Friday, October 09, 2009

My Old School...

I was recently working near my old high school and decided to pay a visit. I had not seen the place since my graduation in 1985, and the place was no longer familiar to me; there had been quite a bit of new construction (an athletic center, a football stadium, the main building had a new facade and extensions).

I stood in the parking lot, trying to take it all in, and wondering about whether or not it was a good idea to actually go inside, or to just wander around the grounds. I made the decision to walk right in head straight for the office to see if, perhaps, someone was available to talk to an old alumni. Imagine my surprise when not only was someone available, but it was his job to deal with alumni. I didn't think we'd have one, but we do. And it's a good thing, too.

A little background:

I attended St. Peter's Boys High School in Staten Island New York, c. 1981-1985. It is a Christian Brother's Academy (the Christian Brothers of St. John Baptiste De La Salle are an order of Catholic brothers dedicated to Education), and there is a sister school (St. Peter's Girl's High School) which I know very little about except that my girlfriends, at the time, went there.

The curriculum was rather rigorous. Each incoming freshman was required to take a year of Latin. Most classes were geared to preparing the student for a Regent's Diploma (the NY State Regents Exams were once a gold standard of Academic achievement), as well as College Prep. Discipline was strict. The Brothers understood that 'boys will be boys' (they never came down on us for things like smoking on campus, goofing around in the hallways and such), but they also understood that if you let a teenage boy shirk his educational responsibilities, and his duties as a citizen, that he most certainly will. You'd better believe that they cared not only about your schoolwork, but on how you represented the school.

My freshman class was the largest in the history of Staten Island. Just over 900 boys in 1981. Four years later, only 186 had graduated. The Brothers and lay faculty had done their job of weeding out the students who couldn't hack it and the disciplinary problems. Those four years were tough academically, I can assure you.

There was quite a bit to like, as well. I was a soccer player at St. Peter's (my team had won the NYC Championship in 1982), and fooled around a bit in band (I was a drummer, but never really got into band, and so I floated around the periphery before giving it up). I had a great bunch of friends. Actually, two bunches of friends.

There were the soccer players. Mostly geeks, like myself. And then there was the Fun Bunch; these were the Wiseguys. The jokers, the smokers and the slackers. That was the bunch that turned the senior lounge into a casino; the Brothers were forever breaking up poker and blackjack games, confiscating dice, and so forth. Boys will be boys, indeed.

Anyways, I went into the office. I justified the incursion by reminding myself that my nephew will soon be a freshman, and we've been sort of hoping he would choose to go to St. Peters. Maybe I would see something to help him make a better decision, when the time comes.

I was amazed that not only has the place changed beyond all recognition (in my day, St. Peter's was three buildings in the middle of a muddy field, with a concrete track in front of it), it has become, in effect, a college campus. There's a football stadium (football was not available in my day because, as I heard the tale, a student had been killed back in the days when they wore leather helmets). An athletic center that includes a state-of-the-art weight training room. The interior had been completely redesigned and included a new chapel and new labs. The library had been expanded and rebuilt. So had the computer labs. It was unrecognizable. It wasn't the same place. And they did it all without raising tuition. They raised the money from local businesses and alumni. Everything had changed.

And then, once you got past the new exterior, you find that it hadn't really changed at all.

The Assistant Principle had been my Chemistry teacher in sophomore year. The Principal had been the Assistant Principle. My Algebra, History and Geometry teachers were still teaching there. Brother James (who had kicked my ass in freshman year, and remembered it!) was still there. One of my classmates had returned to teach math (I think AP calculus). All of a sudden, in a way, I was 18 again and standing in a place that felt like...home.

I can remember much about being a teenager, and most of that time was spent wishing I could leave places -- I wanted out of school, I wanted out of my mother's house, to be on my own and do as I pleased. How stupid I was! Standing there, on the front steps of the new-and-improved St. Peter's, I was suddenly wishing that I could come back and stay, to do it all again. In retrospect, what had once been thought of as a prison and yet one more torment of adolescence, was now The Greatest Place There Ever Was when seen again through the eyes of an old man.

I left feeling nostalgia, not just for this place, but for a better time; I was young, I was good-looking, and I was part of something much larger than myself, which actually stood for something. I was suddenly very proud. It was as if I had completed some great pilgrimage, to return to where it had all begun.

The Alumni Director (himself a graduate; he was one year behind me) has given me a list of my old classmates and their contact information, which he had laboriously collected over the years, since the Alumni Association takes great pains to keep in touch-- the recent newsletter contains information the recent comings and goings and achievements of alumni going all the way back to the school's founding! And they get together, all these men from every graduating class, often. This is something I had never worried about before, and now it seems like the greatest idea in the world to join their ranks, to talk of things past and take up the mantle of shepherding the next generation into manhood.

I hope my nephew (hell, all four of them!) makes the right decision and attends my old school. He will learn there. He will grow there. He will be cared for by dedicated individuals who see him as more than just a student -- he'd be part of a family. I'd be pleased as all hell to one day attend an alumni event with him, sharing our experiences of our school days and passing on the traditions that made St. Peter's such a special place.

And, here it is.

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