Wednesday, April 2, 2008

In the 60s: Education of an Outsider

Part One: Getting to Know “My Own Kind”

I wasn’t always an “old white guy.” Once upon a time, I was a skinny, olive-skinned kid growing up in the Big Apple, one of eight million stories in that sprawling mega-city, outgoing, carefree and basically secure – for a while. But then Grandpa, the family patriarch who taught me about life and art, had a heart attack and died unexpectedly, and my caregiver retired (mom worked to bring in extra income) just as my sister was on the way. It was all very confusing. The world I’d come to take for granted was changing fast and I didn't understand.

A year later, I became seriously ill. It was a mysterious malady, never precisely diagnosed. Whatever the reason, getting sick changed my life. Mostly alone for months in my room, drawing and reading, discovering how to nurture myself in virtual isolation, I became more introverted and guarded. The experience reinforced a feeling of aloneness, yet also helped me to develop a defense in the face of loss, pain and alienation. I emerged with new strength, and a definite sense of separation.

Now I saw myself as an outsider, my “philosophy” becoming the naive assertion that whatever most people did or liked couldn’t be much good. If all the kids drank Coke or chewed gum, I was damned if I was going to follow along. I declined to join the "in crowd," even though they were willing to accept me. Instead, I gravitated to other outsiders, weird kids with special gifts and unusual ideas.

Deep into psycho-dramas filled with heroic deeds and supernatural feats, I spent much of my time on the planet of unlimited possibilities, a benign "twilight zone" in which a child could fly and anything was possible. I dreamed of Arabian nights and journeys on the high seas, sailing into the sunset, increasingly convinced that I could be what I wanted, even reinvent myself as I wished to be.

Reality couldn’t be avoided forever, of course, and as I approached 13 it closed in with a vengeance. But the outsider self-image stuck, and I could feel the pull of those vivid dreams, set down in cartoon recollections and fantasies of travel to other worlds, sensing their power to transform others and myself.

On a gray and threatening morning in September 1960 I took the bus for my first day with the Brothers of the Holy Cross. Along the route, up tree-lined Bayside Avenue, I passed the junior high school where I'd just spent two years, learning how to question everything and put my fantasies on paper in short stories, illustrations, and school plays. Friends were returning for their third and final year at one of the city's best public schools. But, as my parents ominously put it, I was off to spend four years “with my own kind.”

The upperclassmen had been in this thing together for years already. Even most of the freshmen knew each other from previous incarceration at parochial elementary schools around the county. They all shared a common understanding of the Catholic school experience. I had no idea what it was about.

But that first day I learned several lessons about how it would be. In English class, the teacher quickly announced that this year, "You're going to learn how to read, or you're going to learn how to bleed." It wasn't just a figure of speech. He split his time between parsing sentences and coaching sports, and used the same techniques to handle both assignments. If you couldn't handle a question, the penalty was public humiliation. If you spoke out of turn or didn't pay attention, he’d sit on your desk and start punching you in the head. He called that The Thumper.

In history class, the Irish orator behind the desk taught mainly by offering lifeless readings from a textbook. About halfway through the first class I became confused about a point and raised my hand. He stared as if I'd questioned whether the Pope is Catholic. "What's that?" he asked, nodding at my upraised palm.

"My hand," I said, "I have a question."

He smiled and explained patiently. "No, you don't ask questions here. I ask the questions, and sometimes I call on you."

There was also Latin, Religion, and Math, plus the daily dose of physical education. Mercifully, by early afternoon the gray sky opened up full blast and poured down enough rain to flood the streets and knock out the electricity. I considered it an "act of God," a brief reprieve from the pain and tedium that lay ahead.

Herding us into the auditorium, the brothers announced that we'd be taken home – as soon as they could figure out how to do it. The longer we waited, however, the more difficult to control the kids became. These teenagers, who seemed so repressed in class, suddenly sensed their power as a mob. I imagined them over-running their keepers and declaring some pointless rebellion. On the other hand, I realized that the Irish and Italian factions were just as likely to declare war on each other. But this was projection, and I had to wonder whether I was the only one hoping for a massive bolt of God's lightning to torch the place.

When they finally let us leave it was well after 3 p.m. The storm had scuttled classes but kept us late. It was almost dark when I reached home – exhausted, angry, and acquainted with "my own kind." That night I prayed, somewhat skeptically, that I'd never have to see them again.

Part One of “In the 60s: Education of an Outsider.”

Next: Going Negative in Parochial Prison

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