my grammar school had been. My disadvantage was that I was too young, more than a year younger than almost all of the other boys. I had turned thirteen one month before classes started, and at that age one year was a great difference. I didn’t realize it then, but the fact that the other boys were bigger, stronger and more aware than I was had a powerful effect on me at the time, and on my future development.
Most of the details elude me, but I can remember two of my classrooms very well. One was my Algebra class. I remember the teacher, one of the Holy Cross Brothers who made up most of the teaching staff, a serious young man with glasses, I forget his name. I can recall him clearly because of his deep devotion to our salvation, as men and souls, which was sorely threatened by the curse of masturbation.
The entire faculty knew that we were all doing it, I mean, thirteen and fourteen year old boys, they didn’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to figure it out. Guessing that we did was almost always a safe bet. This brother had a habit of asking one of us at a time to remain after class so he could cross-examine us about it. “Algebra requires concentration,” he’d say, “and masturbation destroys the ability to concentrate.” He’d ask us if we were doing it, and of course we’d say no. One day during such an inquisition he asked me how frequently I had wet dreams, I’m sure he used the term “nocturnal emission,” but really I had never heard any of these words before. I answered, oh, no, I don’t have those either, thinking that was the preferred answer. “That proves that you’re masturbating!” It’s a sin, etc, it will make you crazy, etc, etc, what a bunch of Johnny-One-Notes they were, and you know that they were all at it too.
My clearest memories of that year are of my Latin class. My memories of those lessons stand out in clarity and detail among any other memories from my childhood. Latin, the subject itself, seemed like such an imposition, such a useless exercise, I thought the whole thing was arbitrary and punitive. My teachers were less than helpful.
We started off the term with Brother Juan Capistrano. He was man whose cheerfulness bordered on the giddy. He was not a frightening figure by any means, and he knew his Latin, but we noticed early on that his behavior was a little bit bizarre. One Friday there was a “pep-rally” scheduled for after school, attendance was not mandatory but it was strongly suggested. Before our lesson, he started talking about the pep-rally, drawing on the board as he did. He spoke lovingly about the wonders of school spirit, and how much fun the rally would be, and the songs and cheers, and why didn’t we all stick around for the basketball game too? He went on and on, and on the board he was drawing the school and a detailed rendering of hundreds of young men flocking to the door, you could see every smiling face in the crowd, I see it in my mind as though it were yesterday. He turned to face us, clasping his hands together in a moment of final, ecstatic salesmanship. We had, I assure you, no idea of how to react to this display.
By week six of the semester he was gone, a crazy man, a relapse evidently, sent off for a rest cure. His replacement, we thought, was even crazier, and not in such a nice way either.
Brother John was in charge of the school library, and in that capacity he was a serious but not unfriendly man who we all found non-threatening. In the Latin class, however, he underwent a complete metamorphosis. When the bell rang he would announce, “please arrange your seats.” He had rules about the placement of the individual student desks, the forward left castor had to be centered with great precision on a certain intersection of the floor tiles. After we had all shuffled our desks a bit he would take a tour of the room, and every time he did this he would discover that about half of the desks were not, in fact, placed with sufficient precision. By the time he had worked his way around the room he was in a tizzy of profound disappointment. And this is even before our recitation of the Our Father and the Hail Mary in Latin!
Once these preliminaries were disposed of, the lesson would start in earnest. “Open to page 46,” he would solemnly say, “Cavanaugh, begin reading.” It always seemed that he would pick one of us who had a particularly terrible Latin accent. As the student began to read, Brother John would follow along with his finger in his own book. At some point he would withdraw his finger and close his eyes. He would then place his head on his desk; often he’d begin to cry, real sobbing tears, bitter tears. Poor Cavanaugh would still be reading, wishing that he was capable of a better job of it. All of us became quite anxious at this point, because the crying was frequently followed by a sudden explosion and maybe a little corporal punishment too. That was still allowed.
No surprise that I remember that classroom so well, what a den of insanity. That classroom! It just comes back to me this second! It was two years later, in that same classroom, being tormented with another useless subject (Religion), where I listened to the announcement that President Kennedy had been shot! Oh, the memory is a strange thing, and terrible, in its way.