Friday, May 1, 2009

Reflections on Brother Linus, CFX, upon the dedication of the new athletic complex in his name at St. John's Preparatory School ... my alma mater.

Brother Linus was my religion teacher in my freshman year at St. John’s Prep … but to end the sentence there does monumental injustice to the man.

He was so much more.

He was, all at once, a coach, a teacher, a mentor, a guidance counselor, and, perhaps most of all, a shepherd … taking the often-frightened freshmen who swarmed into the school each September and guiding them through that transition into young adulthood.

Schools such as St. John’s Prep are not for everyone. Even if you do have an above-average intelligence quotient, a place like The Prep demands so much more in the way of academic accountability than simply the natural, sometimes effortless ability to absorb information.

In fact, if you’re academically gifted, and expect to coast through St. John’s Prep based solely on that good fortune, save your money. You’ll have missed the entire point of what makes The Prep special.

Every school of this type needs a Brother Linus … someone who is not afraid to remind a 14-year-old kid that he’s just entered the world of high expectations while, at the same time, making it clear that he has that young man’s back as he navigates the rough waters of adjustment.

In 1967, I was that 14-year-old kid, catapulted out of the cocoon of Sacred Heart School in Lynn and thrust into the social maelstrom of The Prep. I had no idea what to expect. I knew this wasn’t Lynn Classical. For one thing, the school resembled a small college campus (my grandmother could never get used to that; she’d always ask me “how’s college?” when she inquired about school). And, back in 1967, residents boarded there. But otherwise, it was all new … and terrifying.

It was major culture shock … not to mention culture clash. One of my classmates came from Aruba, and had never seen snow until the first time we got some that winter. And boy, did we get some … a sneak snowstorm in November that made a major mess out of the commute home. I can still remember sitting in a parking lot that was Route 128, until well past nightfall, in a car with four other classmates and one beleaguered mother whose turn it was – sadly, for her -- to carpool.

Welcome to the winter wonderland, Mike Maxey (the classmate) and Mary McGovern (the mom).

Maxey must have liked the snow, by the way. He lives in Quincy now.

My freshman class was divided into seven groups, ranging from Offical Class (O.C.) Zero (the exceptionally smart ones) to O.C. Six (do the math). The only thing all of us had in common that year was the religion teacher: Brother Linus. I’m sure that, since we were at a school staffed with Xaverian Brothers, this not due to a shortage of religion teachers; nor was it any accident.

As a freshman guidance counselor, Brother Linus was – for all intents and purposes – the official “shepherd” of the ninth grade, whether that was part of his job description or not. He was the best friend a young kid could have at The Prep. Between the clashes in background and the inevitably wide disparity in emotional maturity that comes with a diverse group of kids, The Prep could be an extremely difficult and lonely place if you found yourself on the low end of the food chain in one respect or another.

Brother Linus was always there to help you sort it out, even if he often did it with tough love. He wasn’t afraid to tell you if he thought your difficulties were of your own doing, but he could do it in a way that reinforced your confidence instead of destroying it. That is a special gift.

As a religion teacher, all I can say is that Brother Linus turned the Baltimore Catechism on its head daily, whether he was describing Moses and his refugees -- as they wandered through the desert -- as “a bunch of rag-tag Jews,” or calling all the women in the Old Testament “Jezebels.”

He also used religion class as a time to bond with his students – many of them budding athletes (The Prep being an athletic, as well as academic, Mecca) – in other ways.

His universal greeting to all was, “Hey, ace.” One of the first things he told us was that he was a close personal friend of Vince Lombardi, the late, great coach of the Green Bay Packers. His lectures were always peppered with “Vince-isms,” and he’d often begin a class by saying, “I was on the phone with Vince last night …”

This seemed like it could be true. He was the freshman football coach. And there may have been a time, albeit briefly, when, naïve as I was, I actually believed him.

He loved his football … and disdained basketball (which he derisively called “bouncy-bounce”). He’d have us in the aisles with his impressions of a basketball player, running around in his short-shorts, screaming, “owww … he touched me.”

He didn’t seem to have much use for tennis, either. Once, during a particularly uninspired freshman football practice, he gathered us all together and pointed to where the tennis courts were (you couldn’t see them from the field, so it was an approximation) and said, “if want to go over there and hit that little rubber ball back and forth across that net, be my guest.”

But if he was entertaining as a coach and a teacher, he was also tough. He ran hard and physical practices, both in football and hockey … and never let up (not even when the Red Sox were fighting to win the 1967 pennant and – much to his annoyance -- we’d all be on the lookout for game updates if they were being played in the afternoon).

He was one of the few teachers I had at The Prep who actually gave out a syllabus (he didn’t call it that; but that’s what it was). On it was the term “SQ,” which stood for “surprise quiz.”

The only surprise about these quizzes is that they were brutal.

Brother Linus also demanded that we maintain a thorough (and legible) notebook that chronicled all his bon mots (over which he pored – at the end of every quarter -- as if he were an auditor for the IRS).

This, of course, was part of the shepherding process. I came to The Prep grossly unprepared for young adulthood, of course, and my first encounter with the tough side of Brother Linus the Teacher came when I got that notebook back at the end of the first quarter … with just a string of question marks all in a neat, tidy row … and a great, big “F.” I got a 75 for that quarter, pulled down considerably because of the sloppy notebook.

He told me he was being “generous,” because it was the first quarter of my freshman year, but that he was also pretty steamed at my total lack of care and organization. My mother was mortified. How could such a good Catholic boy – “and an altar boy, no less -- do so horribly in religion?

This led to the discovery of Krause’s Law No. 1: Religion teachers are eternally vigilant when it comes to ferreting out students who would tend to blow their courses off as irrelevant in comparison to English, Algebra, History and/or just about anything else … and they mark accordingly. I learned, after that disaster, never again to slight the religion teacher at St. John’s Prep.

Brother Linus died, quite unexpectedly, in 1977 … six years after I left The Prep and only a decade after I had the privilege of being one of his students. I always thought of him as indestructible, much like Red Auerbach. And it was hard to fathom that he had died.

Thanks to teachers like Brother Linus (and Paul Smith, Tom Ford, Bob McKenna, John Westfield, and many others) I sailed through college. I developed decent and disciplined study habits thanks to the expectations placed on me by the Xaverian Brothers education model.

Above all, I always kept an organized, legible notebook for every course in my five years at Northeastern University. Thank you, Brother Linus.

Shortly after the new Brother Linus athletic complex was dedicated, I went up to The Prep on a whim and decided to give myself a private tour. I walked all around the complex (which is massive, and impressive, and has neither a basketball nor a tennis court on hits grounds!) and, well, the ghosts just spoke to me.

I was immediately transported back to 1967, on that very field, hitting a tackling sled, listening to his lectures about guts, determination and Vince Lombardi, and how much it killed me to face him, in late October of that year, and tell him that due to poor grades my parents told me I had to quit the freshman team.

As I walked around the campus on that beautiful April day, I made my way up to the cafeteria and saw a gaggle of 14-year-old freshmen emerge from the building and spill out onto the campus. Which one of them was me? Which one of them had been ejected from the cocoon of a protective Catholic elementary/middle school and thrust, totally unprepared, into the social maelstrom of The Prep?

And who, in 2009, is The Prep’s Brother Linus?

Whoever he is, may God bless him.

1 comment:

FrancesM said...

Hey Sports Boy!

So you were an underachiever at a Catholic Boys Prep school...
I think it's sweet, it's old school, not very many people have had a prep school education. You seemed unique from the first time I stumbled upon your blog page. The stories get curiouser and curiouser.

Keep it to speak. ;~)