Shadow Intimacy

Share

This is another guest posting by Jim Lynch, our favorite English teacher from Bishop O’Reilly.

In 1998 it was revealed that DNA testing determined that Thomas Jefferson could have fathered as many as six children with a slave in his household at Monticello. That news generated controversy about the circumstances under which those children were conceived. Was the author of the Declaration of Independence – which included the phrase, “all men are created equal” – really a racist hypocrite? Did the third President of the United States cruelly use his social status and political prestige to abuse a woman of color who he owned?

There is no primary documentary evidence – letters, diaries, birth certificates, etc. – from the individuals to clarify the details of their relationship. In the 1990’s, however, DNA testing and some circumstantial evidence suggests that she bore him multiple children. That information ignited a debate about Jefferson’s behavior. He was a slave owner, as were his contemporaries in his new country, and in many other parts of the world as well. Although the evidence provides a near certainty of his paternity, the nature of their relationship remains a speculative mystery.

It is of primary importance to first scrutinize Jefferson’s opinions and judgments regarding the black race. Because he was born and raised in a Virginia family of slave owners, the slaves he knew in that time and place were, as a matter of course, uneducated and isolated from white culture and knowledge. In Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which deals with similar circumstances, the author’s characterization of the slave Jim offers an ignorant, superstitious and child-like adult whose stunted social development belies his decency, kindness and loyalty.

In such an environment, it is understandable that Jefferson’s would render “a suspicion” that slaves were “inferior to the whites in the endowments of both body and mind.” Despite such sentiments, however, he was a consistent opponent of slavery, a condition he called “a moral depravity” and “a hideous blot.” In both moral and intellectual judgment, he maintained that slavery was the greatest single threat to the survival of the new American nation. Despite owning slaves, he advocated the right of personal liberty and stated that the institution was contrary to the laws of nature.

Since the beginning of slavery in Virginia, the institution had grown and become firmly established. By the time Jefferson was born in 1743, it had existed in the state for seventy-five years, and was thoroughly intertwined into the social and economic fabric. Raised on a plantation, Jefferson came to realize two facts: that ownership of human beings is a despicable evil, and that, “Where the disease [of slavery] is most deeply seated, it will be the slowest in eradication. . . . In the Southern [states] it is incorporated with the whole system and requires time, patience and perseverance in the curative process.”

In a letter to a friend, he wrote, “As it is we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is on one scale, and self-preservation in the other.” Throughout his life, therefore, Jefferson sought ways to gradually end slavery by enacting laws banning the slave trade itself, prohibiting its expansion into new territories, and by providing the means for the social and economic assimilation of freed slaves into the population as a whole.

He feared that immediate emancipation would cause violence in the South and prejudice in the North. In addition, he advocated the option of repatriation to Africa, the continent from which slaves had been abducted. He feared an understandable retaliation by freed slaves because of the “unremitting despotism “ and “degrading submissions” they had suffered, and worried that they would not be able to survive economically without necessary education and occupational training. The 1831 Virginia slave insurrection known as Nat Turner’s Rebellion, five years after his death, demonstrates Jefferson’s prescience.

Historical evidence clearly indicates that Jefferson’s life was filled with attempts to abolish slavery and find ways to facilitate equitable options for the recipients of abolition. In 1784 he proposed on ordinance that would ban slavery in the Northwest Territories; in 1798 he drafted a Virginia law that prohibited the importation of enslaved Africans; his original draft of the Declaration of Independence included strong language opposing the slave trade; as President he signed a bill outlawing that trade. In his 1821 autobiography he wrote, “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.”

When his wife, Martha, died in 1782, an inconsolable Jefferson continued his efforts to create a national government, as well as to provide a means for a step-by-step elimination of slavery. From 1784 to 1789 he lived in Paris with his daughter Patsy as the United States Minister to France. In 1787, his youngest daughter, Polly, arrived, accompanied by slaves who included James Hemings and his fourteen-year-old sister, Sally. Jefferson funded James’ training to become a French chef, and hired a tutor to teach Sally French, English and writing skills.

He paid both a wage commensurate with French citizens who rendered the same domestic duties. According her son Madison’s later testimony, Sally and Jefferson became lovers two years after her arrival. Oral accounts indicate that she bore a striking resemblance to Jefferson’s deceased wife, Martha. She is said to have had very light skin and long, straight black hair. Such descriptions are not surprising, given that she was Martha Jefferson’s half sister.

Jefferson’s father-in-law, John Wayles and Elizabeth Hemings, one of his bi-racial slaves, were her parents. The children of that union were, therefore, 3/4 European ancestry. Because slavery was abolished in France during Jefferson’s stay, both James and Sally could easily have opted to walk away from their status and embrace freedom. Instead, they decided to return to Monticello with him, along with the promise that he would free them when they reached adulthood. Any children Jefferson and Sally were to produce would be 7/8th European ancestry. In fact, three of their sons, Beverly, Harriet and Eston, lived as members of white society as adults.

During the rest of their thirty-seven years together at Monticello, Sally had five children, all recorded by Jefferson: Harriet – 1795 (died 1797); Beverly – 1798; an unnamed daughter who died shortly after birth – 1799; a second Harriet – 1801; Madison – 1805; and Eston – 1808. There is no indication in Jefferson’s records of a child born to Hemings before 1795, although it is possible she suffered a miscarriage shortly after returning from Paris. Given the tenor of the times, an acknowledged relationship, let alone marriage, was beyond possibility. Their children were given free run of Monticello, with light work. At 14, they were trained as carpenters or, in Harriet’s case, as a spinner and weaver. Like their father, the boys learned to play the violin.

Although the assertion of Jefferson’s paternity can neither be fully substantiated nor refuted, it is almost certain, based on documentary, scientific, statistical, and oral history evidence, that he fathered Heming’s children. Because Jefferson remained silent on the issue when it became a campaign topic during his political life, we can only speculate on the nature of their relationship. Was the champion of personal liberty a hypocritical sexual predator, or a partner in a loving relationship, and a caring father?

History is replete with stories of lovers separated by racial, cultural, social, religious, ethnic, and family hatred: Lancelot and Guinevere; Abelard and Heloise; Orpheus and Eurydice; Anthony and Cleopatra; Romeo and Juliet; Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson. It is not difficult to believe that Jefferson and Hemings belong on that list. Lest modern analysts disavow the power of the cultural taboos surrounding colonial society, consider the contemporary treatment of Muslim women, who are subject to stoning and honor killings for merely being seen in public with males who are not their husbands.

It is a fact that all of Sally Hemings’ children were given their freedom by their father, a man who time, circumstance and an intimate relationship had convinced that his earlier estimation of slaves as inferior in body and mind was erroneous. Their servitude, he came to understand, had impacted their abilities and deprived them of the means for intellectual growth. Shortly after Jefferson’s death in 1826, his daughter Martha (and Sally’s niece) freed Sally to live with her sons Madison and Eston in Charlottesville.

It is further known that his children were educated and prepared for economic independence while growing to adulthood, and that Sally and her brother James returned to Virginia with him in 1789, rather than live as free individuals in France. Moreover, would a son for whom Jefferson had no parental feelings be named after James Madison, his dear friend of fifty years? Madison Hemings confirmed in 1873 that he and his siblings, Beverly, Harriet and Eston (who later changed his legal name to Jefferson), were Jefferson’s children.

During his long and productive life as a patriot, politician and farmer, Jefferson indulged in studies and pastimes that demonstrate his genius. He was an inventor, a multilingual (Greek, Latin, French, Spanish and Italian), and a musician, whose passions included architecture (he designed and built Monticello), astronomy (he used a telescope to calculate the meridian at Monticello and to view the solar eclipse of 1811), physics, botany, mathematics (he raised the subject to a position of prominence at the University of Virginia), archaeology, and book collecting (in 1814, his 6,487 volumes were enough to restock the Library of Congress after in had been burned down by the British during the War of 1812).

From the time of the European settlement of North America until the Civil War, slavery was a cancer that metastasized until it was impervious to a rational cure. Although the bloodletting of the Civil War was successful in ending the national ignominy, post war black citizens were left with many horrific racial scars. After the cost of 620,000 lives, a legacy of Jim Crow and racial animus were the legacies of the state vs. state and brother vs. brother war. In the painful century and a half which followed, reconciliation and social amelioration have been painfully slow.

Despite serious and ongoing problems between the races, however, the abundance of high profile African-American musicians, novelists, entertainers, politicians, athletes, journalists, entrepreneurs, scientists, intellectuals, and educators – together with the ongoing normalization of inter-racial couples and marriages – are evidence of genuine progress. The cost has been, and in many cases continues to be, high for such improvement, but the progress is self-evident.

In 1962, President John Kennedy gave remarks at a White House dinner honoring Nobel Prize winners of the Western Hemisphere. “I think,” he said, “this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

From 2008 until 2016, an African-American First Lady and a bi-racial President dined together in that residence. Because he lived at a time when such an accommodation was impossible, the third President of the United States dined alone in the executive mansion. Jefferson’s shadow intimacy two centuries ago was the price he paid to serve a young country not yet able to fully understand, as he most certainly did, the full value of human freedom, or the cost of failing to do so.

Jim Lynch
Fleetwood, PA
September 7, 2018
————–
If you’d like to provide any feedback to Mr. Lynch, he can be reached at jimadalynch(at)gmail.com. You’ll need to fix that email to use it, by substituting the @ symbol for the (at) characters.

The Golding Rule

Share

fliesThis is another guest posting by Jim Lynch, our favorite English teacher from Bishop O’Reilly. I still remember reading this book in 1974 as one of our class assignments. I just purchased the Kindle version and I’m planning to re-read it on an upcoming vacation.

The Golding Rule

One of the standard assignments in my high school British Literature curriculum was William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Written in 1954, the novel concerns a group of pre-adolescent English boys stranded on a tropical island without adults, after an abortive attempt to evacuate them to safety during a nuclear war. Within a brief period of time, these children of a sophisticated Western European nation with a proud tradition of culture and civilization turn to bloodlust, savagery and murder.

After the classes finished an exhaustive discussion of the novel, I always called for a personal and secret written response to a few pointed questions. On scraps of paper they’d respond to the following: 1. If you and your entire class were stranded on a similar uncharted island for the rest of your lives, without hope of rescue, name the person in the class for whom you would vote to be chief. 2. Excluding identification, is there any potential Jack Merridew (the antagonist who become a bloody dictator) in the class? 3. Without rescue, would the eventual outcome your stay on the island be positive or negative?

Invariably, their responses led me to wonder if we had read the same book. In their eighteen-year-old naive camaraderie, an overwhelming majority of my students: 1. Named a popular athlete or student council president as chief, 2. Refused to allow for the possibility that any of their peers could become ruthless savages, and 3. Thought that their acquired wisdom would allow them to overcome and solve any difficulties that arose. “Gilligan’s Island” anyone?

After each and every such class response, I’d attempt to bring my students’ utopian vision more in line with Golding’s theme. In the summer of 1972, I reminded them, Tropical Storm Agnes wrought devastation to the town surrounding the very school in which they now sat. Many of my students were evacuated from the flood zone. After the Susquehanna’s raging waters finally subsided, I rode through the town in a panel truck, picking up flat tires from huge pay-loaders and delivering repaired ones, as an employee of a local tire company.

On every street corner, I’d continue to point out, were members of the National Guard carrying locked and loaded M-16’s, with orders to shoot looters on sight. Pennsylvania’s governor had declared a state of emergency, and the local police force was temporarily out of commission. Why would such an action be necessary in such an area filled with friendly family neighborhoods and small businesses? What could have been the governor’s reasons for such a move? After moments of silence, the only response ever offered was a variation of, “That was different.”

I then would offer a theoretical proposition. Suppose, I said, representatives of the police in their municipality had gone on the local news and indicated that protracted and unsuccessful negotiations for a new contract had broken down. Consequently, all members of the police department would go on strike as of midnight next Friday. Would the crime rate in their town, I asked, go up, go down or remain the same on that weekend? Once again I encountered initial silence, followed by, “That’s different.”

Reminding them that Golding crafted his story as a microcosm of larger society, I then asked why their parents paid hefty taxes to support a criminal justice system. Beyond police protection, I said, why do we need courthouses, magistrates, judges, lawyers, and prison facilities? Because there are bad people in society, they would respond, and we have to protect ourselves from them. And all those bad people, I’d remind them, once sat in classes just like this one and had every opportunity to work hard, play by the rules, and choose happy and productive lives.

Ultimately, I would conclude class discussions of the book with my hope that my students would reopen the discussion at their 25th class reunion, and my belief that, by that time, the seeds planted in their consciousness by Golding would have germinated in the soil of their maturity. While I appreciated their idealism, I found their naivete unsettling. I only attended one such class reunion, but the alumni were having such a memorable evening catching up and sharing family photos that I was loath to raise the issue with anyone.

I seriously doubt, however, that the needle would have moved to a great degree in the direction of a pessimistic view of the human condition. While the signs are abundant, most prefer to avert their eyes and focus on family and friends, rather than the larger world. Despite media websites, and twenty-four-hour cable news, people tend to push unpleasant intrusions into the background.

Iran’s hell-bent quest for atomic weapons; Russia’s incursions into the Ukraine; ISIS’s mass beheading, burning and drowning, and its goal of a world-wide caliphate; domestic terrorism; a $19 trillion national debt with 93 million American adults unemployed; massive illegal immigration; race riots in St. Louis and Baltimore; soaring homicide rates in urban areas – let the people we elected deal with such things, while we are busy attending to our own problems. When it appears that crime is a little too close for comfort, we’ll simply have an ADT sign planted in our front yard and a deadbolt installed on our front door.

Most people believe that if we live by the golden rule, we’ll all get along. And for those few in society who don’t abide by that principle, we have police departments and a criminal justice system. The ugly reality that we don’t want to face, however, is that only a larger framework of laws makes it possible for anyone to abide by such an idealistic rule. For those who choose to live by a more primitive code of behavior, the golden rule is a fairy tale.

People likely to ignore criminal law are only restrained by the penalties involved in breaking the law. When the laws cannot be enforced due to natural or man-made disasters, all bets are off, and the ranks of those few begin to swell. According to historian Will Durant, “Pugnacity, brutality, greed, and sexual readiness were advantages in the struggle for existence.” Those “relics” of our emergence as a species, he cautions, are still firmly embedded in our DNA. The systems of laws that have evolved over millennia were put in place to protect us from ourselves.

While most us are focused on mortgages, soccer practice for the kids and paying the bills, however, those laws are beginning to fray around the edges, along with many commonly held social mores and practices. As the federal government looks the other way in the face of millions of illegal immigrants streaming across our southern border, and of mayors establishing sanctuary cities in defiance of federal law, society has also changed its views on acceptable behavior. The melting pot has been replaced by separate, “multi-cultural” groups with individual agendas.

Even when people do venture outside their home and work bubbles to offer an opinion on larger issues, they are subject to censure for being politically incorrect. They aren’t successful because they have invested time and energy in education and career, but because of their “white privilege” (African-American success is often attributed to being an “Uncle Tom”). In the absurdity of political correctness, domestic Islamist terrorism has been transformed into workplace violence, illegal immigrants have become undocumented immigrants, drug addicts are dubbed chemically-challenged, prostitutes are renamed sex workers, and an illegitimate baby becomes a love child.

On many university campuses, students are warned about “micro-aggressions” for using “trigger words” which remind the hearer of past traumatic events: “Selling someone down the river” is a racist reference to slavery; acting like a “hooligan” and being put into a “Paddy Wagon” are slur terms for those of Irish ethnicity; calling a rioter and looter a “thug” is code terminology for the “N word.” If you have doubts about man’s role in climate change, you are branded a “global warming denier” (with the added insinuation echoing a holocaust denier). Charlton Heston aptly referred to political correctness as “tyranny with manners.”

Durant’s comment on this phenomenon is instructive: “Civilization gives way to confrontation; law yields to minority force; marriage becomes a short-term investment in diversified insecurities; reproduction is left to mishaps and misfits; and the fertility of incompetence breeds from the bottom while the sterility of intelligence lets the race wither at the top.”

What too many fail to recognize or acknowledge in the sophisticated, technologically-advanced 21st century is that civilization is a razor-thin veneer. Despite our scientific discoveries and breakthroughs, we remain captives of our primitive ancestors in our essential nature. Man is only an evolutionary link between primitive apes and truly civilized human beings.

Having served in the Royal Navy during World War II, Golding witnessed the worst of human behavior, with the cost of more than 60 million dead – six million of whom were cruelly obliterated in the concentration camps of a cultured and Christian European state. The trauma he witnessed occurred a mere twenty years after the seemingly minor and avoidable events leading to the outbreak of World War I, which claimed 37 million military and civilian casualties.

Golding knew that those civilized British children in his novel represent the distressing reality about where humankind actually stands in its slow development as a species. Through his work, he speaks to the necessary, if unpleasant, fact that the golden rule is only possible within the context of the Golding rule: we must never fail to recognize and remember that civilization is built on the rule of law. Treating one another with generosity, kindness and decency is contingent upon our willingness to subordinate ourselves to the hard-won lessons of history. Without that commitment, we run the horrific risk of setting, not an island, but the world on fire.

Jim Lynch
Fleetwood, PA
August 2, 2015
————–
If you’d like to provide any feedback to Mr. Lynch, he can be reached at jimadalynch(at)gmail.com. You’ll need to fix that email to use it, by substituting the @ symbol for the (at) characters.

Keep Trousers on the Apes

Share

This is another guest posting by James Lynch, my high school English teacher. Feel free to leave comments or you may email him directly at at jimadalynch(at)gmail.com

In their eleven-volume series, “The History of Civilization,” Will and Ariel Durant detail man’s attempts to create stable and secure societies. Throughout recorded history, they recount, nations and empires have striven to replace tribal barbarism with societies in which people can live in peace, harmony and economic self-sufficiency. Along the way, historians, poets, scientists, theologians and philosophers have left records of those attempts.

As a species, human beings have violence and predation built into their DNA. Durant relates that man’s history can be traced back a million years before Christ, but that farming as a means of survival began only 25,000 years before. How did our ancestors survive for 975,000 years prior to raising crops? Brutality and hunting were indelibly imprinted in our evolving humanity during that span. In the relatively paltry 2,000 years of the Christian era, those inbred tendencies and instincts have battled with man’s attempts to tame the beast within. Indeed, Durant characterizes contemporary humans as “trousered apes.”

Throughout modern history, societies have attempted to temper those tendencies, as increasing intellectual ability gave rise to rational thought, scientific discovery, and philosophical investigation of man and his place in the universe. It has been a steep learning curve, as wars, destruction and privation dominated the centuries, with the twentieth century ranking as the bloodiest.

Beginning with Gutenberg, the means of exploring the emerging ideas of scientists, mathematicians, economists and philosophers began to gain wider dissemination, and with them came the gradual understanding that humankind had to recognize and cope with its inherently violent disposition. With burgeoning scientific discovery and increasing economic autonomy, western societies realized that the accumulation and sharing of knowledge held the keys, not just to increased wealth and productivity, but to the possibilities of mutual understanding and peaceful coexistence among peoples and nations as well.

In order to preserve those materials, the great universities of Europe eventually became the repository of the accumulated wisdom of prior ages. The genius of Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Homer, Horace, Virgil, Cicero and Aquinas, as well as Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer, Cervantes, da Vinci, Swift, Hobbes, Descartes, Galileo, Locke, Darwin, Tolstoy, Voltaire and many others provides invaluable insight in our quest to understand the nature of humanity. The ugly as well as beautiful truths they have discovered are the means for continuing intellectual evolution toward a better future.

In his “Idea of a University,” Cardinal Newman indicated that the role of a university was to help students “ . . . reach out toward truth, and grasp it.” Sadly, that purpose has been largely replaced in this country’s institutions of higher learning. A great college and university system has, in the last fifty years, become less concerned with academic pursuits than with physical expansion and sports. Major universities have become de facto minor-league farm teams for the National Football League, Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association. The perversion of what should be the intellectual pursuit of knowledge afforded by such schools is evident when sports announcers interview professional athletes after a televised game. The level of discourse is often cringe-worthy. In the 1980’s, all-pro football player Dexter Manly of the Washington Redskins admitted that he could not read – after graduating from college. More recently, Terrell Owens announced that he is in financial straits, having burned through an estimated one hundred million dollars. It’s a safe bet that any of the college classes he attended did not include economics.

Instead of the core curricula of previous generations, many of today’ schools offer a variety of watered-down courses, as well as a soft grading system. It is striking that even under these circumstances nearly half of enrolled freshmen drop out before getting a degree. The reasons for such a situation are manifold: 1. the rise of self-esteem as the measure of individual worth (“Everybody gets a trophy” and “We don’t keep score”); 2. the fragmentation of family structure; 3. The lack of preparation by elementary and high schools; 4. public education’s mad chase after federal and state dollars attached to flawed assessment, resulting in teaching for the test, and outright cheating in order to meet governmentally-mandated guidelines. Add to that the voracious appetites of colleges and universities for ever-larger student populations to finance expansion, together with mushrooming sports facilities, and you wind up with a perfect storm.

To keep the college education engine purring, schools often provide a pulse and checkbook admissions policy. Consequently, many poorly prepared students require remediation before they can begin to compete. Anyone who believes that a few first semester remedial classes can erase thirteen years of poor education is engaging in wishful thinking. Once on campus, students can choose classes from columns A through Z which do not require much time, effort or thought. Instead of Greek and Roman classics, and masterpieces of Western civilization – all of which contribute to the cultural bedrock of America – students can now choose elective courses in more contemporary classics, such as 1. “The Simpsons and Philosophy” (Cal Berkeley); 2. “The History of Shopping” (Yale); 3. “The Unbearable Whiteness of Barbie” (Occidental College); 4. “Lesbian Novels Since World War II” (Swarthmore), 5. “Nip, Tuck, Perm and Tattoo” (Alfred University); and 6. “Marxist Concepts of Racism” (Harvard).

Shakespeare, et al. are seen as “Dead white European males” who can’t possibly offer a valuable educational experience to students, because of their collective “racism, misogyny and lack of diversity.” As a result of such lowered standards and expectations, many graduates can’t identify the three branches of the federal government, provide the decade in which the Civil War took place, or name the governor of their state. A recent study by professors at New York University and the University of Virginia found that nearly half of students show “no significant learning after two years of college.” Going to college has become a very expensive four-year “booze cruise” for far too many individuals, a good percentage of whom do not need a college degree in the first place.

Unfortunately, guidance counselors have convinced high school students that they need college in order to walk upright without dragging their knuckles. Trade schools for electricians, carpenters, plumbers and masons just don’t carry a sufficient social cachet. College has been oversold as a necessary step to a better life, but the truth is that it is simply not appropriate for everyone. If you’ve got the ideas and ingenuity necessary to build a better mousetrap, you may not need college at all. Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs (drop-outs all) speak to this point.

For those who need a degree – pre-med and pre-law students, engineers, architects, educators, accountants, math and science majors, for example – a core curriculum that includes significant classes should be mandatory. Classes in Greek and Roman classical literature, as well as survey classes in American and Western European history and literature are necessary for a well-rounded doctor, lawyer, teacher or scientist, as are required classes in philosophy, theology and government.

Steeped in the knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome, as well as the wisdom of European masters, the framers were able to provide the world with the freest and most prosperous nation in the history of mankind. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution reflect all that is best in that canon. Proper education of citizens is the only way to insure that their vision continues for posterity. In a society where more people recognize Snooki than the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, we’re truly at a crossroads. Can we keep the trousers on the apes, or do we regress to the forest primeval?

James Lynch
Fleetwood, PA

Golden and I Knew It by James Lynch

Share

Bishop O'Reilly High School, Kingston PA

This is a guest post by my high school English teacher, Jim Lynch, who I was fortunate to have as a teacher twice, in both my freshman and senior years. He was one of those rare individuals who was doing what he loved and you could tell how much he enjoyed it. We looked forward to his class and I can recall how he made learning fun which was in contrast to a few other teachers I had along the way. As you may have noticed from a lack of recent postings, I have felt a bit of ‘writers block’ when it comes to updating this blog, so it’s with a sense of irony and relief that my English teacher has come to my rescue with something that is truly worth reading. I took the liberty of scanning his photo from my wife’s high school yearbook so the picture of him you see below is from 1978. He attended the ice breaker for our 30th reunion in 2007 and he had not aged at all. In fact, he looked younger than many of us who were his students in the 1970s. 😉

-Lee Devlin

Golden and I Knew It

James LynchAfter a two-year stint as a rookie teacher at a small and new Catholic high school in northern New Jersey, I left the job for economic and personal reasons. The economics reflected starting a family (my wife ceased to work as a new mother). The personal involved doubts about my chosen profession.

Because of a confluence of circumstances, I had been made English Department Chairman. I was given this position simply because I was the first of the new English teachers hired to staff the school, where I taught junior and senior English. Fresh out of college, I felt out of my depth as an educator. I had to design a curriculum, assign classes, and select and order textbooks, all without a veteran teacher or mentor as a sounding board. Lacking any frame of reference, I felt relieved when economic issues forced me to resign.

After two subsequent years as the world’s worst salesman (tires), I realized that although I was raw and uneven in my teaching, my future lay in education. What I needed, I determined, was further experience in the company of other teachers who could provide answers to questions that mattered in the day-to-day life of an educator.

The opportunity to reenter teaching presented itself in 1972 when an opening occurred at West Side Central Catholic (soon to be renamed Bishop O’Reilly) High School in Kingston, Pennsylvania. I took the position full of doubts and reservations, but determined to learn, once and for all, if time and circumstance could make a difference. It was to be a turning point in my life, both professionally and personally.

My first impression of the students was impressive. They seemed to move through the day with an ease and maturity untypical for teenagers. While they certainly dealt with the universal and eternal concerns of peer acceptance, self-image and increasing autonomy, they nevertheless demonstrated a congenial symbiosis with teachers and administrators, and exhibited a genuine sense of belonging to their school.

In general, they looked comfortable and content in their demeanor. There were cliques, for sure, but no real distinct separation. Jocks were in the glee club and in plays, while National Honor Society students played sports and joined homecoming committees. With rare exceptions, they respected their teachers, and looked upon them as professionals who cared about their academic and personal development.

During the second half of my first year at Central Catholic, I experienced the quality of music and quantity of student involvement in the Glee Club. On the Friday before the annual spring concert, participating students were excused from classes for an all-day rehearsal. Most junior and senior teachers did not conduct classes, as more than half of our students were in the auditorium fine-tuning their performance. On my way the faculty lounge on my prep period, I stopped in the hallway as a student exited the closed double doors leading to the auditorium/gym.

To this day I can hear the mellifluous four-part harmony of Cat Stevens’ Morning Has Broken flowing from the assembled choir. I was then, and continue to be, struck by the quality of the presentation. It sounded as if it were a professional rendition, quite unlike a usual performance of a high school choir. I stood there as the song ended, and a spontaneous outpouring of oohs and aahs came from the students who had surprised themselves with their impressive efforts. I remember thinking how fortunate I was to be part of a school that could offer such activities and produce such results.

I always considered them as guests in my classroom. As their host, I both extended and received a respect that permeated our discussions and interactions. Even their gentle mockery of the faculty belied a palpable esteem. I remember student-generated and circulated comic books that poked fun at teachers who, they alleged, were hiding in plain sight as superheroes. One history teacher in particular was presented as “Captain Coma,” who wore a cape with a huge C in its center. Captain Coma once saved children from escaping tigers and lions at a zoo by lecturing them until they fell into comas in mid rampage. Our obese priest administer, however, was drawn as a blimp floating over the school, with the words “B.F. Grimalia” written on its sides.

That same comic book creator also performed a variety of stunts, one of which, in today’s jittery social environment, could easily have resulted in the summoning of a SWAT team. In addition to mounting a cafeteria table during lunch and pulling a rubber chicken from inside his jacket, wearing a Steve Martin arrow-through–the-skull headband, and threatening to “pie” Sister Gratiana during Class Night (a 1970’s fad made popular by the television show, “Laugh In”), he once suddenly called out my name midway through class, and pointed what looked like a very real black 45 caliber handgun at me.

After my life passed briefly before my eyes, I regained my composure as a stream of water arched from the toy gun. I confiscated the water pistol and continued class without further interruption. When students in other classes asked about the incident, I dismissed it as the joke it was surely meant to be, indicating that it was just ol’ Bob practicing his weird brand of humor. For a split second, though, I almost had a laundry problem. The fact that that event caused nary a ripple of official concern reflects the relative innocence of the era in which it occurred.

We had our share of miscreants over the years, but they usually didn’t last long in the school’s family ambience. They were looked upon as odd or pitiful by the majority of students, alongside of whom they stood out in marked contrast. While my rose-colored glasses of retirement have not obscured the undercurrent of experimentation that colors teenagers of all eras, the reality is that such activity rarely breached the surface of student life in any blatant or consistent fashion. Perhaps strong family bonds were part of that equation. At any rate, a positive student demeanor and deportment evidenced itself in an excellent academic and social environment.

Perhaps the best example of the school’s warmth and vitality can be seen in its addition of an educational program for special-needs students during its later years. Essentially a school within a school, its curriculum was geared to the needs of these students, although there was some overlap in other courses, such as computer classes. These students also shared lunch in the cafeteria, attended pep rallies and frequented sporting events.

If the idea was to have such students get used to mainstream society, it accomplished considerably more. As I stood at my classroom door during change of classes, I often witnessed my students making casual conversation with these special adolescents, high-fiving them and asking about their classes. In the final analysis, I don’t know which group learned more about life and love in those interactions.

The teachers were of two types: generally older nuns from several orders (their percentage of the faculty had begun to decline markedly as vocations ebbed after Vatican II), and generally younger lay teachers. Initially, the sisters seemed to tolerate us as unfortunately necessary components of the teaching staff. Over the years I spent at the school, the ratio of sisters to lay teachers tilted quickly. By the end of the school’s existence, one nun was on staff as a librarian. Lay teachers were generally in their twenties in the early 70’s, mostly graduates of local colleges and residents of surrounding communities.

Because Catholic schools were exempt from state/federal educational policies and regulations, and the religious staff generally left us to our own resources, we were able to pursue teaching in a purely practical and innovative fashion. We weren’t bogged down in a morass of state standards, regulations and testing, promulgated by faceless bureaucratic “experts” who couldn’t find the inside of a classroom with a map and a flashlight.

Consequently, we relied upon one another to build and implement teaching methods and strategy. Aside from periodic (and generally inconsequential) teacher meetings conducted by the administration, we discussed our mutual concerns informally – in the faculty lounge and local taverns, at holiday “progressive parties,” and end-of-the-year picnic outings. Because we shared our approaches and discussed our failures and successes, we grew and prospered as a faculty. The result created an exceptional educational experience for teachers and students alike. During the four decades I spent at Central Catholic/Bishop O’Reilly, graduating seniors merited college acceptance in the 90th percentile range and millions of dollars in scholarship offers.

At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, I found teaching at Central/O’Reilly to be almost magical. The work was both hard and time-consuming, but the classroom experience made those considerations more than worthwhile. Very often the change-of-class bell interrupted a class discussion that neither students nor teacher wanted to end. Because many teachers volunteered their time to chaperone after-school activities, we got to know students, and to be known by them, in an added dimension.

Teachers in charge of a student club or activity had merely to ask their colleagues to assist at an event. Proms, all-night dance marathons, plays and concerts all provided teacher-student interaction outside the classroom. Weekly free tutoring at the school in multi-disciplinary areas during early evening hours also offered opportunities to foster mutual understanding and respect.

One event involving extra-curricular teacher-student involvement occurred during a mid-70’s all-night (24 hour) dance marathon for a charity I cannot recall. In that era, no thought was given to any chaperones besides the faculty members who volunteered shifts. We initially had neither a medical nor security presence at the events. At the particular marathon I recall, the doors on both sides of the gym were open to provide a breeze to offset the humid middle of the night.

The loud music over the sound system must have filtered onto the streets surrounding the school, and resulted in some unwanted visitors. Four males in their mid to late 20’s drove to the parking lot and entered the gym through the its open doors in the early A.M. hours. To say they looked dangerous is not an exaggeration. They sauntered across the gym floors, weaving their way through the young and vulnerable dancing students, and sat in the middle of the first row of the gym seats. I watched as they chuckled, nudged each other and they pointed out female students to one another.

In an era without cell phones, I was about to go to the main office to telephone the Kingston Police (I didn’t have any idea of what I would tell them, since no crime had been committed), when one of my students, Jimmy Reino, walked by with a box of pizza. Noticing my concerned appearance, he stopped and asked what was the matter. When I pointed my chin in the direction of the four possible miscreants, he asked me to hold the pizza.

He casually walked to the four, sat beside them and began a low conversation. After four or five minutes, they got up and promptly left the dance without looking back. When Jimmy came back and retrieved the pizza, I asked him what he had said to the departing foursome. He replied in an off-handedly conversational tone, “You don’t want to know,” as he took the pizza to some hungry students. After that marathon, we made it a point to have the school nurse (or a parent who was a nurse), and an off-duty Kingston police officer as evening and A.M. chaperones as well. A generation later, I had the pleasure of teaching Jimmy’s lovely daughter.

In retrospect, the number of second-generation students whose parents I had taught offers confirmation of the value afforded the school. At report card nights, parents often related their desire to have their children share their high school experience. It is noteworthy that we also taught many students whose parents were public school teachers and administrators. Perhaps the most telling and gratifying indication that we were doing worthwhile work can be seen in the number of graduates who returned to the school as new educators and became valued colleagues of their former teachers.

The time and distance afforded by retirement has deepened my appreciation for being able to participate in such an extraordinary time and place. It is a source of immense satisfaction that the school’s traditions and accomplishments endure in the memories of her graduates and will be passed on to their children and grandchildren. I suppose that line from the Alma Mater had it right: West Side Central Catholic/Bishop O’Reilly will “live on in glory” in the hearts and minds of everyone lucky enough to be associated with that incredibly fulfilling educational institution. Not only is that time a “golden age” in memory, it carried with it a golden aura each day I walked those halls, and for that I will always be grateful.

Jim Lynch
Fleetwood, PA
April 10, 2012
————–
If you’d like to provide any feedback to Mr. Lynch, he can be reached at jimadalynch(at)gmail.com. You’ll need to fix that email to use it, by substituting the @ symbol for the (at) characters.