Friday, March 8, 2013

Going Negative in Parochial Prison

Even before high school I was a bit offbeat for a New York kid. My fun came mainly from making art and exploring ideas. I ignored the herd, and found my awkward way through the first stages of puberty. But this sense of separateness was mild in comparison with what I experienced in parochial prison during the early 1960s.
     Holy Cross stressed an ethic of unquestioning obedience and orthodox piety. Gone were the art classes and supportive teachers that had nurtured my creative spirit. The beautiful closet socialist who had exposed me to political ideas and encouraged my urge to write in junior high was replaced by a football coach/English teacher who considered sensitivity a social disease.
     When I recall my youth in cinematic terms, early childhood emerges as a variation on the opening scene from The Godfather. It’s that idyllic moment when the Corleone family celebrates a marriage in the backyard of their Long Island estate. Children play and parents dote, basking in their fragile unity while the men talk business in Grandpa’s private den. Of course, we didn’t have an estate and the facade was soon shattered. Still, for a while even a young outsider could feel essentially safe.
     On the other hand, if my early years were like a garden party before a storm, four years at Holy Cross were the middle class equivalent of a prison drama. I was the Birdman of Bayside, struggling to stay sane in a hostile, alien environment.
     After a few months, I found a doorway to relative safety. The school's two points of pride were its sports teams and forensic society. I was no athlete, but I knew how to perform in public. I'd been doing it for years, ever since the moment when I briefly became a child star. Forensics referred to various forms of public speaking, from dramatic interpretation to debate. My plan was to move into drama through the narrow opening of Catholic competition. But even that would take years to achieve. Drama was a privilege, and the dues were serving the school as cannon fodder in “extemporaneous speaking” contests throughout the city.
     It went this way: dozens of Catholic boys from competing schools would gather in a library around a fishbowl filled with slips of paper. Each slip contained a topic, some description of a current economic or political situation. Each boy picked three slips, and, from those selected, one to be his subject for a five minute address. Preparation time was limited to around 30 minutes, and the talk was to be delivered with only one index card for notes. 
     Scoring was based on diction, organization, quality of thought, sticking to the time limit, and even posture. Acceptable viewpoints ranged from mildly to unbearably conservative. The objective was apparently to see who could survive the pressure.
     I never enjoyed the experience, but I did have a talent for it. My ability to organize, combined with my vocal skills and dramatic sense, made me a formidable competitor – a least for a teenage nerd. The Brothers took note.
     After that “trial by fire,” I graduated onto the debating team. Unlike “extemp,” debate stressed thorough preparation. A series of topics, known as Resolves, were selected at the start of each year. For example: “Resolved, that the Soviet Union isn’t just a threat but also a menace.” 
    I exaggerate, but not by much. Teams then collected reams of information and constructed supporting and opposing arguments. My specialty became the negative, finding the holes in any argument. Specifically, I was second negative – the last of four speakers to take the podium during the first half of a debate. After the affirmatives presented their case and my partner gave an initial rebuttal, I’d synthesize all the arguments and go in for the kill. Using logic, but even more attitude and sarcasm, I learned how to demolish arguments in favor of almost any idea.
    Shortly, the ethic of debate became part of my newest philosophy of life. Rip down, tear, and destroy, I proclaimed to school chums, relishing any chance to deconstruct the world.
     "But what do you put in its place?" my friend Jack asked.
     "That's not my problem," I replied.
     Most of my classmates rarely had a political thought. America was great, and communism was evil. That’s about as far as it went. Still, a few of us did read The New York Times, and began to see that there was more going on. Being on the debating team helped, since it forced us to grapple with complex issues and consider more than one point of view. 
     The range of periodicals available in the school library was limited, but liberal ideas managed to slip in. As the Civil Rights movement gained momentum, issues like racism and equal rights became difficult to ignore.
     On the other hand, debate challenged my belief that truth was relevant or even existed. In some debates, the teams would change sides for each round. In other words, the negative teams would take the affirmative roles, defending the positions they’d just attempted to discredit. The message – if there was one – seemed to be that winning the argument was more important than expressing an honest opinion. It took me decades to overcome the cynicism I cultivated during those years.
     By the time I reached 16, I’d become a dangerous opponent who instinctively sensed the weak spot. The "skill" would later threaten my relationships, when spats tended to become battles for Pyrrhic victory rather than dialogues leading to reconciliation. Over time I overcame most of the conditioning, learning to listen and empathize rather than look for an opening to make my point. In the end, I came to distrust logic somewhat, taking intellectual rationalizations with a grain of salt.
     As a captive of Holy Cross, however, the ability to make my point and win arguments was a useful weapon. They had my body but my mind was my own, and I’d use it to expose the hypocrisy of my prison. 
     I’ve often joked that Catholic high school turned me into a subversive. In truth, the tendency was probably there already. But repression certainly helped bring it to the surface. If my keepers were foolish enough to give me the right tools, I resolved, I’d wreak havoc in their world of blind faith and paper-thin reason.

Part Two of “In the 60s: Education of an Outsider.” (Dangerous Words)
NEXT: Muckraking and the American Dream


montpelier28 said...

My Catholic High School, Marian HS in Barre VT wasn't like that at all. Sure we had the Latin, loved it, religion & nuns. But I had Vatican II nuns mostly, and several lay teachers who were very good. (PS The nuns know their shit, my French & English teachers were wonderful.) Sure I had a couple who should have been retired, so did my son in city schools. AND after class we rolled up our uniform skirts to shameful levels, took our lunch money, went to the diner for coffee & ciggs.

Greg Guma said...

Wow. Hard to imagine based on my own experience. But it might have been later than the early 60s.