Monday, August 15, 2016

Science Fiction Author Reflects On His Xavier Days

My readership on this blog, which may well be numbered in the scores, is probably waiting with bated breath for the finale of my memoir of the decline of the military at Xavier High School.  One of the reasons for the delay is that I keep hoping for more input from my classmates to round things out.  So I was delighted to get this piece from John Sundman.  First I would like to introduce John just a bit.

John Sundman is the author of some really great science fiction.  Some of it like Cheap Complex Devices and The Pains is unconventional in form, so I recommend that you start with his most recent work Biodigital: A Novel of Technopotheosis to get into the story that he is telling about the interface of computer science and biology.  The others are great to read but hard to characterize while Biodigital in form might be viewed as a thriller.

John is the first Xavier classmate that I connected with through Facebook.  I think he and I were relatively early adopters, at least for geezers.  The one story I remember most distinctly about John is from our theology class in senior year.  It was 1970 and we probably had cutting edge teachers for that subject, given that Xavier was considered a pilot school by the Jesuits.  So the "class" had more of the air of an encounter group of sorts.  One of the exercises we did was to take on the supposed persona of somebody else in the class later in life and be interviewed, without disclosing who it was that you were.  John was me and the life he described was a more free spirited one that I actually lived, but somehow it caught my inner life better.

One other point to put this in context.  In the Xavier regiment all cadets had rank.  Someone in my class who got good grades and stayed out of trouble would gain five stripes (sergeant first class) by the end of junior year.  At the beginning of senior year all the positions in the regiment above squad leader were assigned to seniors along with an appropriate rank, possibly with room for one promotion.

The rank distribution of the seniors class was a bell curve with the mean being master sergeant.  At the right tail were the colonel and his twelve apostles (the regiment's executive officer and regimental staff and battalion commanders and xos).  In some ways more interesting was the left tail - the privates club of about seventeen kids who walked the fine line of not getting thrown out of Xavier without qualifying for promotion even once.

I have noted that my reference group of eight other kids who shared either my academic schedule of Greek honors, AP Latin and AP English junior year or a passion for Jean Shepherd were altogether remarkable for our military mediocrity.  We all had either lots of stripes or two or three pips.  No diamonds for our shoulders.

I also alluded to the remarkable story of Jerry Snee of the Class of 1971 who at one of the first assemblies he attended formed the ambition of being the regiment's colonel when he was a senior.  He was very disappointed when he became the Regiment's Executive Officer, a lieutenant colonel, the second highest ranking cadet in the regiment. John was the opposite of Jerry.  He was determined to match his brother's feat of graduating as a private. He didn't quite make it.  Through some lapse of attention, he inadvertently was promoted twice and graduated as a cadet corporal.  Well that is enough intro, Here's John

Some time in the spring of 1970 I was in the Port Authority bus terminal in New York City with my father. We very often rode together from our home in New Jersey into the city, where he worked in midtown and I attended high school on 16th Street.

I was nearing the end of my four years at Xavier High School, an all-boy Jesuit/ROTC institution of long pedigree. I believe Xavier may have been the only such place in the world, a Jesuit military school. (So yes, I commuted to and from school in a military-style uniform). And although I had friends there and enjoyed some of my classes, like many a teenager I hated high school, and I particularly hated Xavier. So I was grousing about something as my father and I prepared to take leave of each other for the day, and he said, "Some day you'll thank me for sending you to Xavier." And I replied, "Don't hold your breath."

A lot of what I didn't like about my high school was circumstantial. For example, the commute. In order to get to school on time I had to get up around six AM, eat and get dressed frantically, then by car, bus, train, or some combination of them get into Manhattan -- usually a ride of 45 minutes to an hour in bumper-to-bumper traffic -- and then take the subway (downtown on the A train to West 4th, then back uptown on D train to 16th). And if I was late, I would be assigned to detention -- called "jug" -- which I later learned meant "Justice Under God" -- which consisted of marching around doing close-order drill for an hour. The school had a "zero tolerance" policy for tardiness. Whether the bus broke down or snow blocked a train, it didn't matter. You were late, period. Too bad. On the way home from school, after getting off the bus I could choose between walking, hitchhiking or calling Mom for a ride for those final two miles. And if I hitchhiked, which I often did, I could often count on getting jeered at by passing motorists -- local high school kids -- for my ridiculous uniform.

Another circumstantial aspect of attending Xavier was that I became increasingly disconnected from the people in my home town. North Caldwell, New Jersey, was rapidly suburbanizing, but it was still a small place, a quasi-rural place, and I had gone to public school through 8th grade. All the kids I had grown up with attended the local high school, while I went into Manhattan. Our experiences diverged. My social circle got smaller and smaller. One time I was hitch hiking and a car stopped, a nifty convertible. Behind the wheel was a very attractive girl that I guessed to be a year or two older than me. I got in and told her where I was headed. She looked at me with an expression that was part pity and part bemusement -- she was quite good looking, I repeat -- and she sighed and said, "I know where you live. I live across the street." She had moved there two years earlier and I had never even met her.

Another thing was that I had not yet warmed up to the idea of the City. For the first 13 years of my life I had lived on a small farm, with cows and sheep and chickens and a dozen fruit trees and half an acre of vegetables, and even though we no longer lived on the farm I was as much a country boy as it was possible to be in that part of New Jersey at the time. The stifling city did nothing for me. It was oppressive. I didn't like it.

All of these aspects of my high school experience had little to do with Xavier itself; they were side effects of where the school was located and how I got there each day. My real displeasure, the real source of my disagreeable reply to my father, was of course the experience at Xavier itself.

First of all, there was all the military rigmarole. Uniforms were mandatory, as was weekly after-school drill at the 23-Street armory, where we practiced right face, left face, about face, forward march, to the rear, march; column right, march; left flank, march; double about to the left column, march, and so forth. There were weekly inspections performed by upper-classmen, and if your hair was too long or your shoes were not sufficiently shined, you were assigned jug. As you might expect, this dynamic of students policing students led to a certain amount of bullying. The kids with an authoritarian bent were naturally attracted to the whole thing, while the others, which was most of us, just tried to ignore it and survive. It was mostly an annoyance, not a pathological "Lord of the Flies" situation. But it was inescapable. And you have to remember, this was the late 1960's, the time of Hendrix, Beatles, Airplane, the Vietnam war, and hippies. To walk the city streets in short hair and military school uniform was to be completely out of sync with the times.

But for all that, my father was right, and one day, when I was in my 40's or 50's, I did thank him for sending me there.

In the first place, he sent me (and my older brother Mike) to Xavier because he wanted the best for us. It cost him (and my mother) a lot of money and a lot of bother. Certainly his life would have been a lot easier if we had just walked to the public high school, which was virtually in our back yard. So merely by his demonstration of what he was willing to do to further our education, he showed me a lot about the nature of responsibility.

My father wanted us to get a "Jesuit education" because he believed that that was the gold standard. He himself had attended St. Peter's College in Jersey City, another Jesuit institution. He was a WW2-era veteran and went to college on the GI bill, taking a lot of evening classes after long days as a truck driver. He liked the seriousness that Jesuits brought to the task of "forming" young men and he believed in the moral/religious instruction they gave on top of the merely academic courses.

And he was justified in that faith. At Xavier the teachers -- the "misters" (Jesuits-in-training not yet ordained), the "fathers" (ordained Jesuit priests), and the lay teachers, men and women, were competent, thoughtful, and demanding. To say that they were serious is not to say they were humorless; they were generally well-rounded people with fine senses of humor. It's worth pointing out that the ROTC function was kind of bolted on to the curriculum; it didn't appear on transcripts, and many of the Jesuits were anti-war and skeptical of the military -- though most of them tried to keep their opinions hidden from us students.

I took more classes and harder classes than my public school friends did; I did more homework, studied harder. Just as the school had a "no excuses" policy for arriving late, it had a no-excuses policy for studies. Because of Xavier I can still diagram any English sentence and parse the meaning of latinate words. I can spot specious arguments and logical fallacies. And I'm still kind of shocked that those kinds of school are not taught to all students in our schools.

I left Catholicism behind as soon as I walked out the door at 30 West 16th Street for the last time, and of course I had never bought into any of the military stuff at all. So in some ways I guess I left Xavier and never looked back.

Or, at least, for a few decades I thought I had left it behind.

But now with the passage of over four decades, I see that on balance the education I got at Xavier was more than worth all the hassle I had to endure to get it.

And I now see that in learning to get to school on time despite obstacles I found alternative routes and became comfortable, at age 14, navigating the subways of New York. Over the course of four years I learned to be comfortable in dozens of areas throughout that vast city. I learned to make friends with people whose childhood experiences were entirely different from my own. I learned that authority can and must be questioned. Oddly enough, I think the absence of girls in my day-to-day high school experience prepared me for the feminist education I was to receive in college.

In fact, as I now see things, the hassle itself was a big part of the education. Some things are hard, and if you're going to find a meaningful place for yourself in the world you have to learn to stop crybabying about that and just do what needs to be done, preferably in good cheer. I hope I've learned that lesson. Or in any event, I'm still working on it.

Not to be obnoxious, but John is mistaken about Xavier being the only military Jesuit high school.  A Jesuit high school with the odd name of Jesuit High School in New Orleans had Marine Corps ROTC.  Another interesting note is that our class had another science fiction writer - Brad Ferguson.  Oddly enough, Brad also graduated as a cadet corporal.  Go figure.

Peter J Reilly CPA is attempting to become the Tom Sawyer of blogging, by getting lots of guest posts.  Why don't you contribute?

1 comment:

  1. Thanks , John Sundman, for a wonderful recounting of your experience. My experience was similar in some ways, different in others, but I share the core of what you're saying. Now I also want to read your novels. Greetings from Hamburg, Germany.