February 10, 2016
“Gentlemen, look at the student to your right and the student to your left. One of them will likely not be with you on graduation day in four years,” said Monsignor Paul J. O’Dea as he paced in front of the 105 members of our freshman class. He pivoted, stood still for a full minute, and slowly swept his dark eyes across each of our upturned faces. I heard a truck downshift twice on Broad Street across the school’s wide front lawn.
We were seated in the front pews of Mother of Mercy Chapel, a scaled-down Gothic cathedral, on the first morning at St. Charles Preparatory. O’Dea, Dean of Students, resumed pacing with long strides, his black cassock flaring around his shoes and the red piping catching the sun from the tall windows beneath pointed arches.
“If you apply yourself to your studies and comport yourself properly as Catholic young men,” O’Dea continued, “you will be awarded a diploma at the end of spring semester of 1961. You were accepted to this school because of your grades in elementary school and your score on our entrance exam. You all have the ability to receive an education that qualifies you for further study at a seminary or a college.”
A group of stragglers entered the chapel, their footfalls on the marble floor resounding in the near empty space. They clambered into pews. O’Dea stopped speaking, glowered at them, and said “Punctuality is the least of our expectations of St. Charles students.”
After a suitable pause, O’Dea continued, “I deeply regret that Greek is no longer part of our curriculum. One must read the gospels, early Christian theologians, Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle in the original Greek to fully comprehend our Catholic faith and Western civilization. Alas, you will not receive a complete classical education. Other faculty thought substituting French or Spanish for Greek would be more useful. I can assure you, however, that you will have the benefit of four years of classical Latin beginning with Caesar’s Gallic Wars in my class. Good day, gentlemen.”
Father Hugh Murphy reviewed class schedules, school holidays, lunch options, and intramural sports. I was delighted with the dress code. No jeans were permitted, but, unlike St. Gabriel Elementary, no ties were required. I was surprised that smoking was permitted outside the boiler room with a note from parents—an enlightened policy.
Soon it was 11 am, time for daily Mass, not mandatory but strongly encouraged. During Mass, I took inventory of my fellow students’ attire. I didn’t know all their proper names then, but oxblood penny loafers, tan chinos, woven leather belts, crew neck sweaters, and Pendleton plaid shirt-jackets were well-represented among those within my view. I saw many with short hair brushed to the side in a style called a “Princeton Cut” in one of several sketches of hair style options on my barber’s wall.
No one else in our class was from my school or even my part of town. I was alone at St. Charles because my elementary school principal flattered me by recommending I apply. Her confidence in me, and the potential for an excellent education and future success that was beginning to dawn on me led me to this school.
For lunch, I brought a brown paper bag with a peanut butter sandwich and an apple. I randomly took a seat next to Jim Donley, an affable giant, well over six feet and solidly built. He unloaded a plastic tray crowded with dishes for with spaghetti, peaches, salad, and a wedge of apple pie. We introduced ourselves by referring to our parishes. He was unaware of my parish elementary school, but knew of the nearby city high school, Linden-McKinley, a sports powerhouse. St. Agatha in Upper Arlington was his parish. He mentioned that his brother graduated from St. Charles and was starting medical school. His parents expected to be a doctor, too since his dad and his grandfather were both physicians.
Latin class was our first class of the afternoon. Monsignor O’Dea began by assigning seats alphabetically. I noted that some names associated with prominent local businesses and city government. He held up a blue textbook and said, “Our text is available in the bookstore in the basement, but I strongly encourage you to purchase a “pony.” I see that you have one on your desk, Mr. Donley. Undoubtedly your older brother’s. Please enlighten your fellow students about the “pony.”
“It’s Caesar’s words in Latin, but there’s an English translation in smaller print under each line. It’s like a cheat sheet,” responded Donley with a quick glance at O’Dea and a nervous laugh.
“A study aid is a more appropriate term, Mr. Donley. Latin students have been riding these ‘ponies’ for generations, but you will still need to learn vocabulary, declensions, sentence structure and everything else you’ll need to translate not only Julius Caesar, but Emperor Marcus Aurelius, orator Marcus Tullius Cicero, theologian Thomas Aquinas, and the great men who laid the foundation of our civilization.
You will translate Caesar’s reports on the Gallic Wars and other homework every night. Pop quizzes will occur at my whim, perhaps when you least expect it. Major tests will be every six weeks. Welcome to four years of Latin studies, gentlemen.
“Caesar’s first sentence is ‘Omnia Gallia tres partes divisa est,’ he said as he scrawled it on the blackboard with screeching white chalk unlike the green boards and yellow chalk at St. Gabriel. After no one ventured an answer to his question about Gallia, he pulled a ring on a string to unroll a faded map of Europe with Latin names. My semi-classical education had begun.
Father Murphy, our math teacher, came in as O’Dea left. Unlike other high schools, teachers moved from one of our three classrooms to another. Algebra was a new and intimidating subject for me. Some of my fellow freshmen from St. Agatha were familiar with the mysterious x’s and y’s, but Father promised to begin with the basics. He assigned no homework on the first day, but said there would be nightly exercises.
We had completed our first day of high school.Those seated near me, Thomas Brosmer in front and Bob Dilenschneider in back, spoke briefly but hurried off to catch rides with upperclassmen. I opened the hinged desktop with a hole for inkwells and numerous initials carved by predecessors. I fastidiously arranged my tablets, pencils, and pens as the room emptied. I wondered if my savings from caddying, diminished by books and supplies, would cover the costs of a splendid plaid shirt-jacket and maybe a pair of the khaki pants like those worn by my new classmates. The loafers would never hold up to the salt and snowlike like my sensible brogans.
Finally I picked up my looseleaf binder with tabs for each class, Latin text, and the used “pony” I had purchased and walked to Nelson Road to hitchhike home. I was pleased that only a couple of cars were in the student parking lot. I did not want to be on the curb with my thumb raised begging for a ride when St. Charles students passed.
After hitching two rides and hiking the last few blocks, I pushed open our front door to the usual cacophony of my three younger brothers and sisters. In an hour, my sisters would have supper underway in the kitchen, the table set, and the living room would be minimally straightened up in anticipation of my parents arrival. Dad, who was “between jobs,” picked up Mom at her office or at the bus stop two miles away.
Nearly two hours later Mom walked in alone. Dad didn’t meet her. She barely greeted us, tied on her apron, and put supper on the table with our help. After saying grace, she composed herself and rallied to ask each of us about our first day of school. She listened to each of us and probed about our new teachers, classmates, and subjects. After supper, my oldest sister and I shooed Mom out of the kitchen and did the dishes.
I shut the dining room door, spread out my Latin book, pony and a yellow tablet. Vocabulary was first, then a few paragraphs on the inverted order of subjects and verbs, the puzzling concept of gender for inanimate objects, and a passage to translate. I heard my usual TV shows, “Gunsmoke” and “Robin Hood,” in the nearby living room.
One of the Latin words in the vocabulary lesson was “impedimenta.” It did not translate as an impediment or obstacle; rather it was grain, cook pots, trenching and fortification tools, and other equipment carried by donkeys that followed the Roman legions in Gaul. Caesar complained frequently that the burden of “impedimenta” limited the mobility of his army.
I decided Dad was Mom’s burden, her “impedimenta.” Some months on the day his VA disability check arrived he failed to show up at the bus stop, didn’t call, or even come home for day. Without this income, Mom juggled bills as best she could. Collectors called and left threatening messages with us children. The phone was cut off several times.
As I sat at the dining room table, anger welled up. My hands were fists positioned to beat on the table. I heard Mom laughing with the kids at something on TV. I exhaled. Gradually my heartbeat returned to normal. My books and binder were stacked and ready to be hefted in my left hand early in the morning when I stood by the road with my right hand and thumb extended to get a ride to school.
My longing for a wool plaid shirt and khaki pants earlier in the day came back to me, and a wave of guilt swept over me. I dismissed these thoughts. How could I be so selfish with my caddying money? My two pair of pants, blue corduroy and gray wool, and several often-washed shirts would suffice. I had a sweater I could wear on cold days beneath the dark blue Air Force raincoat my uncle had handed down to me. I would be fine I told myself.
* * * *
In the coming days at St. Charles, I settled into the routine of morning classes in religion, English, and history followed by Mass, lunch, and Latin, my favorite, and algebra, my least favorite. Students became acquaintances and a few became friends. I no longer coveted their trendy clothes as much. My envy faded. I could not have their penny loafers and Pendleton plaids, but I thought I could surpass them academically. Horatio Alger stories about the success of newsboys and matchbox girls on the streets had circulated in our family. I became one of those boys, and I was determined to rise above those with the fashionable attire. Privately my plain clothes became a source of pride when coupled with high grades.
When our first six-weeks Latin test was distributed, O’Dea asked me to stand and said, “Mr. Calvert, you received only a 99 in this test because I have scruples about giving any student 100. Young man, you have the potential to become a Latin scholar.”
High praise from O’Dea! This and other academic successes fueled further efforts to excel and earn a place near the top of my class. I knew where I was from, who I was, and what I was about.