My High School Years – 1

Posted: January 13, 2012 in Belen High School
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El Colegio Belen; La Habana, Cuba 1854-1961

The high school I attended holds the dubious distinction of being the same high school Fidel Castro graduated from. Belen Jesuit Preparatory High School, a learning institution for boys, was founded in Havana, Cuba in 1854 by the Jesuits. It moved to Miami, Florida in 1962 when Castro, in a thoughtful gesture to his alma mater, kicked the Jesuits out of the school and confiscated the property so he could turn it into a military academy.  Apparently, he felt he had a better idea than they did on how to mold young minds.

I remember chatting with one of those Jesuits who remembers Castro as a Belen student. He told me how the future dictator once bet his fellow classmates that he was invulnerable and proved it by getting on his bicycle and racing towards a brick wall, smashing himself silly in the process. Proof once again that Fidel’s head was harder than brick. The Jesuits he expelled were actually quite lucky to be the few who were allowed to leave the island, as many others not only had to sacrifice their careers, families and some, even their lives to escape, but those who dared look at a member of Castro’s regime cross-eyed were thrown into a political prison, and thousands were subsequently executed without a trial. I’m not Cuban but I’ve lived within the Cuban community during most of my youth, and after listening to many of my friends’ stories of the suffering their parents endured during that time, I understand the hatred and resentment they have for that man and their subsequent angry reaction they have whenever someone portrays him in any kind of a positive light.

But I digress. The recollections of my high school years are all pleasant, joyful ones. It was a small school, but very strict. We all had to wear ties and our hair had to be kept short, right above the collar. Any wavering from these rules would result in “Penance Hall”, or “Penang Hol” as Mariano,  our strongly accented disciplinarian always used to say; one hour after school of study and reflection along with all the other delinquents.


Mariano was a short, stocky Cuban gentleman who was born with none of the facial muscles used to convey a smile.  He was always dressed impeccably, with a neatly pressed, button-down, solid colored (usually powder-blue) shirt, perfectly straightened tie that always ended exactly one inch above the belt, dark,  exactingly creased pants and spit-polished black shoes. Whenever he looked at you, his stare implied that you were either already guilty of something or you were about to break some kind of Golden Rule, and we all reacted guiltily to his piercing stare, sure that if he was looking at us, we must be doing something wrong.

Every morning, we would stand in line outside the school in alphabetical order of our last names before class began. Then, roll call could begin.

“Abelairas…  Benitez… Benoit…. Camacho… Clancey… De Le Fuente… Eguilior…”

All the teachers and Jesuits called us by our surnames so we all called each other by our surnames as well.  Except for Mariano. We never knew his surname, and we never cared to find out.

All students were required to arrive fifteen minutes before the first bell  for the sole purpose of standing in line for roll call, whether it rained or not, and to prepare to enter the school building in an orderly fashion. Mariano had a whistle around his neck and when he used it, we immediately had to stop talking and milling about and quickly get in line, already knowing who we had to stand behind  as per our surname’s first letter. He would then inspect our clothing, one by one, line by line. If our ties were not buttoned up or loose, if our shirts were  not tucked or our hair uncombed, we would be facing the possibility of the dreaded “Penance Hall”.

I was always targeted for wearing my hair too long.

“Seoane.” he would say to me, shaking his head and making a cutting motion towards the back of his hair. He never yelled. He didn’t have to. I was relieved that he passed me by with just a warning. But I knew then that if I didn’t get a haircut within a few days, I too would have to suffer “Penang Hol”.

Once he had inspected the ranks, another blow of his whistle will allow us to enter the school building, starting with class A. Each line was divided by classroom… A, B and C. There were only around thirty-five students per classroom.  I was in Classroom B for all of 7th through 12th grade, and there was always competition between the classes as to who was the smartest, more athletic, or most importantly, who could get away with the most without getting caught.

As we walked into the building and to our respective classes,  we were allowed to be at ease, but some would get out of hand and push, shove or smack the head of the classmate in front of them, who in turn felt obligated to turn around and punch them in the arm. If you ever got caught doing any of that, it would also mean Penance Hall. But most of the time we were just told to walk with our arms outstretched and our hands on the shoulder of the student in front of us in order to avoid further horseplay.

Penance Hall was an awful punishment. Who wanted to stay after school an extra hour to… gasp… study?  It even sounded bad. We actually had to do penance for our sins during that hour… while studying? How was that even possible?  Penance Hall was given out on a daily basis to individuals and sometimes even to entire classes. Camacho held the record, and honor, of most Penance Halls during the 8th grade. He was there every week, a fixture, like the fluorescent light above the Penance Hall ceiling. The guy could never keep his mouth shut, always bucking to be class clown, with well-worn retorts that would virtually guarantee him a seat after school.

“Camacho, what kind of an idiot do you think I am?” our Humanities teacher, Mr. McCune once asked him, fuming at his antics in class.

“I don’t know, sir. What kind of an idiot are you?”

Camacho. Penance Hall. Again.

Penance Hall was usually proclaimed between classes because that’s when we were always the loudest, waiting for the next teacher to arrive. So during those five-minute periods, we let loose; wads of papers and pencils were thrown across the classroom, there was yelling, laughing, singing and insulting. Some of us tried in vain to shut everyone up because we knew what would happen if Mariano suddenly walked in on us.

“Callense, pendejos!” some of us would cry out in vain for quiet, but the pleas were always drowned out by a new, more impenetrable wave of noise.

Ruiz was the pudgy kid whose normal reaction was always to laugh at everything anyone says. Even his Yearbook pictures were always of him trying to hold back a guffaw. He sat behind me.

“Hi, Ruiz,” someone would say, and he would respond with a chuckle.

“What time is it, Ruiz?” someone else would ask  and he would tell you between snickers.

“Do you know the answer to this problem, Ruiz?” someone might inquire and he would answer ‘no’ between bursts of ‘ha’s’.

Ruiz always sat behind me because we were supposed to sit in reverse alphabetical order. I hated this because it would mean that many times I had to sit near the front of the class since my last name started with an ‘S’. I did not like sitting in the front of the class. It meant that the teacher would always pick you for an answer, and that meant I always had to go through all my schoolwork the night before so I could answer the question properly. Many times I had answered with a blank stare, but after a while, I resorted to memorizing things so I would have a comeback as soon as the teacher asked me something. This too, would backfire.

Our 8th grade science teacher, Gabino Diaz, a man who had a strong resemblance, and even spoke like Bela Lugosi, once called on me to explain a definition.

“Seoane, what is the definition of a half-life?”

I had him. I’d memorized the answer the night before, so I rattled it off without even blinking an eye.

“A half life is the period of time it takes for the amount of a substance undergoing decay to decrease by half.” I said quickly and filled with pride. I could even hear a murmur of impressed comments running about among the class. Gabino Diaz however, simply looked at me through half-opened eyes, unimpressed.

“Very good,  Seoane. Now tell me…  what does that mean?”

I was dumbfounded. You mean I also actually had to understand what I was memorizing? Studying in this school was starting to prove trickier than I had counted on.

One other day between classes, we were waiting for the new English teacher to make her debut in our classroom, and Ruiz was poking me. He was always poking me in the back, just to be annoying. I would turn around and threaten his life but he would just turn red with laughter. That day, he brought a lighter to school. Not having anything better to do as we waited besides yelling and throwing papers, he thought it might be a good idea to light my hair on fire.

I didn’t notice it at first, but I did wonder what foul-smelling burning odor was emanating behind me. Probably due to the fact that I didn’t wash my hair every single day out of pure laziness and I hated to get my head wet at 7 o’clock in the morning, the apparent oil slick I had going on my head allowed the flame to increase at an alarming rate. It apparently scared Ruiz more that it did me, because next thing I knew, he was smacking the back of my head as hard as he could to put the flames out, and the whole class was pointing at the back of my head,  some wide-eyed, others laughing at me. It didn’t singe or hurt and fortunately, my skin was unscathed.  Ruiz had managed to put the small conflagration out quickly. I was just angry that he was smacking the back of my head, until I realized what had happened.

“Oh, my God, Swanee…” he said between paroxysms of laughter, protecting his arm from my attempted punches. “Your hair!”

The terrible odor remained. I felt the back of my head with my right hand and realized that half my hair had literally gone up in smoke. It was a miracle that Mariano didn’t smell it when he walked in, quietly and stealthily, to catch us in the middle of our rowdiness. Everyone turned towards him in awe like an apparition that had suddenly manifested itself out of thin air. We immediately clammed up, as if the sudden silence would convince him that maybe he had made a mistake and it was the other classroom making all that noise.

“Ok,” he uttered without even the slightest hint of pity in his tone.  “Everybadi… Penang Hol!

He walked out as stealthily as he had appeared, leaving us with the dagger in our backs and pondering our fate, wallowing in the horrible fact that we had to stay within these stupid walls until 4PM that day. Sixty extra minutes may as well have been a life sentence back then. And now I really had to cut my hair, not just because Mariano had told me to, but also because I couldn’t walk around with a bald hole in the back of my head. I turned around and landed a well-placed punch on Ruiz’ arm. He laughed.


Our graduating class numbered less than a hundred, but the bond that was formed among us is still a strong one so many years later, as we continue to reunite almost annually to eat paella, drink Cuba Libres and reminisce.  It’s funny, because back in high school the camaraderie wasn’t as tight as it is today. Every one of us, deep in the midst, but still years away from discovering our true selves, was trying to prove something, what I don’t know. And many times this resulted in arguments, fights, cliques and banishments from social circles. My circle of friends was a very small one as a result. In fact, I counted the Jesuits of the school as not only mentors, teachers and disciplinarians, but also friends that I will never forget and always appreciate. They were strict. They didn’t allow foolishness. But they understood. They realized we were all young men at the cusp of adulthood, prone to hi-jinks, and I can happily say that every Jesuit I ever met in Belen was the epitome of what a young teenage boy should grow up to become: intelligent, wise, kind, with a sense of humor but ultimately human and always compassionate.

Mariano left the school after our freshman year. We rejoiced. We hoped that Penang Hol would leave the school with him, and we celebrated when it did, but what replaced it was much, much worse.

If Mariano instilled fear in us, Father Izquierdo was like a fortress of discipline. He didn’t raise his voice either. In fact, he rarely spoke, but when he did, he whispered, so you actually had to strain to listen to him mete out your punishment. This chilled us to the bone.

Father Izquierdo was quite the opposite of Mariano physically. Where Mariano was short and stout, this Jesuit was tall and muscular. We were certain that if he wanted to, he could beat the crap out of all of us. He always wore black, with his Roman collar standing out like a beacon.  He never walked fast, but he wasn’t slow either. His was a silent, stealthy gait that belied his physical strength. His manner of dress as well as his demeanor inspired us to dub him “The Shadow”.  You could try and run away from The Shadow as far as you like, but whenever you turned, he would always be right behind you.

And when he did catch up with you, it wasn’t Penance Hall he would dole out but “Sabados”… Saturdays!  He wasn’t just threatening an extra hour of school after class, he was placing our entire weekend in jeopardy, destroying it by inserting an extra school day on the most beloved day of the week, where you not only were forced to… egads… study, but also not say a word for the entire day! And that wasn’t all. If you were lucky, you would only have to suffer through one Saturday. Many times he would punish poor souls by having them stay two, even three Saturdays in a row.

So when Father Izquierdo caught you doing something wrong, you only had to look at his hand. He would raise it slowly, during the time it would take for you to quickly recite The Lord’s Prayer to yourself, and you hoped that no fingers would be extended and he was raising it to just punch you in the face.  But being a Jesuit, Father Izquierdo was not a violent man. He raised his hand and would slowly extend his fingers, depending on the severity of your crime. The last thing you wanted to see were three fingers up in the air, because it would be followed by the whispered punishment.

“… tres Sabados.”

Three Saturdays.  In a row! The three fingers confirmed what you could barely, and didn’t want to hear. Then he would turn around and walk away in his brisk, stealthy gait, disappearing into the distance as you were left among the rubble of  three ruined weekends.

He was another one who would never smile during school hours. But a funny thing happened to him once the bell ended the class day. His demeanor changed. If you would bump into him because you were running to catch the bus, or running because you were just happy that the school day was over, he would stop you with a gentle hand on your shoulder, then look at you and smile. It was a kind smile, just a slight bending on either end of the mouth, but his eyes sparkled and made you realize that deep down inside, he actually liked us. We’d smile back and wish him a happy day. Then, once again, he would walk away into the distance.

Father Izquierdo died in 2005. Some of us returned to the school to remember him. Many attended the funeral and the subsequent Mass in his honor.  We took turns saying our final goodbyes as he lay motionless in his coffin. We wondered if he was up there somewhere, doling out “Sabados” to everyone in Purgatory.

  1. Luis Camacho says:

    Many, many memories are floating back that were all but forgotten. Sadly, I was the recipient of way too many penance halls. Whether you remember or not, I used to carry several weeks worth at any given time and had to take future appointments. I truly believe that I still hold the 8th grade record for most consecutive saturday penance halls.

    Had I actually kept all of the pink slips that they were written on, I imagine I could wallpaper my grandchildren’s bedroom.

    Thanks for the traipse down memory lane.


  2. Mariano Loret de Mola says:

    I read your article and i realy enjoy it.Brought a lot of memories and it was fun to see how the younger kids in the school were perciving me.
    I remember you as a 7th grader when you first came in but i left the year after i hope that the years you spend in the school were as good as mine.
    I am working now as a director of the Belen Alumni Associacion ,please visit us when you are around here.


    • filmmakr40 says:

      Thanks very much. I remember my high school years in Belen with a lot of good memories. I’m actually surprised you remember me. It must’ve been because I always wore my hair too long! I live in New York now but the next time I’m in Miami I will make it a point to visit.


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