Archive for the ‘Belen High School’ Category

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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MY HIGH SCHOOL YEARS – 3

Posted: February 5, 2012 in Belen High School

 

Sir Thomas More:  Why not be a teacher? You’d be a fine teacher; perhaps a great one.
Richard Rich:          If I was, who would know it?
Sir Thomas More: You; your pupils; your friends; God. Not a bad public, that.

Robert Bolt, “A Man For All Seasons

There are few careers that are as noble, and as underpaid, as that of a teacher. It says a lot in the character of a person who chooses the underappreciated role of an educator to teenagers who are filled with energy, impatience and youthful arrogance.  I’m sure that, at first, an individual chooses the academic path out of a sincere desire to make a dent in society and point a direction for young lives to follow. But I’m also sure that after a few years, maybe after just one semester, that same teacher begins to wonder if it’s truly worth going through the frustration, the paperwork, the ridicule and the ultimate disappointment when they feel that they’re lecturing to a collective wall. So those that stick to this mostly thankless profession must certainly be pleased when they hear from an ex-student years later, when the student’s aspirations have been replaced by responsibility, to hear that their particular class, their words, were listened to and taken to heart throughout the student’s adult lives, and have indeed helped form them into becoming the people they are today.

My high school teachers were all dedicated individuals, and it’s fun to remember the stunts that we pulled on them. In fact, it makes for better reading to write about the times we weren’t learning than to recall the endless lectures about topics we felt we were never going to revisit ever again. But almost every individual has one educator, maybe more than one if they’re lucky, that they can say influenced them to follow a successful path in their life..

MR. COLLINS

Mr. Patrick Collins started teaching U.S. History at Belen pretty much at the same time I entered high school. Today, he is one of only two professors who remain in the school. I remember him as this young, hip guy in his twenties with crystal clear blue eyes, a walrus mustache and a full head of reddish brown, trimmed hair. He presented himself neatly in a long sleeved shirt, color coordinated tie, slacks and loafers. He was very approachable; you weren’t afraid to go up to say hi to him whenever you saw him calmly walking down the hallway, books tucked under his arm. He always responded to you in a friendly manner, was one of the few teachers who called you by your first name, and still has an uncanny memory for remembering every student he ever taught.  His diction was always deliberate and perfectly clear. There was a quick smile about him, a friendly attitude that made you feel comfortable in his presence.

At the same time, no one ever dared cross him. He never asked for your respect, he just inspired it.  When he walked into a classroom, there was nothing about him that you could make fun of. He had no quirks, no hot temper and he knew his United States history as if he had sat in on drafting the Declaration of Independence with Thomas Jefferson himself.  As soon as he passed through the door, the classroom fell silent. The few times he ever had to reprimand the class felt like an actual disappointment to us. We wanted to be his friend, particularly because he made history so interesting. His descriptions, his explanations of America’s turning points and the impact it caused on the country’s future were so full of anecdotal information that you actually looked forward to learning more. One of the requirements of his class was to subscribe to TIME magazine, and to this day I still receive my subscription. He made you want to know about current events and most importantly, he made you appreciate and love the country you lived in.

Recently, Mr. Collins joined the Golden Knights in Fort Bragg, North Carolina to parachute out of a plane. In an interview before the jump, he explained that he was doing it to honor not just America’s fighting men but also his namesake as well as his son and his nephew, all former and current members of our military, to show them that he too has what it takes. Dressed in his jumping outfit, parachute securely on his back, he spoke calmly and with a smile on his face, as if he was simply going to take a stroll down a park. His hair is gray now and he no longer wears that walrus mustache, but his blue eyes still sparkled with the same kindness, exuberance, and appreciation towards life that he’s always had.

As the plane climbed, he proudly spoke to the camera about the school he had been teaching in for four decades now, seemingly not giving the fact that he was about to jump 30,000 feet much thought. I considered this a very brave thing to do until I realized that, after teaching high school students for as long as he has, jumping out of a plane would probably be a cinch in comparison.

There are no funny stories to tell about Mr. Patrick Collins. But there is a lot of respect and gratitude in the way he instilled the appreciation of living and growing up in our great country. Thanks to him, I know my American history very well, am still fascinated by it, and am concerned and optimistic about its future. Yes, I’m one of those graying ex-students who remember  a great teacher and gratefully acknowledges his contribution to my learning.

***

Other teachers come to mind. Our P.E. teacher, Mr. Barquin, is the only other teacher who’s still in Belen. He was a short, muscular fellow who was our eighth grade homeroom teacher and tolerated no nonsense. We tried to get him to react to our hi-jinks, but to no avail. One morning, word spread around among us that we should give him “the silent treatment”,  apparently as a protest to some sort of discipline he had laid on us for something we did. We thought that would teach him. Much to our dismay, we realized too late that he reveled in our complete silence during the entire thirty-minute period, probably thinking that the prior punishment had worked.  Maybe it had.

Once, when he was overseeing our SAT exams, he attempted to read out the instructions while we all dithered around in our desks .  Our antics caused him to reprimand us more than once. Evidently, our behavior confused him to the point of getting the instructions mixed up.

“Do not pick up your pencil to begin the test until I tell you to do so.” He read out loud in a clear, commanding voice.

“Do not begin the test until I tell you to do so,” he continued. Mumbled conversation could be heard under him as he spoke.

“Morales!” he yelled. “Keep quiet unless you don’t want to take this exam and visit Father Izquierdo!” Morales quieted down. Barquin resumed.

“Do not look at anyone’s paper until I tell you to do so,” he declared. Our sudden burst of laughter made him realize what he had said.

***

The origin of some of the nicknames we gave our teachers fit them perfectly. Our Spanish teacher, Maria Suarez, a nice, short old lady with a helmet-like hairdo who held a very informal class where we were free to stand up, mill about and do whatever we liked as long as it was in Spanish, was christened “La Viejita Cavali”, a nickname derived from a character in a story she made us read to the point of nausea.

Then there was El Bicho.

El Bicho is a nickname that is now legend in our school. He taught Latin American and World History in Belen during the thirty-five years he was there, and year after year, that nickname has been proudly handed down to the incoming group of freshmen that were to have him as a teacher. El Bicho started in Belen during our freshman year and we were his first homeroom class (the first period of the day was thirty minutes long and was called “homeroom”,  when the designated “homeroom” teacher would oversee the class, have them study for any upcoming exams that day or discuss any scholastic events that needed to be addressed).

El Bicho walked briskly into our lives and into class on the first day of our freshman year, also the first day of his teaching career. He hasn’t changed much since then; a short, serious looking man with a shock of black hair parted to the side and sporting a well-trimmed black mustache.  He always wore a suit. Not just a tie and shirt, but an entire, well-tailored suit. He rarely wore the same one in the same week.

One of our classmates, Negrin, was the fellow who gave him that name. The word “Bicho” in Spanish has two meanings. The real meaning is that of the generic bug. But it’s also used to describe the male organ. I sincerely think to this day that Negrin meant the former definition of the word, because as soon as he had walked into our class, Negrin loudly wondered what kind of creature had just crawled in:

“Quien es ese bicho que ha entrado por ahi?” he loudly inquired. Evidently, we were the only ones who heard it because there was no reaction to the comment from the newly baptized Bicho.

El Bicho would tolerate only so much nonsense. He didn’t mind talking to us “entre hombres” about topics that didn’t have to do with Latin American History, but it was his mannerisms that made us laugh. He had a habit of talking with his right arm bent at the elbow and gesticulating with his hand formed like a fist, his thumb tucked inside his closed fingers. Apparently, it saved him the time of having to close his hand to cover his mouth whenever he cleared his throat, which was every other sentence.

His accent back then was pretty thick, and he insisted on conducting his class in English, which was fine with us because, even though we could not always understand him, we enjoyed his bizarre pronunciations.

“Eeehhh, Parets…” he would call on a student in his low, distinctive accented voice. “Ken joo pleess tell da class about Kin Nebuhkanassuhrm?”

“About what?” Parets inquired quizzically.

“Eeeehh, Kin Nebuhkanassuhrm.”

In order to decipher El Bicho’s accent, you always had to drop the ‘m’ from the last word of each sentence he uttered, as he would always insist on starting his statements with ‘Eeeehh” and ending it by adding an ‘m’ to the last word of each phrase. From there, we would look down at our books to frantically search for what the hell he was talking about. Ah, there it was… King Nebuchadnezzar!

“Eeehh, bery gud Mr. Paretsm.”

We couldn’t laugh at El Bicho’s accent because he would not stand for it. We could only laugh whenever he attempted to joke with us, and then we would laugh not at the joke but at his attempt at one. It was a good release, because when he did get mad at us for disturbing his class, he would stretch his neck out like a turtle coming out of his shell, turn beet red, gesticulate his fist briskly and speak to us in rapid-fire Spanish about how any further interruptions would be received by either extra homework, a pop quiz or both.

We all liked El Bicho though. Despite his easily imitated mannerisms, he was a good guy and cared about his homeroom class. To this day, he joins us in our annual reunions, confessing to us that we are his favorite group of alumni because we were his first homeroom class. After the above description of him however, this may change.

***

No recollection of our high school teachers can be complete without an honorable mention to our Science teacher, Mr. Labra. If El Bicho was easy to imitate, an impersonation of Mr. Labra was the Jimmy Durante of impersonations. That is, anyone could imitate him.

First, was his walk. He didn’t just walk, he glided, by stretching his right foot outward towards the right, then his left foot towards the left, like a skater maintaining his balance. When he spoke, his hands were always clasped together in front of him. He had a large torso, broad shoulders and a belly, but then his body  tapered down to small hips, a complete lack of a posterior, and a pair of very thin bow legs that seemed too fragile to hold the rest of his body. Sitting comfortably on top of his torso was his head, because he had no neck. It was a rectangular, full head with a receding hairline, one eyebrow that crossed both dark brown eyes, a ski-slope shaped nose and a small lipped mouth that seemed to always be stifling a chuckle. Add to that a reedy, high pitched, accented voice and you get an accurate picture of the very unique Mr. Labra.

Mr. Labra’s Science class was one of our favorite classes, not because we got to dissect a frog once, not because he was engaging in his explanation of the world of science, but because he rarely spoke about science to us at all, preferring instead to regale us with his years as a young man living in Cuba.

Mr. Labra would glide into our classroom, slam his books down on the desk, pick up a piece of chalk and write page and chapter numbers on the blackboard. Then, he would shake the chalk dust off his hands, clasp them, skate away from the blackboard and give us an option.

“Today we haf to deescoss dee evoluchon of dee ampheebean!” he would declare while gliding from one side of the classroom to the other and gesticulating with his index finger pointed outwards and twirling from one direction to another on the beat of each syllable, like a conductor leading an orchestra.

We knew then that it was our cue to groan about this, as it was a daily ritual. Labra would stop in his tracks in reaction to our groans and slam his palm on the desk loudly.

“Stop dat thin!” he would command us to keep quiet, then he looked at us sideways through one eye, smile and say in a hushed tone:

“Onless ju prefer I spick to ju about my days een Cuba…” he said like a confidant letting us in on a delightful secret.

“Yes… oh, yes… we’d love that!” a murmur of approval rose from us, not because we wanted to know about his days in Cuba, but because we had no interest in the evolution of the “ampheebean”. Labra resumed his glide from one side of the classroom to the other.

“Ho-kay den” he said, waving his index finger. “I weel tell ju about dee time I caught somebadi  while hee was steel in meed-air!”

A murmur of approval and wonder mixed with stifled laughter swept through the class, in anticipation of his latest tall tale.

“Oh, and by dee way… “ he said pointing at the chapter numbers he wrote on the blackboard. “Ju haf a test on dees chapters nex Frye-they.”

The groans rose from our ranks. Slam! Down went the palm of his hand against the desk.

“I said stop… dat…. thin! Then Labra’s rubbery face looked at us in surprise.

“Onless ju want to deescuss dees chapters now, I weel be glad to do it…”

We all answered in unison, a cacophony of ‘no’s that urged him to tell us his stories, much to his delight.

So he would proceed to relate to us about some kind of superhuman feat he was able to achieve back in Cuba, because evidently the United States to him was sort of like what Planet Kyrpton was to Superman since back in Cuba he was evidently able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.

“and den I took two steps and I caught heem!” he would end his story about catching the guy in mid-air, then he’d clasp his hands in front of him and laugh mightily at his herculean feat, his shoulders shaking up and down and snorting his laughter out  his nose.

He didn’t always tell us about his days in Cuba. Many times he would give us the opportunity to pick a topic, as long as it was of general interest, current events and nothing vulgar.

In all fairness to Mr. Labra, he did make a brave attempt to teach us Science at the beginning of every semester. But by Christmas time his interest in the subject waned and by January of the following year, we were discussing anything but what was in the textbook.

He lasted around two or three years in Belen, until the Jesuits caught on to his teaching tactics and let him go. Rumor has it that he became a pharmacist, no doubt regaling his customers with tales of his daredevil feats while filling out prescriptions. Dear old Mr. Labra left this life not long after that, and has undoubtedly been assigned the task of catching fallen angels in Heaven.

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.

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

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.

FATHER IZQUIERDO

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.