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.