Francis Moriarty: Reflections of a St. Joe almost-grad

HONG KONG — The clearing out and shuttering of St. Joseph's High School evokes memories for those who went there. Many recall their student days with fondness and nostalgia, and I am happy for them.

But it cannot honestly be said that every student who attended St. Joe's recalls the experience with moist-eyed affection. For some, it was bittersweet. For a few, it was just bitter.

Even though I regret seeing the school close, I am in the bittersweet camp. The sweet part came very late, but that's getting ahead.

I attended St. Joe's from ninth grade to halfway through junior year, then switched mid-winter to Pittsfield High School, where I began a free-fall plummet from honor student to borderline delinquent.

PHS report cards in those days showed grades from A to F, plus a numeral from 1 to 4. A "1" meant you worked hard. A "4" showed zero effort. My last card included an A-1, B-2, C-3 and D-4 (algebra). I really deserved an F-4. I remember telling the algebra teacher that I could see no reason why anyone would ever need to know about algorithms. This is but one reason among many why I did not invent Facebook.

They gave me a D because a student with a fail could not graduate and PHS wanted me out.

So, making the transfer to public high school was, in practical terms, not a smart move. But it had to be done.

Stifling atmosphere

Firm rules of right and wrong can sometimes be comforting. Or not. I found the control at St. Joe's stifling. Corporal punishment was inflicted by a few nuns who feared that if they did not apply the rod (or ruler, or blackboard pointer, or a twisted ear or a slap or a large book smashed over a boy's head) all hormonal hell would break loose. Order was obligatory.

Something told me this was not how life worked elsewhere. St. Joe's was preparing me academically and making me walk corridors in silent lines, but I was not developing self-discipline and felt increasingly rebellious.

One day a nun said, "You know, Master Moriarty, if you don't like it here you can always leave." It was a lightning bolt. Yeah, that's right. I can leave. I gathered my books and began walking out.

"Where do you think you're going," she demanded.

"I'm leaving," I said.

"Sit down," she ordered. I didn't move. She sensed something and added, "Please." So I sat back down.

The next day she took me aside. "Did you mean what you said yesterday," she asked. I said yes. In short order I found myself in the office of the Sister Superior. A priest appeared. A one-time Golden Gloves fighter, he rolled up his sleeves and challenged me to go a couple of rounds. I glanced at Sister Superior. She was grimacing. A few days later, I enrolled at PHS and you already know how that worked out.

But the St. Joe story was not done. Fast forward, and I'm a college student looking for a basic Latin text. Having taken Latin at St. Joe's, I think they might have a copy to spare.

So I phone the school and reach Sister Mary Dorothy (her real name), a diminutive nun known as Mary Dot, mistress of the dark art of declension, she who in the midst of a Berkshire blizzard would throw open classroom windows to "let the Devil out." Having known her wrath, this was not an easy call to make.

Yes, she says, she has a spare. Can we meet outside her third-floor classroom? Please use the stairs at the west end of the school.

I comply. When I reach the last step, I see her in the distance standing with arms crossed. I slowly walk the full length of the corridor to reach her, each step echoing off the tiles. My stomach tightens reflexively. When I reach her she offers no greeting. Instead she points with her right hand to locker 113.

"It was here, wasn't it," she says.

I look at the metal door, still dented from where she had lifted me off the floor and repeatedly banged my head because I had whispered while in line.

I nod, wordlessly. "Mm," says she. "I thought so."

She withdraws a worn Latin text from her bodice and hands it over. "So you're in college now," she says. It isn't really a question but I say yes. "Well, " says Mary Dot, "who says there are no miracles."

Dual confessions

It could end there but doesn't. Jump ahead four decades and I am on a return visit from Hong Kong. A few old classmates from St. Joe's and Mary Dot, now an octogenarian, are having lunch. She is seated across from me.

"I want to ask you something, " she says. "Am I the reason why you left St. Joe's?"

No, you are not, I reply. Only a part of it.

"I didn't want to teach," she says. "They made me. I wanted a life of contemplation and prayer."

It's my turn to confess. "I should have flunked Latin. I only passed because I randomly studied a chapter from the Gallic Wars that you seemed to think important. And that's the one you chose for the final exam."

"That's not random," says Mary Dot. "That's the Holy Spirit."

Mary Dot has since left us. The marble statues and crucifixes are about to be removed, the corridors emptied of footfalls and whispers. Where the dented locker and the Holy Spirit go, I have no clue.

A native of Pittsfield, Francis Moriarty is a journalist and broadcaster covering Hong Kong, mainland China and Asia.


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