MY HIGH SCHOOL YEARS – 4

Posted: March 16, 2012 in Belen High School

The teaching Jesuits of Belen were all religious men who valued education and always had a moment to share with a student. That’s not to say that they also weren’t distinct characters with their own breaking point when it came to our rowdiness. Each just had a different way of handling it.

One of my first religion teachers, back in the 7th grade, was the tall, enthusiastic Father Florentino  Azcoitia, S.J.  He had very short, neatly cut gray hair and strong facial features with a distinct nose and clear eyes. He was one of the few Jesuits who always wore a gray shirt with his roman collar instead of the usual basic black. He entered the Society of Jesus at the age of 15, when most kids are learning how to drive. What makes this even more astounding was that he stayed a Jesuit for the rest of his life.

Religion is not an easy subject to teach to students whose last thought is going to Mass, pray or do anything remotely reverential, but Father Azcoitia’s enthusiasm towards the teachings of Christ were motivating enough for us to actually listen. Whenever he discussed certain moments of Jesus’ life, he spoke quickly in Spanish, as if each word was waiting to tumble off his tongue, eager to come out and be heard.

Whenever we got noisy, Father Azcoitia would stop talking in mid-sentence and close his eyes. Everyone would then quiet down and wait for him to blow up, but despite our expectations, an explosion never came. Instead, he waited with his eyes shut like a wind-up toy that had wound down, until there was complete silence. Then, he would open his eyes again and continue his lecture as if nothing ever happened. It worked on us every time.

I remember back when I was all of twelve years old, I asked him a question about Jesus’ reaction at the temple when He witnessed thieves and gamblers selling their wares and disgracing the house of the Lord.  I couldn’t understand how the Son of God could lose his temper like that. I thought all religious figures were these saintly dudes who walked around in flowing robes, totally serious, just baptizing everybody. I figured He must’ve been really pissed off to lose His cool in such a manner. It was also hard for me to comprehend how Jesus, being of the Jewish faith, was not recognized as the world’s Saviour by the Jewish religion. I thought I finally had it all figured out, so I decided to ask Father Azcoitia to see if I was right.

Father Azcoitia’s eyes widened with enthusiasm as I asked him about why Jesus got angry and threw everyone out of the temple.

“Father Azcoitia, is it true that Jesus did that?” I asked.

“Yes, yes…” he said enthusiastically, thrilled that I had asked such an interesting question.

“And is it true that after that happened, He decided that He no longer wanted to be Jewish, so He turned Catholic?”

The whole classroom broke out into laughter.  Father Azcoitia closed his eyes and shook his head, also trying not to laugh. I had no idea what was so funny.

The most impactful day in Religion class for me was the day Father Azcoitia came in carrying a record player and with a record album under his arm. We were all thrilled whenever there was an event during a class period that didn’t involve the teacher’s lecture, so we immediately began to chatter in anticipation of the moment. Seeing that his students were starting to get out of hand, Father Azcoitia closed his eyes and stood immobile until we all settled down. Once silence reigned in the classroom again, he set up the record player and brought the overhead projector into the middle of the room and turned off the lights. This, of course, caused even more of a stir among us, but he put a stop to it quickly.

“If you don’t all settle down, we’re not going to listen to anything and I’ll start discussing the Old Testament.”

That certainly did it. Every one clammed up, so he placed the phonograph needle on the vinyl record and the book of lyrics on the overhead projector for all of us to follow the words. The music began, and we were all surprised to hear, not a hymn or a Gregorian chant, but the sound of an electric guitar. He was playing a record album that had recently become the most popular LP in the country. It was Jesus Christ Superstar, a very controversial album in its day. The idea of setting Jesus’ life to rock music was blasphemous enough, but in this particular “rock opera”, there were no miracles set to music, and when Jesus died, he stayed dead. The only hint of the Resurrection depended on your interpretation of the final instrumental.

Father Azcoitia not only heard the beauty in the music and appreciated the insightful lyrics, but was forward thinking enough to share the work with us, despite its controversy, because he knew we would listen.  That was the kind of person he was: open-minded, deeply faithful and always trying to find a way to teach the student The Word in a manner in which we could understand and relate. Father Azcoitia lived in this mortal world 85 years, and devoted 70 of them to God, a feat not easily accomplished by many.

***

Many Jesuits passed through our classroom over the years and each had a different way of teaching and a different way of coping with us. One particular, fondly remembered Jesuit who shall remain nameless would very seldom lose his temper, but when he did, it came out of nowhere. In mid-sentence, he would reach a breaking point at our misbehavior and always ask us angrily in Spanish what kind of balls we thought we had. We looked forward to those moments and tried to goad him into asking that same question whenever possible, as it was a nice respite from his teachings to see him raise his arms in disgust and place his fingertips together, pleading  for an answer in paroxysms of fury, with wads of spit spewing from his lips like a rabid dog.

“Pero, que clase de pasta tienen en los cojones?”  he would demand to know. We sat in awe and restrained laughter, pondering the question and marveling at how such a calm man can be brought to the brink.

On the other side of the spectrum, there were many other Jesuits who never lost their temper. One particular one would deal with students who were clowning around by letting the offending perpetrator know that their antics were not appreciated with a cold, piercing stare, then using some choice Spanish word we had never heard of before that would allude to our idiocy.

“Zoquete…”   he would tell the kid, and then proceed with the class.

Of course, we had nicknames for many of the Jesuits. There was Father Pedro Cartaya,  S.J., currently sitting in the school’s Board Of Directors as Spiritual Counselor. He was affectionately known as Father  ”Pujo” (a Spanish word that’s slang for an unfunny joke) because he always had a bad pun or joke to anything you asked him out of class.

“Father Cartaya, do you know what time it is?

“Yes I do.”

“Well, can you tell me?

“Yes I can.”

“Then what time is it?”

“Time for you to stop asking so many questions!”

Thankfully, his spiritual counseling is a lot more fulfilling than his jokes.

There was Father Quevedo, a diminutive fellow all of five feet tall, thin and with a bald head that seemed too large for his frail body to support. He was known as Father “Keebler”, named after the cartoon elves in all those cookie commercials. He was a very intelligent man and enjoyed intelligent conversation, particularly when it came to film. I recall discussing current movies with him in his office all the time. He had seen them all. His door was always open to me and any other student who happened by.

Despite being Hispanic, his accent had a decidedly British lilt. Being so short and frail looking, he was not very intimidating, but if he ever caught any of the students out of line, he would give them a good verbal lashing.

“You, suh, shall not do whatsoever you wish in this school,” he would tell a student if he was caught running down the hall. “Now, you walk like the gentleman you are supposed to be instead of the common ruffian you are portraying yourself as.”

The student obeyed, mostly out of pure befuddlement at the choice of vocabulary used towards him.

Whenever Father Keebler castigated you, he would lift his head up high and look at you down his nose, displaying an air of indignity at the proceedings before him . Then, after properly putting you in your place, he would walk proudly away, as if he had just witnessed another societal wrong and had justly put a stop to it.

One day, an impertinent student who was in a hurry was frustrated at the fact that Keebler was slowly walking in front of him.

“Get the hell out of my way, you damn dwarf.” the student mumbled.

Keebler turned around and inhaled, deeply wounded at the sleight, and looked down his nose at the rude young man.

“I shall do whatsoever I wish, walk wherever I desire and at the speed which I require to do so, suh,” he said, summoning up every last shred of dignity he could muster,  then walked away at the same speed, his head held high. For as long as I went to Belen, I had never heard of Father Quevedo punishing a student once over anything.

***

I’ll not mention the name of another particular Jesuit because he is currently a Rector in another school and I’m sure he would not like to be remembered by the nickname we gave him. He was a short, soft-spoken man, then in his late twenties, with jet black hair and kind eyes. He was known as Father Reject  to us because we thought he looked like just a regular guy who may have been rejected by society and turned to God as his only resort, although he didn’t really deserve the nickname. He was actually a very nice fellow who I consider my friend.

Many times, we would chat between classes or after school, and he shared  moments of his life with me and revealed his thoughts regarding the choice he had made in becoming a priest. He told me how his parents didn’t want him to join the Catholic Church, preferring that he stay secular, so they tried to hide his passport the day he was to join the priesthood. This, he explained, proved to him how sure he was of his decision to dedicate his life to God.  Another time, I remember asking him which was the toughest of all the vows he had to take when joining the Society of Jesus , expecting him to mention the vow of abstinence or poverty. It turned out that for him, it was the vow of obedience that was the most difficult because the idea of having to uproot himself and go wherever the Church deems pained him, particularly after developing friendships with members of the community and getting used to a new home. It turned out to be a vow he didn’t have to worry about, because he stayed at Belen for almost thirty years.

At times, he came along with me and my friends to the movies. Once we even took him to see “Emmanuelle”, a soft-core erotic movie based on a 1959 novel of the same name. He said it would be all right for him to go as long as he stayed home and watched a Walt Disney cartoon beforehand to offset what he was about to see.

Many years later, I met up with the good Father again when I revisited my school. We went out to dinner some time after that and I took my daughter with me so she could share some time with someone who I consider to be an exemplary human being. He related a story about me that I had totally forgotten. It seems that, back in high school, after one of my travels to visit my father in Peru, I had returned to the United States with a blanket made of alpaca that I had given to him as a gift. He confessed to me that, despite his vow of poverty, he had chosen to keep that blanket and still had it to this day. He thanked me for it once again, and said that it had kept him warm during many cold winter nights.  I suppose the adolescent in me crept out to disarm the poignant moment and I jokingly asked for it back. I assured him immediately I wasn’t serious because as I recall, he didn’t laugh.

***

Then there was Father Otto. He was a very unique individual, not just in the fact that he was the only priest we called by his first rather than his last name, but he was also the only Jesuit who never wore priestly garbs outside of Mass. Instead, he chose to always wear a shirt and tie with his slacks. We often wondered if he was really even a priest because he certainly didn’t act like one. There was nothing inherently wrong in his manner except that it just seemed very secular to us, particularly due to his sarcastic sense of humor.  One day, for example, when he went to go see a movie with the diminutive Father Quevedo, he jokingly requested a children’s admission for him.

“I shall by my own ticket without any of your help, thank you very much, suh.” Keebler said indignantly, looking down his nose at Father Otto, who was snickering at his own comment.

Father Otto was a short, stocky fellow with white hair that he would let grow past his collar and a white goatee. He taught us Psychology in our Senior year and his classes were very informal, to say the least. Psychology class was just before lunch, so my friends and I would conspire to ask permission to go to the bathroom in five minute intervals. Otto always allowed us to use the facilities but never kept track of when we were supposed to come back, so once we were all out, the five of us would skip the rest of his class, pile into one of our cars and drive to the nearest Taco Viva.

Then one day, Father Otto saw me walking down the hall after class and stopped me. His face was stern.

“Seoane, I don’t remember seeing you coming back to my class after you asked to go to the bathroom.”

“That’s because I went to Tacos Ole instead.” I said.

Father Otto’s eyes widened, shocked at my offhand confession. He stared at me with a serious look in his face and wagged his finger, taking several seconds to muster up a response to my disobedience.

”Don’t do that anymore,” he finally said and walked away.

These were the Jesuits of Belen. Friends and mentors who rarely meted out harsh punishment and usually gave us some leeway when it came to slight infractions, as long as the major rules weren’t broken. They weren’t pushovers by any means. Cheating or failing grades, for example, were never tolerated and students have been expelled from school for it. But for the most part, their manner was benevolent as long as you toed the line and hit the books. I suppose we turned out all right as a result.

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