Father John was General George Patton in a black robe and a white collar. He didn't so much walk up and down the aisles of my class in Religion 101 at St. Edward's High School in Lakewood, Ohio, the first suburb on the west side of Cleveland, as march among fledging troops for whom it was his task to whip them into religious shape. He took his orders seriously.
He was a big man, standing about 6 foot two, with an additional two inches added from the thick-soled, heavy shoes he wore. His arms were perpetually clenched across his chest, which seemed like a warning not to mess with him. He moved his head by rotating his shoulders like a gun turret on a tank.
Father John broached no difference of opinion, permitted no alternative thought, accepted no point of view other than his own. He was absolutely convinced of the certainty of his beliefs. He did not hesitate to berate and belittle anyone who did not agree with him or who tried to offer a different perspective on a particular story, lesson or passage from our catechism. "You ignorant oaf," he would exclaim if a student dared to dispute any dictum of his. There was not a lot of discussion in our class. I learned early on the secret to success in his class. He wanted a student to tell him exactly what he said in the exact why that he said it. Once I realized the secret, an "A" was easy.
As a freshman in my first semester of high school, I had no idea what to expect of a high school experience, and was, like my fellow freshmen, terrified of the unknown. Father John took full advantage of that terror. He knew how to keep us all off balance. He had an effective technique to make sure we provided the right answer to any question he might ask. Should a student answer incorrectly, Father John would give him a swift kick in his shins with either his right or left shoe depending on which side of the aisle the foolish student sat.
We students learned within the first weeks of school to get out of the way when Father John was around or suffer a sore shin. Even walking between classes could be hazardous. We could occasionally hear a cry of "Ow!" or "Ohhhh!" from students who were too slow to get out of his way as he paraded town the corridor.
He would at times dispense what he considered life-directing advice. I recall one day when he called me to the front of the room as students were doing an in-class writing assignment. He asked me what I want to be. My first thought was "out of this class!" But I knew that would get me a sore shin or two. I, of course, had no idea what I wanted to be. I realized that being a cowboy or a fleet-footed wide receiver for the Cleveland Browns no longer seemed like viable options for me. So I blurted out, "A dentist." For some unknown reason, it was the first thing that came into my head. Father John's arms clenched tighter across his chest. "A dentist," he boomed. "A dentist." he boomed again, for effect no doubt as students looked up from their papers. "Why do you want to look into other peoples' mouths for the rest of your life?" I did not have a good answer for that. Clearly, Father John was not a fan of dentistry. As it turned out, I did not become a dentist. So perhaps, I took his advice to heart.
If Father John was a General Patton, Brother Simon was Mr. Rogers in a cassock with a long set of rosary beads for a belt. Brother Simon taught my first class in English about the modern novel when I was a freshman at St. Edward's University in Austin, Texas. (Yes, the same saint was called upon by the Congregation of Holy Cross to oversee both high school and college students.)
Brother Simon was thin and wiry, a bit gangly as he walked, his hands always in motion. He wore a welcoming smile and conveyed a sense of curiosity with his eyes, which always looked directly at you. He had an engaging habit when talking with someone. He would bend slightly at the waist, as though he wanted to make sure that he was close enough to you to hear every word. It gave the impression that what you had to say was the most important thing he could listen to that day.
I took several classes from him over my four years in college, and came to enjoy each one. He relished a good debate, encouraged different points of view, posed questions to promote alternative ways to think about things. He never seemed to let his own biases interfere with a lively discussion. Students gravitated to informal gatherings with him on the lawn outside the main administrative building or in the student union.
His guiding principle seemed to be kindness. I never recall him talking down to anyone or castigating someone for their beliefs or denigrating another because they might disagree with him. He was eminently patient and tolerant. And could be forgiving.
In my last semester just before graduating, I took my last class with Brother Simon. About half way through the semester, I got a really bad case of seniorities. I had had enough of school. I just wanted to move on. Going to class became tedious and actually completing assignments became unbearable chores. I had a final paper due to Brother Simon just before finishing the semester and graduating. But I could not seem to get around to it. So I talked with Brother Simon and asked for a kind of dispensation. Could I get him the paper after I graduated? "Of course," he said, "I will be glad to wait to receive your paper." Brother Simon is still waiting for that paper! I suspect that he knew there was a good chance that he would never get it.
Both Father John and Brother Simon have passed on. I hope that Father John feels good that I took his advice and did not become a dentist. I hope Brother Simon feels positive about other things that I have written over the years.
I like to think that both men are in heaven. The saints no doubt have learned to avoid a bruised shin and get out of the way whenever Father John comes marching through the Pearly Gates. Other saints are no doubt gathering around Brother Simon as he leans into them listening to what they have to say.
We learn from those around us. Sometimes the lessons are positive; sometimes, not so much. But they all shape us. From some, we learn what we might want to avoid. From others, we learn what we might want to be like.
I am grateful to both Father John and Brother Simon for what they taught me. Lessons to last a lifetime.