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.



A Sporting Life: Part III–My Lebron Moment

Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan and Lebron James all had moments in which they were so dominant that they were nearly unstoppable.  Each had games where they scored well over half of their team’s points.  Opponents were so awe struck on these occasions that at the end of their humiliation they shook the hand of the man who had embarrassed them.

My Lebron Moment came in the seventh grade when I played for my parochial school team, the Ascension Knights.  I was a forward most of the time, but subbed for the center when he fouled out or got thrown out of the game for fighting.  I stood six feet tall and weighed 140 lbs. of bone and gristle and just enough muscle to wire the whole thing together and make it move in awkward spasms.  I had a vertical leap of a foot or so, and I could do half of a pull up without rupturing my biceps.

My physique and athletic prowess inspired our cheerleaders.  They rallied our spirits during games with the following cheer:  “Oh c’mon  boys–can’t you do better?”  And the head cheerleader was so enamored with me that she challenged me to a fistfight on the playground one day at lunch.  I took her confident prediction that she could beat me up with one hand as her way of telling me (in code) that she liked me.  I walked away certain in the knowledge that I could never hit a girl (they were too quick on their feet), and my heart sang with love as she taunted me and called me a wimp.

On the night I led my team to victory we arrived at the YMCA gym with hearts filled with cautious hope and a tentative determination to win.  But as we warmed up we saw that our chances for success were slight.  The other team was a head taller at each position,  and every one of them could dribble, pass and shoot.  They laughed at us as we went through our drills.

But they weren’t laughing at me at the end of the game.  The score was 60-3, and I had scored two thirds of our points.  Instead my opponents yawned and looked distracted whenever I shot or made a pass or dribbled the ball up the court.  I had worn them down into a state of near boredom with my moves, with the relentless consistency of my play.  And by the end of the first quarter both teams knew that the outcome of the game was no longer in doubt.

My big scoring burst came in one play, believe it or not.  Nine players went up for a long rebound after Mike, our guard, badly missed a shot.  Both teams believed that our opponents had gotten the ball, and everyone but I ran up the court in a fast break to futility.  I had been standing a few feet away when the two teams fought for the ball, and no one saw that it had somehow fallen between all the thrashing bodies and rolled to me.  I gathered it up, dribbled twice and made a lay up. The referee blew his whistle to alert the rest of the players that I had scored, and I gloried in my triumph as they slowly jogged back to where I held the ball under our basket.

My teammates were astonished by my success, and some of them looked at me with less disdain than usual for a few minutes.  Jerry, our other forward, challenged me for scoring supremacy later in the game when he made a free throw, but when the final buzzer buzzed I remained the dominant player.

We heard a few weeks later that we had won the game by forfeit.  The other team had several players who were too old for the league.  Some of them could drive cars and shaved regularly.  All their wins were given over to their opponents, and even though my stellar performance was rendered moot by this development, I still held tight to the notion that I had been our top scorer, had the most rebounds, and had the highest shooting percentage of any of our players in that game.

I noticed a change of attitude in my teammates and the cheerleaders after that game.  Some of the players began to speak to me when it was absolutely necessary, and the cheerleaders stopped saying “Eww, what’s that?” when I came near them.  Instead they congratulated me by saying, “God you were lucky!”