Wednesday, August 15, 2012

My Education

I started the first grade at St. Robert Bellarmine Grammar School in Burbank at the age of 5.  In those days Catholic schools didn’t have kindergarten and we didn’t go to public schools, even for kindergarten.  One of our classmates had gone to kindergarten and was always suspect after that.  Maybe he wasn't really one of us.  Our suspicions were confirmed years later when he transferred to Burbank HS in the 10th grade.    

St. Robert’s was a good place.  It had some odd characters.  The pastor, Monsignor Keating, lived in his own world, an amalgam of Catholicism, Americanism, and patriotic devotionalism.  He changed the name of the parish from Holy Trinity to St. Robert Bellarmine.  Bellarmine was a 17th century Jesuit Inquisition Judge.  Among the trials he was responsible for was Galileo's trial.  He is particularly hated by the English.  It seems he was the judge for a number of auto de fe’s of English heretics.  According to Monsignor Keating the Declaration of Independence was based on Bellarmine’s writings.  I took the Monsignor’s word for it.  I’ve never read Bellarmine. 

According to Monsignor the Inquisitor had been one of the foundational writers on political rights.  This was blended with the monsignor’s experience with the New York Fighting 69th.  The original Fighting Irish were a New York National Guard Regiment that distinguished itself in the Civil War, the Spanish American War and World War I.  Monsignor Keating for a short time was a stateside chaplain to them.  So we wore World War I uniforms, the girls wore nurses’ uniforms from the same period.  We were the Bellarmine-Jefferson Guards.  It was very complicated and included Cardinal Pacelli who had once visited Burbank and St. Roberts and then became Pius XII.  Pacelli is sometimes known as Hitler’s Pope.  A humanist inquisitor and a quisling Pope were icons at St. Robert Bellarmine Grammar School.  The nuns just went around it as much as they could. 

One of the assistants Father Granger had survived the Bataan death march. After that he became an Episcopalian seminarian and then converted to Catholicism.  I remember some of his ideas seemed a little different.  One of the nuns told us not to listen too closely to Father Granger, that his doctrine sometimes wasn't completely Catholic.

In the 7th grade it was Father Granger who gathered all of us all together in the church and gave us a lecture on one of the most horrendous of sins being committed by people like us.  He wanted us to know this sin was not only spiritual suicide but also a health hazard.  We had no idea what he was talking about.  I don’t know if it was then or later that we figured out he was talking about French kissing.  I think it was Sister Francetta who after this incident told us that Fr. Granger was just a little crazy.      

The nuns, members of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, tolerated Monsignor Keating and Father Granger.  The BVM's were an order founded in America and based in Iowa.  The order ran Clark College in Dubuque and Mundelein University in Chicago.  The BVMs were a progressive and open minded group of women, down to earth and practical like their Midwestern roots.  In those days they wore voluminous black habits with starched stiff headdresses, boxes around their faces and stiff collars around their necks, starkly white.  They wore heavy black belts under a layer of black cloth with large rosaries attached.  They were quite intimidating in this garb and when we offended their sense of decorum looked like battleships cruising toward you, a ruler or even a yardstick in hand. 

They taught reading, writing, arithmetic, history, church history and religion.  I don’t think we had any science classes and we did art but nothing frivolous except for etching.  I hated etching.  It made no sense to me and was just plain messy.  I liked the nuns.  I did well in school; I was one of the brighter kids and got attention for my performance. 

I think they did a good job of transmitting to us mid-century Irish American Catholicism, politically progressive, morally strict, with a touch but not too much mystery and devotionalism.  We believed in the Pope and John Kennedy.   

When I graduated from Grammar School it seemed important to my mother that I go to an all boys school.  My father was totally passive about everything in the family and left all the decisions about his children to my mother.  My father had been a player as a young man and I think between my mother and my older sister, there was some agreement that I was going to be protected from involvement with women.  Anyhow my mother chose St. Francis of Assisi High School in La Canada.  It was 12 miles away in La Canada in the days before freeways.  The boys in my class who didn’t go to the parish high school went to Notre Dame or Pater Noster which were both closer to Burbank.  The parish high school was a perfectly good co-ed high school where my sisters and most of my classmates went.   

I went to this Capuchin Franciscan High School completely out of the area.  My mother had read about Padre Pio, an Italian Capuchin priest with the stigmata. I read it too.  It seemed a little fantastic and far away.  At that time miracles seemed to me like snow, something that happened far from Burbank.  My mother liked the miraculous and there was a priest at St. Francis, Fr. Cyril who was reputed to have miraculous powers of healing.  Fr. Cyril was the principal at St. Francis and in the four years I was there I didn’t see any miraculous healings or even hear about them, but he was a good man, serious about his religious practice and vows and a strict math teacher. 

It seemed OK when I went there, but as the years passed and I realized what it was like in comparison to other schools, I found it less and less attractive.  It was a football school.  With only 400 boys in the school in my last year there St. Francis won the large schools Southern California Football championship.  The football coach was legendary and taught, if you could call it that, history at the school.  He also had the cafeteria concession and a number of other businesses connected to the school so that he was able to make a living that kept him there.  During football season he began his class each Monday with the statement, “Football players to the front, toadies to the rear,” and then would rehash the game on Friday excluding the rest of us.   

I didn’t play football and I didn’t like Jack Friedman.  The school was all about sports; academics were secondary.  Many of the teachers were also coaches.  Athletes were treated well and the rest of us were second class citizens.  I became an athlete later in life, but at the time, I lived too far away and because I had a November birthday I was smaller than my classmates in the beginning.  Add to that astigmatism, I couldn’t see the ball very well, and athletics were an ordeal for me where my poor performance was ridiculed.  I wasn’t an athlete and I didn’t fit in at St. Francis but I spent three hours commuting to get there each day. 

The school was in a wealthy neighborhood and took on the values and ethics of upper middle class La Canada.  I came from a pro-Union working class background and didn’t have much in common with my classmates and didn’t see eye to eye with most of my teachers who, mostly Irishman from rural areas, were seduced by the sophistication of wealth.  One of the priests was particularly taken with the fight against Communism and we read and studied the right wing literature he liked.  He liked to point out the insidious ways of Communist like the hammer and sickle hidden on the penny.  I went along with all that silliness for awhile.  I even read J. Edgar Hoover’s Masters of Deceit.  By my junior year I had rejected all that crap, but that was much against the tide at St. Francis.      

When I had sons of my own I sent them to Loyola High School near downtown Los Angeles where they got a decent education along with athletics and arts. 

It’s funny, I was always one of the smart kids, but today as the social networks put me more in contact with my classmates from high school, I’m surprised that guys I thought of as thick headed athletes and others who didn't seem that bright went on to very successful careers, doctorates, MDs, JDs, and success in business.  They certainly aren't dumb and in retrospect maybe I wasn’t all that smart, smart enough, but not as smart as I thought I was.  I’m good in school; I still do well in classes, but . . .

Probably one of the most important contributors to my education was the public library.  The Burbank Public Library was outstanding.  It was well run and had a wonderful collection.  I started going to the library when I was in the first or second grade.  My first books were Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck and through the years I worked my way into novels, history and current affairs.  Every week I went to the library for a fresh supply. 

From the first grade on I was a good reader and reading was my pleasure.  I enjoyed reading stories on my own.  I graduated from college as an English major, but really I was just continuing on with my first grade success.  I was a reading major.  I was good at it early on and I’m still good at it now.  I read well.  Of course, reading as much as I did it was inevitable that I would think about becoming a writer, but that didn’t really occur to me until much later. 

I wrote voluminous letters to my sisters away at college in the Midwest, but not much else.  I hated writing in school.  I never understood themes, starting sentences and all those rules.  It would have made sense it they talked about storytelling, but the standard instruction about writing a good paragraph left me cold.
I did my six months in the seminary and then applied to Loyola University.  My mother would pay for college as long as it was Catholic.  It was that conspiracy between my mother and my sisters again, to make sure I didn’t become a player like my father.  Somehow going to all male Catholic schools was going to make a difference.

I loved Loyola.  It was all about academics.  I didn’t seem to be the only smart kid around; everybody was smart.  I remember one young man, obviously brainy, still played the fool and I wanted to tell him, “It’s OK, the bullies and jocks aren’t in charge anymore.”

My freshman year I took English IA.  It was taught by Michael Duncan.  Mike had us write in a journal every day, anything we wanted.  I did the exercise somewhat, though at the end of the month I had to write furiously to turn it in.  Those were some of my first stories.  Mike liked what I wrote, gave me an A in the class, and I changed my major to English. 

After that I took the Survey of English Literature, the big hurdle for English majors.  The course went from Beowulf to Virginia Wolf.  At Loyola it was taught by Dr. Carothers, a wonderful gentleman. I barely passed it but I took a modern literature course from Dr. Erlandson, the department chairman, and I did well in that. Overall I was creditable as an English major.

Mike and I became friends.  That meant more to Mike than it did to me and when he tried to kiss me one time, that made me rethink his patronage but I was already an English major by then. 

I wrote my first stories at Loyola.  I published in the campus literary magazine.  I liked the stories.  Other people did as well.  That was the first time I began to see myself as a writer or dream of being a writer.  One of my best moments as a writer came some years later when in argument with one of Cathy's friends from college, her friend cited a story she had read to make her point.  As she described the story Cathy and I looked at each other and it was a story I had written.

I dropped out of college after my sophomore year.  It was a combination of a mid-college crisis and the military draft.  Uncle Sam didn’t want to give me a second chance to get my feet back on the ground.  He needed me in Vietnam.  I joined the Air Force and after training was sent to England.  It was pure luck.  My class from Keesler AFB drew the right number and we went to England for three years.  I went to night school classes at Chicksands Elementary school.  They were good classes.  When I left the Air Force in August, 1971, I had 60 units from the University of Maryland European Division

I started UCLA in September 1971.  One of my first classes was Pat Kelly’s Literary Criticism.  Pat asked the class how many of us were transfer students.  Nearly two thirds of us raised our hands.  In the group I became part of, it was a rare bird that had started UCLA after high school and stuck with it.  We were almost all transfers from somewhere.   

After my lackluster second year at Loyola University and my year of college credit from the University of Maryland I was a junior/senior transfer student.  I had courses in Shakespeare, Folklore and American Literature behind me.  I was an avid reader and a sometime writer.  It seemed natural I should continue on as an English major. 

UCLA was fabulous.  I took medieval courses from Ed Condren and Milton from Chris Gross.  Professor Dick taught Drama and Pat Kelly Literary Criticism.  The professors at UCLA were amazing.  They were original thinkers in their fields.  They were the authors of the articles in the journals on the library shelves.  Until I got my grades the first quarter I thought I was out of my league, but somehow I managed to ace all of my courses except for Milton.  Chris Gross was a young phenom in Milton at the time and all of the professors were excited that UCLA had landed him.  I just didn’t get Milton, I’m not sure why.  Thirty years later I finally read Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained and loved it.  For some reason I couldn't get it before.   

My circle of friends were also an amazing group, talented young women and men.  Llon King was part of our group and there was a young Marine veteran who had been at Khe Sanh. There were Theodora Poloynis and other amazing women.  Even after four years in the service I felt liberated in public school.  I told people I finally made it to public school after the 15th grade.   I had a wife and two children and I was in a hurry to graduate.  I took four courses a quarter for four quarters.  I paid for UCLA with money I had saved in the service and we lived on $250 a month from the GI Bill. 

I took a course in Folklore that was taught by a young woman eight months pregnant who got up on desk and sang a cappella songs from Appalachia.  It was unearthly, ethereal and very beautiful.  We studied Gilgamesh.  I took Russian Literature in translation and a class in Celtic Literature from Pat Ford. 

In May, 1972 Nixon started mining harbors in North Vietnam.  For me it wasn’t the mining itself but just that we were still escalating the fight in Vietnam, a war we had already lost.  I enthusiastically joined the anti-War gatherings and protests.  Helicopters began circling the campus.  There was a feeling in the University that we were under siege by the establishment outside.

Jane Fonda and Angela Davis spoke at the rally on campus and they sounded like a breath of fresh air.  They made sense and it was the mainstream, the newspapers, and the rest of our world that seemed to be out of touch with reality.  My brief three years in England and exposure to another point of view, even though it was just the English establishment instead of the American establishment, made me sensitive to how much of the news is just business and government propaganda.     

The protests went on all week.  A few days into it there was a fire at Murphy Hall one morning.  Some protestors had set a mini-cart ablaze.  The local Fire Department was called and they refused to come without police protection.  There is a UCLA Police Department but they insisted on the LAPD.  Someone approved that and the Los Angeles Police Department came on campus.  They were confronted by about a 1,000 students.  No one at UCLA wanted the LAPD.  They were known for their brutality and heavy handed tactics.  The protest began to grow.  By noon, the LAPD declared UCLA an illegal assembly.  By three or four o’clock 10,000 students confronted the LAPD.  The police charged the students with batons and when that didn't work they drove their cars at high speed through the crowds.  Nothing they did could budge us.  We waited them out and at 5:30 that afternoon the LAPD left campus.  Within the hour the students disbursed and went on their way and the campus returned to normal. 

Many years later I was talking to an auditor at City National Bank.  Richard was a vice president and a very stolid member of the establishment at the bank.  It turned out he went to UCLA at the same time I did.  We compared notes.  We had been standing only a few feet apart from each other during the demonstration when the police cars were ripping through the crowds. 

I had been four years in the service but I had never seen anything like it.  The LAPD were crazed and full of rage.  The students were adamant and courageous.  The US withdrew from Vietnam a year later.  The War ended three years later in 1975. 

At the end of the spring quarter I went to visit the registrar and reviewed my record with a clerk at a window.  She said I had all my requirements and I just needed another 12 units to graduate.  I think there may have been some paperwork.  So based on what she said I quit going to school after the summer quarter.  I put UCLA behind me and hoped I would get a diploma one day.  Some months later I received one in the mail. 

UCLA was impersonal but what a great experience.  I loved it.  It was only one year there but I am a Bruin forever.  Go Bruins!

In Japan people get jobs based on where they went to school and when I joined Dai-Ichi Kangyo Bank of California I was hired because I had graduated from UCLA.  But it wasn’t just the Japanese, I think everyone looked twice at that.  I’m not sure how much of an education I got in my short year there, but I had a great time.  It was an exciting year for me.  And it didn’t look bad on my resume.

Since UCLA I’ve taken classes: public relations, accounting, find yourself career classes, management classes, and writing classes.  Most were UCLA Extension classes but I also went to Glendale College.  When I became a loaned executive at United Way they sent me to a two week training at USC.  USC was great.  I did my POST (Peace Officers Standards Training) for Juvenile Hall at Evergreen College in San Jose.  The six weeks there was fun and taught us a lot.  The State Parks Ranger Academy was controlled by Monterey Peninsula College and I got credits there for 30 units or more.  Five months of classes 8 hours a day, five days a week turned out to be hard, hard on the bottom and hard to stay focused.

My last years as a Ranger I went to College of Marin and took math and science classes and did very well.  I told people I was a scientist in an English major’s body.  I was coming out.  My English major wife called me a nerd.  I bought a pocket protector like my father used to wear. 

Another influence in my education was the example of my father.  He spent his life studying as he called it; language, history and music.  He was a lifelong studier.  When he was in his 50s he started and completed an engineering program at UCLA Extension.  Like him I consider myself a lifelong learner.  All I know about nature, trees, plants, birds, animals, geography, I studied on my own.  I spent years studying and learning to speak Spanish. 

I still read, novels, history and current affairs, along with philosophy, foreign languages, and anything else I’m interested in.  I am particularly fascinated by ethnicity.  I suppose if I were to pick a college major today I would be a cultural anthropologist. Maybe I’d add some calculus and statistics classes.  I love knowing where people’s culture comes from, ethnicities, nationalities, religion, what culture is and what its foundations are.  I love cultural differences and similarities. 

I don’t trust institutions much, but I greatly admire scholars.  I was taught by some incredible scholars, I’ve known a few, and my son Ted is a scholar. My other two sons are artists.  I love scholarship. I consider myself a hedgerow scholar, undisciplined but enthusiastic.  

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