Scene4 Magazine - Patrick Walsh
Patrick Walsh

My Own Damned Fault      


May 2014

Most Catholic schools have saint names: Saint Mary's, St. Joseph's, St. Paul's, or my first grammar school, St. Sebastian's. My second school, Blessed Sacrament, followed the other common formula, the descriptive phrase. Perhaps, then, I should have been suspicious of attending a Catholic high school that didn't stick to a time-honored naming orthodoxy, but such an observation was beyond my sensibilities at that point. Besides, it had to be called Chaminade High School since its namesake, William Joseph Chaminade, hadn't been canonized a saint by the Church.

Chaminade, the man, was a French priest who defied the French Revolution's religious proscriptions and went on to found the Society of Mary, or Marianist order. Chaminade, the school, is a boys-only Catholic crucible on Long Island that still demonstrates a certain defiance to the status quo: the school is run beyond the control of the Rockville Centre diocese and its bishop. As we were smugly told by the brothers and priests if we had the temerity to question school policy, "take your complaint to the Pope," alluding to the Marianists' autonomy from regional control.

I graduated in 1985. If I could use just one phrase to summarize the Chaminade experience, it would be "us versus them"–that is, the brothers and priests on one side and us boys on the other. It's an ironic choice for a school whose motto is "Fortes in Unitate," Latin for "strength in unity." As it happened, there was their unity and our unity.

What We Wore

One reason any organization insists on a uniform for its members is to identify them as such, whether on the battlefield, the street, or the basketball court. But a uniform also serves a psychological purpose: it tears down distinction, difference, individuality. Nothing so ruthlessly levels the egos of a hundred young men as a crew cut. Chaminade didn't have uniforms per se, nor, mercifully, did it require shaved heads; it maintained a dress code. Young men shall wear shoes, slacks with a belt, button-down shirts with collars, ties, and jackets. And, it should be stressed, the top button at the collar will be kept fastened at all times.

One thing children and adolescents inherently understand is how to be comfortable in their own skins. Have you ever seen how a small boy chafes and squirms at being trapped inside a suit? What you're observing is an instinctual reaction, like trying to coerce a cat to swim–cats can swim, but their good sense tells them to avoid it if at all possible. 

Despite all the arguments I've heard for dress codes instilling discipline or some sort of "academic mien," I firmly believe that forcing young men to wear shoes, slacks, jackets, and ties in high school is just one more way to make them feel uncomfortable. No one better grasps the Pythagorean theorem or the causes of World War I by wearing a silk necktie or a pair of penny loafers. And if American business and politics offer any indication, there is no connection between proper dress and propriety; each installment of the nightly news serves up a fresh platoon of dapper scoundrels clad in French cuffs and Hermès ties, their collars meticulously fastened.

To some degree, all the bother with blazers and ties was training for the majority of students who would go on to jobs in the business world. Some affluent Chaminade boys flaunted wardrobes that looked like they'd been plucked off the backs of executives on Wall Street or Madison Avenue. For most of us, especially boys like myself who came from blue-collar families, we had neither the money nor the inclination to pick out coordinated ensembles.

But it's worth noting, if only for historic preservation, the various sartorial subcultures at Chaminade in the mid-80s. Then as now, Chaminade had many Italian-American students. Whether out of a sense of fashion or cultural fidelity, many of these boys wore shoes by Capezio, a company founded in 1887 by Salvatore Capezio and known for making dancers' footwear. Extremely narrow, wafer-soled, pointy-toed, and invariably cast in white or gray leather, Capezios conveyed much of the student body from class to class. An exquisite pair adorns the cover of Joe Jackson's Look Sharp! album. They are as iconic a detail of the 1980s as the straw boater is of the 1880s–and every bit as dated. Boys who sported Capezios often wore very thin ties of unchanging width, another staple of 80s male couture.

One group who took conspicuous interest in their threads was the preppies. Growing up in Queens, I'd never heard the term "preppy," let alone seen the abominations that comprise its signature look. I remember participating in a model congress freshman year organized by the social studies club. One of the seniors, a portly giant with a large coif of side-parted greasy black hair, wore a pink Oxford shirt, a knit tie, and a pair of lime green slacks that appeared splotched with large ink stains. At one point, I strode past him to deliver some remarks about a proposed bill and glanced again at those ghastly green pants. To my horror, the blue ink stains were actually embroidered whales. I realize now that seeing those diminutive leviathans stitched onto slacks the color of a tennis ball was my first look at how wealth and depravity often go hand in hand. 

As I was to learn, he, like many other preppies at Chaminade, hailed from Garden City, a pricey suburb a few miles from school. With its Tudor-style mansions, sprawling manicured lawns, and streets that would serve as highways in most other countries, Garden City has the air of a place where nothing goes wrong, a kind of trapped-in-the-1950s feel–in short, a town full of people actually called "Biff," "Muffy," and "Chad."

Another small but highly visible group was the school sweater wearers. Provided a student had earned a junior varsity or varsity letter in a sport or club activity, he could purchase a cardigan at the bookstore, sew on the letter, and wear the sweater in lieu of a blazer (a tie was still required.) The sweaters were cast in Chaminade's colors, bright crimson with gold piping. Certainly by my time, the cardigans seemed a laughable anachronism. Some genius had dubbed them the "the Scarlet Sweater" in allusion to the Hawthorne classic we read sophomore year. I don't remember any athlete ever wearing one. Sweater wearers came exclusively from club ranks, especially band, glee club, drama club, and the communications club. While we may not have been able to articulate it at the time, most of us felt that there was something tantamount to treason in wearing a school sweater, as if the garment, à la Hawthorne's punitive letter, marked you as a collaborator. And after all, one did have a big "C" sewn on the pocket.

A small band of boys in my class turned the sartorial tables on Chaminade by scouring thrift shops for their wardrobes. While observing the letter of the law, they sported hideous jackets in stripes or checks, along with outdated neckties donned with inordinately large knots that put the end of the tie somewhere around the sternum, making the wearer resemble a circus clown.

While I regret not having joined in on such flagrant subversion of the dress code, I resisted it in my own subtle way. Like every Chaminade boy, I kept my blazer and ties in my locker. But I had two clip-on ties, one in navy blue, the other maroon. I prized them for three reasons. As far as I knew, I was the only boy in the freshman class–maybe the entire school–who wore a clip-on tie. If part of the reason Chaminade imposed a dress code was to homogenize us, my clip-on tie served as one small way that I refused to yield. 

Of course, once I wore the thing, I looked just like everyone else. Convenience was the real value; in four academic years, I never spent more than three seconds a day putting on my tie. On those hectic mornings (made more manic if the bus got in late), when other boys stood in front of their lockers spastically tying and retying their conventional cravats in a race to reach homeroom before first bell, I just affixed the hook of the clip-on to my buttoned collar. 

The third reason I wore a clip-on tie never came to pass: a fight. From eight previous years of Catholic grammar school with its required uniform, I knew that one of the first things an aggressor grabs is one's tie. And naturally, if he gets a good hold of it, one's head comes along for the ride. With a clip-on, my belligerent fellow-student would grab the tie and–what? He'd goggle at it in his hand, wondering for a moment what the heck happened. In that surprised second, as I'd mentally rehearsed it hundreds of times, my fist would drive upwards, smashing into his nose.

One of the more controversial changes in the dress code occurred in my senior year: the banning of corduroy jeans. A decades-old mainstay for nearly every boy, corduroy jeans were the only comfortable piece of clothing in the dress code ensemble. And for good reason: they were popular pants to wear outside of school, the only piece of the "uniform" that wouldn't get chucked with alacrity when one got home. Probably for that very reason–that we felt natural, somehow in our element wearing them–Chaminade outlawed them. But not to our chagrin alone; since a good pair of corduroys could do double duty, parents like mine saw value in them and were angered by the insensitivity of a school known for its challenging tuition. 

Dress code infractions, the most common of which by far was an unbuttoned collar, met with demerits, Chaminade's punishment system. To receive demerits automatically meant at least one detention, though one could be sent to detention without getting demerits. One started each year with a clean slate; demerits stayed on your "record" for the year. If you received more than ten demerits in a year, you wouldn't be mailed a certificate in the summer attesting to your character–heaven forbid! 

More importantly, ten demerits enabled Chaminade to yank its in-house student aid and merit scholarships. If you racked up enough demerits, of course, you could be booted out of school (since the threat of excommunication has lost most of its punch.) It is a curious thing that the lay teachers rarely resorted to using demerits, while the brothers and priests took absolute delight in doling them out.

Incidents & Resistance

Morning announcements at Chaminade were made in the form of a news program broadcast by members of the communications club from the school's television studio. Even for a freshman, the novelty wore off well before Christmas break. But one spring morning, the newscaster, a junior whom we'd long grown tired of seeing, began with Chevy Chase's trademark lead-in to the news on Saturday Night Live: "Good morning, I'm Stephen Anderson and you're not, here now the news." With Chase's same deadpan delivery, Anderson said the line and rolled right into the day's minutiae.

A harmless little quip, but the school, so used to stern lockdown and completely caught off guard, erupted in laughter. In my homeroom, our joyless moderator, Brother Cephas, shot up from behind his desk, literally yelling at us: "Shut up!  Stop laughing!  It's not funny!" Certainly the grim Brother Cephas saw no humor in it; great clotted veins rose from his neck while his eyes bulged in one long, terrifying, unblinking stare. He doused the laughter in our room, but we could hear it trailing away in surrounding homerooms. I can still see us, forty little freshmen desperately trying not to smile.

Now such a stunt sounds tame and utterly benign. And at any other high school, that's how it would've been regarded. But not at Chaminade. Such a deviation from the literal script represented a subversive act designed to undermine the authority of Chaminade's priests and brothers. For his impudence, Stephen Anderson was banished from the communications club, never to be seen again on our homeroom TVs.

A similar fate befell Mike Vaccaro, now a well-known sportswriter, who sat in front of me in homeroom and nearly a dozen classes (and with whom I shared a room in college.) In our junior year at Chaminade, Mike penned a letter to Sports Illustrated, which was published, congratulating the magazine on its annual swimsuit issue. The letter read:

    I want to thank you on behalf of the entire Chaminade High basketball team for introducing us to Kathy Ireland.  The picture of her in a lacy bikini now hangs proudly in all our lockers, replacing that of Larry Bird.

It was a fun letter, especially coming from an eloquent kid at an all-boys school. Naturally, Chaminade didn't appreciate the press, as innocuous (and free) as it was. For his sin, Mike was not allowed to play on the basketball team senior year–once again, a punishment not only completely unnecessary but entirely out of proportion to any supposed crime.

In all schools, students will invent nicknames for teachers, often based on the teacher's traits or physical features. "Brother Holiday" referred to an ancient brother long retired from teaching and occasionally seen walking the halls, stooped over like Igor in a Frankenstein film: we knew that when he died, we'd all get a day off from school. 

One of the more apt sobriquets was bestowed on Brother Felix; his dumpy, diminutive stature and deeply nasal voice earned him the nickname "Boo-Boo," as in the cute little sidekick of cartoon character Yogi Bear. But cute Brother Felix was not. Given his looks and voice, he was very sensitive to slights and, apparently, well aware of what the boys called him. 

One day in my junior year, I was walking through the hall between classes with Boo-Boo a few feet ahead of me. On the other side of the hallway, headed in the opposite direction, was my friend, John Higgins. On seeing Brother Felix ahead of me, John decided to crack a joke which he thought only I would get. As we passed, he said with histrionic clarity: "Oob-Oob." Unfortunately for John, Brother Felix instantly decoded his backwards encryption of "Boo-Boo." The roly-poly cleric fell upon him with terrifying fury, grabbing John by his lapels, slamming him against a row of lockers, and pinning him there for several minutes while he screamed at him. 

It was a brilliant gesture of resistance, earning John fifteen demerits. But it prompted a shocking reaction. I wasn't altogether astonished since I had endured Brother Felix's tirades in geometry class the previous year where he pounded on the chalkboard, raising great plumes of dust. This incident was different. John's dig, however clever, was mean-spirited. But John was 14 years old, an age when boys are inclined to be rascals. Brother Felix was in his mid-30s, a man who had embarked on a solemn life path: holy orders. While one wouldn't necessarily expect a brother or priest to exhibit saintly virtues, one still anticipates behavior somehow informed by religious belief and introspection. But here was a man who was far from at peace with himself, let alone others, the slightest needling from a 14 year-old boy enough to launch him into a paroxysm of violence.

But these are incidents that stand out in relief; however indicative they may be of Chaminade's underlying problems, they are, at the same time, unusual and somehow anomalous. Like a soldier's life, the essential Chaminade experience consisted of long stretches of mundane discomfort, tenseness, a low-level anxiety peppered with minor slights.

What was most pernicious about the brothers and priests' behavior manifested itself in subtle, corrosive ways. Brother Cardullo, for example, would walk up and down the rows handing out graded tests. As he distributed them, he occasionally commented on either an exceptionally good or bad grade. I remember several times him complimenting Sean O'Malley for scoring a 96 or a 97 then handing me my test–a 99–by its corner, as if it was a dead rat. Trading notes with my best friend, Tom, I discovered that the same thing happened to him and, since he maintained a much higher average than I did, more frequently. 

At 14 or 15 years of age, and in such a competitive atmosphere, the effect of this kind of slight can be withering. First, there is the sheer incongruity: "I scored a higher grade–why didn't I get a pat on the back?" Then there is a private humiliation, itself another kind of puzzlement: what is it about me that I don't merit a compliment? It's small, daily interactions of this kind that form the atmosphere of a school or workplace–or serve to undermine it. Students, accountants, or steelworkers, they all blossom under the occasional sprinkling of a kind word. 

What Tom and I didn't understand at the time was that boys like Sean O'Malley received the lion's share of kudos because they came from wealthy families that made donations to Chaminade beyond tuition. What's more, Sean O'Malley's three brothers and father had all passed through the school. Meanwhile, our parents struggled to keep us in Chaminade, making frequent calls to the finance office to discuss outstanding fees or payment plans. There'd be no checks to the alumni fund from our households. Certainly there's nothing new about such calculated favoritism. In his own memoir, "Such, Such Were the Joys," George Orwell recounts the same kind of fawning over the sons of bankers and diplomats. But Orwell's school, St. Cyprian's, wasn't run by members of a religious order. And once again, while it may be naive to expect higher standards of ethical conduct from a brother or priest, the expectation remains nevertheless.

Stand-up Guys

Mr. Keller taught my trigonometry class junior year. A tall, slim man with a neatly trimmed mustache, he was patient, soft-spoken, and pleasant in demeanor. He made great use of the overhead projector, eschewing the blackboard for whatever reason. And now that I think of it, he performed a minor miracle every day: I don't recall any incidents or altercations in his class, no threats of detention or demerits. Part of me marvels at how such a mild-mannered man could have taught a subject as dry as trig without the slightest struggle to maintain order in the classroom, especially in the half-darkness with the projector in use. I realize now that none of us felt any inclination to horse around in his class because he treated us like adults. There was no trace of the "us versus them" mentality–not that we felt any kind of unusual solidarity with Mr. Keller: he just merited respect because he was a good guy. Whether we realized it or not, his classroom served as a kind of safe haven, a break in the action from a long school day on full psychological alert.

Another teacher more on our side than theirs was Mr. Phillips, a compact man with rigorously side-parted curly black hair who taught American History to juniors and seniors. I was lucky to land in his class both years, but I already knew him and his droll sense of humor from running on the cross-country team, which he coached. Throughout the year, he decorated the bulletin board at the back of the classroom with photos, maps, and reproductions of paintings depicting historical figures and scenes. As appropriate, he would draw our attention to one of these illustrations, but always with an aside. If he directed our gaze, say, at a painting of the battle of Bunker Hill, he would insist with deadly seriousness that it was really a little-known photograph; if we looked at a daguerreotype of Lincoln, he would warn us not to be fooled, the image was actually a painting by an obscure school of photo-realists; and so on. 

In what turned out to be an annual tradition, Mr. Phillips devoted an entire class to a scholarly disquisition on how to drink from a water fountain. We discussed the various types of water fountains, as well as their pitfalls and the most common mishaps associated with them. The class was a bravura of tongue-in-cheek humor, with Mr. Phillips as lead comedian and all of us as his straight-faced accomplices. But more importantly, it was an incredible break, forty minutes out of an entire year's worth of classes to kick back, relax, and have fun. And we all learned a useful lesson, one that has served me well on countless occasions: adjust the flow before you assume the position.

My favorite teacher was Mr. Politano, who taught European History. Profoundly southern Italian in his looks with coal-black hair and mahogany eyes, Vincent Politano spoke with a booming bass voice generated from an appropriately big frame. When he stood with his hands on the lectern, the sleeves of his blazer cinched around his biceps. With his back to the class to write on the chalkboard, the V-shape of well-developed lats became apparent. Vin had the look and bearing of a man you didn't mess with. And very few ever did, but it wasn't just because of how formidable he looked.

History is a subject that appeals to most young boys; Mr. Politano had a knack for making it especially entertaining. Like any good storyteller, he brought home the events by placing us in the action: "On command, the row of spearmen in front of you drops back through the ranks of your Spartan phalanx and you move into their place to hammer away with short sword and shield" or "Imagine the scene as you stand there, an English archer on that cold, wet morning at Agincourt, looking across the field at a French army that outnumbers you six to one…." Great stuff for a teenage boy, especially if your last class was algebra.

But Mr. Politano's character stood out in the nitpicking atmosphere propagated by the brothers and priests: he was a straight-up guy. After just one class, you knew that he wasn't going to nickel-and-dime you with demerits or detentions. You also knew instinctively that he wouldn't put up with any crap. He didn't play favorites; we'd all earned the title "gentlemen," with which he always addressed us, as soon as we walked through the door–unless we did something to forfeit it. It was like having William Holden or Steve McQueen as your teacher.

Mr. Politano was moderator of the seniors section of the social studies club. By my last year, our group had been whittled down to about ten of us, a small band of like-minded history buffs with a penchant for counterculture. We had the right moderator. To our astonishment, Vin knew his Rock music inside out. But most impressive of all, he had been at Woodstock. His descriptions of seeing Jimi Hendrix; Crosby, Stills, and Nash; and The Who, as well as the scene in general, blew us away. It was a revelation. This clean-cut, meticulously groomed history teacher once had a ponytail and still had a copy of Electric Ladyland on his turntable at home.

Discovering our mutual affinities, we decided early in the year to devote one of our weekly after-school meetings to watching a documentary of great historical significance: Woodstock. One October Tuesday, Mr. Politano brought in his personal copy of the film, secured a TV and VCR, and we all kicked back for the concert. 

At one point during our viewing, Mr. Politano left the room momentarily. Naturally, it was while he was gone that Brother Lyons peered in through the window of the classroom's rear door. There on the screen stood the figure of a man wielding an electric guitar, his generous Afro like an aureole girded with a hot pink bandanna, an anti-angel with wings of flying fringe. It was too perfect: Hendrix playing "Voodoo Child." Managing to survive the mild stroke induced by what he saw, Brother Lyons burst into the room, sternly hissing with inquisitorial venom, "what's going on in here?" In what for me was the most poetic reversal of "us vs. them" in four years at Chaminade, Mr. Politano walked back into the room and firmly announced: "Brother Lyons, these gentlemen are with me, this is a meeting of the senior social studies club."

Brother Lyons was dismissed, literally. We all looked around at each other, our faces molded into expressions of total triumph. Mr. Politano gestured that we not let loose the whoop that this victory demanded. What a coup! It was almost as good as Hendrix playing the national anthem.

Scripture Class

As part of the one-way transaction called "education" at Chaminade, we sat through two years of biblical studies as freshmen and sophomores, Scripture I and II. Freshman year, we dutifully memorized arcane trivia about the Israelites: Methuselah's age (969); the soldier whom David set up to die so he could bed the poor guy's wife, Bathsheba, (Uriah); the etymology of "Leah" ("weary-eyed"); the name of Leah's handmaiden (Zilpah, of course, the mother of Gad and Asher); and many other pieces of obsolete gossip that have proved valuable only in solving the Times crossword. Scripture II was dedicated to the smaller, more controversial half of the Christian bible, the New Testament. 

Father Rosencrans taught my Scripture I class. Many of the freshmen, new to everything and particularly impressionable, found him entertaining, probably due in part to his stylized, somewhat anachronistic way of talking. He was fond of inverted syntax, as in "chapter the second" or "point the first." He also had a snide little shtick on the names of popular Rock groups, referring to The Grateful Dead as "The Joyfully Deceased" or Led Zeppelin as "Metal Dirigible"–all mentioned, of course, as part of an injunction against listening to them. Presumably, we would have been better served reading about a murderous zealot who nearly butchered his son on the advice of a talking tumbleweed. (I still can't decide who is sicker in that story, Abraham or the twisted god who tests the fidelity of a sociopath?)

Father Rosencrans bore a striking resemblance to the actor/singer Jim Nabors, most famous for his portrayal of the bumbling Gomer Pyle. He almost always wore a smile, the condescending smile of a pedant that says: "Oh my ignorant little charges, how much there is you've yet to learn." Or maybe "learn you'll never." 

Behind this seemingly benign demeanor was a man quick to anger, especially at questions he deemed either ignorant or heretical. One of his favorite techniques to both correct and embarrass a boy after a so-called "dumb answer" was to hurl a piece of chalk at him. Naturally, the boys found that one funny, except when the chalk was hurled in fury. Like the time I foolishly asked the old chestnut: "If Adam and Eve were the first people, and they had two sons, and Cain killed Abel, then who did Cain have sex with in order to keep the human race going? Wouldn't it be incest if he had a child with Eve? And even if Adam and Eve had a daughter who is never mentioned in the Bible, wouldn't it still be incest?"

My friend Tom also had Father Rosencrans for Scripture class. Tom recalls a lesson that proved a breaking point in his belief in the Church. Father Rosencrans was pontificating on Pauline doctrine–i.e. only through faith in Christ can one reach heaven–when Tom asked what happens to Jews and Muslims, since they also believe in the same monotheistic god? With a slow shake of his head, Father Rosencrans tsk-tsked every Jew and Muslim to an eternity of damnation, or at least a near-endless wait in the bureaucracy of Purgatory. 

School Spirit

The feeling of tacit opposition, mistrust, as well as smug condescension seemed to permeate Chaminade's classrooms. Only by regurgitating approved answers could a boy expect any kind of acknowledgment. Divergent opinions on issues open to interpretation–issues that usually prompt engaging discussions in normal classrooms, such as ethics, politics, theology, or literature–met with sarcastic, sometimes furious rebuttals. Every figure who appeared in the course of our studies received a subtle judgment from the brother or priest teaching the class–and usually a negative one: the Greeks and Romans, whatever their cultural contributions, were pagans it should be remembered; Martin Luther tried to reform the Church, but he went too far; Walt Whitman fostered dubious sexual inclinations; the Founding Fathers, wise men all, espoused Deism; James Joyce was a great writer, but an apostate; T.S. Eliot converted to Anglicanism instead of Catholicism; Hemingway committed suicide; W.B. Yeats was a Protestant; Emily Dickinson was a woman; and so on.

Some of the most laughable judgments were pronounced in our advanced theology classes junior and senior years. I remember Father D'Angelo glibly dismissing sexual love as ten seconds of animal gratification; no one had the audacity to ask him if he had ever actually had sex. (Since he entered the priesthood after graduating from Chaminade, the possibility was unlikely.) Several breaths later, our virginal instructor lectured us on how god wants men and women to enjoy sexual intercourse with each other–provided they are married by the Church. One of the great pieces of Catholic tomfoolery: celibate priests advising their flock on sexual matters.

Not surprisingly, the smug superiority of the brothers and priests spilled over into the students. Chaminade was known for several chants that went up during home football games. One of those chants–"repel them, repel them, make them relinquish the spheroid!"–played on the school's reputation for academic discipline, as if Chaminade's student body was entirely composed of eggheads and not fledgling stockbrokers. Still, it was a clever cheer that showed an affable, self-effacing quality. More often, the fans followed up a visitors' touchdown with: "That's all right, that's OK, we're gonna be your boss some day!" A charming demonstration of school spirit.

Every school has bad teachers. At Chaminade, the bad teachers exceeded even the most charitable random distribution. The reason was systemic: the bad teachers were almost always brothers and priests. I have friends and acquaintances who attended Catholic high schools. None of them report the kind of oppression that we encountered at Chaminade. A friend of mine who went to Archbishop Molloy, an all-boys high school in Queens run by the Marist order, described his experience as four of the happiest years of his life. Curiously, had my family remained in Queens and not moved further out on Long Island, I would have attended Molloy.

Extracurricular Activities

Over the years, Chaminade has aligned itself with some dubious characters. The school's athletic teams are known as the Flyers and its newspaper is called Tarmac in honor of Charles Lindbergh, who began his famous transatlantic flight from nearby Roosevelt Field, now the site of a sprawling shopping mall. Lindbergh's flaky, ultra-right wing politics probably didn't hurt when the Chaminade brain trust sat down to choose names. 

In keeping with a penchant to commingle conservativism and militarism, Chaminade chose General Peter Pace, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as the first guest to address the faculty and students in its newly built Activities and Athletic Center in September 2007. Earlier in the year, Pace, a staunch Catholic, related his position on gays serving in the military in an interview with the Chicago Tribune, stating, "I believe homosexual acts between two individuals are immoral and that we should not condone immoral acts," the "we" referring to America's armed forces and, by implication, America. I'm sure "Lucky Lindy," zealous watchdog of the purity of the white races, would have seconded that opinion.

In addition to exposing its wards to such intellectual luminaries as General Pace, Chaminade routinely conscripted boys to take part in anti-abortion demonstrations. I recall many mornings in homeroom as Brother Cephas canvassed for volunteers to go to Washington, D.C. over the weekend and walk a picket line sign in hand. You can imagine the response such an enticing offer had on a roomful of 16 year-old boys thoroughly obsessed with Van Halen and illicit Michelobs. Nevertheless, Tarmac photographs proved that a small cadre of pre-pubescent shock troops always turned out for the march. I may have been naive about a lot of things going on at Chaminade, but even then I knew that there was something inherently absurd about celibate men convincing virgin boys to protest what none of them understood in the slightest.

Chaminade has had its share of famous alumni, for better and worse. George Kennedy, the actor best known for his Academy Award-winning performance alongside Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, graduated in 1943. Alfonse D'Amato, class of '55, served three terms as a U.S. Senator from New York. 

Another actor, Brian Dennehy, graduated the following year. Dennehy made his first appearance on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson on a Friday in January of 1986. Carson asked him about his background, noting that he must have played football being such a big guy. With a disparaging roll of his eyes, Dennehy answered, "I played at Chaminade High School out on Long Island." A few scattered claps went up from the audience, to which Dennehy replied with equal sarcasm: "No, not possible. Friday nights you should be in confession."[2]

A truly controversial alumnus is Bill O'Reilly, class of '67. A veteran of TV journalism, O'Reilly has risen to national prominence as the tendentiously conservative host of The O'Reilly Factor, a talk show on which he stirs the pot of current socio-political issues. Not surprisingly, his skill in spewing reactionary blather has made the show the most popular program on cable news.

My own homeroom has produced a famous sportswriter. Mike Vaccaro writes for the New York Post, happily fulfilling a destiny not even Chaminade's joyless clergy could suppress.

"My education was interrupted only by my schooling." – Winston Churchill

I chose to go to Chaminade. It was my own damned fault. While most of my grammar school classmates opted for coed Catholic high schools or our town's public high, my closest friends and I freely elected to attend Chaminade for the academic challenge we thought it held. We were wrong, but we stuck it out. Our parents worked very hard to keep us at Chaminade. For them it was a point of pride, once again a result of the school's purported intellectual rigor. I said nothing to disabuse them of their mistaken belief, partially because I didn't want to spoil the very thing that made their sacrifices seem worthwhile. 

But another reason was that I didn't fully recognize the pernicious behavior of Chaminade's brothers and priests. I kept my head down and ignored what I clearly see now as egregious favoritism. Very quickly, though, Chaminade's stifling atmosphere became apparent in retrospect. In high school, I'd barely made the honor roll a few trimesters out of four years. I finished my freshman year in college with a 3.9 GPA. Learning was once again a delight, not the daily penance I endured as a browbeaten, blue-collar captive in a petty tyranny. I graduated from St. Bonaventure University magna cum laude.

For years I had recurring dreams in which I found myself back at Chaminade. In the dream I knew the arrangement was voluntary and I could leave if I wanted, but I never dared. Then one night I had the dream for what I'm sure is the last time. My classmates and I sat, desks and all, on the playing fields on a bright spring afternoon. I was grown up, but my classmates were high school age. Brother Cephas lectured us on how we shouldn't be like those kids who board the bus after school all four years, never participating in a sport, intramurals, or a club. Suddenly, I realized I was 40 years-old and didn't have to listen to his rubbish. I stood up and started to walk away. My classmates were aghast. After I'd taken a few steps, Brother Cephas screamed at me, "Mr. Walsh, where do you think you're going?" To which I replied: "Anywhere I damned well please!"

[1] Sports Illustrated, February 27, 1984, Volume 60, No. 9.
[2] Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, Friday, January 10, 1986.

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Scene4 - International Magazine of Arts and Culture

May 2014

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