MY HIGH SCHOOL YEARS – 2

Posted: January 22, 2012 in Belen High School

Belen High School in Miami, Florida 1962-1980

Belen Jesuit Preparatory is considered one of the best and most highly regarded Catholic high schools in the United States, and you’d probably miss the building the school called home for eighteen years if you drove by it.  Today, the Belen grounds are large and extensive. Thirty acres of land that include a football field, a basketball gymnasium, even an Observatory for Astronomy and Meteorology, complete with a 16′ telescope equipped with a CCD camera for astrophotography, the only high school in the United States to have one.

But back when I was in high school, we had a small building with white walls and a tile floor and a ceiling with fluorescent lights and classrooms.  That’s it. It had the feel of a clinic, especially because it was always freezing cold in the mornings.  I would bring a sweater to school every day, despite the Miami heat. The building air conditioning system was apparently never turned off at night so by the time you walked in, it was so cold that there was a thin, foggy sheen of frost on all the windows.

As its reputation for education excellence continued to grow, the total student body began to also increase with every year. The Jesuits realized early on that one day, they would have to find a way to move to a large campus. The current building was rapidly proving to be too small, so as a temporary fix, until they could raise the funds for the new school, Belen expanded during my junior year to a large re-converted warehouse located  two buildings down from the main building on Southwest Eighth Street, or Calle Ocho as the Hispanic community called it.  We would come to name that warehouse “The Barn”, because it was in the shape of a huge barn. It contained a set of a dozen additional classrooms and a small auditorium in the back used for club meetings and occasional movies for a dollar.

Once inside the campus, we had access to the two buildings through the common area, which was made up of a fenced-in L-shaped cement lot. The fence was probably not so much for our safety as it was to keep the teachers from running away, or so it seemed.

Two basketball hoops hung at each end of the foot of this L shape area.  Nestled in against the ‘L’ was the cafeteria. Coming from a public elementary school that always served the same bland lunch every day, I was thrilled to see that the school cafeteria offered sodas, not just milk, and served  the most delicious Cuban food. Congri, picadillo, ropa vieja, pasteles de carne… and the desserts… flan, guava with cream cheese, pasteles de guayaba …ice cream.  Lunch was undoubtedly my personal favorite hour of the school day.  It may not have been the healthiest diet, but it was my introduction to Cuban food and it tasted homemade, way better than the crap public schools serve today, thanks to their contractual agreements with Pizza Hut and McDonalds.

First recess began every day at 10:20AM and lasted thirty minutes. When the bell rang, we were out the classroom door like a shot, to stretch our legs and expend some energy. We would all either gather in small groups to talk or shoot some hoops on our small half-court or stand in line to partake of snacks.

I was never too athletically inclined in those days, so you would find me standing in line for a snack. I never played basketball because I was sure that I would always miss the hoop by a mile and I didn’t want to have to deal with the subsequent peals of laughter, insults hurled at me for being such a dork, and questions arising as to my masculinity or why I was even allowed to be on the basketball court in the first place.

So instead, I joined the line outside the cafeteria. Empanadas (meat pies) and  fritas (small burgers served with string fries on the patty) were among the most popular selections.  My particular favorite snack was the choripan, a tubular, hollow bun with Spanish chorizo baked inside, sort of like a Latin hot dog but with a spicier sausage. I would order one along with a soda, then take one of those red ketchup containers that taper to a pointed end, and inject it into the choripan, filling it with ketchup. Yum.

Adjacent to the cement lot, behind The Barn, was a field. We called it a field despite the fact that there wasn’t a blade of grass on it. Just dust. Our class christened the field the Dust Bowl. It wasn’t very big, maybe the size of a lot big enough to build a small house on. That’s where we held our soccer tournaments and tug of war challenges. That’s also where we got into most of our fights and sometimes even found the occasional dead, unplucked chicken.

The fights would mostly break out when it was someone’s birthday. We were such a warm, caring group of young men that, whenever someone’s birthday came up, we would gang up on the unsuspecting birthday victim and take turns smacking him on top of the head as hard as we could until we could see his brains oozing out of his ears. We called this term of endearment “palito”. The term came from the Spanish term “palo”, which literally means “stick”. In Spanish jargon though, when someone would give someone else un palo, they would be giving them a smack. I suppose since we were still in our teenage years, we used the junior diminutive term, hence “palito”. This painful acknowledgement of their birthdate would usually result in the said birthday victim to lash out violently against the first guy he can land a punch on, which would subsequently also involve teachers and ultimately end in a flurry of Penang Hols and  tres sabados.

The dead, unplucked chickens were a sporadic contribution courtesy of “Santeros”. Santeria, a syncretic religion that originated in West African and Caribbean culture, involved animal sacrifice, so occasionally there would be a dead chicken in the Dust Bowl. It didn’t happen a lot, maybe once every year, but the Jesuits were not happy to find them. It would only result in talk and gossip, fomenting the superstitious mythic lore that it was a curse, a pox if you may, upon all those who resided there. But for the most part, we just saw it for what it was: a dead chicken, and made jokes about how we were going to be having arroz con pollo for lunch. This “pox” apparently never did take hold either, because the large majority of my fellow graduates have gone on to successful careers as lawyers, doctors and even politicians, and so far none of the politicians, except one, have been involved in any major scandal or felonious act. Hopefully, it’ll stay that way.

Between The Barn and our main building on Calle Ocho was a small, independent cafeteria called El Caney. There was a long counter inside with about a dozen fixed bar stools and four small tables for two against the wall. The owners of El Caney, a very serious Chinese couple who were just barely able to speak Spanish, tried bravely to accommodate the onslaught of Belen students who would fill the place to capacity every morning before line up. Those who arrived early went to El Caney and stuffed themselves with Cuban bread slathered in butter along with several cups of café con leche. The Chinese couple just barely tolerated us, only because as they continued to serve us bread and butter, we became their bread and butter. They  didn’t seem to like us too much though, and I can’t really blame them because we were a rowdy crowd, We would order simultaneously, ask a million times for the same thing, laugh in their faces over anything and nothing, making such a noise that I’m sure it drove them crazy. But they would just stare at us silently and serve us as quickly as they possibly could.

Pan Cubano?” the Chinese man would yell from behind the counter, holding a plate of hot Cuban bread dripping in butter, looking over the students’ heads for his customer.

Aqui, Senor Chino!”  a Belen student would yell back, leaning over the group of students aimlessly huddling around the counter  to accept his food.

Café con leche?” the Chinese lady would  yell out, holding the hot cup of coffee and milk as she slapped the students’ heads to get them out of the way.

Gato Fleto!” Parets, my best friend , would yell in response, imitating their voices and suggesting by his comment that they serve fried cat for lunch.

Parets was a fixture in El Caney.  He carpooled with Eguilior and Nervy, a tall skinny kid who drove them to school in his old Javelin, dubbed Nervy because he always seemed nervous. They would arrive early every morning and every morning they would go to El Caney and have breakfast just to wake up. Parets always put salt on his Pan Cubano. In fact, he put salt on everything except for dessert.

So Belen was really an excellent school, despite the way the buildings were laid out and the small area it occupied. We didn’t mind it at all. It was our school and we were fiercely loyal to it, always cheering for our basketball and football team, the Wolverines, proudly wearing our colors, blue and yellow, at every game and defending it from any rival high school such as Columbus or Ransom that dared slight us.

We studied and we learned, although looking back, I have no idea how we managed to do any of that, because as I recall, almost every class, to us, was a hoot. We laughed our way through the entire 9th grade for example, finding each of the teachers’ peccadilloes immensely entertaining, fodder for endless impersonations that would amuse us to no end. Yet somehow, despite the punishment we inflicted on some of our poor teachers, they still managed to teach us something.

The Belen faculty was divided, in our high school minds, into three groups. First, there was the teacher you couldn’t screw around with in class under any circumstances. Then, there were the ones who you could snicker at to a point during class but ultimately had to hit the books because they only allowed so much nonsense.  But it was the third level of teachers that were our collective favorite. Those were the teachers that started the semester with proud, committed looks on their faces, happy that they landed a job in such a well-regarded school, but ended the school year with a look of pained confusion, not understanding what rocks this collection of school boys have crawled out of to make their lives so miserable, and often left the school after the first year for the sake of their sanity, tired, indignant and in a state of shock. We were not nice to them. In fact, I’m sorry to say today that many times we were downright cruel.  But boy, did we have fun.

MRS. ZOBLE

In the eyes of a teenager, anybody over twenty-five is considered middle-aged, so that put Mrs. Zoble at around 175 years old. Mrs. Zoble was our English teacher during our freshman year. She was an elderly lady who stood proudly at four foot eleven. Everything about her seemed ancient to us…  her wrinkled visage, her manner of walk, her style of clothing. Everything except her black wig, reminiscent of a 1970s shag cut, that on a good day was only slightly crooked.

I clearly remember the day we first beheld Mrs. Zoble. We were all in class and the home room teacher hadn’t come in yet, so, as usual, we were out of our chairs, chatting away, walking in and out of the class to see who was coming down the hall… in short, doing anything and everything to expend energy.

“Hey, what ‘s our first class?” Ruiz asked me.

“English.” I responded.

“Oh, good,” Parets  overheard.  “English is easy. Maybe we’ll just read a book.”

“I hope it’s not another one like ‘Old Man and the Sea’. “ I said. “I hate that stupid book.”

“Maybe they’ll  show us a movie.” Parets lit up. “I can take a nap!”

Cuervo (no relation to the tequila, despite the fact that his first name was Jose), the brainiest one in the class and hence the one we made the most fun of, responded in his calm, normal manner.

“I hope we read ‘Animal Farm’.”

Parets looked at him with disgust.

“We read that in 7th grade, fool!” he said.  “Why would they give it to us again?”

“What’s the new English teacher’s name?” Ruiz asked, poking me.

“Zoble.” I said. “Please stop poking me.”

“Zoble?” Parets asked.

“Yeah, Zoble.”  I repeated. Ruiz doubled up in laughter.

When you’re 14 years old, everything is funny. And the word Zoble just sounded funny to us. We only hoped that the teacher was as funny as the name. When she first walked into our class, a suppressed wave of muffled laughter swept across the room.  Zoble herself wasn’t particularly funny looking but the fact that she didn’t react to our rudeness was funny to us. Zoble was also funny for two other specific reasons. First, she regarded our antics with total befuddlement. She just couldn’t understand why we were carrying on so much, so she would continue the class, looking at us like we were some group of strange farm animals, and ignore the fact that someone had just thrown someone else’s shoe clear across the classroom and that the one-shoed student, bleary-eyed, un-kempt and uncombed due to the fact that he was snoozing at his desk, was walking across the room, his sock dangling halfway out of his foot, to retrieve his footwear.

The second reason she was so funny was because she never thought of punishing us in any way, or at least she gave up on it. She wouldn’t give us extra homework or send us to see the principal or make us stand up and face the wall or anything.  And even if she tried, all we had to do was pretend we didn’t listen, or sneak back into class when she wasn’t looking, or just not do the extra homework because she’d forget to ask us for it anyway. We realized early on that the freshman year English class would be a free-for-all.

The daily antics in Zoble’s class were so many that they’re now just flashes from my memory banks, but one particular class day stands out.

Our class was planning a school dance that Friday night, so Bote brought in a strobe light. The strobe light was a necessity in any dance. We would turn off the lights of the cafeteria and, with a flick of a switch, the strobe light would turn the cafeteria into a discotheque that in our eyes rivaled the real clubs. We would dance, or attempt to dance in some cases, and watch ourselves through the strobe’s rapid flashes of light, causing our eyes to see everything in a quick succession of still images. We all thought it was a very cool effect and sometimes you had to close your eyes to halt the bombardment of frozen images.

While we waited for Zoble to come in, Bote plugged the strobe light in and turned off the classroom lights. The entire class erupted euphorically at the effect and just as quickly, he turned the light back on and unplugged the strobe, putting it in his locker at the opposite end of the class from the blackboard.

Bote was the unofficial leader of the class, probably because he was the one who always did things first. Bote was a nickname, Spanish for “Boat”. He was dubbed that way because his head was actually shaped like the hull of a boat, wide in the back and coming to a point in the front. Bote was the first guy to part his hair down the middle when it was fashionable to do so. The entire class always followed suit to what Bote did. If he had come into class with his hair parted down the middle, half the class would have their hair parted down the middle by lunchtime. Once, between classes, he amused himself by climbing on top of the lockers and jumping off. Soon, a third of the class would also be jumping off the lockers.

Moya watched Bote place his strobe light in his locker. All the lockers were located directly across the teacher’s desk on the opposite wall. Moya, a nice guy with a devious mind, came up with a bright idea. He ran up to Bote and whispered his plan into his ear. Bote laughed and agreed wholeheartedly.

“Hey, people! People! Shut the fuck up!” Bote yelled at the class. “This is what we’re gonna do…”

Before Bote could explain, Mrs. Zoble waddled in. The class didn’t change in demeanor much. People were still out of their seats and milling about like it was a social gathering.

“Allright everybody. Settle down.” Zoble declared. A few went to their desks. A cluster of us were in the back near the lockers.

“Get what you need out of your lockers and open your books to Page 55.” She alluded to the cluster in the back. Someone yelled for a pencil and somebody else threw it across the class to him. Some didn’t have their books so they sat next to their pal and pretended to read off the other’s book, but were really drawing caricatures of Zoble for a laugh. Others would make it a point to interrupt her every other sentence just to entertain themselves.

“Was that Page 55, Mrs. Zoble?” asked Morales, always sitting in the right front desk despite the fact that his last name started with an ‘M’. He liked being next to the door so he could be the first one out when recess arrived. Most teachers didn’t care.

“Yes, that’s right. Page 55.” Zoble responded.

“Thank you, Mrs. Zoble.” Morales said, louder that he had to be.

“You’re welcome, Mr. Morales,” she said. “Allright, everybody. I want you to look, listen and learn…” said Mrs. Zoble, pointing to her eyes, ears and head as she spoke.  In the meantime Bote was setting up the strobe exactly across from her and handing the cord to Moya.

“Mr. Perez, did you hear what I said?” Mrs. Zoble asked Bote.

“Yes, Mrs. Zoble. Just putting my things away.” He said as he closed his locker. The cord couldn’t reach the plug, so he asked Moya in Spanish if his locker was any closer.

“No, the light needs to be in the middle.”  Moya responded as Zoble conducted class. He looked around and saw an extension cord connected to the unused overhead projector, and went over to unplug it.

“Please sit down, Mr. Moya.” Zoble said, not dropping a beat on the lecture no one was listening to.

“Yes, ma’am.” Moya said, took the extension cord and threw it at Bote before sitting at his desk.

“Hey, Mrs. Zoble is there a test soon?” Morales asked her.

“I’ll be distributing an exam paper to all of you a week from this Friday on Chapter 1 through 6.” Mrs. Zoble declared.

After the obligatory moan swept across the room, we all scribbled the exam date on our notes and resumed chatting, reading a comic book or snoozing. As long as we knew what we had to study, we figured, we could goof off in class.

After 45 minutes of these goings-on, the entire class was in on the prank. We counted down the last minutes, eager to watch what was going to happen.

The bell finally rang, and quick as a shot, Moya plugged the extension cord in and turned off the lights.  Bote immediately opened his locker and turned on the strobe. The entire class was bathed in a dizzying battery of flashing white lights. We all stood up, laughing hysterically and gyrating in all types of strange ways to accentuate the strobing, as we emptied out of the classroom and into recess. In retrospect, it was indeed a miracle that the poor lady didn’t have a heart attack. The light was flashing on and off like a thousand flashbulbs popping at once in her very surprised face. I turned to look at her as I dashed out the door. Her arms were outstretched, trying to cover herself from the unrelenting bombardment of light she was enduring.

We never heard a thing about it afterwards. She didn’t punish us or tell on us. She was a nice lady and we didn’t deserve her. That was however, the first and only year she ever taught in Belen.

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Comments
  1. Luis Camacho says:

    Mrs. Zoble had a Ruth Gordon quality to her demeanor that was so entertaining that I believe we did many of these things just to see her reaction more than anything else…

    Like

  2. Ed Perez says:

    Incredible historic accuracy, the only difference is that I liked my choripan with the mustard
    and the empanada de carne w/ a precise injection of Ketchup (cashu) into the air pocket till the needle hole overflowed.
    The Zoble Light Party Flash Event was one of the best Belen moments that I will never forget. I have to add that quite Negrin pulled on Mrs. Zobles wig under full strobe light spectum, We laughed all day. Enjoyed the writing. The a/c was kept cold like prisons do, to calm the savages.
    Bote \___∏+__/**

    Like

    • filmmakr40 says:

      Thanks Bote. I appreciate your comments and the fact that you read my stories. I plan to be writing at least weekly for as long as possible. And now I’ve immortalized you! By the way, if you remember any Belen incidents, feel free to remind me as I’m going to write about most of our teachers over the next few months in between my other stories.

      Like

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