A recent conversation with a wayward adolescent took me back to an event from my own somewhat checkered past, and I hope you’ll indulge me as I tell you about my last fight. It took place when I was in grade 9 during an art class. We had a progressive if somewhat flighty teacher who was new to the school, and she liked to flick the overhead lights on and off furiously, whenever the spirit moved her. I think this was her way of “igniting curiosity, imagination, and passion” in her students.
My erstwhile opponent was a guy known to me only as “Wawa.” (A quick aside: I have to explain that nickname. Those of you fluent in the language of Native Americans, or for the less erudite — if you are remotely familiar with the quicki-marts that abound in Southeastern Pennsylvania — you know that “Wawa” means “wild goose,” but that’s not how young Tony Waters earned his moniker. During the first month of school that year, we were shown “The Miracle Worker,” a wonderful and inspiring black and white film about Annie Sullivan, the woman who figures out how to communicate with and eventually teach Helen Keller, a girl who had been born without the ability to hear, see, or speak.
Annie Sullivan achieves a breakthrough when she uses her fingers to spell the word “water” into Helen’s hand. As Annie pumps water from a well, Helen makes the connection; she grasps that the letters w-a-t-e-r have meaning, and because she is deaf, she can only blurt out the sound “Wawa” in recognition. At that moment, in front of 200 boys in a darkened assembly hall, a somewhat sullen Tony Waters instantly became “Wawa.” We meant no disrespect to Helen, Annie, or even Tony for that matter. (Ok, perhaps there was a smidgeon of disrespect for Tony.) Because Tony took an instant dislike to it, of course, the name stuck.)
At the risk of sounding like a bad sociologist, it seems to me that there were a lot more nicknames walking the earth a generation ago, and I’m not quite sure what this change means. Just don’t ask me to tell you what mine was. Would you believe me if I said it was “Supreme Leader?” Well, it was worth a try.)
Anyway, I don’t want to embellish or glamorize things, and I won’t tell you if I won my last fight. I will only cryptically admit that I ended up being thrown through the art room’s second floor window, thus gaining instant access to a less than scenic view of North Philadelphia. But my lack of pugnacious success is not what I want to dwell on today. (I will leave that for Wawa!) No, what I remember much more vividly was the dry-mouth dread I experienced as I walked into the Dean of Students’ office – along with Wawa – to have a face-to-face meeting with Fr. Kearney, the disciplinarian, a man known as “the shadow” at our all boys Catholic school.
Fr. Kearney would not have been nominated for any sort of peer counselling award. I’m not sure he could spell Carl Rogers’ name, and I don’t recall his ever nodding his head in quiet affirmation or starting a sentence with, “I think I hear you saying that…” Had “Oprah” or “Dr. Phil” been around during the less enlightened 70’s, I’m betting Fr. Kearney would not have tuned in on a regular basis. He was a bit like a hardened somewhat cynical cop, one who had spent too much time on the beat. A thousand boys a day can do that to you, I guess.
As a result, I shouldn’t have been surprised that a somewhat jaded Fr. Kearney was not at all interested in hearing my side of the story. He didn’t care that Wawa had stolen my red Crayola crayon. He didn’t understand that I would have lost face in front of my peers, if I had let such a transgression pass. And he wasn’t even minutely interested in the racial overtones that lurked, I was sure, deep in the background of this conflict.
Instead, Fr. Kearney made 3 points, which still seem remarkably vivid to me today:
First, he made Wawa and me split the cost of the window — a double window I might add — despite my vain protestations that it was hardly my intention to break two panes of glass with my cranium. “I am not interested in your intentions, Power. I am interested only in your decisions.”
Second, when I apologized for fighting (and even now, I’m not sure if going airborn after a discreet and somewhat gentlemanly push actually qualifies as a heavyweight conflict), he said, “I don’t care that you were fighting. You and Mr. Waters (Fr. Kearney had evidently missed “The Miracle Worker”) can go over to Broad Street and pound the stuffing (I’m not exactly sure if “stuffing” was actually his word of choice on this occasion) out of one another. I am punishing you only because you fought here at school.”
And third, Fr. Kearney gave us “jug.” I’m not sure if j-u-g comes from “justice under God” or if it is from some Latin derivative “jugo-jugari – to punish” but whatever the source, jug entailed standing perfectly still and silent in a hallway for an hour. When I modestly suggested that perhaps this time might be better used for study, Fr. Kearney cut me off in mid-sentence. “The purpose of this exercise is not academic in nature, Power. It is designed to make you never want to return to my office again.”
Like a hardened criminal, I can say that I did my time. And perhaps in a way you could say that Fr. Kearney was my Annie Sullivan. It may be something less than miraculous, but after serving my sentence, I patched things up with Wawa. He raised a good question. “What was I supposed to do? Ask ‘Mother may I’ for that stupid crayon?” Group suffering can be good for the soul, even when one party is almost completely and utterly innocent and never should have had to pay for that window or served that jug in the first place. But I digresss… Who knows? Had this event occurred years later, Wawa and I could have starred in “Prison Break” together. I might have even called him “Tony.” Well, maybe. All I know is that I never did get another jug, and I never got in another fight.
And sometimes, when a UCC lad tells me about a conflict that strikes my middle age mind as something less than cosmic in significance, I stop and remember Wawa, the shadow, and that precious red Crayola crayon.