Chapter Twenty Seven
I have come to realize more and more that the greatest disease and the greatest suffering is to be unwanted, unloved, uncared for, to be shunned by everybody, to be just nobody to no one. -
That’s me, top row, third kid from the left. That’s Mike Rohde, top row far left, in a the dark suite. He would go onto become Mayor of Meridian.
I arrived at Mount Saint John in the usual style, sitting in a black state-owned sedan.
My first and lasting impression of the Connecticut River Valley is its serene beauty, especially in the autumn months. Deep River was a near picture-perfect New England village. When I arrived there, the town was a typical working-class place, nothing like the trendy upper-income enclave it became. The town center had a cluster of shops, a movie theater open only on weekends, several white-steepled churches (none of them Catholic), the town hall, and a Victorian library. It was small, even by Ansonia standards.
Mount Saint John sits high on a hill at the edge of the town, surrounded by eighty acres of woods and fields, overlooking the Connecticut River and three hundred acres of marsh and meadows. A long and winding road leads to the school. The main building—the castle, we called it—was an impressive gothic structure connected to several other buildings.
The school was founded in Hartford in 1904 as St. John’s Industrial School, a residential school for Catholic orphan boys in need of care. The Hartford property soon became too small as the number of children in need skyrocketed, and in 1908, St. John’s was opened at its present site in Deep River, the land donated by a local Catholic family, the Duggans. The school remained an orphanage until 1953 when Bishop Bernard Flanagan undertook substantial rebuilding and renovations at the school, adding dormitories, classrooms, and a gymnasium. In 1955 Flanagan brought in an enormous Scotsman from Canada, Father Kenneth Macdonald, to serve as the school’s Executive Director. He served in that position for thirty-five years.
Father MacDonald was a more-than-competent administrator and he had a cold streak. He was amiable enough, but Mount Saint John was his life’s mission, and woe to anyone who interfered with his goals for the school.
Mount Saint John, for all its many good intentions and high-minded ideals, was another glorified warehouse for broken and lost kids with nowhere else to go. When I arrived, the school intended for about thirty boys housed one hundred and twenty. They ranged in age from eleven to eighteen. Most were from the slums of Connecticut’s large cities and had bounced around in the foster care system before landing at Mount Saint John, which we always called St. John’s. For some it was as close to a home as they would ever have, and for others it was just another stopover on the way to someplace else. Regardless, St. John’s boys, including me, were the result of foster placement failures, but unlike me, most were streetwise, world-weary, mean, and completely untrusting.
Overcrowded, understaffed, and offering marginal educational and medical solutions for the boys, it was right there in the middle of the mediocrity of care that was a foster child’s life. In other words, it fit the norm for the foster care industry.
The social worker drove up the long road to the school and we climbed out of the car, stopping for a second to take in the magnificent view. The social worker signed the papers and handed me off to the school. Then he was gone. I was on my own.
A staff member took me to a dormitory and into a small room with two bunk beds. The staffer took the brown paper bags that held my belongings, spilled the contents out on the bed and rifled through them. He asked, “Any dope?”
I was stunned. I didn’t know anything about dope, aside from what I had seen on TV. I felt the question was so ridiculous, I didn’t answer. He turned to me and asked again, “Any dope?”
Later, I realized it was a fair question. Dope floated around the school because the boys would be sent from the rustic beauty of Deep River back to the vast slums of the inner cities loaded with marijuana, speed, acid and Quaaludes, and after a week returned to St. John’s laden with drugs.
“No!” I said, “My God, no. I don’t know anything about dope.”
He didn’t believe me.
“Put your arms up above your head,” he said. “I gotta search you.”
I did as I was told, as humiliating as it was, and he frisked me.
“Okay,” he said. “You’re all right.”
Then he reached into my belongings and took away my toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo, soap, and my beloved Old Spice cologne.
“We’ll provide you with all of these things, except the cologne,” he said. “You won’t be needing that. Also, there is no homosexual activity allowed, understand?”
My mouth went dry. I was too shocked and insulted to reply. My affliction made me push the tips of my fingers against the palms of my hands until they turned white.
“Same goes with masturbation,” he added, and I turned red with embarrassment.
“You share this room with three other boys. That’s your locker. Keep it clean and orderly. That’s your bed. Pull the sheets and pillow case on Monday and Wednesday and drop them in to the yellow laundry cart out in the main hall. Pick up your clean sheets and pillowcases before four o’clock on Mondays and Wednesdays. Drop your dirty clothes into the blue laundry cart every day. Pick up your laundered clothes from the laundry room—I’ll show you where that is in a moment—every Tuesday and Thursday, before four. Okay?”
Still reeling from the dope and homosexual questions, I nodded. “Yes,” I said. “I understand.”
“Okay, good. Because we enforce rules around here. We have a merit system. You start out each week with forty merits to your credit. Every time you goof up, you get a demerit. More than ten demerits in a week and you get dorm restriction. You are to shower and brush your teeth every morning. Don’t shower, don’t brush, one demerit each. As I said, your locker is to be clean and orderly, otherwise it’s a demerit. Your bed is to be made every morning. Use a hospital corner when you make the bed. Do you know what a hospital corner is?”
“I’ll show you,” he said, and he did, and when he finished he added, “And don’t call me ‘sir.’ I appreciate your good manners, but the guys who work here and live with you in the dorm are called prefects, and prefects are called by their last names, okay?”
“Yes, sir,” I answered, learning later that “prefect” derived from the Latin word praefectus, and means, basically, to be in front and in charge.
“Your shoes are to be polished once a month. Shoes are expensive, so keep them in good shape. You are to change your clothes every day. That includes undershorts and socks.” I thought, “Where in the hell am I that people have to be told to change their clothes?”
“The boys,” he continued, “line up for breakfast at seven and by seven we mean seven, , not one minute after. Don’t make people wait for you. Same goes for lunch. Lineup is at twelve sharp and dinner is at five sharp. Every night there’s a snack, milk and cookies. Other than that you are not allowed to have any food on your person or in your locker. Okay?”
He smiled because he could see I wasn’t taking it all in. “All right, there’s just a little bit more, so hold on. This is a Catholic school, so Mass is mandatory regardless of your religious affiliation. Mass is every Sunday morning at eight. If you are Catholic, and you want any other sacraments or spiritual assistance, see Father MacDonald, our director. There is no swearing allowed anywhere on the campus.”
He paused and looked around. “Let’s see, what else is there?” After a few seconds, he added, “Oh, yeah, at meals you can take all you want, but eat all you take. Leaving food on your plate is five demerits. The dining hall is assigned seating. So is the chapel on Sunday, so you sit in the same place every time. Do you smoke?”
“Well, if you do, you get three packs a week; pick them up on Sunday at the prefect’s office.”
He took my toothpaste, shampoo, soap, and Old Spice and walked over to a small sink at the end of the room and turning to me, he said, “Okay, one last time. Any dope?”
“No sir,” I stammered.
“Because if I pour this out and find something,” he warned, “I’m calling the state trooper.”
He poured out the contents and then took me on a tour of the rest of the complex. There were three dormitories. The upper dorm was for young boys. The lower dorm, where I would live, was for boys twelve to fifteen years old. The upper and lower dorms were in what appeared to be a hastily built new wing attached to the main building. The third-floor dorm was in the old building and was for boys over sixteen.
In the lower dorm was a long narrow bathroom with ten or twelve sinks and stalls. Directly opposite the bathroom was a shower room with no privacy barriers. In the center of the dorm was a large common area without furniture save for a few office chairs, a bent and worn Ping-Pong table, and a black-and-white television that I learned rarely worked. There was a general air of poverty and shabbiness.
The prefects’ area was at the end of the common room and included an office, a single bedroom and a bathroom. Two prefects were on duty during evenings and one overnight. The school also owned several large houses down by the main entrance where otherwise the prefects lived, rent-free.
All of the prefects were men. Virtually no females were on staff, or for that matter on the property at all, aside from the secretaries in the front office, whom the boys rarely saw, and the school nurse.
The prefects were mostly recent graduates of New England Catholic colleges and most were very young, only a few years old than we. They were a decent bunch, for the most part young men from the upper-middle class trying to find their place in the world, while rejoicing that they hadn’t been drafted into the military and sent to Vietnam.
Most had been hired because they had some sort of athletic background, because it was Father MacDonald’s theory that plenty of sports and physical activity cured almost anything. Others were hired because they had just completed their bachelor’s degree in social work or psychology. These were the prefects to be avoided. The jock prefects mostly left the boys alone. If a boy had no interest in sports, he was all but invisible as far as those prefects were concerned. But the therapist-wannabes jumped right on the over-analyze bandwagon, misdiagnosing the boys and adding to the labeling madness that dominates the foster care system.
Of course, because they were men—especially men in a group of men looking after young men—empathy and sympathy were rare commodities and roughness and gruffness were commonplace, and they weren’t what the damaged kids at St. John’s needed as part of their daily routine.
The ten bedrooms in the lower dorm, with four boys to a room, opened on a common area. The walls dividing the rooms were paper-thin plaster and plywood and painted a God-awful, depressing maroon. There were no doors on the rooms or drapes on the windows. Privacy was nonexistent. We were not allowed to own anything that could not fit into our lockers, already crammed with clothes and shoes. It was pointless to own anything, anyway, because it was guaranteed to be stolen.
The lack of privacy extended everywhere. We were never alone. We went to school together, ate together, and went to church together. We were not allowed off campus except on Saturdays, when we could walk into town and kill time, and there was a lot of time to kill at St. John’s.
Each bedroom had four windows about six feet high. A pleasure in the warmer months, they offered a magnificent view of the river, but in the winter those enormous windows were a curse. The north winds sweeping down the Connecticut River or the south winds rushing up from the nearby Sound pushed right through those thin panes. There was no space heater on the dank tile floors, and no extra blankets were given out for the winter months.
A small cross-hallway at the end of the upper and lower dorms was the general meeting place for the boys, because it was the only smoking area on the property. Cigarettes were given out for free, and almost all the boys over fourteen smoked. After a while, I took it up as well. It didn’t trouble me that smoking can kill you. So can foster care, so big deal.
The smoking hall connected to a longer hallway leading to the main building with the classrooms and the gymnasium. We boys seldom watched TV since most of our free hours were spent in the gym shooting hoops or lifting weights, especially in the winter. As a result, most of the St. John’s boys were healthy and strong, and a chubby kid was a rare sight.
The main building, the castle, was the chief operating area. In its basement was a woodshop and the laundry room, where we dropped off and picked up our clothes and bedsheets at a predetermined hour every week. If you missed your appointment, you had to wait a week to pick up clean laundry. It seemed like a harsh rule but it wasn’t, not really. The school was dealing with one hundred and twenty boys, most from an undisciplined life with no schedules at all, and the rest of us, being boys, assumed that clean clothes appeared miraculously from the heavens.
On the first floor was a tiny visitor’s room in an alcove, the business office, the head prefect’s office, meeting rooms, and the director’s dining room and private reception area. Down another long hallway were the industrial-size kitchen and the dining hall.
We marched in lines to all meals. The food was served cafeteria-style. Tuesdays were always pork chops, Fridays were fried fish. The delectable Russian dishes that Helen had prepared and the succulent Sunday pork roasts were a thing of the past. But the school’s food was good and there was plenty. A prayer of thanksgiving was said before and after every meal. Because each dorm ate at specified times, we were given thirty minutes to fill our plates, eat and return our plates to the dishwashing room.
We were required to eat three meals a day plus a light snack at night’s end. All this eating was new to me since we rarely ate breakfast in Ansonia and I stopped for lunch only occasionally. But the school was filled with kids who knew what it was like to be hungry, and when most of them ate, they ate in silence, rapidly, and hunched over their plates as if protecting their territory. I can still see them today, and all these decades later, it’s still sad.
The entire second floor was dedicated to the school’s director, Father Kenneth Macdonald. It housed his massive and imposing office, his apartment and our modest chapel.
After the tour, I was taken to my social worker’s office to be labeled. Each boy had an in-house social worker. The school didn’t make labeling a secret: In fact, they were very open about it, because the institution survived on federal and state funds that demanded concrete reasons for doling out hundreds of thousands of dollars in support of the school. So the boys were labeled, and each label was attached to a funding stream from the federal government. Some of the favorite labels were “dependent,” “neglected,” “status offender,” and the all-time favorite, “emotionally disturbed.” The inside joke was that none of these labels really mattered; it was a shell game in which labels could and usually were changed depending upon the state’s needs. That’s how it worked, and how it still works.
I didn’t have a label on me before I left Ansonia, but I did now. Although I had never told the social worker about Walter’s madness, Walter assumed I had. I learned later that Walter and Helen had drawn up pages and pages of stories about me which all said the same thing: I was a malcontent, prone to violence, who could not come to grips with the reality of my world. That was my label. You shouldn’t label people, because it ignores their humanity and makes no allowance for the long road they’ve been on, and labels aren’t real; they are representations of the different kinds of reality inside me and you. I’ll tell you this, much of the time the social workers who deal with foster kids don’t want us to be human. They want to be the humans and they wanted us to be the labels.
Each boy was required to visit his in-house social worker each week, although all the boys considered it an uncomfortable waste of time and it really was. Seeing the social worker didn’t make anything better or worse. It was pointless, probably little more than a make-work project, because the social workers drifted in and out of the school on a revolving-door basis.
On that first day, I sat in a small office in a comfortable chair that offered a view out the window. The social worker, a man in his mid-thirties, was amiable and asked, “So, how are you getting along?”
“Why do I have to see a social worker every week?”
His pleasant demeanor disappeared, and he leaned forward in his chair in a way that I took to be slightly threatening. To make sure I understood the message that he was the big dog in the room, he moved his foot in between my feet.
“Do you have a problem with coming in here, John?”
I had lived through eight years of Walter’s fits and wild-man beatings, so this guy didn’t scare me.
“No,” I said, making sure I looked him dead in the eye. “That would be stupid, because I don’t have any choice in the matter, do I?”
I waited for his answer. I leaned forward and he moved his foot.
He leaned back in his chair and said, “Life will go a lot easier around here for you if you try to cooperate.”
“I’ll do anything you want me to do,” I said. “I’ll say anything you want me to say.”
“Why don’t you go to your dorm?” he asked, and stood up and showed me the door.
After a few weeks, I adjusted. That is to say, I became used to being institutionalized, in a place where they either kept forgetting your name or didn’t even bother trying to remember it. It was, in effect, a storage facility for teens lost in the system.
I was having more and more of my affliction moments and some were so bad that I had to sit in a bathroom stall until they were over so the other boys wouldn’t notice my tics and nervous jiggling. Initially, there was only one way to survive in that place, and that was to disappear, to fade into the wallpaper and disassociate myself from the reality. And for a few months, that’s what I did. But eventually I got used to the constant noise, the sudden quiet, the regimentation and the non-stop schedule. It wasn’t jail, but it wasn’t not jail either. I missed Denny and my friends, and Helen and Walter, and my foster aunts and uncles and cousins. I missed Ansonia. I wanted to go, but I had no home to go to.
I learned there was a power system among the boys in the lower dorm with large brutal streak of fear and intimidation in its underbelly. The strong survived, and all of it was unseen, willfully or not, by the prefects. The unspoken rule was that physical contact between the boys was forbidden, but terrorism was okay. Remorse did not exist.
On the top of the power tier were the angry boys who insisted that the world step out of their path, and most people did. These kids were potentially dangerous because they were young, knew no limits, and had nothing to lose. Most had been born into violence and violence was their social mechanism. They seldom made eye contact and, as I learned quickly, it could be dangerous to make eye contact with them anyway. They were overly aggressive and hyperactive.
In the middle were the boys who tested limits, the kids who bounced between submissiveness and being difficult for no apparent reason. At the bottom of the pile were the boys too small to fight or who were too afflicted with poor self-esteem to care enough to fight back. Almost all their faces were riddled with acne, and they carried themselves with the tepidness of beaten animals.
Size and the ability and willingness to fight also had a lot to do with which tier a boy fit into. If he wasn’t willing to use his fists at a second’s notice, or simply didn’t know how to fight back, he immediately went to the bottom of the pile.
Most of the smaller, weaker and younger boys were mortified into silence when they were pushed around or had their scant property stolen. They shut up and took it, lest they become someone’s next victim, somebody’s dorm bitch who would fetch their tormentors’ cookies at snack time, clean his locker, make his bed and fetch his laundry. There were stories about the boys’ shower room before the older kids were moved to a separate dorm. I don’t know if they were true or just urban legends, but the story went that some of the stronger older boys preyed on the younger, weaker boys during shower time while their friends kept an eye out for the prefect on duty.
While I may not have been a bastion of good mental health, many of these boys were on their way to becoming crazier than they already were. Most couldn’t relate to other people socially at all, because they only dealt inappropriately with other people or didn’t respond to overtures of friendship or even engage in basic conversations.
Some became too familiar with you too fast, following their new, latest friend everywhere, including the showers, insisting on giving you items that were dear to them and sharing everything else. They also had the awful habit of touching other people, putting their hands on you as a sign of affection or friendship, and for people like myself, with my affliction and disdain for being touched unless I wanted to be touched, these guys were a nightmare. It was often difficult to get word in edgewise with these kids, and when I did, they interrupted me—not in some obnoxious way, but because they wanted to be included in every single aspect of everything you did.
The other ones, the stone-cold silent ones, reacted with deep suspicion toward even the slightest attempt to befriend them or the smallest show of kindness. If you touched some of these children, even accidentally, they would warn you to back away. They didn’t care what others thought of them or anything else, and almost all their talk concerned punching and hurting and maiming.
I noticed that most of these kids, the ones who were truly damaged, were eventually filtered out of St. John’s to who knows where. Institutions have a way of protecting themselves from future problems.
All these boys, these broken children, no matter where they fit in the dorms, were mired in various early stages of hopelessness, and with most of them, you just knew that this place—this holding cell for misfit toys—was the highlight of the rest of their lives.
Foster care would teach these boys to endure, a good thing for them to learn because they needed it. But although adversity is a great teacher, it demands a high price for its lessons, and considering that most of their lives would end in misery, the lessons weren’t worth the price. After St. John’s they would drift back to the slums of New Haven, or Hartford, or Bridgeport, to continue the cycle of poverty. The odds were not in their favor. They wouldn’t finish school; they’d end up homeless for a while and in jail after that. Those were the certainties of their futures.
You could almost see the very profound and long-lasting consequences of neglect in these boys. Some, like the bottom-rung boys, were poorly physically developed or completely withdrawn and under-stimulated. Others could barely put a sentence together.
And then there was I. It was only a matter of time before I would have to fight; all the new boys had to fight or surrender. I had already had several skirmishes with boys sent out to test my limits. And it was easy to find limits, because by then I had developed a God-awful temper and a propensity for explosive violence, my reaction to the stress of being a lifelong member of the foster-care system. That was a problem in St. John’s, where I was surrounded by one hundred and twenty boys, many of whom dealt with the foster-care stress the same way: fight or flight.
I was too young and far too sad and angry to understand that life isn’t supposed to be an all-or-nothing battle. In fact, life isn’t supposed to be a battle at all. I never received any counseling on how to deal with my stress other than through violence, because I seemed so outwardly calm. But I was ready, always ready, for the next engagement. In the short-lived Age of Aquarius in the late 1960s, the age of peace and understanding, I was preparing for Armageddon. I had already seen what appeared to be, in the reasoning of a boy with no adult direction, the positive effects of violence when I beat Biasuchi senseless and confronted Walter in the living room. You get treated in life the way you teach people to treat you, and in St. John’s how you were treated by others was of paramount importance.
So I fought and I fought often and ferociously and developed my own category in the dorm hierarchy. If I were left alone I went along and got along, but otherwise I fought. It worked. I was left alone. It’s a hell of a bad way to spend a year of your teenage life. I was in pain, a pain created by my anger, and aside from the problems in the dorm, my anger was self-chosen and self-inflicted because it made every confrontation, every harsh word, an ultimatum. My violence made me forget who I was and it momentarily killed all of the finer things that I aspired to be. I hated having to fight and I hated what I became when I did fight.
It all came from poverty, which is its own sort of violence. In the years to come, I would lose the chip on my shoulder. Either it got knocked off or punched off, or maybe I simply mellowed and took it off. But I went on that way for years and that behavior would result in dozens of burned bridges that make up the aches of my misspent youth.
I began to spend more time in the gym, lifting weights and working out because I had to stay in shape. New kids came into the dorm every week as other kids left, and new challenges always waited around the corner. As I said, it’s a hell of a bad way to spend a year of teenage life.
Other than bulking up, I had no end result in mind. I lacked the height and coordination for basketball, the only organized game the school offered, until the school hired a young man named Mike Rohde, later to become mayor of the city of Meriden in west central Connecticut. A handsome and charismatic man, Mike had been a college wrestler of some note, and after watching me work out in the gym he approached me and said, “I’m Mike Rohde. I’m thinking about starting a wrestling team here at the school. Are you interested?”
I liked him immediately. He had an air of confidence about him, a sense of purpose.
“Sure,” I said, “but I don’t know anything about wrestling.”
“You can learn,” he answered. “Wrestling is the only sport in the world everyone can understand. It’s universally understood. You’ll get it; don’t worry, I’ll teach you.”
“All right,” I said. “I’m in.” I would worry anyway. I was damned good at worrying, and I wasn’t about to give it up for a sport.
Together we combed the dorms for wrestlers, and after a few weeks we had enough boys signed up to call ourselves a team.
“Anybody can wrestle,” Mike told us. “It’s the only sport in the world that doesn’t discriminate. You can play no matter what your body type, height or weight—it doesn’t matter; there is a place for you in wrestling. You can win in this sport as long as you are tough and have the desire to win. Wrestling teaches lifelong lessons like self-confidence. When you wrestle, you can’t rely on anyone but yourself. You have to be accountable for your own successes and failures. Wrestlers have to be confident, with a positive attitude, and you have to carry that confidence and positive attitude on and off the mats. Wrestling will teach you to be physically and mentally tough. It takes a tremendous amount of toughness to pick yourself up off of the mat when you’re losing, and everybody loses sometimes in this sport.”
These were the type of life lessons every boy in the school needed, especially me. I became an avid wrestler. It was the only sport I ever played and the only sport I could play well, and Mike was an excellent coach and a good and decent man. He found us a wrestling room in the basement, painted it and taped a paper sign to the ceiling that read, “Wrestler, if you can read this you’re in big trouble.” He paid from his own pocket for our weights, our mats, and our uniforms, and he dedicated three nights a week to us. He was one of the good guys in the system, and there were a lot of other good guys in the system just like him.
As a private school, we were limited to wrestling at other private schools, but in Connecticut the other private schools were ivy-covered bastions for the children of the extremely wealthy.
One school we played against was Kingswood Oxford School in West Hartford. Mount Saint John it was not. On the day of the match, we sat in our school van and gaped at the place. It was like visiting another world. The campus was magnificent. Everything on it was new and clean and bright. The students were handsome and polite and dressed in pink Oxford-collared shirts, pressed chinos and freshly-shined loafers. I had no idea that places and people like this existed.
It reminded me of the rides we took with my father in the countryside outside Waterbury when I stared out the car window at the lush green trees and deep blue lakes and thought, “I want this.”
The van was deathly quiet. Finally, Mike’s voice came from the front seat.
“Old money,” he whispered. We didn’t know what that was, but everyone nodded in silent agreement.
When we walked into the gym, one of the Kingswood Oxford students, wearing a blue blazer, approached us and said, “The match will be held in the wrestling room. If you follow me, I’ll take you there.”
As we followed him, one of the St. John’s boys asked, “Why is he wearing a coat?”
“Maybe he’s the mayor,” somebody joked.
“The wrestling room,” someone else said. “We share the two mouthpieces we got, and they have a wrestling room.”
“We’re gonna get slaughtered,” another boy said. And he was right; they destroyed us.
After the match, the kid in the blue blazer came into our locker room and said, “We’ve arranged for tea in the sports hall, so please join us.”
When he left and the door closed behind him, one of the boys asked, “Who the hell drinks tea?”
“Why is he wearing that coat? It’s not even cold,” said another kid.
Waiting for us in the sports room, a cozy wood-paneled chamber whose walls were lined with trophies for every conceivable sport, was a small table in the middle of the room filled with an assortment of finger sandwiches. After inspecting them, I found not a one of them contained Genoa salami or liverwurst or the other lunchmeats I was accustomed to. Worse yet, they were served on plain white bread.
Our hosts, the home team, arrived and I struck up conversations with several. I noticed that they each possessed that sense of security that the makes the rich different from other people, and certainly different from the St. John’s boys. Money and possessions gave them a deep sense of being safe, and I envied them for that.
“So,” one said to me at one point in our conversation, “will you be staying on the coast for the winter break?”
“What coast?” I asked.
“I just thought—” He realized what he had asked and whom he had asked and was trying to find a polite way out. “I thought, perhaps, you know, Colorado—skiing.”
“Yeah,” I said. “More than probably be right here in old Connecticut.”
Almost every kid at St. John’s was an academic underachiever and proud of it, because they worked on the theory that the lower the expectations, the less work they would have to do. Generally speaking, education for the sake of learning and improving oneself meant nothing to them. The teachers knew better than to push these kids because if they were pushed they became overwhelmed and anxious and blew up, and then pushed back. The result was that in school we worked on a childlike level between enormous stretches and breaks. It was maddening.
In mid-year, when the last of the nuns teaching at the school retired, a male teacher was hired. I mention he was male because every teacher I had had up until then was a female.His name was Henry O’Dwyer. He had an enormous handlebar mustache and long sideburns, pretty cutting-edge stuff at the time, but downright Bolshevik radical in the conservative atmosphere of St. John’s and most other Catholic schools of the day.
Although he was roughly the same age as the prefects who ran the school, he was distinctly different. The prefects were hand-chosen by Father MacDonald for their rock-solid parochial educations and Catholic values and for the most part they came from Irish, French Canadian, Polish or Italian-American backgrounds. Henry was Irish in name only, something I had a difficult time grasping, although the first name should have been the tipoff. You don’t meet a lot of Irishmen named after English kings. He wasn’t Catholic, either. He was Episcopalian, and his family hadn’t arrived in America after the famine. They’d been in New England since the colonial days. He grew up on the shore and had attended Choate, an exclusive boarding school in south central Connecticut that had been, in the 1940s and ’50s, a private reserve for the ruling Yankee class. I figured Choate was where Henry learned to be a snob. In those days, those exclusive schools in Connecticut gave those rich kids magnificent educations, but they were also refinement centers where snobbery was cultivated and refined to its most subtle core and stayed with most of them for a lifetime.
Most of the prefects and administrators in the school were jocksMacDonald and ate, slept, and dreamed sports, and they were beefy, athletic, and big. They carried copies of Sports Illustrated rolled up in their back pockets. Like most liberals, they liked poor people, but they didn’t look anything like us. They wore expensive new sneakers whenever they could, and pullover sports shirts— blue, usually—and chinos. They walked quickly and with a sense of purpose, a businesslike sense of mission instilled in them over a decade of schooling by nuns and Jesuits who saw their roles on earth as a mission to save the world from itself.
Never having been a part of that universe, Henry had no such sense of mission or urgency. He had an aura of confidence about him that came from knowing exactly where he fit.
He was slightly built and dressed and walked in that born-to-money, “I couldn’t care less what you think” style of his social class. He was not a likeable man, even after you got to know him, and the damned thing is he didn’t seem to care if he was liked or disliked. He was dismissive and had an imperious tone that matched his high-handed mannerisms.
The one sports coat he seemed to own was a well-worn tan corduroy with elbow patches. His shirts were equally tattered but with expensive Oxford collars, and from what I gathered in my observations he owned many pairs of loafers of different colors and styles, all of which highlighted his argyle socks. He wore sedate but clearly expensive jewelry. Overall, he affected the born elite’s rule of the shabbier the snobbier. I cannot imagine him playing sports. Up until that point I had never met anyone who spoke as he did, in an understated and clipped Long Island lockjaw that sounded ever-so-slightly effeminate to my ear. But effete, in the sense of being over-refined, might be a better description of him.
I don’t know what Henry was doing at St. John’s or how he got there, but I sense we were a way station while he found somewhere else to go. I think he summed up the situation very quickly. Half the kids in the class were already nuts, and the other half were on the way to becoming nuts, and all were ready, willing, and able to revert to violence at the slightest provocation. The thought of seriously grading the students was a belly laugh and academic threats were knee-slappers.
Looking back, I think we scared him. I can’t say I blame him. Some of those kids were scary. Very scary. And they could be violent as well. A tall, slow-witted and ill-tempered kid in named Odell Redman, who hailed from the housing projects of Hartford and had been in the system almost his entire life, soon after Henry’s arrival threw his classroom desk across the room and uttered a string of violent threats and profanities. The room went deadly silent. Henry stood up from behind his desk and said, “Let me take a guess. You’re frustrated over something.”
Walking across the room he stood very close to Odell and, speaking to him the way one might speak to a pet, he said, “Look, I don’t want to be here, nor do you. However, due to mitigating circumstances—I’m sure you heard that phrase at your court hearing—here we are. You and I. Stranded together in a fifteen-by-fifteen cinder-block room. Yes, yes, I know. Your Crusoe to my Friday. My thoughts exactly.” And then, with a majestic wave across the room, he added, “And of course the native cannibals, lest we forget them.”
He looked at Odell with a side glance and asked, “Now what thing do you want that would keep you in a docile state?”
He paused and waited for an answer that never arrived. He was the only person in the room who knew what “docile” meant.
“In other words,” he continued, “what will keep you nullified?”
He paused again for an answer, and once again, no one else in the room knew what “nullified” was.
“What will stop you from tossing desks across the room in the near future?” he asked.
Odell realized he was getting a pass, and he thought it over, and said, “I like to draw.”
“Then draw it is,” Henry said, and two desks were set aside in the far end of the room, away from everyone else. One desk was for Odell to sit in, the other stacked with pens, pencils, crayons, magic markers and stacks of drawing paper.
“Someone comes in,” Henry said, “and you pretend to be doing real schoolwork, deal?”
“Deal,” Odell answered, and we never heard another word from him.
Gradually all the kids who wanted to be left alone to draw or daydream and look out the window for hours on end found their way to Odell’s corner of the room. The rest of us congregated at the front of the room and participated in the lesson.
Because the same teacher taught the same class for eight hours a day, we had a lot of free time on our hands, and many lulls in the schedule. To add filler to the day we could spend one hour on something Henry called “Special Projects,” which we were to work on in silence while he read The New York Times.
We were each called up to his desk to explain what our Special Project would be.
“What do you want to do?” he snipped, when it was my turn.
I had been hoping someone would ask me what I wanted to do, but I didn’t have those kinds of people in my life.
“I want to learn how to write,” I said.
“Yeah,” a voice came from somewhere in the classroom. “He reads a lot. Put covers on that mother, he be a book.”
He looked up at me for the first time with a glint of interest. “Write about what? What do you want to write about?”
“I dunno,” I answered truthfully. “I just want to see how it’s done.”
“Go write a short story. That means two pages. Bring it to me when it’s completed.” And I was dismissed.
I returned the next day with a short story about a field in the middle of the woods where the ghosts of generations past still played.
Henry read it and said, “A story has to have three things. They are a beginning, a middle and an end. They don’t have to be in that order. You can start a story at the end or end it in the middle. There are no rules on that except where you, the author, decide to put all three parts. Your story has a beginning and an end. But it’s good. Go put in a middle and bring it back to me.”
I went away encouraged, rewrote the story and returned it to him two days later. Again he looked it over and said, “It’s a good story but it lacks a bullet-between-the-eyes opening. Your stories should always have a knock-’em-dead opening.” Then, looking with exaggerated suspicion around the crime-prone denizens of the room with an exaggerated suspicion, he said loudly, “I don’t mean that literally. ”
No one was listening. He returned his attention to me and said, “‘It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.’ That’s the opening of A Tale of Two Cities by Dickens. Do you know the book?”
“No,” I said.
He quickly threw his hands across his heart, winced as thought he had been stabbed, hung his head in exaggerated despair and said, “You must read Dickens. He is timeless.”
And then he closed his eyes and quoted, “‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.’”
He opened his eyes, raised a finger in the air and said, “Here’s a better one.”
He reached into his ancient leather satchel and pulled out a copy of Orwell’s 1984, a book very popular with kids in 1969. He opened it to the front page and read the first line: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” He closed the book, returned it to its place in the bag, looked up at me and said, “Makes you want to know more, doesn’t it? Why was it the best and worst of times? How can a clock strike thirteen?”
I learned two lessons while listening to him. One was to work on my opening, and the other was that I should know these names he was tossing out with such familiarity. Orwell. Dickens. Obviously, they were names known by the literate, and therefore I should know them as well, and with time I would.
A few weeks later he gave me a paperback of Dickens’ Little Dorrit .
“You need to know Dickens,” he said. “So start here and then go to A Tale of Two Cities.” As I said, Henry O’Dwyer was not a cute and cuddly type but he cherished books and fine literature, and what a person values really tells you a lot about him.
A few days after I began my short story, I returned to his desk and handed him my updates. He pushed his wire-rimmed reading glasses way down on his nose and focused on the two pages. “Okay, you got a beginning; you got yourself a middle and an end. You got a wing-dinger opening line. But you don’t have an establishing paragraph. Do you know what that is?”
He didn’t wait for me to answer.
“It’s kinda like an outdated road map for the reader,” he said. “It gives the reader a general idea of where you’re taking him, but doesn’t tell him exactly how you intend to get there, which is all he needs to know.”
After a week I handed over what I was certain was one hell of a great—not good, but great—short story. He read it and wrote across the top, “Do something to develop your protagonist,” and handed the story back to me.
I returned to my desk and looked out the window into the snow-covered fields “Protagonist.” I had never heard that word before. I thought that maybe developing my protagonist had something to do with weight-lifting, maybe, or maybe he was telling me to improve my brain. Maybe “protagonist” was the Greek word for brain.
I went back up to his desk and said, “I don’t know what a protagonist is.”
“Then I’ll teach you,” he said, except this time he not only looked at me, but I detected something that could have been interpreted as a smile. “And the reason I will teach you is that you are inquisitive enough, smart enough, to say the magic words of the learned man.”
He paused and waited for me to ask, “What words?”
“What words?” I asked.
“ ‘I don’t know’,” he said. “Those three words from a willing soul are the start of a grand and magnificent voyage.” And with that he began a discourse that lasted for several weeks, covering scene-setting, establishing conflict, plot twists, and first- and third-person narration. [ I learned in these rapid-fire mini-dissertations that like most literature lovers I would come to know, Henry was a book snob. He assumed that if a current author was popular and widely enjoyed, then he or she had no merit. He made a few exceptions, such as Kurt Vonnegut, although that was mostly because Vonnegut lived on Cape Cod and so he probably had some merits as a human being, if not as a writer.
I think that the way Henry saw it was that he was not being a snob. In fact I would venture that in his view of things, snobbery had nothing to do with it. Rather, it was a matter of standards. It was bout quality in the author’s craftsmanship.
A month into my short story, which I was now allowed to increase to five pages, Henry read over my content and said, “You need examples of excellent short-story writing.”
The next morning he called me to his desk, reached into his leather satchel and took out a paperback copy of Great Short Stories of John O’Hara. He handed it to me and said, “O’Hara is one of the greatest short-story writers in modern history. Read this and study what he does, and how he does it. And then read it again so you can enjoy a master at his best. And before you lay claim to him, no, he isn’t Irish. Don’t let the name throw you. He’s one of my people.”
“He’s probably Irish,” I countered.
“According to you people, God is probably Irish,” he sniffed. “And Catholic.”
Over the next few months Henry and the class meshed with one another, largely because we grew to respect him because we didn’t have to. He left obligatory respect to the other staff members. And perhaps finally convinced that we wouldn’t murder him and bury his body out in the fields, Henry softened and went out of his way to engage us with his lectures, which ranged in topics from the day’s headlines to pop art and classical music.
It was time for the annual autumn dance that the school sponsored with Mariam Hall in Hartford, St. John’s counterpart for foster girls. The night before the dance, we assembled in the gym to hear Father MacDonald pontificate on social graces, manly behavior, and the importance of cleanliness to young ladies. At the end of the talk, there was the mandatory reminder about lust in the heart.
“The Sisters from Mariam Hall and our prefects will be on the dance floor,” he said, “and the gym lights will be left on during the dance due to that unfortunate event several dances ago.” I could only begin to speculate what that was about.
When he finished speaking, one of the nuns who taught at the school part-time took the stage and gave a lecture on how to approach a girl for a dance. “A young gentleman,” she began, “speaks to a young lady with graciousness and decorum. The young gentleman makes a slight bow and introduces himself, and requests the next dance. And by this I do not mean,” she said, “that you say, ‘Hey, sister! You’re a cute number! How’s about a swing around the boards?’”
That line drew a laugh, and the more she spoke the more we laughed, until finally she left the stage, defeated, and returned to the world of 1942 USO dances.
The next speaker was our school nurse, Mrs. Lagasse, a tall, magnificent, shapely, blue-eyed blonde who did wonders for her nurse’s uniform. When she took the stage all the men in the room, including Father MacDonald, shifted their clothing a little bit, mussed with their hair and sat a little taller in their seats. No one knows what she said. It probably had something to do with health.
Then Father MacDonald took the stage again and explained that the staff would now teach the boys how to dance properly. We were broken into groups, one prefect per group. Amid enormous sighs and moans, the prefects took turns waltzing us around the gym floor, teaching us where to place our hands and where not to place our hands during the dance.
“Just do a circle eight over and again until the music stops,” one prefect said. Across the gym, another could be heard telling his group, “Just keep dancing in a square over and again until the music stops,” or “Move your weight from one foot to the next in time with the music.”
At dinner on the night of the dance, the mashed potatoes went untouched due to a rumor that had started and spread years before—perhaps even decades before I heard it—that on the night of the dance, the cook always spiked the potatoes with saltpeter, a white powder that kept boys from attaining an erection. Exactly what we would do with erections on a brightly-lit dance floor, surrounded by vigilant Catholics sent directly from the Inquisition, never played into the equation.
We were standing in the gym when the girls arrived by bus from Hartford, a mist of Aqua Velva and Old Spice floating just above our heads. Like us, they were dressed in their best clothes, and like us, they had taken hours to get ready, primping in the mirrors.
They walked into the gym, silently, heads down, following a nun who directed them to wooden chairs lined up on the side of the room opposite from where we were standing. They hung their long winter coats over the backs of the chairs and then stood in a long line at the edge of the playing floor. They wore skirts, short skirts, mostly. Their hair was set in various styles that were lost on us. They wore earrings and rings and charm bracelets and too much lipstick and heavy coats of makeup.
I studied their faces. The poverty and desperation they came from showed on their faces and in their posture. They looked rough, unhappy and older than their years.
I suppose we looked the same way to them but I’m not sure, because they say girls take this life, the poor people’s life, harder than boys do, that they feel it more. I don’t know, but it’s what I heard once, someplace.
An awkward silence fell over the gym. Some of them glared at us defiantly, angry at having to partake in this ritual. Others stared at the floor and bit their lips. A few were talking to themselves. They were waiting for us to do something, but despite all our boasting and ranting down in the dorm about how we would “bag a couple of chicks” before the night was done, we were too scared to do anything. So we stood there, watching them watch us, and the staff from both schools stood at either end of the gym watching all of us.
This ungodly silence went on for a while until someone had the good sense to put on “What Does It Take?” by Junior Walker & The All-Stars, a song that starts with a long melodic riff from a sax.
A very short Puerto Rican boy named George Maisonette glided out to the center of the floor and started to sway, alone, slick and graceful, to the music. At first he was so soulful about it that everyone giggled, and then, realizing that George was the only one in the gym enjoying himself, the rest of us slid out to the floor and danced the rest of the night away.
It was a good night—no, it was better than that: It was a great night. We danced and flirted and talked, and for a few hours we weren’t poor or scared or desperate and didn’t have on hand-me-down clothes and cheap shoes. We were just kids, doing what kids do, and it felt good. It was a great night. Yeah, it was great night.