Society Men: What I Learned from the Jesuits

By Gault, Barry | Commonweal, April 22, 2011 | Go to article overview

Society Men: What I Learned from the Jesuits

Gault, Barry, Commonweal

Lola Montez, mistress of King Ludwig I, trained her bulldog to attack Jesuits. When the pooch bit a hunk out of a theology professor, the enraged Bavarian intellectual community saw to it that Lola was imprisoned and, for the sake of exorcism, put on a diet consisting solely of raspberry juice. The right team of theatrical geniuses could probably whip up a successful musical comedy out of these ingredients; but dogs on stage are a huge headache, and nowadays there are scarcely any Jesuits left worth biting.

I understand Lola's attitude, however, because in my youth Jesuits loomed large. I still recall the afternoon when, walking down a corridor at Marquette High School, I was jolted by a sudden loud whack and a slash of fire across my backside. I halted, gasping. Pain had caused me involuntarily to squeeze my eyes shut, and I opened them to see Fr. Jerry Boyle, SJ, saunter past me, chuckling. We didn't exchange a syllable. Conversation wasn't one of his strengths. He ambled on down the hallway, swinging his golf club.

It wasn't a whole club. He'd removed the head and used the shaft as a flogging cane. Boyle's official title, assistant principal, politely obscured his chief function--discipline. Students in need of correction would, from time to time, be summoned to his office to receive a series of blows like the single one that so startled me. I never suffered one of these official punishment canings. However painful, they presumably lacked the grotesque element of surprise that dominates my memory. During the hour or two that my rump continued to hurt I brooded on three aspects of Jerry Boyle's assault: he attacked by surprise from behind; he didn't say a word; he was laughing. Presumably my pain was his whim. That was fifty-six years ago. Although he's long dead, the desire to kill him is still with me.

Don't misunderstand. I rather liked him. Those of us who aren't cut out for slavery can't be humiliated by a sadistic bully without feeling enduring retaliatory hatred. But none of us, including Boyle, should be judged by our worst moments. There was sadism in his character, but it didn't always prevail. His bullying was, at most, intermittent. He was a very large man with a high quavering voice like the old-time cowboy actor Andy Devine. He presided at "jug," Jesuit prep schools' uniform name for after-school detention, where malefactors sat at the desks of a large study hall, each struggling to earn his liberty by memorizing his particular assigned text. Assigned by Boyle. So mysteriously precise was his assessment of each boy's retentive powers, to which he matched a selected literary passage, that after about an hour the entire group of detainees would invariably rise almost simultaneously and approach his desk on the dais at the front of the classroom to recite and be released. Just about the time Terry Dooley had mastered the ten short lines of Countee Cullen's "Incident" ("Once riding in old Baltimore ..."), Andy Clark would have digested his huge tract of Tennyson, and everyone caught the same bus home.

Marquette University High School, in Milwaukee, on Wisconsin Avenue at 35th Street, in the 1950s seems pretty remote now. If it strikes me as strange, it must be profoundly alien to you. And for good reason: nothing like my high-school education could possibly happen today. My life, full, lucky, and already reasonably long, has been lived mostly in New England. But everyone comes from somewhere. I come from Marquette High School, class of 1956. More than five decades, not at all uneventful, lie between here, now and there, then, but no other four years stay with me so insistently as my days among some nine hundred boys in that one not-very-big building on Wisconsin Avenue. Nine hundred boys, and the Jesuits. Anarchic and authoritarian, democratic and elitist, lax and rigorous, the culture of Marquette High looks now like a prodigious anachronism. We inhabited a world of Latin, Greek, football, frequent breaks for religious observances, cigarettes, a card game called sheepshead, corporal punishment, and no girls. …

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