Gaining my mind

Gaining My Mind V


When we last left this shaggy tale of my “intellectual development,” a year or so into my time at St.  Bernard’s Boys High School, I had fallen in with a geeky crowd of debaters and newspaper and yearbook types.  I was about to begin the story of how I became editor of The Sabre, SBBHS’s Columbia Scholastic Press Award-winning newsmagazine and, in the course of a year, so mismanaged it that it became a mimeo sheet handout.

But first, after I posted the last installment, my friend and former classmate Garret Condon sent the link around to the group of high school friends we call the Seminar Room Group, and on the little e-mail list serve we use to plan annual Thanksgiving reunions, a number of them commented, bringing forth a gusher of reminiscences and reminding me of things I’d long forgotten (or suppressed).  I seem to have a bad memory for a memoirist.


In my memories of The Sabre, I hired a bunch of longhairs, who like me had little interest in the sports that were the lifeblood of much of the school (and, I learned the hard way, the lifeline of many alumni), and to make more room for our cogent essays (Peter Emanuel on Joni Mitchell’s freshly released album, Blue) and hard-hitting investigative journalism (what really goes on in Mr. McKenna’s humanities class?) , we radically pared back sports coverage.  As a consequence, we lost a number of advertisers and with the school administration unwilling to make up the subsidy (I remember a stern dressing-down in the office of Brother Brendan, the principal), we were forced to cut production costs and abandon the offset, two-color magazine format that had won such unusual notice for a small Catholic school in southeastern Connecticut.

My former classmates helped me to remember that it was probably not just what we cut, but what we RAN that plunged The Sabre (where did we get that martial name, I wonder?  Was St. Bernard of Clairvaux martyred with one, or did he run around brandishing one?).  I’d forgotten, apparently, according to Bob Phillips, that in his “swan song at The Sabre, he compared Muhammad Ali to Jesus Christ and mobilized the religious right against me before they even knew they existed.” 

Someone else dredged up the group involved, CUFF (Citizens United for the Faith), which indeed, it is all coming back to me, waged a campaign to “take back” St. Bernard’s and diocesan Catholic education from the Christian Brothers, whose younger recruits, along with a few lay teachers, we coming a bit apart at the seams in the late 1960’s. In the words of Garret Condon, “the typical St. Bernard’s student has a casual disrespect for authority,” and indeed St. Bernard’s was one of the least authoritarian institutions I have ever been affiliated with, despite the presence of a few brothers who were a bit free with their hands (in the slapping, not — as far as I know — groping department).  Religion classes were more like an ongoing seminar in ethics, Night and Fog was shown and discussed, there were truly innovative classes on myth, fantasy and science fiction, and a number of the teachers — barely older than the students — treated us, or so we thought, as peers, almost adults.  So not long after we graduated, the Diocese came back in with a heavy hand, and our little Glasnost-on-the-Thames (this being New London, that’s THAYMES, not TEMS to you)  came to an end.

But it made an impression on me.

US Royal Tires

Somehow or another, while in high school I developed an attachment to New York.  In the StoryCorps interview I did with my mother a few years back, she recalls me as a toddler telling people that I was going to live in New York, but — naturally — I have no recollection of that, and it might as well have been California when I was growing up, despite being three hours away by car or train.  The only trip I took there before my later teens was on a Greyhound bus with my father and brother (I threw up on the way, which I had a tendency to do on long car trips in those days) to the 1964 New York World’s Fair.  We came back the same night, and all I remember of that is the Pieta and the ferris wheel in the shape of a giant U.S. Royal tire.  But as I got older, the appeal of New York beckoned, maybe because so many of the TV sitcoms I watched — and in those days, the late night talk shows like Cavett and Carson — were set or based there.  I fell asleep at night to WNBC’s clear-channel radio station, call-in talk shows led by Lee Leonard, Brad Crandall and Long John Nebel.

I took out subscriptions to the Village Voice and New York Magazine, both in their exhilarating heydays, and I was surely the only 16-year old subscriber to The New York Review of Books in Westerly, Rhode Island.  I could discourse on Mike Quill and the 1966 transit strike, the wars over City College, Leonard Bernstein and the Black Panthers, the Stonewall uprising, and why Mario Procaccino, though a Democrat, had no right to be be New York City’s Mayor. 

Up With People

In the fall of 1971, it came time to apply for college.  The school guidance counselor — Brother Vincent, I  think — had a tendency to steer students to Catholic colleges, and as a good student with strong extracurricular activities (I also chaired the Cultural Assembly committee of the Student Council, which failed to entice Spiro Agnew as a speaker but managed to get Up With People), I was encouraged in the direction of Boston College and Georgetown.

But I was by that time too aware of the wider world to want to continue my education among white ethnics like myself.  I wanted to be among people who were different.  That course might have led me, say, to Howard University, but in the end I decided — maybe it was my New York-o-philia — that I wanted to be around Jews. They seemed like interesting and significant people to me. So after a few safety schools, my first choice, where I hoped to go, was Brandeis.  I figured they might have an affirmative action program for Catholic school students. 

But I didn’t get in.  My second choice, Yale, wait-listed me, and my third choice, Columbia, took me (I later learned, when I had a friend in the admissions office, because THEY had an affirmative action program for Catholic school students).  Though I had no idea at the time, it turned out to be a pretty good place to meet Jews, and in no time I was spending my Saturday evenings strolling down Broadway to pick up H and H Bagels and the Sunday times, smattering my conversation with Yiddishisms.

I never set foot on the Columbia campus — or any of the colleges I applied to — before my parents drove me there on September 1, 1972 to register for classes.  I did, however, have an alumni interview, in downtown New London, Connecticut, late one afternoon in the office of a lawyer, Seymour Hendel, who later became a judge.  I don’t remember much of it except one exchange, when he asked me what magazines I read.

to be continued

November 05, 2010

Gaining my mind IV

I managed three posts in this series while on vacation this summer, have been away from it for a while.  It’s an attempt to look back and see how I may have come to think the way I do.  At the end of the last one, I was ending eight years at Immaculate Conception School and off to start high school twenty miles away in Uncasville, Connecticut.

It wasn’t predetermined that I would go to St. Bernard’s Boys High School.  My parents had gone to the local public high schools, and as a family we weren’t that devoted to Catholic education.  It’s always hard to explain to non-Catholics that although there were crucifixes in all the bedrooms in our house and the Sacred Heart of Jesus on the wall in the foyer, we weren’t particularly devout, just normal Catholics of the time who didn’t question the standard rituals and symbols.  People who went to Novena or had the priest come to bless their house — now they were devout!  Not us.

My cousin Steve, who I grew up with and remain close to, was nine months older than me, and when he graduated from St. Michael’s elementary school across the river in Pawcatuck, he went to St. Bernard’s, which I had never heard of.   I am pretty sure he suggested to me that I think of going there, though it was a 35-minute bus ride away, and wanting to be cool like Steve, I must have convinced my parents, who had to fork over some hundreds of 1968 dollars in tuition and, until I was old enough to drive, come pick me up after extracurricular activities.  I took the entrance exam, and was accepted.

I didn’t think much at the time about the fact that it was an all-boys school (the girls’ counterpart was in New London, Connecticut, some ten miles down the road), and that wasn’t much of an element in the decision, though in retrospect it is the one aspect of my schooling there that I regret, because it retarded my social development with girls quite a bit, at least until I had summer jobs later in high school where I could hang out with them a bit in normal settings.

The campus of St. Bernard’s was just a year old when I got there, and still felt fresh and spacious.  It was a diocesan school run by the Christian Brothers.  In the first year I was there, they relaxed the rules about the brothers’ “habits,” and some began to dress in blazers and ties, just like the lay teachers, and often quite nattily.  My father taught me how to care for clothes and shoes and groom myself, but a few of my teachers were more of a model for style, as my Dad rarely varied from a gray suit, white shirt, dark tie Mad Men kind of look.   Other brothers preferred a black suit and collar, not too different from the look of priests, and the older ones wore floor length tunics with a starched bib — on a nun it would be called a wimple, I think, but I’m not sure if that is the right term for male religious — that looked like a blank version of the Ten Commandments.

Although it didn’t register with me at the time, since they were adult authority figures, the vast majority of my teachers were quite young men, barely out of college themselves, 23 or 24, and in their first teaching posts.  But I don’t remember their inexperience as much as their enthusiasm, and in some cases, passion, for what they were doing, whether it was leading the debate club or newspaper, teaching about The Red Badge of Courage or Greek myths, or navigating the shoals of algebra and geometry.  While, as I have written in earlier installments of these musings, I don’t remember much of what I was taught in elementary school, I do remember a lot of high school, particularly the English and humanities classes. 

I recently came across one of the first papers I did for Mr. Lamoureux in English I — as it happens, a “critical review” of The Red Badge of Courage.  I cherished the A, and his red-penned cover comment, “You explain yourself well.”  Inside, I see, I tried to explain my lack of enthusiasm for the book, and ended “If a classic is not enjoyed, has it not been understood?  Does a classic have to be enjoyed?”  To which he wrote, again in red, “NO!  A classic is judged by the mass of generally educated people, some of whom are not going to enjoy the particular ‘classic’ in question.”  Whatever that means.

In any case, I was being taken seriously in, if you will, intellectual terms, and as I look back on it, the chief value of my classroom education at St. Bernard’s, whatever I may or may not retain about the content, was just that:  I was on my way to being an adult, and being treated as one.  I think all the best secondary education has that in common.

I grew up in a very small town, and went to elementary school with the same 25-30 kids for eight years.  I had been used to being stereotyped as the geeky, non-athletic smart boy, and felt constrained and unchallenged by it.  St. Bernard’s was larger, drawing from a thirty-mile radius in southeastern Connecticut, and as a consequence, there was a critical mass of other geeky non-athletic smart boys.  I had some company.  I experienced the shock, and satisfaction, of recognition — of kindred spirits who were as odd as me and in many ways odder.

I also had a bigger platform available to me, and early on I tried to step up to it.  In the early weeks of my freshman year, a notice went up announcing a freshman public speaking contest.  Anyone could enter with a three-minute speech on any subject.  The winner would be given a spot on the junior varsity debate team.

I don’t remember the earlier rounds of the competition, which was judged by Brother Philip, the debate team moderator, and probably a few other teachers.  But I do remember making it to the finals in mid-November 1968 with two other boys, in the auditorium before an audience — could it have been an assembly of the entire school?  — and feeling the thrill of nailing it with my passionate call for the country to rally behind the newly-elected President, Richard M. Nixon.  After a short consultation among the judges, the results were announced, American Idol-style, and I was the newest member of the debate team.

Debate was a pivotal experience in my life because it made me comfortable with extemporaneous public speaking and disciplined me intellectally in ways that would resonate again and again in my later life and career.  You not only had to muster the best arguments for your side, you had to understand the other side’s arguments well so you could demolish them, too.  In switch-side debating, which we occasionally did, you might have to argue both sides of a case in the same day, inevitably — if you had strong political views, as I was coming to have — making a case you disagreed with as soundly and passionately as you could.  Each year we had a debate topic chosen by the National Forensic League (as close as I have ever gotten to the NFL) — one year it was “unilateral military intervention,” the next pollution.

I wasn’t a great debater, making the rounds most weekends in tournaments at other Catholic high schools in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Hampshire. I was good on my feet, so could get by without much work, as I always did in school, but I never had the discipline, distracted as I was by a million other pursuits, to prepare and practice as I should have, or as anyone needs to in order to really excel, as opposed to get by. I notched a few trophies, but wasn’t in it for that.  What I most enjoyed was the companionship and camaraderie of my fellow debaters. Here is the 1970 yearbook photo of the varsity team, which I had by that time been promoted to:


The debate team had a room to itself in a far corner of an upper floor of the school, called the Seminar Room, though to the best of my knowledge no seminars took place there.  We had exclusive access, and we each had a key.  When we didn’t have classes — and probably, sometimes when we did — we would gather there and talk, fancying ourselves a kind of Algonquin Round Table of working-class white ethnic Connecticut.  Despite my naive embrace of Nixon — naive because it was grounded in my belief that he would end the Vietnam War, which I hated — I was developing a personal politics that trended liberal, and the kids I hung around with in debate, and later, the school newspaper and student council, tilted that way, too.  I had come from a family where politics was rarely discussed, and though my father was well-read and versed in current affairs, he was — I now fondly recall — the quintessial independent-minded voter, having angered my grandfather, with his French-Canadian shopkeeper Republican leanings, with his first vote for President, for Harry Truman in 1948, and disappointing himself, he periodically told me, by having chosen Eisenhower over Stevenson not once but twice in the 1950s.  Somewhere in high school, I began to develop an ideology, a framework for making political choices that has to this day never found me standing in the polling booth agonized about which lever to pull or which box to fill in.  How did that happen?to be continuedPosted at 11:22 AM in Gaining my mind | Permalink | Comments (0) |TrackBack (0)

August 30, 2010

Gaining my mind, II

At Immaculate Conception School, when I entered through the Boys door after the bell rang to call us in from the playground in the morning or after recess, I took a seat at the front of the classroom, since we were seated, always, by height, pairing me for eight years with Geraldine Liguori, like me the student of her gender with the best grades.  Perhaps scientists should study this height/report card correlation.

I remember a lot about my elementary school — no longer a school, turned into offices some years ago when the labor supply of nuns ran out, so I have not set foot there for more than forty years — but almost nothing of what I learned there.  I remember the long poles we used to raise and lower the windows, the hymns we sung, the cafeteria food (very good hot lunch, I looked forward to it each day except when prunes or beets were served, since along with maintaining silence during meals we were required to eat everything on our plates, even foods we loathed, as I did those two items), the surprising shock of red hair that poked out from Sister Thomasina’s veil on the first day of school in 1966, when the old head-to-toe habits, starched wimples and all, were turned in for more modern ones showing a bit of neck and ankle.  But of what was said at the blackboard over the course of more than 11,000 hours of instruction (I just did a quick calculation) I retain a few hours at most.  I would still like to have Manifest Destiny explained to me.

Either I’d learned to read before the start of school, from my supermarket Golden Books, or very quickly upon entering first grade because I reaced through all the Dick and Janes and Dr. Seuss on the shelves and soon grew restless for new material.  Sister Mary Henry’s response to this was to take me out of the class some mornings and send me to read out loud for the upper grades, a bit like a performing seal.  I think shaming the slower students ahead of me was the purpose of this little exercise, and while it tapped into a penchant for exhibitionism that will not be unfamiliar to readers of this blog, you can imagine it did not make me too popular in the school, and I was in for some years of subjection to the minor terrors of the playground.

Robert Benchley

I was fortunate to grow up in a town with a first class library — I have a framed picture of it at home today — and worked my way over many Saturdays though, it seems, though this can’t possibly be true, every book in the sunny children’s reading room.  What I most remember is the biography series that focused on the lives of accomplished people (only men that I can recall) as children –“George Washington Carver, Boy Peanut Farmer,” and the like.  I might have been twelve when I discovered Agatha Christie — I still remember the thrill and the sadness of finishing the first one I read, “And Then There Were None” — and soon acquired my own little library of Pocket Book editions.  One rainy Saturday in the library stacks I stumbled upon a Robert Benchley collection and soaked up everything I could find by him, too. In Benchley’s bewildered everyman, bungling the treasurer’s report and chronicling the soporific hours after Christmas dinner, I found the first voice I could aspire to.  He’s not much read anymore, and might not be remembered at all but for his seat at the Alqonquin Round Table, but when I see the Gluyas Williams drawings that accompanied all the Benchley essay collections, I am still sitting cross-legged on the floor of the stacks breathing in the musty scent of books not checked out since 1951. 

Back at school, a succession of nuns told my parents they had some trouble keeping up with my questions, and as I got older ther questions got a little more pointed.  I was going to write “smart-ass,” but as the r key on my new laptop either jams up over multiple attempts or rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrepeats uncontrollably, I think I will sign off on this installment and go for a swim.

to be continued

August 27, 2010

Gaining my mind, 1

For a while I have been thinking about writing about how it is I have come to think the way I do.  Not so much why I have the opinions and political and ideological sympathies I do, though that is part of it, but how I developed whatever habits of mind I have, particularly a set of civil libertarian and social justice instincts (not always in alignment) or ways of looking at the world that were not necessarily predictable from my upbringing or schooling.

I would call this an intellectual history, but I gag at the pretentiousness of that, which would lend this exercise — this tentative return to a bit of personal blogging — even more to self-parody, which it has always teetered on the edge of.

So I want to do a bit of thinking — and recalling — out loud, which is, among my various mental habits, one of the principal ways I figure out things.


A dozen years ago we took Una, then 18, to college, at Wesleyan.  She and I had toured six or eight mostly eastern seaboard colleges she planned to apply to — a few Ivies and their cousins, like Swarthmore, which was itself quite a contrast to my college application process a quarter-century before.  My parents were (my mother is still) literate high school graduates of the 1940s, kept out of college by financial constraints or sexism.  I never set foot on the campus of any college I applied to before they drove me from Rhode Island to New York City to register at Columbia on the first day of September in 1972.  The whole experience was foreign to them, and certainly to me.

In contrast, I was struck when we settled Una in her dorm and I went to a parent orientation session at Wesleyan that the room was filled with people like me, or rather the me I had become over the years.  I literally knew half-a-dozen of the other parents from my professional life — bearded legal services lawyers, non-profit leaders, academics — and the people I didn’t know personally I knew by type, denizens of the Seminary Co-Op Bookstore in Hyde Park or the Food Co-Op in Park Slope.  It dawned on me that an anthropologist looking at the roomful of Wesleyan parents would be witnessing a cultural ritual similar in many ways to a Maori powhiri or a mikveh.  We were all, or most of us, acting out a kind of code.  We knew the drill.  Out in the world, we would be able to recognize one another by the New York Times under our arms, folded over to the crossword or Paul Krugman’s column.

How, I wondered, did I get that way?  I grew up in a house with the sacred heart of Jesus on the wall in the foyer and a ull set of Readers Digest Condensed Books on the shelves in the den.  I never set foot in a museum or a concert hall until I was in college.  My parents argued about money and whether the Christmas tree was straight in the stand, but never about politics or ideas.  I went for eight years to the small Catholic school in my parish where we collected money for the missions and abandoned our Latin for the post-Vatican II Mass, but I don’t recall a word said about the civil rights movement or Vietnam war roiling the world around us.

And yet I think, if I push myself, that the roots of my intellectual contrariness — of my intellectual life at all — have to lie in my ’60s Catholic upbringing.  I memorized the Baltimore Catechism, and recited my penance at the altar rail after confession with the lightning speed of an auctioneer, but there were some things I just couldn’t fathom, or square with the forgiving Jesus of the Gospels.  Burn in hell forever if I was hit by a truck on Sunday afternoon if I’d skipped Mass that morning?  I had a hard time buying that.

to be continued