I try to remember the details of being in grade 10. I had come from a year of revelations in which a superb teacher had brought me into the world of books. I had read widely before, but was now thinking of what Hemingway, Cather, Steinbeck, and Wolfe were saying to me. That teacher had taught me to ask the simple question, what am I worth as a human being? — and to look for the answer in literature.
Gonzaga High School in St. John’s was a shock and disappointment. I went there hoping that the epiphanies of the preceding year would keep on coming. But the teachers struck me as uncommitted. I admired the handful of Jesuits very much but had a hard time seeing the others as anything but time-serving — I modified this view later, as I saw individual teachers striving impressively for the good of their students.
In the first months of grade 10, we defied our teachers, whom we discovered had almost no power over us. They failed to communicate any sense of the value of what they were teaching, so projected no credibility — and they were not allowed to beat us. Indeed, we had been beaten thuggishly since grade two or three and rather expected it to continue. I recall teachers kicking metal dustbins across the room, and literally throwing the Bible at malefactors. From time to time, a teacher would kick through the side of his or her wooden desk, just to emphasize some point, so that the desks were all patched with masking tape. I have no idea how often I was punched by a teacher. At one point, I got into deep trouble by referring to this violence somewhat jokingly in the school newspaper and was told by the principal that I had undermined a particular teacher’s “good name.” I tell my own students that I was twenty before I knew you could measure things with a yardstick.
At Gonzaga, we continued the war on our terms against an unarmed opponent. We drove one young teacher to resignation, though he was persuaded by the principal to see out the year — he then left the profession altogether. He deserved better and we knew it. By way of apology we gave him a t-shirt on his last day. Small recompense for having, say, a student leave a gas tap open in his laboratory so that flipping the light switch might cause the place to blow up.
These were not simple shenanigans. I think there were two kinds of emptiness confronting each other. Spoiled and belligerent students called the bluff of teachers who had nothing to offer. As I say, some teachers were thoughtful and hardworking — I just could not yet work out who they were.
My real life in those months took place at home, where I read constantly, and in the company of my friend Joanne, who was two years older and a little more aware of the world than I was. I would go to her house and we would talk about books and whatever else mattered to us.
At a certain point, Joanne shocked me. She told me that she had rejected Catholicism. She had read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in her last year of high school, and it made sense to her. As I recall, she found the Hell sermon cruel and absurd and reason enough to abandon the faith. In her first year university English course, she had read The Heart of the Matter, and found its account of sin, grace, suicide and damnation profoundly unreasonable. She summarized Greene’s plot for me, as I had not yet read any of his works, and I objected strenuously to the whole thing. It sounded alien to me. But there it was, someone I respected completely had said no to the faith.
Although a long way from a “state of grace,” I yearned for it. In the course of this unsettling conversation I said I had a few reservations about Christian teaching. For example, if Jesus was sinless, why at his death would he cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It sounded like despair. However, I thought on balance, the religion made sense.
I left her house, carrying her marked up copy of A Portrait of the Artist, which had on me the reverse effect it usually has. I admired it and reacted against it. But in the meantime, I had some thinking to do. If I believed, now was the moment to make a choice.
That evening I took the red family Bible off the shelf in my father’s library — our births were recorded in it, but otherwise it was seldom touched. I made the excuse that I had a school project and needed to look things up. I took it to my bedroom. It fell open to the twenty-second psalm, of which the first verse is: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
I now know there are technical names for what had happened: sortilege or Sortes sanctorum. There is a famous episode in the Confessions where St. Augustine feels compelled to “take up and read, take up and read” a random passage of scripture. All I knew was that this extraordinarily improbable thing had happened. Forty years later, I am still dazzled by its implications.
(more to follow).