Naked People

DSC_0132 (2)Hillary (charcoal, 20 minute pose)

I took a Drawing I class at the University of Dayton, and we drew boxes the first class.  The second we drew a model wearing a bathing suit.  By midterm the models wore nothing, but by then I had become habituated to seeing nude men and women on the modeling stage.  The problems of figuring out basic proportions and drawing hands and feet outweighed any shock I felt from seeing body after body.

I took a life drawing class the next semester.  The process was familiar, but the instructor demanded more.  And my classmates drew on a much higher level.  I felt intimidated, so I learned to steal from the best.  Gary drew like an angel–I couldn’t figure out how he captured a human figure and it’s surrounding space with a few lines.  But I noticed that he always included a rug or the section of the stage on which the model stood.  He showed a bit of depth that way.  I stole that.  Dave made bravura marks for emphasis after he had the main forms down.  I stole that.  Violet accented junctions where two planes came together, pop-pop-pop all around the drawing.  The accents created points of tension that countered the long lines flowing along the length of an arm or a leg.  Beautiful.  I stole that.

The models had varying attitudes toward their work.  One emaciated woman cringed before dropping her robe.  She slumped onto a cushion at the shadowed back of the stage, stared at the floor the whole time she posed, and answered the professor in monosyllables.  I felt guilty drawing her.  A short man with a muscular body held his head high and relaxed into his poses.  He lost his detached composure once when he caught me glaring at his groin.  I was trying for a third time to correctly draw the juncture where the thigh inserts into the hip, but he mistook my frustration for an odd reaction to the sight of his privates.  I shifted my gaze and drew his knees after I saw him frown back at me.  A redhead struck long, languorous poses.  Her lips curled in a lazy smile as she directed inappropriate jokes at the male students.  She’d say, “Well, boys, what are you looking at?” and “See anything you like, boys?”  During breaks she’d don a robe and walk around the class to inspect our drawings.  She didn’t bother to use a tie, and her garment gaped open as she stood next to us.  She had a crush on Gary and lingered at his drawings.  One day she exclaimed, “You make me look so beautiful!”  After she returned to the stage Gary slowly, deliberately erased her face off the drawing.

I eventually became an art instructor and taught life drawing with nude models.  I learned from painful experience to give my students a lecture about art room etiquette before a first lesson.  I say, ” One:  the model has not come to class to socialize with you.  I am not running a dating service, and you will not ask for a phone number.  Two:  you will not touch the model.  Three:  you will not make personal remarks or jokes about the model.  Four:  you will not photograph the model.  Five:  treat the model with respect.  If you cannot follow these rules I’ll kick you out of class, and you’ll have to find a way to make up for the missing drawings on your own.  That will cost you time and money.”  Then I give them examples of bad behavior.  “A student stood three feet away from a model and told me that the model was too ugly to draw…A woman in a figure painting class made a bad sketch of the model.  When the model returned to the stand after a break the student tried to twist the model’s arms and legs to match the mangled contortions of her drawing…A student, an older woman wearing a baggy sweater and bifocals, confronted a model on the first day of class.  She shouted, ‘Jezebel!  Jezebel!’ when the model opened her robe.”

I believe that the close study of a face and body (scars and all) is a way of honoring an individual’s history and humanity.  But some of my beginning drawing students refuse to draw from a nude person, even if the model is of their gender.   Religious faith trumps acceptance of the human form.  I give my moral protestors an alternative.  I send them out of the classroom to draw nudes from old master prints and paintings.  They never complain about that form of nudity–it’s second hand nature doesn’t compromise their principles.  I no longer bother any to tell them that Raphael, Rubens and Da Vinci drew directly from models, that Western Art is based on the unembarrassed study of naked people.  If I did they’d only think that I was making excuses for my sins.

DSC_0133 (2)Joyce (oil on canvas)

Pitching Out Sales Pitches

Yesterday two men knocked at our door.  They represented an auto glass replacement company.  I pointed to the car in our driveway and said, “See the windshield.  There’s nothing wrong with it.”  One of the salesmen opened a binder and showed me pictures of chipped car windows.  He explained that my car might have micro fractures and chips that would gradually expand until the windshield collapsed.  I found the magic words to make him leave.  I said, “I just bought that car in November.  It’s new.”  My wife Judy asked me what I was doing as I stood by the door and watched the men cross our lawn and head down the street.  I turned away after they walked out of sight and told her, “They want to sell me a new windshield.  I watched them leave to make sure we won’t need one.”

Years ago a man surprised me as I swept leaves off the driveway.  He told me that he represented a pest control company and asked me if I had any problems.  I told him that carpenter ants invaded from time to time.  They congregated on the kitchen ceiling.  He offered to treat my house, but I told him that my wife didn’t want poisons sprayed inside.  We had small children.  The man paused for a moment to size me up, and then faked hysteria.  He cried, “But what are you going to do if you find ants in your house??!!”   “Squish ’em,”  I deadpanned.  He laughed, gave me his card and walked away.

Another man strode up to my porch–big gait, expansive gestures, everyone’s buddy.  I saw a pick up idling at the curb behind him.  A large cooler rested on the truck bed.  I knew this bit:  guys drove around town with steaks, lobsters, and shrimp on ice and sold them cheap door to door.  I never bought anything off a truck, so I tried to cut to the chase.  I met him before he could pound on my door and said, “We don’t want any.”  “But sir!” he cried.   “You don’t even know what I’m selling.  I’ve got the finest steaks, filet mignon and–”  “I don’t care what you’re selling.  I’m not buying.”  I  said.  “Hey, buddy.  That’s just rude,” he sputtered.  I could see him building up self-righteous rage–it was bad form to not let him deliver his spiel.  “Okay, I’m rude,” I conceded.  “But I’m not buying anything and it’s time for you to get off my property.”  “Mister, that’s just–that’s just—” he stammered.  “Go,” I said.  He balled up his fists and took a step toward me.  Then he thought better of it and stalked off across the yard.  He yelled to his friend in the truck, “Go to the next one.  This jerk ran me off!”

A teenage girl rang our doorbell one night right after we cleared the dinner table.  She belonged to an organization that helped disadvantaged youths better themselves.  She tried to sell us magazines and told us that the kid with the best sales record won a prize (cash, a scholarship?). When she saw that we had lost interest and sympathy she threw back her shoulders and declared, “Someday I’m going to be somebody.  I’m going to succeed!”  She studied us as she waited for a reaction.  She hoped, apparently, that we would feel pressured into helping her achieve her ambitions.  We didn’t.  I walked outside a few minutes after she left and saw teenage boys and girls canvassing homes along the street.  A school bus parked down the road had a sign on it that read, “American Dreamers”.  A man with a money bag and clip board stood by the front bumper.  He collected checks and cash from his crew, clipped order forms to the board, and directed out going kids to new targets.

I got a call several months after we moved into our home from a woman offering a free water quality test.  A middle aged salesman with a frizzy brown mustache came the next evening.  He set up a display case of powdered chemicals, beakers and test tubes in our living room.  He poured tap water and orange crystals into a test tube, and the mixture turned yellow.  A white precipitate fell to the bottom.  He held up the “test results” and said, “See?”  We didn’t.  My wife Judy and I had taken chemistry in college and could recognize a Mr. Wizard flim-flam routine.  The salesman saw that he hadn’t impressed us and said, “You know that there’s an EPA Superfund site just up the road on Forsyth.”  I knew that our water company pumped out of the Florida Aquifer, not out of a shallow well nearby.  The salesman shifted gears and told us that the expensive water filtration system his company sold would save us money because…BECAUSE his company threw in jugs of super efficient laundry detergent as a bonus.  We didn’t bite.  Then he held up the test tube with the white precipitate again and glared at my wife as she held our son in her lap.  “What about the kids?” he seethed.  “Don’t you care about your kids?”  Judy started to cry.  I squared up to him and told him to leave.  He packed his case in a hurry.  But before he left he said, “You’ve got a gift coming for letting me test your water.”  I said, “We don’t want anything from you, ” and shut the door behind him.  The next day we got a call from his company.  A manager asked, “Why didn’t you accept your gift?  Was there a problem with the salesman?”

Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and assorted evangelicals frequently make the rounds in our neighborhood.  They want to know if I am saved, believe in the Bible, know what will happen to me after I die, and whether I’d like to join their happy fellowship.  The brightly colored illustrations in their pamphlets show Jesus curing the sick, happy clusters of believers breaking into song, and throngs of ecstatic souls gathered on flowered meadows in heaven.  I sometimes tell missionaries that I have a faith of my own and am satisfied with it.  If they follow up and ask, “What faith is that?” I say, “Religion is a private matter.”

But sometimes I don’t answer the door and let them mill around on my front porch.  They peer into my picture window and spot me going about my business.  They knock again determined to save me regardless of my indifference.  (How far would they go if I did open the door?)  They eventually leave with defeated looks on their faces, but their visit has not been fruitless.  They’ve inspired me to reach out and communicate with the Beyond:  as I watch them retreat I offer a prayer of thanksgiving.  I pray, “Thank you Jesus for the steel bars on my front door.”

Come Up and See My Etchings

Rosemary, the printmaking instructor at the University of Delaware, insisted on taking as many students as possible to visit an artist in Philadelphia.   The grad students in her class knew they had no choice, but she even pressured a few undergrads to come along.  One offered the excuse that he had other classes on the day of the trip, but Rosemary dismissed it saying, “This trip is more important for your growth as an artist.”

The bus ride took us through grimy neighborhoods of trash strewn streets and boarded up buildings on the south side and dropped us off in Center City.  Fifteen would be artists dutifully trooped up the steps of a two story brick row house.  A quiet man in his late thirties opened the door slowly and greeted Rosemary in a monotone.  He waved his hand for us to pass inside, but left us milling around in the entryway.  He seemed reluctant to let us into his inner sanctum.  Rosemary said, “Can we see your studio?” He led us up a narrow, dark stairway to a room crowded with work tables, flat files of paper, and storage cabinets with wide, flat drawers.  Recently pulled prints hung by clothes pins on thin wires strung from one wall to another.

“So, am I right in assuming that you’ve all seen my work?” he asked us.  No one answered.  I barely remembered his name, and Rosemary had said nothing about the style and subject matter of his prints.  She simply told us that he was a etcher who showed his work at an important gallery in Philly.  He stared and waited, shoulders slumping lower.  He sighed:  another defeat.  “Then why are you here?” he asked.

Rosemary flattered him until he was sufficiently mollified.  He put on white gloves and laid out prints on a long, white table.  He combined imagery from several photographs to create interiors and landscapes that looked real but subtly wrong.  The perspective wasn’t completely consistent, but the individual details looked so accurate that the eye accepted the spaces as dry depictions of an uncanny world.  They reminded me of dreams I had of my Midwestern home town:  familiar streets and houses recombined with landmarks from other places.

I asked the print maker about his technique.  He told us that he achieved his photorealistic effects by pointillism.  He used a needle to meticulously prick tiny holes in the asphaltum covering his copper plates.  I asked him how long it took him to work on a plate.  I expected him to say months, but he replied, “Oh, about a day.  That’s the easy part.”  I followed up with, “But how many times do you etch the plate?  What about revisions?”  “I do it all in one layer, no revisions.  What takes the most time is designing them.”  He opened a drawer and took out a sheaf of preparatory sketches.  Each one looked like finished works of art.

Rosemary asked him to show us works in progress.  He laid out another pile of exquisitely rendered drawings and said, “These aren’t very good yet.  I hate showing you these things.”  We protested, and Rosemary said, “Really, these are wonderful.”  The man mumbled, “If you say so.”

He showed us a few more prints, an etched plate or two, and then escorted us down the stairs.  He stood on his porch and stared at his shoes as we walked away.  He retreated inside and firmly shut the door after he had said a quick goodbye to Rosemary.

On the ride home students chattered about classes at Delaware and argued about politics (Reagan’s Iran/Contra scandal dominated the news).  Some wore Walkman’s and listened to music.  I thought about the print maker and wondered if the effort he put into his images paid him back in the end.  How could a man with that much ability and accomplishment feel so discouraged? I had a tenth of his talent.  Was there any hope for me?

I was too young to realize that happiness often had little to do with success.

 

Scenes from Physical Therapy

I twisted my knee three months ago and finally went to my doctor when the pain suddenly got worse.  He diagnosed a minor tear in my meniscus and prescribed physical therapy.

My insurance approved a treatment center fifteen minutes from my home, and I went in for an evaluation.  Allison wrangled my knee from side to side, put pressure on the joint from various angles.  Then she asked me to lie down and lift my leg with my foot pointed outward at a 45 degree angle.  I could barely get my foot off the mat when she applied downward pressure.  She gave me an ultrasound treatment and a list of exercises to do at home.  And she signed me up for therapy sessions for the next week.

I had been rationing my walking for the last month.  The more I walked and stood the worse my leg felt, so I had become mostly sedentary.  My first session came as a rude shock, and even the warm up exercise, a 5 minute ride on the stationary bike, taxed my endurance.  Most of the exercises Charisse assigned seemed designed to make my leg feel worse:  deep knee bends, ankle twists, leg lifts with weights attached to my ankles.  I limped out after an hour of torture and wondered whether I’d made a mistake in coming there.

But my knee felt better the next day, and I got through teaching my class with a lot less pain.  I went to my second work out and had to sit for a few minutes before my appointment began.  Two thirds of the waiting area were taken up by a skyscraper man who weighed close to three hundred pounds.  He “manspreaded” as he slumped in his seat and listened to his headphones.  I squeezed into a seat beside him and stared at the magazine rack filled to overflowing with Vogue magazines.  I knew that there were no articles in there that could possibly interest me.  An older guy came in, took one look at the waiting area, and perched on a chair far away from the two of us.  Charisse called Skyscraper Man over for duty and asked him a few questions.  He told her that his back hurt after he played basketball the day before.  Charisse frowned and said, “I can’t fix you if you go playing basketball on me.”  Skyscraper whined, “I just shot around.”  Another patient told Robin, his therapist, about his crazy ex-wife.  The lady had tried to turn their daughter against him, and confiscated any gifts he gave to the child.  The ex had taken him to court several times to get the alimony raised, but still complained about money every time she spoke to him.  He told Robin, “Hey, I’m through with all that.”

The therapists began to relax around me during my third visit.  Anna told me about an upcoming trip to New York City with her boyfriend.  Robin blamed her father for giving her her 6’2″ stature, and laughed when I said that he hadn’t really meant to do that.  Charisse teased me about my “crazy double classes” and warned another client not to talk about his “lousy Gators” in her presence.  She added that her Seminoles weren’t about to face sanctions from the NCAA.

On the fourth day the therapists compared auto accident stories that their clients had reported.  One man had been struck in the jaw by a motorcyclist crashing through his windshield.  Robin said, “Here’s the best one I’ve heard.  This family was driving fifty, and they were hit from behind.  That car was going 90, and when that driver hit them he was drunk, high, and masturbating.”  “Multi-tasking,” I thought as I pumped the pedals on the stationary bike.  Charisse sighed and said, “It’s getting really weird out there.”

At the end of that session a white haired woman hobbled into the lobby.  She leaned on a cane as she stood at the reception counter, her face pinched tight with pain.  Charisse called out across the therapy room:  “Marie!  How you doin’ today?”  Marie muttered, “You don’t want to know.”  Charisse hollered, “But I do want to know!  I have to ask you that question so I know how to treat you.”  Marie considered for a few moments, and then hollered back, “Hooorrrible!”

All About After

I don’t care for the aftermath.  Taking action feels a lot more powerful, and living in the moment offers less time to consider one’s regrets.  After is an ugly guy who comes for a visit, sleeps on the couch, eats up all the food in the fridge, and won’t tell me when he’s leaving.  But After gives me an opportunity to arrange recent events in a framework that makes sense.  Then I can move on.  Then I can make peace with What Is.

My Daily After is the butt end of a day, and I’m the last two inches of a smoldering cigar.  While I’m in the middle of teaching a class I’m usually caught up in the process of communicating with students, evaluating their work, giving advice and planning ahead for the next exercise.  I sometimes teach Drawing I and II simultaneously and have little time for a breather.  When a class is over I answer follow up questions and tidy the studio before making my exit.  On the walk to the parking lot I download the emotions I’ve pushed aside in class.  (An instructor must create the illusion of self composure at all times.)  As I trudge to the car my adrenaline fades, and my books and equipment feel heavier the longer I carry them.  Then I discover how much effort I’ve expended.  My mood dips, and I relive each mistake just made in class.

My Rejection After varied during my dating years.  Sometimes a girlfriend dumped me long before I was ready to call it quits, and my feelings for her lingered painfully for a month or two.  Other break ups left nothing but a sense of relief and freedom.  Time and reflection sometimes gave the realization that I had been mercifully spared.  But in one case it took me three years to figure out that the object of my desire had treated me badly and always would.

The Grieving After:  My sister suffered a long decline as she died from ALS.  During a visit I presented an even tempered demeanor.  I reminded myself as I talked to my parents, brother and sister that my emotions were not the most important thing. Time spent with my family was not about me.  My true state of mind asserted itself on the plane ride home.  I took an upgrade to first class if the ticketing agent made an offer, and I ordered a complimentary whiskey before the plane took off.  I felt no shame as I gulped my drink even if the morning sun had just crossed the horizon.  As we flew south I stared out of the window at the passing clouds, and a heavy sensation filled my chest.  On the trip home from Orlando International my wife drove, and I sobbed.  I became functional after two or three days passed, but during the down time spoke little and kept to myself.  I found it difficult to adjust to the concrete realization, reinforced over and over during my visit, that dying is a process of losing everything.

My father in law died in 2008.  The kind and solicitous representatives from the funeral home drove us from the grave site to my mother in law’s house.  The man riding shotgun opened the door to let us out of the limo and quickly turned away without saying anything in farewell.  I realized that the funeral directors had finished their work, and any compassion shown at the viewing, service and interment had been part of a contract just ended.  We were on our own.  My mother in law drove us to her favorite local restaurant for lunch.  It had rained hard at the cemetery, but now the clouds scattered and weak sunlight brightened the wintry hills of eastern Pennsylvania.  The crowded dining room hummed with conversation, and the checkered table cloth and vase of artificial chrysanthemums made our table insistently cheerful.  Our group said little at first, but after the food arrived we chewed our salads, ate our bread, and told a few stories about the man we had buried an hour before.  We even laughed at a few jokes.

French Class: The Perils of Pierre

I transferred to Wright State University in the winter of 1982 to get a bachelor of arts degree.  My academic advisor told me that I needed a foreign language, and I signed up for French 101 that summer.  The class time was 8 a.m..  I worked third shift on weekends, and transferred to a normal sleep schedule each Monday so that I could stay awake for day classes.  8 in the morning presented a challenge early in the week, but I adjusted by Wednesday.  But if I arrived groggy and slow witted, my professor, Pierre Horne, had a manner of teaching that woke me up immediately.  He often placed his pointer finger on the side of one nostril and intoned the French word “un”.  The  nasal sound of the extended vowel, which reminded me of a garbage disposal whining after it had ground up its last bit of refuse, made the underside of my brain itch with irritation.  I  also stirred to a functional level of alertness when the professor spouted a steady stream of mushy vowels and consonants while pointing to objects in the room.  He paused to ask students questions about what he had just spoken, and chose his victims randomly.  When he called on me he stared with an expectant look that said, “Only a complete moron would fail to understand the beauty and majesty of the French language.”  After my inevitable moment of humiliation, of sputtering the few words I recalled that may or may not have been apropos, he always called on a willowy blonde two seats up the row.  She would answer at length in perfect French, and he would compliment her on her impeccable Parisian accent.  I hated that girl.

Eventually I picked up a understanding of French grammar as the professor began to relent and explain the basics in English.  I passed the first test but was stumped by one question.  Professor Horne spoke a phrase in French, and we were supposed to translate it into English.  He said, “Les voix des anges.”  That sounded like “Lay vwah dez on jzuh.”  I asked him to repeat it, and he obliged with a superior smile.  I understood that “les” was “the”, and “des” was “of the” but had no idea what “voix” and “anges” meant.  We hadn’t used those words in class when we discussed going to the library, our dietary preferences, the names of pieces of furniture, and the color of Gabrielle‘s hair, blouse and skirt.  I asked the professor after the test for the correct translation of the phrase, and he told me it meant “the voices of angels”.  I later paged through the text book several times and finally found “les voix des anges” in a caption beneath a photograph of Notre Dame in Paris.  The choir, apparently, sounded like the voices of angels when they sang in the cathedral’s choir loft.  Why hadn’t Gabrielle, my fictitious amie, stressed the importance of that nugget of information before the test?

One unfortunate lad joined the class late.  He had been in Israel studying Hebrew and found the transition into French difficult.  He annoyed Professor Horne especially when he pronounced “je”, the French word for “I” as “juh” instead of “jzzzuh”.  Pierre got incensed every time the kid butchered the French language and would cry out, “What is this juh-juh?  There is no such thing as juh!”

When the professor was in a happier mood he would muse about the oddities of American culture and the backward nature of life in Ohio.  He related anecdotes about a disastrous wine tasting at a local winery, the foulness of peanut butter,  and the rudeness of a bank clerk who said, “Hello, Pierre,” after she read his name on a form.  He expected her to address him formally as Mr. Horne as she and he were perfect strangers.  In France no one would dare to assume such intimacy (using someone’s first name) until a relationship had evolved much further.  (Perhaps his father had addressed his mother as Madame Horne until after the birth of their third child.)

I had to take two more semesters of French and chose another professor.  This man, whose name escapes me, spoke English with a French accent spiked with New York gutturals.  He had been born in Russia, escaped with his parents to Paris, and eventually settled in Brooklyn.  Having learned to speak three languages by the time he was a teenager he held the French language in lower esteem.  It was one of many.  He was much kinder and patient with us, and made no disparaging remarks about Ohio and the United States.  He did show us the 1950s film noir, “Hiroshima Mon Amour”, in which a French woman tells her Japanese lover that she was horrified when she and her friends listened to a news report about the Hiroshima nuclear bombing.  Her eyes filled with tears as she whispered to her Amour Japonais, “When we spoke of Hiroshima we said, ‘Those American bastards!'”  Two questions occurred to me after I read that subtitle:  Why would a French woman, a survivor of the Nazi Occupation, sympathize with an WWII ally of Germany? And why did the French flaunt a bias against Americans as if they were making a principled stand?

My new professor was a friend of Professor Horne and knew that many of us had taken his colleague for the introductory course.  He told us that Horne was on sabbatical in Paris where he intended to absorb as much of the latest French slang as possible.  I expected that our snobbish professor would be glorying in a return to the land of his birth where the cuisine enchanted the palate and bank tellers greeted customers with frosty aloofness.  We heard the opposite, however.  Apparently Professor Horne was homesick.  He found the French hostile and rude and missed the open friendliness of folks in the Midwest.  Pierre longed to return to Ohio, Wright State, and his sleepy, dull-witted students who insisted on butchering the most beautiful language ever spoken.

I took perverse pride in the fact that we had somehow managed to pull him down to our level.  Perhaps on his return he would dash out to the local supermarket and buy a loaf of spongy white American bread, a giant tub of sticky peanut butter, and a jug of Ohio wine that “tasted like turpentine”.   He might even beam with pleasure when the cashier called him “hon” and asked him about his weird accent (“Are you from Canada, Pee-air?”).

 

Lost Souls

Sister Mary Margaret, my eighth grade home room teacher, asked me to stay behind at lunch as she had something important to ask me.  I walked up to her desk after the other students had left for the playground.  She fixed me with her steely gray eyes and said, “Are you going to go to Archbishop Carroll High School?  I see that you haven’t enrolled yet.”  She tapped a list of names.

“No, my family can’t afford to send me.  I’m going to Fairmont East.”

“You could get a job,” she said apparently unaware that fourteen year old boys were not allowed to work in the state of Ohio and that the tuition at Carroll, comparable to state university fees, could not be earned part time at minimum wage.

“Mom wants me to focus on my studies.  No jobs…She and my Dad and sister all transferred to public schools after eighth grade,” I said.

“You’ll drift away from the faith,” she told me.  “Your soul will be lost.”

“My parents and sister are still Catholics,” I pointed out.

“Your soul will be lost,” she solemnly repeated.

I studied the flakes of dandruff that accumulated daily in shallow drifts on the shoulders of her dark habit and tried to find something to say.  One possibility, telling her that hell seemed preferable to an eternity spent with the likes of her, tempted me.  My instinct for self-preservation kicked in and I said, “I’m not going to Carroll.”

She squinted at me and a blush of red deepened on her cheeks.  She had been angry when she called me aside, and now my bluntness had made her angrier.  I didn’t care.  I knew that I’d be free from her and my parochial school in a few weeks.

My parents sent me to a public school for ninth grade and signed me up for CCD, a Monday night program at church that taught religious education to kids who had endangered their souls by attending public schools.  The classes were segregated by gender but undivided by age.  Few boys were older than I, but many were two years younger.  Their hopes of salvation had begun to fade even earlier than mine.

Our classes were taught by fathers from the parish, and few had training in education and theology.  The lessons faltered whenever questions beyond a Dad’s level of knowledge had to be suppressed and pushed aside.  Our instructors droned out a rehash of the doctrines drilled into us in lower grades.  These tenets could be reduced to the following:  Do what Mother Church tells you without question and get a free pass to heaven.

One night after class I ran into a guy I hadn’t seen in a few years.  His name was Ben, and he used to team up with a dim-witted giant who did his bidding.  Ben enjoyed picking fights and bullying boys larger than he was.  If they defended themselves or returned his insults he unleashed his bodyguard on them.  I once saw Matthew B., a rawboned kid with lethal elbows who played center on our basketball team, get beaten to the ground by Ben’s stooge. Ben looked on and smiled wistfully as if enjoying the beauty of a moment that would fade all too soon.

I passed by Ben as he sat slumped on the cement floor of the corridor leading to the exit.  I didn’t say a word to him.  He whispered, “Hey, pussy!”  I looked over my shoulder, not knowing at whom he had directed his insult, and saw him staring at me with sad, tired eyes.  I kept going, and he called after me, “Aren’t you going to come back and beat me up?”  He laughed as I pushed open the door and walked outside.

Years later my mother wrote that my sister’s youngest boy, Chris, had penned an essay that had been published in the parish newspaper.  He had attended the same parochial school as I, and apparently gotten the same warning when a nun found out that he also planned to go to Fairmont East.  I read a clipping of his article that Mom had included in the letter, and Chris’ words were a desperate plea for help as he entered into a world of non-Catholics conspiring to steal his salvation.  I thought, “Holy shit, boy.  They really got to you.”

Ten years passed and I attended Chris’ wedding.  Both he, his bride, and his bride’s family were former Catholics.  The wedding ceremony acknowledged the possibility of spiritual bonds in marriage, but there were no Bible readings.  The officiant was the mayor of a suburb of Cleveland.  I learned that the bride’s family were staunch agnostics and had removed their children from a parish school after a conflict of some sort.  I thought, “Good for them.”

I talked to Chris a few years later and mentioned his article in the parish newspaper and his later conversion to agnosticism.  “What happened?” I asked him.  He smiled and said that he had been dating a girl at the time he wrote his essay who was a bit hysterical about religious matters.  She had influenced him, but when he started to attend a public school his fears vanished.  He said, “The people at Fairmont East were so much nicer to me.”  I felt pride as I smiled back at my confident, free-thinking nephew.  According to the nuns Chris had lost his soul, but he appeared to be doing quite well without it.