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Why I Liked Being Jewish at an All-Boys Catholic School

Why I Liked Being Jewish at an All-Boys Catholic School
Photo courtesy of Aaron Reiss

The locker my freshman year at St. Thomas High School was on the second floor of the main building, 50 feet from a chapel where Mass was celebrated before every school day. The walls along the hallways were filled, floor-to-ceiling, with lockers. Freshmen got the lower ones. I had to get on my knees to get my books out of my creaky, cream-gray locker.

Next to me was a kid named Jack Reidy. He was one of those guys who went through puberty in sixth grade and dominated the middle school athletics scene.

Everyday, I'd squat down to access my locker and have to shift my weight as Jack's huge ass blocked part of my locker. I didn't say anything about it to him for the first couple months of school because he was massive, and if sitcoms were anything like real high school, he would have kicked my ass.

I can't remember how my fear of Jack died. Maybe it was from his football player friends making fun of him every day before they went to practice, causing me to realize he wouldn't crush every person who spoke to him.

I now consider Jack a friend. We had lockers next to each other for all of high school, thanks to our last names. I have a lot of memories of funny moments we had at our lockers. But from my freshman year, when I had to squat down and wait for the toolish sophomore with the locker above me to get his books first after school was dismissed, I remember only one interaction with Jack.

It was Ash Wednesday. By that point, Jack and I spoke enough that he knew I was Jewish -- the only Jew in my grade. Jack jokingly asked where my ashes were, then sincerely wondered why I didn't wear a yarmulke. He knew less of my religion than I of his, the one I attended Mass for once a month and learned about during third period.

I told him I don't wear a yarmulke, except when I rarely go to temple. He said, "oh." We laughed. I pushed Jack to the side so I could get my books from my locker.

I only remember my mom -- technically Catholic -- going to Mass once in the time I've been alive. My dad goes to Temple for the big holidays. My parents chose to raise me a Jew because the culture, not the spirituality, was and is important to my dad. To my father and me, being Jewish isn't about a powerful religious experience so much as it is the ability to laugh at certain jokes and feel a fun, if meaningless, connection to another Jew you find in Texas.

Being Jewish gives me the social capital to jokingly brag about Drake being Jewish to my friends. I got Bar Mitzvah'd because my dad said it was important to him and his side of the family, and I agree. A Bar Mitzvah is a religious ceremony, and I recognize its significance in that realm. But it's more than that. The pictures I took with my family and the luncheon we had after the ceremony are as important to me as the Torah portion I read.

And because I never totally connected with the religious aspect of Judaism, I went to high school feeling unsure of religion as an organized entity. I believe in God. But when I began forming my own adult opinions, I stopped buying into organized religion with churches and temples and monasteries. I think religion is supposed to be a relationship with God. And if that's the case, who are all of these other people intruding?

 

I'm sure it seems weird at this point that I chose to go to Catholic school. My grandmother on my dad's side of the family was skeptical. I remember my dad and me picking her up from the airport once while I was in high school, and the discussion of one priest sex scandal caused her to say she thought being a priest -- mostly being abstinent -- wasn't healthy for people. She thought it was a broken system.

Some of my classmates at Catholic school had opposite but equally uninformed views. The first activity of my high school orientation was to have first-period classes get together in a circle and meet each other. My first-period class was advanced geometry with the Reverend Kevin Storey, a Canadian with a huge smile of fake teeth. We as a class participated in a typical orientation icebreaker: What's an interesting fact about you? When it was my turn, I said, "I'm Jewish." (Catholic school is probably the only place this qualifies as an interesting fact.) Storey repeated my fact to the rest of the class, in case anyone didn't hear, and the reaction was mum. It wasn't a conversation starter like some of the other facts -- I play baseball; I wrestle; I went to Alaska this summer. And as the school year got into full swing, I had classmates ask me with a sense of confusion, "You're Jewish?" or "What do you think of theology class?" or "Why'd you come here?"

Good question.

I went to St. Thomas because I liked my tour of the campus. The school seemed nice, and one of my best friends was going there. It was either St. Thomas or Lamar, and I never gave Lamar a chance. It was an uninformed decision. I was 13.

I remember the first time I was in a class that stood to pray before it began a lesson. Students recited the Our Father, which I didn't know, and faced a crucifix, which I hadn't noticed previously.

Going into high school, I hadn't thought about the idea of taking a theology class, or that I might have priests as teachers. But theology wasn't a problem -- I had no more issues with it than I did with English or math classes. The priests I had as educators are some of the best people I've ever met, and Storey was the best of them.

The first semester of my freshman year, I was an awful student. My grades sucked. Even though I was in advanced geometry, the highest math class a freshman could take, my grade was low and I didn't meet the GPA requirement for the advanced math class my sophomore year.

My dad talked to Storey, and he made a deal with us. If I could make the GPA requirement second semester (an 86), he would put in a recommendation for me to stay on the advanced math track.

I made the grade.

 

I'll always remember opening the envelope with that report card. I made higher grades in other classes, but they all seemed unimportant. As high school went on, my GPA was always higher than it was that second semester and I did more work in other classes than I did for that class. I got A's, not B's. But damn, I don't think anything will ever feel as good as that 86. I think if I hadn't gotten that grade, if Storey hadn't made that deal with my dad, my sudden motivation would've been zapped. I wouldn't have graduated with an A average; I wouldn't have liked school.

Instead, I loved my all-boys Catholic school.

When I went to summer camp during high school and told people I went to an all-boys school, the response was almost exclusively skeptical. When I went to college, the response was more straightforward: That sucks.

Half-Vietnamese and Jewish at a Catholic school sounds like something out of a bad YA novel with a theme filled with the teen angst of not fitting in. But I did quite well, and it didn't suck. No one forced me to convert to Catholicism or told me that Judaism is something gross and discordant. I had to go to Mass, but starting my sophomore year, that turned into a time to take photos for the school archives.

No one tried to impress anyone at school; there were no girls to impress. There seemed to be less social hierarchy than my friends at co-ed schools told me they experienced. A lot of my friends were athletes, and I never was. I served on the school newspaper staff with the quarterback of the football team and one of the stars of the school play.

All-boys Catholic school isn't some utopian place. A priest was dismissed for misconduct my sophomore year. (That was all the information that was released.) The wrestling coach was arrested for possession of child pornography. And one of the guys I worked with on the newspaper staff, Dennis, died in a one-car crash a week before he was to graduate. Within hours of his death being announced, the school organized a remembrance ceremony, and the chapel feet from my freshman year locker was filled with students from Dennis's grade, the grade below mine.

A couple of days later, there was a Mass in remembrance of Dennis for the whole school community. I went to the Mass. I felt at home.


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