Friday, January 17, 2014

The Mark of St. Mary

Elementary school leaves a mark on all of us.

Whether public or private, both handled us at our most formative, when everything crackling around us could influence our foundation and plant the seeds for who we’d become. Within their walls, we garnered maximum attention while finding out what we liked, what we didn’t like, and what we were good at. These types of revelations put our lives in motion.

But when I say that my elementary school left a mark on me, I don’t mean it in only the aforementioned figurative sense. I mean it literally, like in an “I have two jagged marks on my head from accidents that occurred within my elementary school” way. I fell from hanging off a stairwell for one, and sustained another by diving through a fire exit to save a loose basketball in a tournament game. Both intelligent decisions earned scars that have endured for decades—much like the rest of my memories inside Hamburg, New York’s St. Mary of the Lake.

That’s why this past Wednesday was so hard. When the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo elects to close the place that raised you, the place that filled nearly every pre-teen year of your life with the substance you retell and recall for the rest of your life, it hurts. It cuts. It digs in, jerks and leaves a painful mark.

I attended St. Mary from 1982 to 1992, preschool through eighth grade. I walked to school until I was nine years old, took a bus when my family moved a whole four blocks further away. I arrived every school day in a white shirt, navy blue tie and matching blue slacks. In my early years, I teamed the uniform with Michael Jackson-esque black loafers and whatever utilitarian coat my parents laid out for me. In my later years, I went to school in bluchers and a white Boston Celtics Starter jacket, earned via an afterschool trade. In both instances, eventual choices were foretold: I’d gravitate toward a professional existence that didn’t require me to wear a tie or loafers, and I’d eventually move to Boston and follow the Celtics in person.

But St. Mary was more than a soothsayer for eventual professions or pro sports allegiances. It was more than your popular Catholic school imagery, one full of scared children adhering to the rules of priests, nuns and upstart teachers, all while donning matching shirts and blouses under classroom crucifixes. It was a place where hardware store washers acted as milk tokens, where red and blue poker chips acted as school-issued currency for pizza (red) and hamburgers (blue). It hosted my first right-cross, my first girlfriend and my first Bobby Brown-serenaded slow dance—one in which a nun approached too-close partners and asked that they “leave room for the Holy Spirit.” It was the backdrop for massive Niagara Candy sales, Campbell Soup label computer sales and “butt-surfing” hallway races, ones that would end with three boys in blues sliding ass-first over a marble finish line while teachers’ classroom doors were closed.
Most of all, it was place for people, influential ones who’d form the foundation of my existence.          

Small classes hosted students I befriended at four years old and, somehow, still remain connected to. Over the last 20 years, I’ve seen them at bars, grocery stores and Bills games. We’ve vacationed together, moved away from Buffalo together and shared in professional success together. And, when I married in 2010, three kindergarten classmates were in my wedding party. No matter the time or distance apart, there’s an unmistakable bond that bands not only my close St. Mary friends, but anyone who walked those halls together. Anyone who was forced to read Johnny Tremain in the sixth grade or slice a frog open in the seventh grade. Anyone who was told by our school librarian to be quiet because “the books are sleeping.” It all happened within the confines of that Catholic school, and it had a lasting effect on all of us.    

When these moments were seeping into our days, we were flanked by teachers who lorded over a captive audience of children in need of challenges. I had teachers I was afraid of at St. Mary—physically. Some packed glares and statures that made me petrified to blow off homework. Others had voices so frightening they’d follow me home and haunt my dreams. But, on the other side of this fear was a fear of not performing, of not knuckling down and executing. I saw these teachers within the same classroom, all day, every day. They wanted me to succeed, and I didn’t want to disappoint them. This healthy fear of failure instilled a discipline in me, just as it did with others who were frightened of—or hell-bent on pleasing—these teachers. Today, this work ethic fuels everything I do, just as it does with other St. Mary alums working as teachers, activists, lawyers, doctors, advertising salesmen and financial advisors.

As complicated events crept into our developing lives, the school preached faith, support and the power of prayer to help deal with unexplainable, unfortunate or unmanageable events. In 1986, I sat in a St. Mary classroom and watched the Challenger unexpectedly explode on live television. A few years later, I walked through the school’s front doors to find out our hallways and classrooms had been vandalized by local teenagers, forcing temporary closure. And, when a fellow student’s mother, father or grandparent unexpectedly passed away, I joined the rest of the school in processing across our parking lot to pray for families at morning Mass. It was support through faith and unity, two things that’ve proved rare as I’ve aged through more complicated problems. But in those St. Mary halls, they weren’t at a premium. They were the norm.           

Outside of our classes and emotional maturation, we were guided through track meets, baseball games and basketball tournaments. For some, these are the most vivid St. Mary memories. Stacks of multicolored ribbons from the standing long jump or 50-yard dash. Late-summer batting practices at Hamburg Little League. Winter basketball practices inside that drafty gymnasium, where a burst of arctic Lake Erie air would whip through the joint every time someone cranked open its heavy steel-encased door.

Basketball was my first love, and I found it at St. Mary. As I sit here typing this, I can recall every inch of the gym as it looked in 1992. I can picture the lanes, the backboards and sliding wooden doors that separated the court from the school cafeteria. I remember where the storage room was and, if you needed to find a basketball, how the weekend janitor used to stash a loose one behind racks of bingo chairs. That gym was a second home to me, just like it was for countless other Lakers. It gave us somewhere to go, somewhere to grow. Now adults, many of us think of that room when we remember our childhood, what was good about it, and how we’d like our own children to experience such a connection with such a place.

And maybe that’s why St. Mary’s upcoming closure has affected long-departed alums like me. Its shuttering not only alters definitive chapters of my life, but is yet another reminder that my childhood will never be replicated by my eventual children.          

They’ll never have the chance to grow within the same familial, nurturing environment as I did. They’ll never walk the same sallow halls, play defense on the same court or find themselves unexplainably attached to a school and its namesake. This is sad, and as more and more of these Catholic institutions fall to consolidation or outright closure, these types of blogged goodbyes will become a rite of passage for legions of devastated students and nostalgic adults. If these testimonials continue to come flowing forward in hail of intricate details and superlatives, maybe the people making these decisions might think more considerably about what they’re taking away from a community. They’re not only taking away a building or classrooms or teachers. They’re eradicating a way of life that’s formed generations.

This is the influence of St. Mary of the Lake. It’s left an indelible impact on all of us who were lucky enough to call it home and, when its doors close, that bond will remain. That’s the mark of St. Mary. 

Wear it with pride—and let it endure for decades.