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You can always tell a freshman the first day at high school.
It’s in the eyes—the wary stare of a face working so hard not to look chumpish that it broadcasts chump potential like a clear-channel station.
It’s in the walk—a twitching amble that tries to say you belong when even you don’t believe you do.
It’s in the gear—new blazer awkward on your frame, book bag and gym bag threatening to slip from your grip.
And it’s Mom herself. All around stride older kids, each more secure-seeming than the other. Even fellow ninth graders slide by, exuding cool like bricks of dry ice. But there she is, eyeballing you from the car.
It is 7:50 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 5. Beneath a blue sky already bleached with heat, Christopher Rowland crosses the sod separating the student parking lot at St. John’s College High School from the sidewalk leading to the main building.
Chris Rowland, age 14, is looking the freshman look. He is walking the freshman walk. He leans forward, as if he were in harness.
The nearest car is connected to Chris Rowland—by heartstring. From her Mercedes, Pam Rowland watches Chris walk away. They have logged many road hours together; she’s driven him through eight grades at St. Michael’s in Silver Spring, and before that to day care two doors from the elementary school—a decade-plus of rising at the crunch of dawn for the quarter-lap around the Beltway from Kettering to Colesville. However, the morning your only child enters high school radiates a special essence, one worth savoring.
“It’s his first day,” Pam Rowland says over the engine’s Teutonic mumble. “I wanted to be sure he was OK.”
What parent doesn’t want to be sure a child is OK, to find a suitable match between offspring and education, to locate that safe and welcoming refuge from the storm-tossed waters of adolescence?
That surety is elusive. No school is perfect, and every school is imperfect in important ways. Sometimes those imperfections combine and multiply to the point of institutional fatality.
Once, when mainstream America looked in the mirror and saw a white face, St. John’s was a citadel of Caucasian privilege. When its founders’ faith was more beset from without than within, St. John’s was a bastion of capital-C Catholicism. And amid the gender wars of the latter 20th century, St. John’s once presented a sanctuary of masculinity.
When all those pillars tumbled, St. John’s, like others of its ilk, developed a severe case of academic arteriosclerosis. Enrollment withered from the 1,000-plus level of the school’s glory days to a few hundred. St. John’s seemed poised to join the ranks of Catholic schools here and around the country that have had to close.
But St. John’s persevered. In the process of surviving, the high school that once had been a billboard for the Church Militant has become a place where Catholicism’s core values are tested in an ecumenical context. The school that once reveled in its testosterone quotient has become one where a patriarchal tradition is grappling with gender equality. The school that was once notorious in Washington as the target of black rioters has become a setting where children of different races are learning, warily and with many a stumble and glare, to advance together.
Mixing in roughly equal measure whites and nonwhites, suburbanites and city kids, Catholics and non-Catholics, males and females, St. John’s presents a snapshot of America, but one printed over an old formal photograph. The earlier picture provides structure, but one overlaid by new shades and textures and shapes.
A similar sea change has overtaken the nation’s Catholic schools. “While preserving the order of an earlier era, Catholic schools are less rigid and austere,” write Anthony S. Bryk, Valerie E. Lee, and Peter B. Holland in Catholic Schools and the Common Good, an assessment of Catholic secondary schools’ evolution during the past three decades. St. John’s fits the description Bryk, Lee, and Holland offer of modern Catholic high schools: a lower profile for religious orders, more lay faculty, more students of other faiths, a better physical plant, smaller classes, more flexibility.
“Their environment is warm and welcoming, modeling a family atmosphere. The curriculum, while maintaining an emphasis on a traditional core of academic subjects, now includes more choices. The religion program remains a central element of the school, but the focus has shifted,” the authors explain. “No longer a syllogism to commit to memory, religion has become a way of interpreting life and one’s place in the world. The transformation of Catholic secondary education, reflecting larger changes within the Church, involves a blend of tradition and change.”
Religion class, for example. When half your student body goes to mosques or churches other than those the Pope calls his own, that old-time, hard-line, us-and-them Catholicism doesn’t play.
It is 8:50 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 26. In Room 117, whose windows open onto the horseshoe driveway at the school’s front entrance, T.J. Curry convenes a sophomore religion class.
Shirt-sleeved and suspendered, wearing wire-rimmed spectacles, a semi-power tie, and pleated trousers, Curry, 24, looks more the bond trader than the theologian. He grew up in Northern Virginia, took a degree in religion and philosophy at LaSalle University in Philadelphia, and joined the St. John’s faculty in 1994. A movie buff, Curry runs the school film club, and has decorated Room 117 appropriately. Posters for Goodfellas, Star Wars, Pulp Fiction, and Reservoir Dogs share wall space with an architectural rendering of the National Cathedral and a map of Palestine circa A.D. 70. Above the main blackboard are displayed religious runes: a couple of six-pointed stars, a Torah, two crosses. On the slate, Hebrews 4:12—“Indeed, the word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts in the heart.”
Curry’s students are in place; they’ve already sat through the 20-minute homeroom, a blend of attendance, the daily bulletin (drill is canceled owing to wet parade grounds, the color guard meets at 2:30 p.m., students will visit LaSalle U.’s campus in a couple of weekends, yearbook and student ID photos are being taken this afternoon), and a jolt of Channel One, the papuliferous schools-only cable channel. The edutainment closed with a kerrang of metallic guitar, just in time for the bell.
As usual, class begins with a prayer. Curry leads the students in praying for hurricane-rent Barbados, invokes the spirit of Christian Brothers founder St. John the Baptist de la Salle, and ends with a traditional St. John’s meditation: “My God, I give you this class. Help me conduct myself during it in a manner most pleasing to You. May God be praised.”
Today is Rosh Hashana, Curry notes, checking students’ knowledge of the Jewish high holy day. It’s about the escape from Egypt, one kid offers; Curry corrects him gently. Passover takes place in the spring, he says, explaining how Rosh Hashana begins a 10-day cycle of self-reflection in which Jews remember their origins and their past.
Collecting the homework assignment—comments on a statement in Genesis that “wives shall be subject to their husbands”—Curry asks if these words are divine revelation or a choice of language shaped by the culture in which they were written.
“They mean that man is the head of the household,” says a black female JROTC student.
“That wording could have been acceptable to women then,” says a white boy in civilian clothes.
Curry reminds the class that the Book of Genesis had its genesis in a patriarchal society, a model still regnant in many Arab countries. He dives into a discussion of creation stories and the tricky task of defining truth. Stalking the front of the room, Curry explains mythopoesis—how people spin stories to connect the dots of fact that underpin their lives.
“Myths are not false,” he says. “They are stories designed to convey truth, to answer—what?”
“Cosmic questions,” a student says.
“That’s right!” Curry says. “Why am I here? What is the meaning of life? Is there a heaven or a hell? Myths try to make sense of the cosmic questions.”
Reading from Mircea Eliade’s Essential Sacred Writings From Around the World, Curry compares Genesis with creation stories from other cultures—the Maidu Indians of California, the Omahas on the Great Plains, the Bantus of Central Africa, South American tribes, the cultures of ancient Mesopotamia. Curry peppers his exegesis with questions that elicit responses alilt with uncertainty. “A genre is a kind of story?” a student ventures.
Curry jumps to the Babylonian Captivity of 580 B.C.—“Or B.C.E., which means “before the common era,’ ” he adds. “Not everyone dates from the birth of Christ.” He sketches a picture of the Jews in exile among polytheists. “How many of you have been out of the U.S.?” he suddenly asks. Half the class raises a hand. A boy mentions Bermuda; Curry scowls. Another has visited Guatemala. That’s better, the teacher’s body language indicates. He tells his own exile story: A year out of college, he lived in Japan. Having no language or familiarity with the culture, he began to ask questions: What kind of people are these? How can I live like this? What defines me?
Curry urges the students to experience other cultures before they lock themselves into jobs and mortgages and families. “It will open your mind,” he says. “It will blow your mind.”
Curry explains how exile encouraged the codification of Jewish oral tradition. “They knew the stories of Abraham and Moses and the patriarchs. They knew of God’s dealings in history,” he says. “They wrote down those stories. They were familiar with the Enuma Elish, the Mesopotamian creation myth.”
He points dramatically to the side chalkboard, on which are enumerated the similarities between Genesis and Enuma Elish. “You can’t say that one was made without the other,” Curry says. “You can’t say that God whispered in the author’s ear.”
For emphasis, Curry goes to the videotape, clicking on a segment by British biblical scholar John Romer from the public television series Testament. Like M providing James Bond with new weapons, the plummy-voiced Romer backs up Curry’s thesis, then it’s back to the teacher for more lecture. As Curry speaks, students are scribbling notes, some languidly, some furiously.
For the rest of the period, Curry compares and contrasts. As the final seconds tick down, he shifts into a higher conversational gear to cover a coming trial by fire.
“We’re going to have to have a test pretty soon,” he says. “The differences between scientific and religious truth. Get your notes.”
The bell rings. The room empties—except for the boy who went to Bermuda. He wants Curry to know that life on a luxury island is not necessarily a day at the beach. “I lived there two years,” he tells the teacher. “It was no picnic. There were two hurricanes, and you can’t have a car bigger than a VW.”
Curry absorbs this information with a nod. He is less patient with the next supplicant, a dedicated Star Trek fan who wants to continue an earlier discussion of TV cosmogony. Curry is having none of this. “I don’t want to talk about it,” he says. “Got a class to get to.”
Kids have been coming to St. John’s since 1851, when the Christian Brothers established it at 15th and G Streets NW. In 1878, St. John’s bought the former mansion of Gen. Montgomery Meigs at 1225 Vermont Ave. NW, where the school acquired the “College” in its official name; from 1887 until 1921, St. John’s was chartered to confer not only high-school diplomas, but bachelor’s and master’s degrees. In 1959, the school moved to a 27-acre campus where Oregon Avenue meets Military Road.
The physical plant exemplifies the parochial academic design familiar to millions of recovering Catholics and fans of the Oscar-winning documentary Hoop Dreams. St. Joseph High, the prep school in that film, is also a Christian Brothers institution, and both schools sport façades of brick, glass, and I-beam cross.
Longevity alone makes St. John’s remarkable; few high schools here are older. And St. John’s enjoys an extra fillip of recognition, dating to a 1915 decision by the Brothers to recast it as a military academy. The cadets—they quickly came to be called “Johnnies” by admirers, “Johnny Mops” and worse by detractors—dressed West Point-style: blue- gray wool uniforms with fat black seam stripes; in winter, caped overcoats with brass buttons and scarlet linings. Officers carried Capulet-elegant swords, bought from the school or handed down by a veteran father or older sibling. In the mid-1960s, when St. John’s was charging $450 a year for tuition, the tab for a complete outfit could equal nearly half that sum.
“We could hitchhike easily. People felt it was safe to pick up a St. John’s guy,” says Kevin Davis, who graduated in 1981, continuing a family tradition. His dad is an alumnus, as are three of his five brothers. “One of my earliest memories is of the big overcoat my brothers wore,” says Davis. “It was a real honor to wear the uniform that my father and brothers had worn.”
At bus stops, in convenience stores, during games—the get-up conveyed instant identity. Older folks nodded in approval. Girls loved a boy in uniform—though among boys from other schools the response could be catcalls (“Hey, mailman!”), snowballs, or punches. But under the lights at a night game, when the cadet corps executed a turn, the capes’ linings erupted in a sudden sanguinary flash that was well worth the price of admission.
The military training was an earnest admixture of Clausewitz and civics class. It still is: This year’s senior JROTC classes intermingle discussion of ethics and morality with analysis of The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara’s tactics-laden Civil War novel. School life was heavy on marching and hierarchy—a Reader’s Digest edition of the regimen that so enthralled Colin Powell at City College of New York. The routine inspired many St. John’s boys to pursue real military life, whether through the service academies or enlistment. The school drill team, the McGovern Rifles, for example, is named for graduates Robert and Jerome McGovern, brothers who died 11 days apart in the Korean War.
Each morning, cadets stood, chins tucked and spines rigid, for inspections they imagined to be as unsparing as any West Point or Parris Island could offer. Upperclassmen could brace younger boys at will, dropping them to the floor to perform endless push-ups. On the drill field, regular Army instructors and cadet commanders hectored their troops until they acquired the elusive snap of crispness in unison. Gung-ho cadets could jack the military ante by joining the Rangers (still in business, but now called “Raiders”), a Special Forces-style cadre that emphasized physical conditioning and military tactics. Over all this presided the Brothers, serene in black cassocks and starched collars shaped like the tablets Moses brought down from the mountain.
Sports was another keystone. Thanks to an unsparing athleticism of the sign-of-the-Cross-at-the-foul-line variety, St. John’s teams heavy with the muscle of boys descended from Irish, Italian, and Eastern European immigrants dominated the Catholic League for decades. The result was not always pretty, and sometimes it was prescient.
On the evening of Thanksgiving Day, 1962, 50,033 spectators filled then-new D.C. Stadium to watch St. John’s play Eastern for the city football title. Washingtonians mention the contest in epic terms; like Shakespeare’s ancients celebrating St. Crispian, those who were present are quick to strip their sleeves and show their scars and say, “You remember the Eastern game?”
The championship match occurred amid great racial tension. D.C. schools had desegregated only eight years before. Whites were fleeing in-town neighborhoods. In all of Eastern there were only five white students; St. John’s had more blacks than that, but only two on the football team.
Eastern scored first. The Cadets counterattacked successfully, leading 13-7 at the half. Many youths in the overwhelmingly black crowd were ready to rumble, and fisticuffs broke out in the stands and around the concourses. Near game’s end, with St. John’s up 20-7, an Eastern player accused a Cadet of throwing a post-whistle elbow. When a referee bounced the unhappy Rambler, both benches emptied. As coaches tried to quell that fracas, police officers restrained an angry sideline crowd. At the gun, several thousand Eastern supporters charged the St. John’s section, randomly administering whomps; of 500-plus injuries tallied by an investigative committee, all but 27 were to Cadet fans. Warned the panel: “What happened on Thanksgiving Day was but a serious symptom of a larger problem that exists in the nation’s capital.” The violence prompted a detailed five-page article in the Saturday Evening Post titled “How a Race Riot Happened: Terror at a ballgame alerted the Nation’s Capital to an explosive situation.” Attorney General Robert Kennedy called the incident a harbinger of grim things to come across the land. It was years before D.C. held another city football championship, and no high-school game since has attracted such ardor.
But there was more to the St. John’s experience than the gridiron and the hard court. Cadets escorted cardinals. They marched for presidents. If a Johnny wanted to apply to a service academy, he could do so without a politician’s permission; Congress permits the school to nominate candidates on its own. When he escorted his date to the annual Regimental Ball, the couple strutted not into a gym but a posh hotel. For their dances, other schools hired local bands whose repertoires consisted of cover songs, like the hits recorded by Junior Walker and the All Stars.
St. John’s hired Junior Walker and the All Stars.
All that was 30 years ago, in what Catholic historians call “the Catholic Moment”—because of John Kennedy’s 1960 election, because the faithful finally were entering the middle class, because the church-governed school system was at its apogee.
(That spike had been a hundred years coming. Between the mid-19th and the mid-20th centuries, American Catholics had built an immense educational infrastructure, in no small part out of spiritual and cultural self-defense. Public schooling in the U.S. has always tilted heavily toward the Protestant perspective, and in its early form often was overtly anti-Catholic. To shield their children from an educational program they saw as nonsectarian in name only, Catholics created a parallel universe of elementary, secondary, and post-secondary institutions, many of them staffed and managed by religious orders like the Society of Jesus, the Christian Brothers, the Dominicans, the Benedictines, and others. The post-WWII baby boom added even more children to the rolls. In 1965, there were more than 13,000 Catholic elementary and secondary schools in the U.S. They enrolled 5.5 million kids—12 percent of that year’s crop of first through 12th graders.)
Every moment passes, and every flood subsides; after 1965, Catholic schools would never be as full or flush. At the same time, Catholicism worldwide was undergoing a revolution that dictated a drastic shift in school staffing. Priests, nuns, and members of lay religious orders like the Christian Brothers began to quit the habit. Schools had to hire civilian teachers who expected salaries and benefits, not plenary indulgences. Religious orders needed money to care for their retired members; often the cash became available only when the orders sold the real estate on which their schools stood.
D.C.’s experience is instructional. Between 1971 and 1991, the Archdiocese of Washington, which includes the city and five Maryland counties, closed or consolidated more than 20 high schools. Archdiocesan schools like St. Cecilia’s, Holy Spirit, Immaculate Conception Academy, Mackin, St. Anthony’s, Cathedral Latin, All Saints, and St.Patrick’s disappeared, as did independent schools such as Notre Dame Academy, Holy Trinity, Immaculata Preparatory, and Sacred Heart Academy. St. John’s might have done the same, but for several shifts in strategy.
The big pressure on boys-only schools was to admit girls, as Archbishop Carroll, Bishop O’Connell, and, eventually, Our Lady of Good Counsel did. On Military Road, though, the all-male line held, going mighty thin, going from gray to green, going from all-Catholic to somewhat.
In keeping with their philosophy of preparing the children of the middle class for college, the Brothers held tuition as low as practicable (the fee is now $6,250—not cheap, but in the center of the price spread for the area’s 11 Catholic high schools). The expensive woollies were ditched for standard-issue, green U.S. Army uniforms, provided by the Department of Defense. More non-Catholics enrolled, especially after the Brothers started a middle school for seventh- and eighth-grade boys.
Minority enrollment rose, although not from zero. St. John’s’ military training had long drawn diplomats of color to enroll their sons. The rancorous Eastern game notwithstanding, in the early 1950s St. John’s had been at the leading edge of local Catholic-school desegregation; African-Americans were represented, if not proportionately, at least significantly. Yearbook photos show brown, black, and yellow faces in numbers noticeably larger—and in chronology, noticeably earlier—than might be encountered at many private schools, Catholic or otherwise. As blacks moved solidly into the metropolitan area’s middle class and the D.C. public-school system became progressively more cankerous, more brothers came to study with the Brothers.
“The school had a sense of family,” says Tyrone Barber, who graduated in 1978. A top athlete who won a football scholarship to Notre Dame, Barber credits his career as a human resources manager for a drug manufacturer to his days at St. John’s. “We learned to respect one another and to respect the benefit of discipline,” he says. “We learned values and ethics and principles that a lot of other schools do not heavily focus on.”
Entering St. John’s middle school as an eighth grader in 1973, Barber at first saw whites and blacks sticking to their own kind. “But we came to appreciate people for what they were,” he says. “We becamecolorblind.”
Not that blackness was of no regard. Among African-American teens attending private schools in D.C., St. John’s students ranked high on that critical measure of the adolescent male—the date meter. Black adults also approved. “Those of us who went to St. John’s were given a respect akin to that of black students attending West Point or the Naval Academy,” Barber says.
But rebukes also awaited. “Many kids from the public schools looked down on us,” he adds. “They had a perception that we were elitist.”
Schools, like neighborhoods, often achieve racial balance—for a hot minute. Once black registration reaches the discomfort level, whites tend to sprout wings. At St. John’s, though, the arrival of pepper did not drive all the salt from the shaker. In the late 1980s, as the minority-to-white ratio reached the 50-50 mark, the Christian Brothers did not apologize; they celebrated. At open houses for prospective students, the principal would tell parents, “If you’re not looking for a multicultural experience for your child, don’t come here.”
Still, the numbers looked grim. Enrollment, which had reached a high of 1,097 in 1969, was 446 in 1991, even with the middle school. Something more needed to be done.
The other spit-shined shoe dropped in 1991. St. John’s rendered JROTC optional; students could sign up for military training or a civilian leadership program. At the same time, 140 years of unabated guyness came to an end. St. John’s went coed.
Ooooh, what howls arose from certainalumni! What oaths were made, what imprecations hurled, what checkbooks slammed shut!
No matter. The girls arrived, a score or so the first year. The civilian program—a mix of current events, public speaking, communications, and government and politics dubbed LEAD (for “Leadership, Education, and Development”)—debuted. Like their military counterparts, LEAD students wore uniforms. Instead of drilling on the parade ground, though, they received weightier homework assignments.
During this period, more African-American students of both genders enrolled, but race proved a less traumatic issue than coeducation. Year one, some girls answered officers’ barked commands with yowls of their own; others griped that they were being treated like Dresden dolls. Even now, female students rankle at traces of male hegemony. But many girls choose JROTC; some are among the school’s most militantly military. It is only a matter of time, they declare, before St. John’s installs its first female corps commander.
Much—but not all—of the gender-related discomfort has dissipated in the past four years. One morning, en route from a visit to the school library, I meet two young women from the JROTC corps. Kimberly Selby, a sophomore, and Karin Rodney, a senior, both chose the JROTC program. They met in the marching band. Rodney, a lieutenant colonel, is aflutist and drum major; Selby, a corporal, plays several wind instruments. Sounding like a back-lot lieutenant and top kick reciting lines from a war movie script, Selby and Rodney explain how they discovered a shared interest in fine-tuning the 40-player group’s marching skills.
“Kimberly is a member of the drill team, so she has that extra military knowledge,” says Rodney. “I asked her if she would help me out. I give the orders…”
“…and I explain them,” Selby says.
Rodney and Selby are standing on the tarmac of the drive leading off 27th Street NW onto the school grounds. They are examining the marching style of five nervous ninth-grade band members. The issue is closeorder drill. The lieutenant colonel and the corporal present a study in visual contrasts. Rodney is tall and black and of relaxed temperament; she is wearing greens. Selby is short and white and intense; she wears the black beret, black sweater, black battle-dress trousers, and black combat boots Raiders sometimes affect. As the hapless freshmen endure the mysteries of turning in rank, Rodney gives commands. Selby offers criticism.
“Turn! Turn! Turn! That’s right!” Rodney says. The freshmen head for the front of the school. Rodney and Selby confer. The freshmen are halfway to the door when the lieutenant colonel realizes her troops are moving smartly out of sight.
“Stop! Stop! Stop!” Rodney shouts with a smile. “Y’all did it right!”
Rodney herds the sheepish freshman back to square one, where Selby demonstrates the turn step. “You want to step into a perfect 90-degree angle,” she explains. “Especially when you’re in a parade. People are watching you.” At the thought of marching in public, the ninth graders’ faces cloud. Selby walks them through another series of turns, then demonstrates an about-face.
“You put your right foot on its toe exactly behind the left foot,” she says. “Put your weight on your left heel. Then pivot on the toe behind. That’s all it is. Don’t lean back.”
The squad repeats the exercise until Rodney and Selby are satisfied. The bell rings. Rodney dismisses the freshmen, then invites me to join her and Selby for lunch. Downstairs in the cafeteria, the serving line is elbow-to-elbow with juniors. At St. John’s, rank has its privileges, despite an official egalitarianism; checking to see that no faculty monitors are watching, Rodney invokes her senior status and jumps the queue, with me and Selby in tow. We take our food outside to a picnic table.
Rodney, 17, who was recruited by the St. John’s basketball team, is the first person in her family to attend the school. She also has a music scholarship. She traces her interest in JROTC to her dad’s experience in Cardozo High’s mandatory military program. Of gender- and race-related tension, she says, she sees little.
“You hear about it, but the remarks are usually from people who don’t interact with others,” says Rodney, who grew up in D.C. and now lives in Takoma Park, Md. “You see cliquishness. At lunch, the sports groups will sit together—the football players with the football players, the girls’ varsity teams with themselves. The softball and golf teams are more mixed racially and genderwise.”
Selby, 15, says she hadn’t thought about military school until teachers at St. Mary’s Elementary in Rockville suggested she consider St. John’s along with Stone Ridge, Good Counsel, Holy Cross, and Elizabeth Seton. She finally chose the school with its own rifle range—and the only one from which, if she follows through on her dream of applying to West Point en route to a medical degree, she can do so without needing a political appointment.
“I like the military program. It’s more challenging,” she says. “I like being a Raider. We’re the hard-core grunts of St. John’s.”
Troublesome elements remain of the old St. John’s, Selby and Rodney agree. “The boys’ teams get new uniforms that are fitted and have their names on them,” Rodney says. “The girls have to fight over who gets the biggest shorts.”
“But the school was all-male from 1851. There was a guy tradition,” Selby says. “They’re still adjusting to having females around.”
“They should have adjusted by now,” Rodney says. “For example, there are only three women’s bathrooms in the whole school.”
Selby nods in empathy. “It sounds nitpicky, but when you’re taking a test and you have to go, you can miss a lot of time because you’re running down the hall and back,” she says.
Rodney and Selby voice nostalgia for a St. John’s they have never known—the military-mandatory arrangement featuring daily inspections of lockers and uniforms, with student officers able to punish subordinates.
“It was good for morale,” Selby, who wants to be the first female cadet colonel, says wistfully. “They should have kept it all-military. The military tradition in the U.S. is fading, and this country needs to keep its traditions. You can’t destroy them.”
The practical appeal of a coeducational St. John’s gradually gained acceptance among all but the hardest-core alumni, but outside the school, the race issue acquired unwelcome prominence. As black enrollment climbed, whispers began to circulate among smartly attired men of a certain age lunching in the restaurants of M Street; among sportif matronettes working the car pool lines and parish functions in Garrett Park, Chevy Chase, McLean; even among old and not-so-old grads attending class reunions.
St. John’s is slipping, the word goes. Academics have fallen through the floor. Gone-zo. Those SATs just ain’t what they used to be, many long years ago. The school can hardly field a varsity football team. It’s just a matter of time before the doors close.
To Brother Thomas Gerrow, it’s veiled language, and it stinks.
Gerrow, the school’s president since 1994, is an unabashed booster. “St. John’s presents a real opportunity for continuing multiracial balance in an educational setting. St. John’s is what the United States is,” he says, citing a recent USA Today projection of American demographics. “According to the paper, the population in 2050 will be 52 percent Caucasian, 15.7 percent black, 22 percent Hispanic, 10 percent Asian, and 1 percent Native American. In each category, we are within 1 or 2 percentage points of those statistics.”
As he settled into his job, Gerrow heard the rampant rumors. Run through his decoding ring, the message spelled itself: St. John’s is turning black. Send your kid someplace else.
It drove him nuts.
St. John’s was accepting the same stripe of student it had always sought—able kids, some of them smart, others not so, but all of them children who, with prodding and patience and the right encouragement and instruction, could go further at St. John’s than they might at another school.
St. John’s students were getting along with one other, doing their homework, being accepted and recruited by good colleges and universities. Enrollment was up—rising at a stutter, but rising. (In September 1994, the census ran 25 students short of projections—fiscally, a $160,000 shortfall; moralewise, a heart punch. For 1995-96, the data look better. The sophomore class totals 132 instead of the 117 anticipated. This year’s senior class has more members than last year’s junior class.) There were indirect accolades, as well; kids were transferring to St. John’s from high-end joints like Sidwell Friends and Georgetown Day School.
But the rumor mill kept grinding, and the nasty whispers gained volume and frequency. At one of the dozen or so reunions the school hosts each year—St. John’s has about 8,000 graduates on its mailing list—Gerrow got a face-to-face dose of carping from a member of the class of 1969.
The president is a large man, big-boned and vigorous, though grayer of hair and mustache than his 46 years might suggest. Usually he is in high and amiable spirits, but as we talk in his office about that reunion, he glowers.
“An alumnus who has a son in his freshman year at another school was saying, “Why should I send my son to St. John’s when the academics are down?’ ” Gerrow recalls. “Many of the men at the reunion were voicing the same logic.
“I said to them, “Where do you get this? It’s clear why you are sending your sons elsewhere,’ ” Gerrow says. “People make assumptions based on stereotypes. They basically conclude that, if you have X percent of African-American students, you must have lowered your standards.”
In fact, according to Gerrow, grouched-out grads are not recalling their old school as it was. “St. John’s in 1969 was more racially mixed than most Catholic schools in the archdiocese,” he says.
Gerrow came to Military Road 25 years into a career of teaching at and managing Christian Brothers facilities, including a reform school in Valley Forge, Pa.; inner-city elementary (“If you can handle seventh grade girls, you can handle anything,” he says) and secondary schools in Philadelphia and Jersey City; and stints teaching English to Indians in Guatemala and planning construction of a novitiate in rural Kenya.
His experiences abroad convinced Gerrow that despite its racial problems, the U.S. is neither unique nor egregious in its misery—a perspective that animates his approach to St. John’s. “People here don’t realize how much better it is here than in other countries,” he says. “What we view as racial differences really are socioeconomic. What people are prejudiced about are the thought patterns and attitudes that arise from socioeconomic conditions. We can’t change a person’s race, but we can provide opportunities for people from different socioeconomic strata. We have got to get off this race thing.”
The race thing is real, though, and often near the surface of life at St. John’s.
At 1:05 on Wednesday afternoon, Sept. 27, in an American literature class for juniors, teacher Marguerite Nedzelnitsky organizes her notes. Along with a stern reminder that gum chewing is not allowed, the walls carry miniposters explaining simile, metaphor, personification, metonymy, symbol, and apostrophe.
Nedzelnitsky’s course runs from colonial days to the present, pausing at the usual stations, all listed on a chart above the side chalkboard: your Christopher Columbus, your Jack London, your FlanneryO’Connor, your Joyce Carol Oates, yourAlice Walker. These juniors also take American history, dovetailed to the Am-lit schedule to encourage crossover analysis.
Today’s session will cover two homework assignments—analyze the language of the Declaration of Independence and discuss descriptive writing.
Nedzelnitsky, who wears a khaki skirt, blue oxford shirt, blue blazer, and sensible gray shoes, has a sharp eye for dress code violations. She tells a girl to untie a maroon sweater from around her waist. She pins one boy for irregular neckwear, collars another for a nonstandard sweater. Two boys arrive in camouflage battle dress, looking like undersize ATF agents, but Nedzelnitsky pays them no mind. Raiders can wear cammies every Wednesday, when they meet after school for PT and tactics sessions.
Class opens with a prayer. God rendered to, the class addresses matters more Caesarean—use of parallel structures in the Declaration of Independence. This segues into discussion of connotative meaning and charged words: “tyranny,” “liberty,” “justice,” “honor,” as understood by the American rebels of 1776.
Nedzelnitsky polls the juniors on their understanding of the terms. Students answer desultorily, until one white student challenges the notion that the founding fathers could speak the word “justice” withoutirony.
“Jefferson owned slaves,” he says in a tone that would burn the paint off the window frames at Monticello.
Nedzelnitsky defends Jefferson, citing a passage iterating his faith in the yeoman farmer as the basic unit of democracy. Her parry draws even more thrusts.
For the upper-class whites of Jefferson’s era, another student interjects, notions of justice and liberty did not apply to slaves or Indians. In the thinking of the day, these groups were simply not human, he adds.
The debaters so far have been white; the second remark stirs interest among the room’s African-Americans. Hands fly up. As a provocation or out of naiveté, the teacher suggests that not every slaveholder was a monster. Jefferson was known for not mistreating his slaves, she says.
Whoa. A black girl doesn’t even bother raising her hand to deliver a withering rebuttal.
“How is being a slave not being mistreated?” she asks. Not harming slaves was on the same order as not trashing your wardrobe, she implies. “They were bought. You buy your clothes and you don’t throw them on the floor, but you still buy them,” she says.
“Well taken,” says Nedzelnitsky, refining her analogy. What about a domestic worker who lives in a household and is treated like a member of the family?
No way. Now students lob challenges from all corners, like mortar rounds.
“Those people get paid!” a kid says.
“And they can leave the job anytime they want,” mutters another.
“Yeah,” says a black compatriot, hunkering in his dress greens. “They can leave when they want.”
A white student puts the boot in. Yes, Jefferson and his fellow aristocrats wanted to shake off British domination, but only because it was getting in the way of doing business as usual, he says.
“They were rich. They didn’t want to pay taxes to England,” a black kid says. “If they hadn’t had to pay taxes, Jefferson wouldn’t have cared.”
Discussion spirals more widely, into the original intent of the Constitution regarding blacks and women, into Lincoln’s motives for issuing an Emancipation Proclamation that only freed slaves in territories not under Union control. (“That would be like Canadians passing a law changing the speed limit in the U.S.,” one boy says.) A floor fight is developing over the Great Emancipator’s motives and political machinations when Nedzelnitsky asks for the homework, and the students bend to the task of ripping pages from notebooks.
All this occurs in the first 20 minutes of a 50-minute class—an exhilarating, edgy exchange in which young faces gain animation as the minds behind them reach high gear. The next segment, on a letter from Abigail Adams to her daughter describing the interior of the White House, hasn’t a prayer of matching that intensity. Everyone settles into a low-key review of letters as literature and descriptive writing technique.
In talking with St. John’s students about race, I notice a pattern. Black students often say they chose the school for the education but also because they wanted to be around white people. For residents of the city’s eastern sections or adjoining neighborhoods in Prince George’s County, St. John’s marks their first encounter with whites—and, in some cases, with the children of the black bourgeoisie.
“I like how the culture at St. John’s is mixed. You have to get to know other races,” says Chris Rowland. “My neighborhood is mostly black. My elementary school was mostly black. When you only see people of the same race, you don’t know how other people are, how they feel.”
Upon finishing eighth grade, Janet Dandridge, now a junior, wanted to join her neighborhood pals going to Carroll. “But I realized that would not be good for me,” she says. “I came to St. John’s because I wanted to see how it would be to interact with Caucasians and Hispanics. I wanted to see how they would react to me and I to them.”
Dandridge has forced adjustments—and been forced to adjust herself. “I had to make myself known,” she says. “My white soccer teammates were on a different musical beam. I would be singing a song like “1st of tha Month,’ by Bone Thugs ‘n’ Harmony, and they would try to mock me. On trips to away games, I would have to listen to all their jangly guitar stuff. I finally said, “You have to give me my chance!’ They started moving their heads and arms in this stereotype rapper behavior. But they let me have my time. We now do the music 50-50. We got adjusted to each other.”
Dandridge also has bumped up against class consciousness in her own race. “I will be riding in my neighborhood with black friends who say, “This is a ghetto!’ since I don’t live in a big white house in Maryland, and they have more money. But it’s not a ghetto,” she says. “It’s my neighborhood.”
White students did not express emphatic curiosity about African-Americans. But many, especially seniors and juniors, acknowledged that the friction of interacting in classroom activities, sports, and extracurriculars has worn down barriers inside themselves they might not have even known existed.
For others, the ethnic mix was no big deal. Senior Brian Stephens grew up in multiracial Wheaton. At St. John’s, he says, tension can arise, although without pattern. “It just comes up now and then. White kids and black kids joke around the subject; some people will joke about “white power’ but in that iconoclastic, anti-PC way,” says Stephens, adding that he will be leaving St. John’s with a personal philosophy that he didn’t have when he arrived.
“At one time I wouldn’t have spoken out about everyone being equal, but St. John’s has given me a perspective,” he says. “It does not matter you are white or black or any other race, or male or female. Everyone should have an equal opportunity.”
A few weeks after watching his mom watch him enter St. John’s, I catch Chris Rowland in the cafeteria and ask how the rest of that first high-school day went. He tells an epic tale, one that no doubt will grow in the retelling.
He makes it fine from the parking lot to locker 669; a summer orientation session had helped him understand the lay of the school. He stows his gear and heads for his first class: faith. Finds the room. Takes a seat at a desk. The teacher is a new guy himself, starting his very first class at St. John’s too—he seems very nice, leads the class in prayer, tells them about places he’s taught before. He has posters at the back of the room: the Shroud of Turin, the Cranberries, the Rolling Stones, Lenny Kravitz.
The sun is angling in through the windows, and the room is warming up. Chris takes off his blazer, getting comfortable.
But then the Brother starts checking the roll, calling students gently by their first names as he assigns them their permanent seats, taking it slow and easy.
“Namza,” he says in a soft voice.
But no “Chris.”
The teacher looks at Chris. He looks at his roster again. He checks the names. He asks Chris his name. Chris tells him. Whoops, the Brother says. You’re in another class. Better get going before you need a yellow slip.
Chris books. He is up and out the door and down the hall and into the other classroom before he remembers: his blazer. His brand-new blazer. His brand-new not-even-worn-until-lunchtime uniform blazer. On the chair back, in the other religion class. Oh, man.
But the nice religion teacher in the first room sends a guy with the coat, and things are pulling together again.
Until he goes back to his locker for something, a book maybe, and he does the quintessential freshman thing. The lock is one of those combination models, spin to clear, one number left, a full spin right to clear before hitting the second number, back to the left for the last one. He’s been practicing; he knows how to open the lock. The lock is no problem.
But when he goes to snap the hasp on the lock to secure his locker, at the moment that he’s crunching the stainless steel into itself with a crisp metallic sound, he realizes: backward. He’s put the lock on backward, and now he has to kneel on the floor and hold the lock upside down and horizontal, face down toward the floor. It’s tough to see the numbers because they’re in shadow and he hasn’t got a lot of time and finally he gets it right and now things are definitely looking better.
And so they have been. The Chris Rowland of the wary stare is no more; my companion at the cafeteria table smiles easily as he leans on his elbows and explains how St. John’s is going for him now.
“I was nervous about everything that first day,” Rowland says. “There’s only one person from my elementary school in my year here, and compared with St. Michael’s, St. John’s is much bigger. The classes are packed. But I met people in my first homeroom, and from there I met more people. My first day was fun. I feel like I’m fitting in perfectly. I know where every room is. I can’t be late.”
He’s taking French—his mom insisted, since the school doesn’t offer Latin—LEAD, English, concert band (he’s studying alto saxophone, hoping to sound like Kenny G), and Faith. He’s Anglican, but the religious stuff is no problem. What is a problem is the homework all around.
French takes 45 minutes a night, and LEAD is proving more of a challenge than he expected. “Oh, man, do I have homework,” he says, grinning. “LEAD packs you with homework. My friend David, who is JROTC, has hardly any homework from his class.”
But the civilian leadership program is also piquing his interest in world events. In the freshman section that Duane Carr teaches, students discuss the headlines and lead stories of that morning’s newspapers. They have to research and deliver speeches, draw posters on current-event themes, be ready to offer and defend an opinion on a topic.
“I used to think that the news was boring,” Rowland says. “Now I’m taking more of an interest. I wasn’t much of a reader, except for the comics, but now I read the paper and watch the news.”
In the Manichaean world of adolescence, it pays to have an Other against which to define oneself. For St. John’s, the Other stands 90-some blocks to the southeast. Only the greenest of D.C. greenhorns don’t know about the rivalry between St. John’s and its Jesuit alter ego, Gonzaga College High School. That competition, immortalized on 100 bridge abutments and myriad overpasses and street signs—in the ’60s, more than one “Beat Gonzaga” sign showed up in photos sent home from the Mekong Delta—has its apotheosis in the football game with which both schools close their seasons.
This year’s contest—the 67th in the series—takes place at 6:00 p.m. Nov. 4 at Marshall High School in Fairfax, Va. Each school has won 31 times, with four ties and no real riots—although some games have taken place in more vivid circumstances than others.
“In 1977, we played at Walt Whitman,” says Tyrone Barber. “Some Gonzaga students had pinned a dummy wearing a St. John’s uniform to a stick, and they were burning it. Our guys ran across the field with sabers drawn, but the disturbance was quickly quelled. We quickly refocused on the game. And we won.”
(That intensity of feeling has not faded, nor is it mollified by time or age. During interviews with several dozen St. John’s students, I sometimes mentioned that I had graduated from Gonzaga in 1968. Invariably, my subjects’ faces screwed into gimlet stares, as if I had offered to sell them a vial of crack at wholesale.)
Beneath the graffiti, behind the dissing, after all the comparisons of famous graduates (Gonzaga: way-right bodhisattva Pat Buchanan and neocon educationist William Bennett; St. John’s: sportscaster Tim Brant), the schools’ student bodies are interwoven with friendships rooted in parish life, Catholic Youth Organization sports teams, and neighborhood, even familial, acquaintance. Many families have sent children to both schools, sometimes sequentially, sometimes simultaneously.
For much of the 20th century, the football rivalry has seesawed year by year, an indirect indicator of both schools’ robust health. But in the late ’60s, Gonzaga almost closed, undone by a decrepit physical plant and a slum location—debits worsened by the riots after Martin Luther King’s assassination. For a decade, Gonzaga waned, not winning a game until 1981. But the subway system renewed the Jesuit school’s allure for suburbanites, and Gonzaga built a football field where phalanxes of rotting rowhouses had stood. In the years since, Gonzaga has regained its strength and reputation.
By the same cycle, St. John’s uptown location was in the ’70s an inestimable asset. But in the ’80s, the school’s Chevy Chase, D.C., neighborhood became a drag on enrollment: It was too far from Metro, too expensive for families with young children. This year, St, John’s began running shuttle buses to and from the Friendship Heights and Fort Totten Metro stations.
It is 3:30 p.m. on Spirit Day, Friday, Sept. 22. Classes have ended early so students from the upper school can attend a pep rally in honor of tomorrow’s homecoming game against the Phelps Panthers. The uniform lamp is extinguished. Except for the few who didn’t get the word to dress down, the crowd streaming across the parking lot exhibits the precise disarray of the young: hat worn backward just so, bell-bottoms with seams precisely split at the cuff. Leading the band, Karin Rodney is looking very Pam Grier: orange-and-brown cobra-skin shirt, retro-’70s jeans, and nosebleed platforms.
On Spirit Day, sophomores and juniors form one giant Red team; seniors and freshman are their Gray opponents in strata-cracking, cohesion-building games. Usually the rally takes place outside, but clouds have sent the event into Gallagher Gymnasium, where the bleachers are full. Upperclassmen saunter in, fashionably late, as the band attacks the traditional fight song, “Saint John’s Will Shine Tonight.”
At half-court, apple and peach pies wait on tables as the pie-eating teams assume the position, hands clasped behind backs and faces downward. At the whistle, the gobbling begins.
The event is over in seconds, with the Reds victorious. The girls’ and boys’ soccer teams, then the rifle team, are introduced; fortunately, given the acoustics, the students already know who they are.
The next mock sports event, involving Hula Hoops, baseball bats, and balloons, makes no sense, but the crowd goes buck wild. After saluting the freshman/sophomore football team, the cheerleaders form a pompon-shaking gauntlet to welcome the varsity.
The big boys (and they are big—Darryl Hodge, regarded by many as the best high-school linebacker on the East Coast, is the size of a middling refrigerator) enter in various poses: cool, goofy, mock-heroic, regular-guy. The names on the jerseys could come out of a war movie: Tijero, Jones, Ketterer, Whelan, Byers, Brown, De Oliveira, Walker, Opiyo, Ritz, Tudela, Hodge, Calabrese (this Calabrese is Brian, the quarterback, and inheritor of a St. John’s legend; his dad, Jay Calabrese, threw—or did not throw—that fateful elbow at the end of the 1962 Eastern game).
The players greet one another with high-fives and backslaps. The yelling reaches crescendo, and out comes the hawser for the tug of war. The game starts with 10 on a side, but the stands empty until there is a semihorde hauling backward at either end of the gym. The balance swings first to Red and then to Gray, until finally Red prevails.
The next day, the Cadets play Phelps. Through the moist, chill air waft autumnal smells: cigarette smoke, freshly cut grass, perfumes favored by teen-age girls. At the sidelines, Coach John Ricca directs the team in a bellowing cartoon-bear voice. St. John’s flattens Phelps 44-22.
In searching for substance behind the Schadenfreude chorus of rumors about St. John’s, I found nothing except the fog of innuendo.
Instead, as I trolled the phone book and the Rolodex for St. John’s contacts, I heard observations like those of Nick Carosi, who graduated in 1965—a son of a multigraduate family and a veteran of the old uniform, of the men-without-women days, of the Eastern game.
“Changing the uniform, going coed, making military optional—that’s going with the flow of what secondary education has done in the last 20 years,” Carosi tells me over the phone from the concrete plant he owns. What about the ethnic balance at the school, I asked.
“I grew up out near Glen Echo,” Carosi says. “I commuted to St. John’s by whatever means necessary—rode the bus, caught rides with neighbors, hitchhiked. At school, I found a melting pot of what was, in 1965, the entire city of Washington, D.C. It was a great experience, and if I hadn’t had it I would never have known anyone from Southeast. I hope once in a while some guy from Southeast says to himself, thank goodness he went to St. John’s and met a kid like me. Perhaps that’s what is happening today—St. John’s is still a melting pot; it’s just that the pot has changed a little bit.”