When my father spoke Greek with the disciplinarian of the Catholic High School where I played hooky at age 14, I thought I had it made.
The Norbertine priest joked in the language I never learned, and the two laughed. They continued speaking Greek and I thought I’d get off with a warning, and not face a harsh punishment for cutting classes at Bishop Neumann High School in South Philadelphia. Our parish, St. Ludwig’s Roman Catholic Church, was in North Philadelphia, but for some reason, students were required to travel some 45 minutes by bus. South Philly was “foreign country “to me and I felt treated as an outsider by the mostly Italian and Irish Catholics boys from there. You don’t know how many fights I’d get into — always trying to prove my “manhood,” and agreeing to meet a kid under some bridge where fair fights were conducted. It was a major reason I cut school. Not to run away from a fight, but to avoid getting into one.
The Greek priest and my Greek father finished talking, and I sat waiting the verdict. Got hit with the maximum sentence. Twenty days detention. Twenty days staying after school to think of the wrongs I committed, and to seek forgiveness from the Almighty. Twenty days in hostile territory where I had not one friend.
Students requiring discipline were ordered to appear at a special classroom at the school whose namesake, former Philadelphia Bishop John Neumann, would eventually be canonized, and the school’s name changed to “St. John Neumann.” Could never figure out the 19th century politics of the Catholic Church which permitted his remains to be buried in North Philadelphia, where I lived, and not South Philadelphia, where the fictional “Rocky” was depicted growing up. I visited his memorial (St. John Neumann, not Rocky) at a site near Fifth Street and Girard Avenue, near the old Schmidt’s Brewery, and was disappointed when given one of the type of cards passed out at funeral homes with the deceased picture and his bio printed. I wanted a real live relic, the kind us Catholic were famous for providing the masses hundreds of years in our history.
Detention wasn’t so bad. Got respect from some classmates who saw me in a new light. The tough kid who could take a punch and not complain. Got into no more fights the rest of the school year.
Also learned a fellow could “work off” his detention twice as fast if he was willing to endure some discomfort and apply himself. You’d get credit for two days of detention instead of one if you spent your hour kneeling rather than sitting in the classroom. I could do it, take the extra pain, and finish up my sentence quicker. I didn’t know it at the time, but it set in motion a way of life that would do me well from then on. Enduring a little hardship now, for a greater reward later. Finishing the requirements for a bachelor’s degree in three years rather than four years. Getting a master’s degree in two instead of one. Changing careers while approaching 40 and going to law school with kids nearly half my age, the toughest endeavor undertaken — and that includes attending Officer’s Candidate School in Ft. Benning, Ga., and journeying in a place I learned the most about life, Vietnam.
Kneeling to a Higher Authority, even for an alterior motive, showed me I could not only survive, but flourish in a world that often appeared to lack compassion. You have no where to go but up, once you rise from your knees and go forward.