By Salvatore Sapienza
I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through raging waters they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned.
-- The Book of the Prophet Isaiah, 43:1-3
All the incoming freshmen boys at Mount Saint Vincent's High School were issued gym uniforms with their last names emblazoned in black block letters across the backs of their gray T-shirts. This was primarily so the PE teachers, who had classes of more than sixty students per session, could easily identify each boy. "Hey, Simmons, stop roughhousing!" "Owens, pick up the pace!" That sort of thing.
Poor Paul Ness. Since he and his identical twin brother, Matt, were in the same PE class, the Ness boys were issued shirts embroidered not only with their last names, but also with their first initials. The taunting of Paul started on the first day of gym class, when Brother O'Malley -- during a hellish round of dodgeball -- yelled," You're out, P. Ness!"
"Brother O'Malley called that kid a penis," one boy whispered. Soon laughter spread throughout the gym, with only Brother O'Malley clueless as to what was so funny.
Paul was just one of the twenty-five students in my freshman religion class. As a new teacher, I was thrilled when the semester started out well, but as the months wore on, I gradually began losing control. To keep my students focused, I tried every trick I had learned in my education classes at NYU. I incorporated popular music, art, role-playing, but despite my best efforts, my freshman class was still off the wall. When it's Friday afternoon, last period of the day, two months prior to summer vacation, nobody wants to be in school, teachers included. I denied my students' request to start a countdown of days left to the end of the school year in one corner of the chalk- board, although secretly I was keeping track of it myself in my day planner.
Brother McCallister, who had been teaching at Mount Saint Vincent's High School for thirty years (in fact, he was my teacher when I was a freshman at the school), suggested giving tests that period. "It'll force them to sit down and shut up," he said. Although this greatly conflicted with my philosophy of teaching, I decided to give it a try. At that point, protecting my sanity was more important than maintaining my pedagogy.
The test idea worked for only a few weeks. First off, there were only so many questions I could ask each Friday. I taught religion, and the class only met every other day for forty-five minutes. How could I turn a lesson on the miracle of the loaves and the fishes, for example, into a forty-five minute exam? Jesus may have been able to stretch out the food and keep the masses satisfied, but I had difficulty stretching out the multiple-choice questions. I thought about giving essay exams instead, but soon realized that even though it would keep the students quiet longer, it meant that I was stuck reading twenty-five essays each weekend. I may have vowed poverty, chastity, and obedience, but I was unwilling to make that sacrifice. I was only twenty-seven years old, and I had a life, despite what my students may have thought.
I then resorted to turning Friday into game day, with a religious twist, of course. One class period, a particularly rowdy game of biblical hangman took place. Jessie Pace had asked to buy a vowel for the three-letter puzzle, of which the letters J and B had already been successfully chosen as the first and last letters, respectively, by members of his team. When Jessie then asked to buy an E, all hell broke loose.
"Jeb? You idiot! There's no Jeb in the Bible!" screamed Fidel, the captain of Jessie's team.
"That's the old dude from The Beverly Hillbillies," laughed Vince. "Come and listen to my story 'bout a man named Jeb," he sang.
"It's not Jeb. It's Jed," Miguel said.
"It is? I always thought it was Jeb," said Vince. "Hey, Brother, is the guy from Beverly Hillbillies named Jeb or Jed?"
There was now total chaos in the classroom. If an administrator had walked in, how would I possibly explain the noise, the hung stick figure on the board (was he hung or hanged?), and a discussion of Buddy Ebsen's character's name?
"Okay, guys, settle down," I pleaded. And then, in my desperation, I pounded my fists on my desk. This got everyone's attention, as I rarely lost my cool. "We still have forty more days left of school," I said, thereby giving away my secret countdown. "That means ten more Fridays. You guys are excellent during the week, but Fridays are always out of control. You've gotta help me out here. I will take any and all suggestions."
Vince enthusiastically volunteered, "Let's make it movie day."
"Vince, this is a religion class," I said. "I don't know if I could stomach watching Charlton Heston for the next ten Fridays. What other religious-themed movies can you guys come up with?"
"What about Last Temptation of Christ?" Jessie suggested.
"You want to get me fired, Jessie?" I said.
"But you're a brother. Could they really fire you for showing us that?" asked Miguel.
"I don't want to find out," I said.
"I think it's so stupid that they banned it," said Jessie. "They ended up bringing more attention to it."
"Hey," interrupted Vince, "my mom was one of those protesters. The movie totally blasphemes Jesus. I mean, they show him making out with Mary Magdalene."
"Did you or your mom actually see the movie?" Jessie asked Vince.
"No, of course not," Vince replied.
"How can you protest a movie you haven't even seen?" Jessie asked.
"What do you think about the movie, Brother?" Fidel asked.
"I've seen it," I said, causing quite a few shocked freshman faces. "C'mon, guys. I'm an Italian from Brooklyn. It's basically a requirement for me to see every Scorsese movie."
"How could a brother see a movie that the Church is against?" asked Vince. "Isn't that against your vows?"
"No, it's not," I replied. "Actually, I found the movie deeply moving. If anything, it only helped me to better understand my vows. Seeing a more human Jesus struggling with his calling and dealing with desires was much more meaningful to me than the images of Jesus I grew up with. When I was growing up, we had a picture hanging in our living room of Jesus with the Sacred Heart bursting out of his chest. It used to give me the creeps. His eyes used to follow me around the room."
I knew my students could benefit from watching and discussing the movie, but incurring the wrath of the administration -- and Vince's mother -- was something I was unwilling to deal with.
"Look, guys, the movie's rated R, so I can't show it to you anyway. What other religious movies can you think of?" I asked.
Silence from the masses.
"Anyone?" I asked, and then said in my best Ben Stein voice,"Bueller? Bueller?"
This elicited laughter and eased the tension of my fist-pounding moment. Finally, Fidel said, "Why don't you tell us about you?"
"What do you mean? Tell you what?"
"About you. About why you decided to become a brother," he said.
"Would you guys really be interested in that?" I felt bewildered.
"Yeah," said Miguel matter-of-factly. "I mean, it is pretty weird for somebody like you to do something like that."
"What do you mean 'somebody like me'?" I hesitantly said.
"I mean, all the other brothers are like old and ugly, but you can, like, still get a lot of girls," Miguel said to the laughter of the rest of boys.
"Yeah, my sister saw your picture in the yearbook," added Jessie, "and she said you're a real fox."
"Tell your sister I'm flattered," I said humbly, "but I don't see how a discussion about me fits into the curriculum of this class."
"You've got to be kidding, Brother," Fidel boldly exclaimed. "It's exactly the point of this class. I mean, what better way of learning about religion than through a young guy who's giving up everything for it?"
Fidel's response floored me, which was not atypical. Fidel was the only freshman in the school who needed to shave on a daily basis, and his physical development was on par with his emotional maturity. On the first day of class, I thought maybe he was a senior walking into the wrong classroom, but, no, there was his name on my class roster. Hey, if a twenty-something actor like Jason Priestley could be cast as a high school student in that new Fox television series, Beverly Hills, 90210, then I assumed Fidel Moreno could be a freshman at Mount Saint Vincent's High School in Flushing 11357.
Of course, Fidel's latest suggestion that I talk to the class about myself made perfect sense, but I wasn't sure how comfortable I'd be talking about my personal life in front of teenage boys. This was not a group that was shy about asking personal questions, especially those of a sexual nature. Although I could see the benefit of such a question-and-answer period, I knew that my responses would have to be genuine, or they'd call me on it. One of the great things about teenagers is that they can see through all the bullshit answers they get from adults.
"That's not a bad suggestion, Fidel," I finally responded. "Let me think about it this weekend, and I'll let you guys know next week. Now, before we go, we need to talk about seventy times seven." I wrote "70 X 7" on the board. "Open your New Testaments to Matthew, Chapter Eighteen, verses twenty-one and twenty-two. Paul, would you read this aloud for us?"
Since Paul was teased so much about his name, I tried my best to empower him by giving him special tasks like delivering notes to the office or reading aloud. I always made sure to praise him for a job well done.
Paul read slowly, "Then Peter went up to Jesus and said, 'Lord, how often must I forgive my neighbor if he wrongs me? As often as seven times?' Jesus answered, 'Not seven, I tell you, but seventy times seven times.'"
"Nicely read, Paul," I said supportively. "Thanks. Now, what do you guys think Jesus meant by this?"
Studious Anthony was first to raise his hand. "Well, if you do the math, that's four hundred and ninety times. So, if your neighbor wrongs you four hundred and ninety-one times, then you don't have to forgive him."
Although some boys in the class snickered at Anthony's response, others' facial expressions seemed to indicate that they were very seriously considering its validity. Such is the case when teaching a class of twenty-five fourteen-year-olds, some of whose voices hadn't yet changed, while others were sprouting wisps of hair above their upper lips forming pathetically weak moustaches.
"Okay." I laughed and rolled my eyes, knowing full well before I called on him that Anthony's response would be so analytical." That's one way of looking at it. Who has another interpretation?"
Fidel responded, "I don't think Jesus wanted Peter to take it that literally. I think Jesus was saying that we have to forgive people over and over again, even if they keep screwing with us. I've got a problem with that. Are you saying if somebody raped my little sister I need to forgive him? I couldn't do that once, let alone four hundred and ninety times. Could you do that, Brother?"
"I don't know, Fidel," I replied, "but I know that's what Jesus is calling us to do. Nobody said being a Christian was easy. In fact, in our world today, it's a real challenge, isn't it? Is there anybody in the class willing to share a personal story of forgiveness?"
Once again, silence, and lots of eye-contact avoidance. What did Robin Williams do to get the boys' attention in Dead Poets Society? Should I stand on top of my desk?
"Nobody in this room has ever forgiven somebody?" I said incredulously. "I can't believe that."
"How 'bout you, Bro? I mean, if Fridays are going to become Ask Brother Vito Day, this is as good a day as any to start," Fidel warmly challenged.
At that moment, the bell rang, ending the period and the school day. "Well, guys, like Screech, I'm saved by the bell," I exclaimed as students started standing up and grabbing the books from under their desks. I shouted, "Okay, don't go anywhere, guys! Your homework for the weekend is to write about a time in your life when you needed to forgive someone. Please don't ask me how many pages. I'd rather have half a page of truth than three pages of b.s. Okay? Great. Enjoy your weekend."
"We still want to hear your forgiveness story." Fidel smiled as he walked past my desk.
"Okay. I'll do the homework, too," I said. "Hey, Fidel. Have you considered going on the freshman retreat next weekend? It's your last chance, you know."
"I'm not sure, Brother," he responded. "It's not praying all weekend, is it?"
"Of course not," I replied. "The brothers have a beautiful retreat house upstate in Poughkeepsie, where you can hike, swim, fish. It's just about getting away for the weekend, away from the city. To be honest, there is some prayer involved, but it's something I think you would find worthwhile."
"I'll talk it over with my mom and let you know on Monday," Fidel said.
"Good deal, and thanks for the suggestion about Ask Brother Vito Day. I think that could work," I said. Fidel smiled proudly. "So, do you have a lot of homework this weekend?"
"Yeah, I got to read this stupid story for English," he said. "'The Minister's Black Veil' by Hawthorne. You ever read it?"
"I probably did back in high school, but I don't remember it," I said. "Well, despite that homework and the one that I assigned you, try to have a good weekend, okay?"
"You, too, Brother," Fidel said. He walked toward the door as I began erasing the board. When he got to the doorway, he turned around. "What do you guys do on the weekends, anyways? I mean can you go out and stuff?"
"Let's make that the first question for Ask Brother Vito Day, okay Fidel?" I said, erasing the numbers from the board.
"Cool. Well, whatever you do, have fun. If you're allowed to, I mean."