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In GROWING UP CATHOLIC PART TEN, I outlined the reasons for my "leaving" my catholic education at St. Mary's Help of Christian School. (Note: Since it has been a while since PART TEN was published, it might be a good idea to refresh your memories, only if you want). Remember, I was "intolerable" and "had no regard" for the rules, I was told. However, I was, really, a good kid. Not an angel, mind you, but compared to my "brothers in crime" growing up in McKees Rocks and Stowe Township at the time, I was indeed not a bad person at all. But, because of my rebellious attitude toward the mistreatment of my fellow students and toward me, I "acted out" (to use the modern education phrase) in ways I thought were humorous and funny, well, as you know from reading my stories, I at least found them funny. Hence, my journey continues.
However, the nuns and priests at St. Mary's probably viewed me more as
So, at "the meeting" when I was told that I would no longer be attending St. Mary's Help of Christian school - when I became the persona non grata and the pariah that I was - I thought just how Martin Luther King, Jr. must have been thinking in his famous "I Have A Dream" speech - "free at least, free at last, thank God almighty, free at last."
Yea, like that was going to happen. Remember, I am/was CATHOLIC in every sense of the word - I was NOT going to be let off the hook. Although I was 15 and going into 9th grade, the powers that be had four more years to bring the true guilt and true meaning of obedience out of me. At least, I think, that was the plan.
No, I wasn't out of the woods yet. (HA. Boy was I wrong)
I had four more years of Catholic teachings to learn. Only this time, as a "prerequisite" to my leaving catholic school, I had to "agree" to attend Religious Instruction Classes to continue learning my catechism and to maybe, just maybe, right some of the wrongs I committed in adolescence. Although I still had to attend mass, I was free of getting up early, putting on a shirt and tie, and enduring the long days of humiliation that followed my friends and siblings through this particular school. In a way, I was free of the everyday functioning of the catholic high school, but, as I said, Religious Instruction Classes ensued. My punishment for being unruly in grade school was that, every Wednesday night, those of us who sort of had been labelled as "heathens" - Catholic kids who went astray and attended public schools - had to appear at the House of the Priests at 6:00 sharp to spend two hours learning the gospel, the "rules and regulations" and, above how, how to "Grow up Catholic" and what this meant.
To be honest (and I do try to tell my story with as many photos and drawings as I can), but I really couldn't find any picture suitable for print of what the experience was really like.
Now remember, this was supposed to be "punishment" (well, not really punishment - more like 15 year old CATHOLIC KID REHAB). To my surprise, it was anything but. Turns out, the priest who oversaw the religious instruction classes was a pretty nice guy, sort of. Of course, he WASN'T the pastor - the good pastor who has been mentioned in previous stories wouldn't have lowered himself to spending any more time with us "numbskulls" as he called us than he had to. And realistically, he probably couldn't have handled us anyway. Remember, the reason I was there was that his intimidation tactics didn't work on me. It was exactly my response to his tactics that placed me there in the first place. (Yeah - the same priest who took away my wedding and funeral alter boy payments teach me the fundamentals of Catholicism. I hardly doubted that possible at the time).
Yet, the experience was so mind boggling and so different that any experience I had imagined. Yes, the first few "classes" were rigid and instructional, very instructional, very "by the book." But something changed. I feel, in hindsight, looking back at us, the students, not much could be done for us at that time. Many probably thought us unsalvageable, er, unsaveable.
Actually, after the first run of classes, we ended up leaving the confines of the classroom and our teacher (the assistant pastor) thought it best that he open his own doors for us to really make us "like" what we were doing. Hence, he actually gave us the "run" of the priest's house. (Again, I must note that the pastor would "leave" the house on Wednesday nights, I assume, to go make sick calls, anointing of the dead, hospital calls, and the like). It really didn't matter to us. All we knew was he was gone. Refreshing, really.
I cannot tell you what exactly was on this particular priest's mind. I assume that he felt that if he opened his heart, his doors, and various other sundry things to us in the priest house, we would feel less restricted, less angry, and less rebellious. In a way, for us, this worked. He did achieve the goal of taking fear out of us.
(I must break ranks here for a moment. As you know, I was a successful English teacher for 35 years and hold master's degrees in Educational Administration, English, Composition, and, this is key, Curriculum and Supervision. I also served in two school districts as an assistant to the chief administrator. The point is the fact that in all of the post-graduate courses I took in education, I learned that students need discipline. Give any student an inch, etc.... I know, many students who do indeed come from loving, nurturing homes understand this concept. But hooligans, I found out, and saw at the time, do need some sort of discipline).
Back to the story. Even though the group of us (actually, the group consisted of about 5 boys who were being forced to attend the classes. I think that ten were enrolled, and the other five who never showed up just never showed up. And they thought I was bad).
But I feel that this is where I really became confused. On the one hand, I had been battered, bruised, and totally fatigued by the entire Catholic system. Now a man comes along who sort of opens the door up to us in a totally different way. My advice now and what I experienced at the time was that "free range, Catholic drop outs" DO NOT, and I repeat, DO NOT need coddling and given freedom. These types of kids will take advantage of that, without question, and take advantage of that we did.
I bore and still bear no ill-will toward our mentor, but he didn't get it. By being "nice" to us, he basically was saying, "Take what you want. Drink what you want. Express yourself." Bad idea. I do understand his role in this entire cycle. He was being forced to be the Catholic's last stance against our ultimate decline. What was he supposed to do? He would have had to be either 1) a saint and lead us on the straight and narrow paths, or 2) be a vicious Nazi-type commando who would continue with the ways that got us here in the first place. Admittedly, it was a conundrum. What to do with us?
I don't blame him one bit. He WAS NOT going to change us. That damage was already embedded in us. The most he could do was isolate us, try to teach us the true path to righteousness, and then kind of let us rule the roost in order that we would keep coming back. I learned that the "keep them coming back" was the key. The two choices mentioned above that he had were not going to happen. So, he took the path of least resistance, which, in the long run, should have taught us something, but at the time it didn't. It just gave us the opportunity to be what we were - misguided, angry, take-advantage-of-every-situation kind of kids.
NOTE: Actually, this is the most difficult chapter of GROWING UP CATHOLIC that I have had to write and publish because, on one hand, we were yearning to break free of our Catholic dominated lifestyles, and, on the other hand, we needed discipline. Of course we would take the former rather than the latter. Basically, we took total advantage of this man.
He would leave the room - we would attack the wine cabinet. (Yes, that's right, the ALTER WINE cabinet, freshly stocked with bottles and bottles of alter wine). Which, by the way, at the time, was NOT provided to Catholics. It belonged only to the priests, and it was a very dry, bitter wine that tasted terrible. But, it was wine, and we, the Catholic school drop outs, engaged in our own wine tasting parties. Kind of like the male, kid version of Hoda and Kathie Lee - heck, what's a tall glass or two or three of wine going to hurt?
Throughout this series, I have been extremely truthful to my readers, and although this chapter sort of puts me in a bad light, it is part of my record; it is part of my experience GROWING UP CATHOLIC which led to my current feelings about my religion. So, I shall continue.
No, you do not give a group of 15 and 16 year old boys (who, in their minds are being punished for dropping out of catholic school) the run of a house that has an unlocked wine cabinet. An experienced parent and adult knows that. This is part of my point. Most of my GROWING UP CATHOLIC series has been to explain how the "ways of old" just didn't work for "some" of us - not all of us - I repeat, again, "some" of us.
I don't know if any of my cohorts at the time read my columns, but it they do, this is for you, also. Remember, again, that I was as rebellious against the treatment I was receiving, and drinking at an early age, although this is wrong now in today's society as much as it was wrong back in the 1970's. I readily admit this. But, being that age, and being able to learn to drink freely, it sort of helped my initiation into my street life at the time.
In short, we "partied" our way through Religious Instruction Class. For four glorious years we enjoyed every minute. Other events did take place in this "house" that I shall not mention at this time. There will be a time and place for that, I am sure. But the four years I spent at my religious instruction classes was great, for want of a better word. My parents probably at the time thought I was really "getting better" and that the classes were helping. Yes, they were helping, but where taking me was not to the best place, in any stretch of my imagination.
Many events took place in those four years in Religious Instruction Classes - events I shall not nor need not mention in this series. I shall leave this open to your imagine. Most of it was fun, but most of it also was "not good." Needless to say, I was deeply affected still by GROWING UP CATHOLIC, but not in ways that would make me proud right now. However, looking closely at this singular event, and more importantly, at the events that led to this seminal time in my life, I feel it is quite understandable.