In the Shadows, Boy Meets Man

Friday, September 16, 2011


I went to an all-boy high school that was run by the Xaverian Brothers. I was, understandably, ambivalent about going to an all-boy school; what if someone figured out my secret? But, finally, I decided it might help me learn how to at least pretend to be a boy.

About a month into my freshman year, Brother G, the assistant headmaster, offered me a job working in the office, the pay going to offset my tuition. While it meant I likely wouldn't be able to participate in many after-school activities, I'd already realized this was a good thing, as I was already retreating into the shell from which I just recently realized I had to discard. And with a younger brother and sister right behind me in age, every little bit helped my family, so I accepted his offer.

For the most part, it was your standard office grunt work; filing reports (this was pre-Internet), making copies, running errands, and so on. Brother G had an arch and, at times, sarcastic personality (his typical comment when I stopped by his office after finishing my day's work: "Thank you, L. Now get out.").  However, despite his best efforts, he was unable to hide his warmth and genuine affection for his students.

Typically I worked in a small room across from Brother G and Brother T, the headmaster, in the back of the front office and adjacent to the entrance to the brothers residence. I would arrive after the final bell just after 2:00 PM and typically work two or three hours every day. 

Occasionally Mrs. B and Mrs. S, the secretaries, would have a project for me up front, which I always enjoyed. They were in their sixties, and quickly adopted me as a sort of unofficial grandchild. They were both very funny, very kind, and always treated me as an equal. 

Better yet, they had a radio, and let me listen to whatever I wanted. Brother G, understandably, didn't want to listen to the likes of U2, Elvis Costello, and Bruce Springsteen blaring from the office when he was trying to hold a meeting, so I could only listen to it when I was up front. 

Until that fateful Friday, that is. 

*** 
It was a week before Christmas during my sophomore year. I came into the front office and called out hello to Mrs. B and Mrs. S, informing them how lovely they looked that day, as I always did. No answer. I stuck my head in the small room with the mimeograph machine next to Mrs. B's desk, but they weren't there either. 

I walked down the hallway to Brother G's office only, to find it empty as well, with the lights off. When I entered my small office, there were boxes of paper stacked around and on top of the table squeezed into the tiny room. Paper delivery today, I thought. I sighed at the prospect of two-plus hours lugging boxes to the front office, something I was ill-equipped for, being barely five feet tall and 110 lbs. on a good day.

Then I noticed a pile of report cards stacked on the only available chair in the office, which was wedged between more boxes on either side, facing away from the door. A note from Brother G  lay on top, asking me to sort them by year and class. Boring, but better than lugging dozens of 60 lb boxes of paper. Even better, I could listen to the radio.

I walked out to the front; still no Mrs. B and Mrs. S. I unplugged the radio and started to scribble a note, only to have the phone ring. After taking a message, I picked up the radio, the partially-written note lying forgotten on Mrs. B's desk.

I climbed over the back of the chair, there being no other way to sit down. I could barely move, and only managed to plug in the radio because my arms were so skinny I could contort them enough to reach the plug behind the boxes. After a few minutes, I was absorbed in the rhythm of sorting the massive pile of report cards, un aware of the world that lay outside the door behind me.

***

In the past decade, the sordid story of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, and the subsequent, even more sordid coverup, has finally seen the light of day. Sadly, my high school was not immune from this scandal.

WIthin a few days of starting my freshman year, whispers about Brother M were already widespread. He was… odd. Rumors of him being in the locker room after a football practice with his ever-present camera (he ran the photography club) were the source of endless jokes, attempting and failing to mask the discomfort everyone felt about the sight of a slender, wiry middle-aged man in a priest's habit walking around with a camera among semi-dressed (or less) teenage boys.

While I hadn't taken any classes with him, friends had. All agreed he was an outstanding teacher, tough but fair. As far as the rumors? They shrugged; the were just rumors, after all. No one had actually *accused* him of doing anything untoward. 

So everyone just pushed it aside, the way you quickly change the subject after an awkward comment from a distant relative at the Thanksgiving table. But it was always there, in the background. Keep your wits about you, people said, especially when you're alone. And, being in the school several hours after most students and teachers had left, I did each afternoon as I walked the darkened hallways to retrieve my books from my locker. 

***

It's fascinating to ponder how seemingly inconsequential details and decisions have ramifications you never consider - until later.

The radio. The unfinished note. The atypical absence of both Brother G, Mrs. B, and Mrs S from the office. The chair facing away from the door.

Engrossed in the rhythm of the mindless, repetitive sorting, I never heard the door from the brother's residence open, or the footsteps in the hallway.

Suddenly an arm wrapped around my neck like a vise and another began to tickle me. Stunned, I gasped out a strangled "Hey!"

"Ha! That'll teach you to sit with your back to the door!"  Brother M's voice.

Time really does seem to slow down when you're under stress, bringing with it a certain clarity. I remember thinking "Oh, f***, oh f***" while also realizing I couldn't panic.

"Oh, hey Brother!" I managed to stammer, struggling to free myself. "I didn't hear you."  

His grip tightened, the tickling continuing unabated.

"I know, Mr. M! We must keep our wits about us, eh?" he said. His voice was hoarse.

"I will, Brother." I said, squirming desperately and futilely, to escape. The boxes piled up beside the chair had me pinned in place. "But I have to get back to work here."

"Well, let this be a lesson to you, then, Mr. M!"

Still tickling me, his hand slowly crept down my stomach, my twisting becoming increasingly desperate. 

"Well, hello L! There you are!" 

It was Mrs. B.

Brother M's immediately pulled his hand away and loosened his headlock. He was breathing heavily.

I spun around, trying to catch my breath. Mrs. B stared up at Brother M, her mouth a slit. 

Brother M cleared his throat.

"Oh. Good afternoon, Mrs. B. And how are you this fine Friday afternoon?"

Silence.

"L and I were just horsing around a bit. "

More silence. Brother M slowly withdrew his arm from my neck.

Without taking her eyes off Brother M, Mrs. B spoke.

"L, would you please go up front? Mrs. S is out there. She has some paperwork she hopes you can file for her."

Brother M said, "Brother G wants L to sort these report cards by tonight, Mrs. B."

Mrs. B spoke again, steel in her voice.

"Then Brother G can come to me, and I'll explain exactly why L couldn't finish."

Brother M opened his mouth, then closed it. Her eyes still locked on him, Mrs. B said, gently this time, "L. Go up front. Now."

Brother M stepped back as I pushed the chair out. Mrs. B continued to stare up at him as he squeezed past her into the hallway. I stood, my legs shaky, and walked down the hallway.

"Have a good weekend, L," Brother M called after me, his voice full of false cheer. I didn't respond.

***

Mrs. S looked up as I entered the front office.

"There you are! How are you, hon?"

"Hi, Mrs. S."

"Mrs. B and I were wondering where you were."

"I was in back working on the report cards for Brother G."

"Oh, that's right. Brother G left for the day. So *that's* why the radio wasn't up here. I should've guessed our resident music fanatic would have liberated it.." 

She chuckled, then stopped, looking at me closely.

"Is everything all right, L? You have a strange look on your face. And where is Mrs. B?"

"She's in back. Talking to Brother M."

"Brother M? Why is he -"

She clapped a hand over her mouth, then quickly blessed herself.

"Sweet Jesus. Are you…"  She rose and pulled over a chair. "Here, you sit down right here."

I sat down. "I'm OK."

"No, you're not OK," she said firmly. "Look at your hands."

They were shaking uncontrollably.

Mrs. B arrived and glanced at Mrs. S, who looked back, wide-eyed.

Mrs. B sat down next to me. 

"He's gone, L."

I nodded, numb.

"L, I am so, so sorry. I had no idea you were back there alone. Then I saw your note, and I went to see if you were still here." She shook her head. "Did he… did anything…?"

I shook my head. "No, he was just horsing around. It's OK, Mrs. B."

"Right. That's why your even paler than usual, if that's possible.' She turned to Mrs. S. "My son has my car today while his is in the shop. Could you run out and get a Coke for L?"

"Of course." She picked up her pocketbook and fished out her car keys. "Is Coke good, L?"

"Actually, could I have a cup of coffee? That would be great."

Mrs. S smiled. "That will stunt your growth, L."

I looked down at my diminutive frame. "I think it's already a lost cause, Mrs. S."

She and Mrs. B laughed.

"Coffee it is then. Be right back, sweetheart."

After the door closed, Mrs. S turned to me.

"L, I feel responsible. We went for a late lunch, and it never occurred to us that you'd be here by yourself."

"It's not your fault, Mrs. B. I should've been paying more attention. Besides, it was just him horsing around."

She shook her head angrily.

"The hell it - " She paused, took a breath, and continued. 

"This wasn't your fault. These things… people who…" Her voice trailed off. "Anyway, I'm sorry this happened to you. From now on, you work up front with Mrs. S and myself."

My eyes widened.

"But Brother G wants me back there so he can keep an eye on me."

She snorted, then waved her hand dismissively.

"That worked out well today, didn't it?"

"I'll ask him on Monday, I guess."

She stood up.

"No you won't. I'm *telling* Brother G you're working up here."

"Really? You can do that?"

"Well, there's a lot of things I can't do." She patted my arm. "But I can keep an eye out for you."

I smiled. "Well, someone better."

She smiled back.

"Always, hon. Always."

***

Here's a strange, sad song from U2's debut album, Boy, that seems to deal with a somewhat similar experience. The member of U2 were still teenagers when they recorded Boy (The Edge and Larry Mullen were only 17!), which certainly leads you to wonder if it was autobiographical...  







2 comments:

Kelli Bennett on September 19, 2011 at 11:19 AM said...

WOW! I can't say I ever encountered something that direct first hand, but looking back there were some moments where I do wonder what was actually happening and why.

Glad it wasn't anything more.

Kelly on September 19, 2011 at 7:43 PM said...

You know, I didn't think about this much until recently. Or, more likely, I wouldn't *let* myself think about it until recently. I was really, really good at that. It was my therapist's shock when I told her about it that prompted me to write this.

I'm also glad your moments weren't anything more. Mine could have been worse too, so I'm grateful for that.

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