Natural selection and adaptability. Survival of the fittest. Unaccountable mutations. Characteristics suitable to an ecological niche. Contention over limited resources. Am I rehearsing the Darwinian principles of evolution? Nope. I am describing my day-to-day experience, and the experience of young men like me, who attended an all-boys Catholic high school, a Galapagos of buccaneering energies and churning impulse, a mad clamor of distilled testosterone, an image-addled hothouse of carefully stage-managed signifying practice and status-seeking gambits, all governed by one overarching principle: do not stand in opposition to the group. To do so would be, well, maladaptive. One quickly learned the weather-vaned lesson of pointing in the direction of the prevailing wind, and that wind inevitably blew one into the sometimes good-natured but always abrasive friction burn of adolescent competition.
Competition was fiercest over the resource in least supply: regard, admiring notice, enviable attention. Success in sports, of course, proved a time tested and honored means of garnering regard. But so was the kinesthetic presence involved in being cool, owning something cool, or being associated with someone or something cool. Who owned the coolest car, wore the coolest blazer to the fall dance, combed their hair the coolest, talked and walked the coolest, smoked cigarettes the coolest, never ever slipped on the icy school entrance steps? Who assumed the detachment of a Zen master under even the most stressful circumstances? Whose dad had the coolest job? Who had the most attractive girlfriend, the most girlfriends? Who managed to pass through the lunch line the most times before being caught by the lunch-room monitor? Who played in a rock and roll band, had access to Playboy magazine, had a compliant older brother who purchased beer for our parties? Who triumphed in the periodic after-school fistfights? Who practiced a brazen nonchalance toward the teachers, passed tests while loudly proclaiming they had not deigned to open the book, had total command of sports statistics, could tell an unending supply of dirty jokes? Yes, competition for the tribute of recognition was ferocious, except, of course, for academic accomplishment, but at least there were multiple ways by which it could be won.
Had you any hope at all of being a person of significance on the formidability index, you adapted, and quickly, to the high school culture’s jockeying and jostling for hierarchical status. Participation was virtually an existential requirement. Winning insured your prime-time visibility. Playing well but less successfully imparted a fringe-time standing, a sort of vestibule to the glamor and prominence of prime-time. Lose often enough or refuse to participate and you were “caspared,” mausoleumed in 3a.m. off-network syndication and ShamWow infomercials, a silhouette of a silhouette. I was a fringe-timer.
* * *
During the winter months I played intramural volleyball. Being short, stocky, and unblessed with both speed and a vertical leap exceeding 6 inches, I was assigned the position of setter. The intramural teams were coached by one of the Christian Brothers who formed the bulk of the high school’s teaching corps. The Christian Brothers, a Catholic religious community dedicated to educating youth, operated my high school. My team’s coach was Brother Barry, a buzz-cut, jut-jawed ex-Marine who was now, evidently, a soldier for Christ. Brother Barry whole-heartedly and full-throatedly advocated the competitive ethos that catalyzed the student body. For Brother Barry, volleyball was not a wholesome and healthy recreational activity, nor was it a pleasant diversion for passing time on long Wisconsin winter evenings. It was a battle to be won, a battle that, as Brother Barry frequently reminded us, would, like the Marines, make us men.
One evening after a game, as I sat head-hung before my locker, dismayed by the particularly robust pastiche of ineptitude I had displayed, beleaguered by the thought that I had caused our team’s loss, I heard Brother Barry’s voice, anger-infused and stiletto-sharp, from three rows of lockers away: “We should’ve never lost that game. We’d have won if that fat-ass DeNuccio had got into position quicker.” I stared into the empty locker across from me, then at the fading imprint on the concrete floor of wet feet passing down the aisle. I dressed quickly and walked home quickly. I walked very quickly.
The next morning, at the end of his World History class, Brother Barry called me aside. “Last night I said some things I shouldn’t have,” he told me. “I just wanted you to know I apologize.” Just like that. Not contrite. Not sorry. Not sincere. Not seeking forgiveness. A simple statement of fact, crisp, neat. And probably a matter of damage control, for I found out later than someone had told him I had overheard his remark. He had compacted his cruelty into a small candleflame of regret, then hurriedly snuffed it into a thin vine of smoke. “Oh, it’s OK, Brother,” I said. What else could I say? I was a kid, my jingle-jangly nerve endings close to the skin’s surface. What he said was hurtful, and I was hurt. “It’s OK, Brother.” But it was not OK. It was not even in OK’s zip code. I expected more from an adult. I expected more from a Christian Brother.
And when I became an adult, I expected more from myself, for, despite my best intentions, I found that competition can alter character without deepening it, forgot that we were made for cooperation as well as competition, found that I failed, that I thwarted my better self, that I could be mean-spirited and unkind, get angry and frustrated, cause hurt and humiliation, disrespect the inner lives of others. I tried not to, but I did. It is a good thing, I think, that we are always destination-bound rather than destination-arrived. So long as there is an around the next bend, an over the hill, a down the road, so long can we expect to be better, broaden our emotional imagination, resolve that the radius of our actions will extend beyond the raw moment, the cubicled experience. Perhaps Brother Barry came to the same conclusion. I hope he did.
* * *
And yet, strangely, surprisingly, for I anticipated otherwise, my rather flat-lined pulse on the student regard meter spiked. Though I spoke to no one about it, my Brother Barry experience sped rapidly through the students’ high-speed, word-of-mouth, distributed communication network. Suddenly, I was bolded typeface in the fine print of my classmates’ consciousnesses. How did I know? Ron Rutella, an impeccably credentialed prime-timer, cool’s cool, strolled up to my locker one morning and said, “Don’t sweat Brother Barry. He’s a prick. You just had a bad game. It happens. I know. You gave it your best shot, didn’t you?” “Yeah,” I said. “Well, that’s the thing, isn’t it,” and then he ambled on down the hall. I knew my time of sunsplashed attention would be short-lived. I knew I was still a fringe timer, always would be. But I also knew that schoolboy justice, so frequently merciless, can sometimes deliver a moment of grace.