Thanks to my infant baptism and then subsequent Sunday school classes that lead up to my first Confession and Communion when I was eight years old, I had saints’ cards, prayer cards, and even a “How to Receive the Sacrament of Penance” card.
However, not once did I read the actual Bible. Even though I heard in every Sunday Mass and read in any Catholic church’s missalette Scriptural readings, I didn’t grow up reading the Bible. While there isn’t a Catholic rule against owning a Bible, there isn’t a rule for owning one either. As a result, I didn’t have my own Bible until late in my senior year in high school.
It all started with physics.
Let me back up a bit.
This was my typical afterschool routine when I was sixteen years old:
- Take the bus home with my sister from our high school.
- Make sure my brother and my youngest sister were home from school and didn’t make a mess of anything.
- Make a heavy snack for everyone.
- Eat the snack.
- Go to my room to do homework and/or read a book with the stereo on.
- Go outside of my room to break up an inter-sibling fight about something petty and stupid.
- Clean up any messes.
- Make sure everyone did their homework.
- Make dinner for everyone.
- Eat dinner.
- Clean up any more messes.
- Mom comes home from work.
- Do evening chores that Mom needs me to do.
- Go back to my room.
- Watch PBS and then the news until 11pm-ish.
- Go to bed.
Rinse, lather, repeat.
A big change of my routine happened when Mrs. Peel, the high school counselor for the senior class, had nominated me for this American Airlines sponsored summer program called “American Scholars.” One student from each of the local Dallas-Fort Worth area public high schools would go to an all-expenses trip to Washington, D. C., for four days in June. The students would live in one of Marymount College’s residence halls and have day trips to D. C.’s tourist sights, attend seminars with politicians, educators, and policy pundits, and participate in a mock “Model Congress” – role-playing Congressmen in passing a bill.
Unbeknownst to me, Mrs. Peel had nominated me. I didn’t find out until, one day as I walked from my locker to my next class, I saw Mrs. Peel. A somewhat dowdy sixty-ish year old woman huffing and puffing because she had been trying to find me, she rushed towards me with a couple of papers in one hand and a pen in the other.
“Mrs. Peel?” I asked, alarmed.
“Rufel,” she wheezed at me, “you need to sign these – I need to mail these out TODAY.”
“You were –” Mrs. Peel paused to catch her breath. “You were awarded a spot in Model Congress.”
Mrs. Peel waved the papers. “Too much to explain. Come to my office.”
“But my next class –”
“I’ll get you a tardy slip. Your teacher will understand.”
So that’s how I ended up on a college campus, across the Potomac River from in Washington D.C., with a bunch of soon-to-be high school juniors that I had never seen before.
I stared in awe in one of the chambers of the Supreme Court, witnessed the gravitas of the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and met my Congressmen at the Rayburn House Office Building, among other field-trippy activities. As much as I enjoyed the whole experience, however, I mostly remember three things: 1) I stayed up late with my mock committee members, eating way too much Cheetos as we put together our bill. 2) I geeked over The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy with my new friend Jason, a Euless high school student. 3) Jason and I raced through the Smithsonian in order to get everything seen before our next scheduled American Scholars event – and I stopped in my tracks when I saw the Apollo 11 command module.
My astronaut dreams had long ago faded away, and I mostly enjoyed the fiction end of science in those days. But seeing that artifact of the Space Race reminded me that exploring the universe still filled me with awe and wonder. After I witnessed Challenger explode on live TV two years ago and the subsequent grounding of the shuttle program, I was excited to hear that the Space Shuttle Discovery was returning to space in the fall of my junior year. However, except for basic space and physics knowledge from my Childcraft books, which were somewhat extended in middle school physical science class, my knowledge of the science behind the shuttle and the space program in general was really dated.
I wondered what had been going on in space science since then, but playing tourist and Congressman wasn’t going to answer that question.
When we American Scholars returned to DFW Airport, disbanded, and went to our respective home towns, I felt a slight let down. After four days of new sights and adventures, I didn’t look forward to my usual routine. Pa was still away at the Naval Construction Battalion Center at Gulfport, Mississippi. Mom still worked as one of two lead hospital dietary supervisors, working double-shifts, six days a week and sometimes even seven if the cafeteria was short staffed. Since I didn’t have a car and a summer job, my parents working away from home meant I – as their oldest child — was their parental substitute. This meant keeping my siblings fed, clean, safe, and busy from the morning when they woke up to the evening when they went to sleep.
Fortunately, even in 1988, video gaming kept kids busy for hours on end. This meant Eric and Cheryl were guaranteed to play on their Nintendo system many rounds of Super Mario Brothers, Kung-Fu Master, and Legend of Zelda. Meanwhile, Wendy had at disposal Pa’s vast VHS movie collection, which Pa boot-legged when he was stationed at Diego Garcia, as well as whatever was on cable TV. When I wasn’t providing my siblings needed food or needed a parental-type intervention, I escaped to my room and had my TV permanently locked onto the PBS station.
That was when I discovered The Mechanical Universe.
Aimed for distance learning community college students, The Mechanical Universe was a fifty-two episode program teaching college-level physics, from Copernicus to the beginnings of quantum mechanics. Hosted by Caltech professor David Goodstein, The Mechanical Universe not only covered the concepts in physics (like momentum and optics) but also dramatized the scientists and history behind those concepts. It even animated the mathematics – calculus! — to solve common formulae in physics.
How the early physicists were tied to philosophy and religion was a revelation for me. Physics originally came from philosophy, and the Greek philosopher Aristotle was once of its earliest thinkers. Nicolaus Copernicus, the Renaissance Polish astronomer who put the sun – not the Earth — as the center of the solar system, was a non-clerical religious member in the Roman Catholic Church, which fully funded his scientific career. (This was ironic, since Galileo fell afoul of the same Church.) And the great Isaac Newton was a Deist (believing in a Creator God).
All of this was new to me, as I saw religion in one box and science in the other, and the two didn’t meet. Of course, these two subjects may have come up in religious education classes in preparation for the Catholic teenager’s rite of passage called the Sacrament of Confirmation. This usually occurred in the seventh grade. But, because Pa was on the other side of world and Mom couldn’t find someone to drive me to the early evening weekday Confirmation class that conflicted with her work hours, my last religious classes were back in Guam, when I was eight years old.
In other words, my most recent religious knowledge of the Catholic Church and its faith was of an eight-year old child, which never changed even when I was sixteen year old teenager. That gave me pause, as I absorbed whatever else The Mechanical Universe revealed to me.
So, as much as I read Douglas Adams’ science fiction and Tom Clancy’s military thrillers, I watched The Mechanical Universe more. Then Mom realized in mid-summer that Wendy was as capable as I was in babysitting our younger siblings. Without telling me until I was about to start, she got me my first job as a minimum-wage gopher in the supplies department of her hospital. Even then, I kept watching.
By the time I registered for my classes in the fall for my junior year, I knew that I just had to take Honors Physics I as my required physical science class. Watching physics on TV wasn’t enough. I had to do it in order to understand it. The problem was that I didn’t know calculus and was taking Honors Algebra II in the same year as the physics class.
When Mrs. Cannon, the Honors Physics I teacher, realized that all of her students were in the same deficient mathematical boat as me, she gave a mighty sigh and said, “Okay, everybody, I’ll grade you based on how far you get in your calculations.”
Then she wheeled out the classroom TV cart, put in a VHS tape, and pressed play.
As soon as I heard the beginning synth music of the opening scene, I realized why Mrs. Cannon sighed.
It was the first episode of The Mechanical Universe.
My first and only Physics class was crazy, just crazy. My classmates and I got the idea of the basic concepts, and we were fully engaged in the experiments. I especially liked optics, seeing light warp and bend with the different convex and concave lenses. But Mrs. Cannon, formally trained in using The Mechanical Universe as a teaching method, wanted us to deeply understand the mathematical logic behind the concepts, in spite of our skimpy mathematical tools. I still have my spiral notebook from that class. My handwritten lecture and reading notes look as if I tried to re-create my Physics textbook. That’s how thick my notebook was.
We often did our calculations in pairs, and one time I checked my calculations with my partner’s. “Oh, no, yours are different from mine,” I noticed.
She looked at mine and then hers. “Oh – yeah, they are.”
“Are yours right?” I asked.
She shrugged. “I have no idea.”
When all we had was messy, awful algebra instead of efficient, elegant calculus, I understood why Mrs. Cannon only graded us in just how far we got with our calculations, instead of getting the correct answer. I don’t think any one of us ever got the correct answer to any physics formula that we tried to solve in that class.
Meanwhile, I was in Mr. Summer’s Honors World History class. Cramming five-thousand years’ worth of world history in nine months was another class that was crazy, just crazy. Like my Physics class, my notes for World History ended up being a thick, portfolio-folder-busting tome. Thanks to my Childcraft books and (surprisingly) The Mechanical Universe, I wasn’t entirely lost, but many facts and ideas I learned were another case of revelation to me. What surprised me then was just how state and religion were intricately linked for much of human history. From the Hebrews, Greeks, Hindus, and Romans, to Medieval Europe and the shaking off of the overbearing rule of the Roman Catholic Church during the Protestant Reformation – wait a minute, Martin Luther was a Catholic priest? Henry VIII, the founder of the Church of England, was once a loyal Catholic?
In World History, I learned how powerful people oppressed and killed in the name of God. Sometimes they were hypocrites and only used religion as a tool for power. Sometimes they were zealots and only used people as a tool for their own specific idea of religion. When we got to the Japanese unit – when Mr. Summers came into class one day and demonstrated how to make a bonsai tree – and I saw how a nation’s honor code that verged on religious fervor lead to kamikaze and the losing side of World War II, my head spun with new knowledge.
As I mentioned earlier, I wrote two research papers for World History. For my first one, I learned how political religion could be, as Henry VIII, king of England, and Pope Clement VII, the head of the Roman Catholic Church, locked their figurative heads. This led to Henry VIII declaring himself the head of the Church in England and therefore officiating his divorce from his first wife in order to marry his pregnant mistress.
In contrast to that crass ploy for power, in which religious faith was just a tool to play with, Lady Jane Grey was a martyr for her Protestant faith. She was the subject for my second research paper. The Powers-that-Be wanted Henry VIII’s throne after he died, so they used an introverted, teenage girl with royal blood as a pawn to gain that power. Out of obedience, Jane said yes to being Queen of England during a time of strife. Because of that obedience, Mary Tudor — the daughter of Henry VIII’s first wife, the legitimate queen, and a Catholic — gave Jane a choice: Catholicism or death. Jane chose death. She stood fast to her faith, in contrast to those people that she trusted around her were as steadfast and true to theirs as fickle Henry VIII.
After yet another mindscrambling day of Physics and World History, I retreated to my room after dinner, turned on my TV, and saw Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth for the first time. After I watched all six conversations between the late mythologist Joseph Campbell and journalist Bill Moyers over the next few weeks, I reflected at all I had studied my junior year – especially in Physics and World History – and realized that they were all interconnected.
Everything was interconnected. WE were all interconnected.
“Wow,” I said to my empty room. “Wow.”
Then I left my room to rejoin my family.
A week after my seventeenth birthday, Pa came home.
Pa’s last duty station was in Gulfport. Coming home every weekend, he would wait for me to pick him up from DFW Airport because the huge airport, with its exits, on-ramps, and confusing signs, scared my mom and got her lost. Ever since the transfer from Guam, my father was an E7 Chief Petty Officer. Bu he had remained E7 since then, for all of those years, all of those transfers. Perhaps he saw no more promotions, no more overseas transfers to exotic places, as he saw evidence of the Cold War thawing all around him. So one day, I picked him up from the airport, for Pa came home, and this time he didn’t leave.
Per his service paperwork, Pa officially retired from “active duty” status after “22 YEARS, 3 MONTHS, 17 DAYS.” To round out twenty-five years and maximize his Navy pension, Pa elected to be put on “active reserve” for next three years. However, unless the Navy called him up from reserves, Pa was effectively a civilian now.
At first, Pa literally didn’t leave the house. He rearranged all the furniture in our three-bedroom, two-bath house. He fixed the roof, which needed it after years of Texas hailstorms. He gardened and did creative landscaping. While outside, he also fixed the shed. Since he was alone most days, he bought two dogs and walked them as part of his exercise regime. On weekends, he thoroughly cleaned the house. He cooked breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day, while he figured out how to fit into a household that had learned how to live without him for most of the days of the week.
After a month of this, he developed cabin fever. One day he stared out the window, his hands in his pockets, as his wife went to work and his children went to school. He applied for work, but he heard nothing from his applications. So, he decided to go back to school.
The next month, my dad enrolled in a composition class, an accounting class, and a music appreciation class at the local community college. When Pa was stationed in NAS Dallas, he took some courses every once in a while, and he even continued long distance when he was out of state. Now that he was permanently back home, it was strange yet comforting to see him at the kitchen table, with his spiral notebooks, pens, textbooks, tape recorder, and calculator. Pa had something to do, and he was happy. Thus, the whole family was happy. He stressed the importance of education to get a good job, the importance of always learning, “or else you get left behind.”
But these classes were only summer classes. After a month, even though the GI Bill paid for the classes, Pa felt antsy again, wanting to work again. Mom and I both worked at the same hospital (she still in Food Services, me in Medical Records this time), and Wendy babysat Eric and Cheryl. After not getting a federal postal worker position, Pa swallowed his pride and finally got a job. He worked the midnight shift as a custodian for American Airlines at DFW airport, the same airport where he arrived every weekend when he would come home from Gulfport.
When the rest of the family went to bed, Pa left, dressed in his blue custodian uniform. He drove his little black pick-up truck into the night, towards the concrete and glass behemoth that is DFW Airport. When the rest of the family woke up, got ready for work or school, and then left, Pa arrived from work, tired but relieved that he had something to do. It wasn’t a matter of money. Pa’s pension paid for the house and the IRA, and Mom’s work paid for the rest. It was a matter of the pride of a Filipino who had given over twenty years of his life to the United States of America and, at the age of forty-six, had many more years of productive service to give.
Fortunately, Pa only had to endure this out-of-step-with-the-ordinary-world graveyard shift lifestyle for a month. After casting about for various federal jobs, like the Postal Service, he got the metaphoric prize fish as a civilian budget analyst for the Navy Recruiting District in Dallas. In other words, Pa left the Navy as a military serviceman with limited prospects – and came back to the Navy as a civilian federal employee with a higher pay rate and an expansive room for advancement.
As they say in the Navy, HOOYAH.
Pa was now happily situated in a job that ensured white-collar stability and a nice, middle-class income. He insisted that we all get up early every Saturday morning, do some morning house cleaning as he cooked breakfast to music playing in the house, and see Cheryl play in her girls’ soccer league or watch Eric play pee-wee football. Afterwards, we went shopping on base, either at NAS Dallas’ Navy Exchange or across the Metroplex, at Carswell Air Force Base’s commissary and exchange in Fort Worth. On Sundays, we went to Sunday Mass at our local parish church, with Pa insisting that Mom no longer needing to work on those Sundays.
So my family was all together, for the first time in years, when I started my last year in high school. After my experience with the disaster that was using algebra in a physics class, I was keen to learn Calculus, but I only had the prerequisites done for Pre-Calculus. So I took Honors Pre-Calculus as my last high school math class.
Unlike my other Honors classes, where I had known most of my classmates since freshman year, my math class was a mix of high-achieving juniors (none of whom I knew) and seniors like me. Like most math classes, the teacher, Mr. Harris, assigned lots of problem exercises to solve and we exchanged papers in order to grade another classmate’s assignment. Most often, I exchanged papers with a white guy I had never seen before, so I assumed he was a junior. His name was Todd, and it soon became a competition between us of who got the higher grade.
“Ha-ha, you made a 95,” he said, handing back my paper.
“So you made one point higher than me. Big deal.” I made a face. “No junior’s gonna beat me.”
“Who say’s I’m a junior?”
“No! I’m a senior.”
“Huh. How come I’ve never seen you in my Honors classes before?”
“’Cause this is my first Honors class.”
I stared at him. “Why do you want to take an Honors class if you don’t have to?”
He stared back at me. “There’s no rule that says I can’t.” Then he sat back in his seat.
“I –” I started to say, but then Mr. Harris asked us to pass up our graded papers, so I kept quiet.
The next day, we exchanged papers again to grade. This time, I made a 98 and Todd made a 97. When I passed back his graded paper, I noticed that he had a small strand of white plastic rosary beads looped around a belt loop in his jeans. The crucifix part was tucked in the tiny pocket of his five-pocket Levi’s. I had often seen rosary beads hang from car rearview mirrors from Hispanic drivers, and Mom had rosary beads adorn her bedroom shrine to the Virgin Mary at home. “Do you know what that is?” I asked as I gestured to his rosary beads with my thumb.
“What?” He glanced down. “Rosary beads.”
“Do you know what they’re for?”
He squinted at me and spoke as if talking to a particularly slow child, “To… pray… the… rosary.”
“You mean, you’re CATHOLIC?”
“Miss Ramos.” Mr. Harris frowned at my outburst.
“Sorry, Mr. Harris.”
Todd stared at me as if I had lost my mind. “Ye-es.” He turned back to his seat and started passing up graded papers in his row.
On the following Sunday, Pa declared as he drove, “We’re going to the church on base for Mass from now on.”
“Why?” Wendy asked.
“That priest talks too much about raising money during his homilies,” Pa replied, wrinkling his nose in disapproval. “If I wanted a talk about finances, I’d talk with an accountant.”
“I didn’t know there was a Catholic church on base,” I said.
“There isn’t – but the bishop sends a priest to the base chapel to hold Mass for Catholic servicemen.”
When my family settled in at the last row of chairs, I looked around. Instead of pews, the chapel had wooden, upholstered chairs. Hardback hymnbooks and paperback missalettes were on the chairs. Little free-standing cushions were underneath those chairs that we had to take out to kneel on. Since the simple, one-room chapel was nondenominational, there was no crucifix on the back wall. The altar space was a simple table on a slightly raised platform with a podium next to it and a piano next to the podium. On the other side was a large American flag in its flagpole stand. There were two chairs behind the table – one for the priest and the other for the altar boy.
Looking around, I saw four more families in addition to my family. When a woman, who reminded me of a younger Mrs. Peel, sat down in front of the piano and started to play and sing an opening hymn, we stood up, singing from the hymn books. An altar boy walked forward with the crucifix on a pole as the priest, a tall, broad man with white-blond hair and aviator-style glasses and holding a large bible, followed behind him. As the altar boy attached the crucifix’s pole to a floor flag stand behind the altar table, I stared.
Todd from Pre-Calculus, dressed in his all-white altar boy cassock, started as he saw me in the back row.
I had never been more distracted at a Mass than I was that Sunday.
The Mass lasted less than an hour since there weren’t that many people and, as Father James said, “I’m used to saying fast Masses for the military who need to eat lunch.”
Pa went up to Father James to introduce himself and us since, what with the size of the chapel, it was impossible to remain anonymous. As it turned out Pa also knew Todd’s dad, as they had worked together previously when Pa and Todd’s dad were stationed at NAS Dallas. As Pa and Mom made conversation and my siblings milled around, I said to Todd, “Hi.”
“This is weird,” I commented.
“Yeah.” He looked down at his cassock. “Uh, I gotta clear the altar.”
“Oh. Yeah. Sorry.”
Mom and Pa were still visiting with people, so I watched Todd clear the altar table, disappear in a side room, and then emerge in his regular street clothes. They were a T-shirt, jeans, and Western boots – what he always wore when he was at school.
“Not a fancy dresser, huh.”
Todd shrugged. “Jesus doesn’t care.”
“How long have you been Father James’ altar boy?”
“Ummm… since I was nine. So… eight years.”
“Wow. Do you want to be a priest someday?”
He peered at me. “Is that wrong if I do?”
“What? No – one of my uncle’s a missionary priest in the Dominican Republic. He’s really cool.”
“Yeah,” Todd said. He looked at Father James emerge also from the side room, this time wearing a black, short-sleeve shirt with his white priest’s collar, Bermuda shorts, black socks, and Birkenstocks.
“Wow,” I couldn’t help myself saying.
Todd laughed. “Father James’ from San Francisco. He can’t help himself. Also, he’s a philosophy professor.”
“Really?” I shook my head. “Where –” I started to ask.
“Okay, Rufel, we have to go to the commissary,” Mom said.
“And have lunch,” Pa added.
“Okay.” I started walking away.
“See you at school,” Todd said.
“Yeah – see you.”
My parents had noticed me talking to Todd, so Pa asked me, “Do you know that boy?”
I shrugged. “He’s in my math class.” I smiled. “I’m gonna beat him with the highest grade in Pre-Cal.”
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist or a degree in philosophy to guess that we eventually started dating although, at the beginning, it didn’t feel like dating.
In my senior year, my lunch routine was to gulp down a can of Dr. Pepper and an ice cream sandwich and then head back upstairs to the library for the rest of my lunch period. Knowing that Todd’s Catholic knowledge was far greater than mine, I read up on the Catholic Church as I tried to fill in the gaps between what I got from World History and my childhood Sunday school classes at Guam. I didn’t even know what Vatican II was until I researched it and discovered why Mom was such a huge fan of Pope John Paul II.
I didn’t understand much of what I read. Catholic theology was heavy stuff, and I couldn’t even begin to comprehend papal infallibility. But I understood the social justice and mystical community parts of it — think Mother Theresa tending to the poor in Calcutta because she saw them as much a part of her family as her own flesh and blood. This explained why my family and most Filipinos remained loyal to the Catholic Church, even though the Spaniards of long ago forced the faith upon them as part of foreign conquest.
Somewhere along the way, I discovered the folk philosopher and sometimes preacher Robert Fulghum. The library had his two extant books at the time: All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten and It Was on Fire When I Lay Down on It. In the former was a short essay where Fulghum tried to understand Mother Theresa’s life and what lesson it gives to ordinary people like Fulghum. In the latter was an essay that ended with two lovely sentences: “I and you – we are infinite, rich, large, contradictory, living, breathing miracles – free human beings, children of God and the everlasting universe. That’s what we do.” It was December, and everything started to feel like Christmas. Preparation for the Academic Decathlon competition next month was stressful, so I re-read Fulghum as a form of meditation. While I debated on whether I should buy my own copies as a Christmas gift for myself, Todd found me in the library.
The lunch hour was nearly over, so he just said, “Hi,” placed a thin brochure in front of me, and left.
Turning over the brochure, I read, “The Biblical Arts Center.” Opening the brochure, I saw a slip of paper, torn from notebook paper, with Todd’s familiar scrawl in blue pen. The note said, “Would you like to go sometime?”
As far as first dates went, it was pretty surreal. Todd – he-who-would-be-priest – had never dated, and I was in the same state. So, on pretense of going Christmas window shopping across the street from the museum, we went. The only thing I remember from the Biblical Arts Center was this massive mural of the Pentecost – tongues of fire, apostles in the upper room and everything – while a disembodied James Earl Jones-esque voice boomed out the appropriate scriptural reading from Acts. Afterwards, we ate some sandwiches at the museum cafeteria. So that we wouldn’t feel like liars, we went across the street to North Park Center.
“Wow,” Todd said, wincing at the prices. His mom was a school cafeteria lady and his dad, post-Navy, was an honest insurance salesman, so North Park fare was a horrible reminder of what he couldn’t afford.
“Yeah – let’s go home.”
What saved the date was, of all things, the band AC/DC. I turned on the car radio and heard the not-so-Christmasy song, “Highway to Hell.” Whenever lead singer Bon Scott sang “hell,” Todd, who was driving, would reach over and turn down the volume and then turn the volume up for the rest of the song. He did this over and over until, overcome by the absurdity, I started laughing.
As first dates go, it didn’t suck.
There were two people in my life who saw my budding high school romance with the ol’ stink eye: the first was Pa, for obvious reasons. I’m pretty sure there were times when he wondered if a shotgun wasn’t just the perfect thing for a father with a virginal Filipino teenaged daughter in exclusive coupledom with a strange, white teenaged boy.
The other person was my best friend Jill.
After her parents’ divorce at the end of middle school, Jill left Texas to live with her mom. But then, in the middle of high school, Jill moved back with her dad in Texas. She was again in my Honors classes, just as snarky as she ever was. We sat next to each other in Academic Decathlon, prepping for the big district competition in January. What surprised me, as we worked together, was that, in all the years that we were friends, religion never came up; I soon discovered why when she found out what kind of guy Todd was.
“He’s an altar boy?” she snorted. “Puh-LEEZE. Religion is a joke. And the Bible? Have you ever read it? A bunch of fairy tales written by dead white men.”
“Oh, Jill.” And that’s how I discovered that my best friend was an atheist.
After a while, when it became clear that I cared for both Todd and Jill and wasn’t about to give either of them up, they came together in a sort of détente and agreed not to talk about religion around each other.
With that off my mind, I fully concentrated on preparing for the Academic Decathlon competition during and after school with my team members. The competition, with the theme of “Native American Culture,” consisted of seven team-based multiple-choice tests, game-show style, on the subjects of arts, economics, language and literature, math, music, science, and social science. It also had one interview, one extemporaneous speech, and an impromptu essay.
I remember staying late at the house of Jenny, one of the team members, as she, Jill, and the rest of us tried to stay awake through a marathon viewing of Richard Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung. It was just too much, as we drifted in and out of consciousness, in spite of coffee, Mountain Dew, and a playful Exxon, Jenny’s dog who was adopted during the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
Maybe because I tried to do too much in preparation or perhaps I was just too hopped up on caffeine or adrenaline, I barely remember the Bataan Death March that was district competition day. What I do remember was sitting in a classroom among other schools’ decathletes, staring at my impromptu essay topic: “Explain Native American spirituality.” A timed essay, the clock was literally ticking.
After a mad scramble for anything in my Dr. Pepper-addled brain, I compared the Native American spiritual connection to their ancestors to the Roman Catholic Church’s belief in the Communion of Saints. Father James had talked about this in his homily recently enough that it was fresh in my mind. I wrote the essay, just barely before time was up. Turning it in, I thought, “What the hell did I just write?”
I ended up getting the Silver Medal (second place) in impromptu essay.
As one would expect in the last semester of an over-achieving high school senior, I was slapstick-busy both in school and out. Even though Academic Decathlon was over (my team didn’t advance to the state competition), I was a member of the Cultural Emphasis Club, a student club that went to such high falutin’ places as operas and museums). I was also in the National Honor Society was and content contributor to the high school literary magazine Déjà Vu. In that last semester only Psychology and Library Aide were the classes that I could turn off my hamster-wheel spinning brain for a spell. The rest of my classes – Mrs. Longorio’s college-level English 102, Mr. Harris’ Honors Precalculus, Coach Stiber’s Honors Biology II (“I didn’t label this ‘AP’ because I want you all to take Biology in college,” he would say with a huge grin), and Mrs. Shivers’ AP Government – were kicking my high-achieving backside.
That was nothing compared to applying for college.
Having taken the College Board’s PSAT in my junior year and the SAT early in the fall of my senior year, I had my scores in hand as I applied for various colleges in December. I kept my choices local, as I was reluctant to stray too far from my hometown of eight years. Fortunately, the Dallas-Fort Worth area was and still is a cornucopia of universities, both public and private. Certain that my SAT scores and my grades would get me a scholarship, I applied to two private universities – Southern Methodist University in Dallas and Texas Christian University in Fort Worth – and one public university, University of Texas at Arlington, the default university for many in my high school class.
When I asked Todd what colleges he had applied to during a lull in Honors Precalculus before Christmas break, he replied, “The University of Dallas.”
“And –” I waited for more names.
“What – you only applied to one college? What if you don’t get in?”
“I’ll get in. Father James is a philosophy professor there, remember? He’s told me what the UD Admissions people expect, my ACT scores are pretty good, and with Honors Precalculus, my GPA looks pretty good, too. I’m even in the National Honor Society! I just have to make sure I get enough financial aid to live on campus.”
“Why the University of Dallas?”
“Besides majoring in Philosophy and studying under Father James?” Todd handed me a brochure and smiled.
I looked it over. I had never heard of the University of Dallas until Father James and Todd, so knowing that a private, Catholic liberal arts university was just one city away from where I lived was surprising. The school was small and pretty recent, compared to SMU and TCU, but its curriculum had the same rigor as the Honors classes that I had taken. When I saw that it was a “Great Books” school – that is, all majors were required to read a core set of established, traditional works from authors like Homer, Aristotle, Shakespeare, and John Milton, I felt a small smile start to creep up. Then when I saw that it had a semester-long study-abroad program in Rome, Italy, built into the sophomore year, I looked up and saw Todd’s smirk.
“Okay, okay.” I waved the brochure at him. “Can’t hurt to apply.”
“You’d better do it soon,” he said. “There’s a competitive scholarship that requires an essay and an on-campus interview. The application deadline’s comin’ up soon.”
“I said OKAY.”
I ended up being offered admission by all four universities, but I waited on officially accepting in order to see just how generous their offer of financial aid would be. My essay for UD’s competitive scholarship – on the topic “What does it mean to be wise?” — was revised from an analysis of Plato’s The Apology that I wrote for Mrs. Longorio’s class (I still have the pencil-written draft in my old English 101/102 folder). It helped advance me to the interview stage of the competition. Having also advanced to the interview stage, Todd and I carpooled to the University of Dallas campus for our scheduled scholarship interviews on a warmish Friday in late March. We had to cut class in order to go for our interviews – the only day that I was ever absent in the entire four years I was at South Grand Prairie High School.
While Todd’s interview was in the morning, mine was in the early afternoon, so, feeling nervous, I walkd around. The UD campus was built on a wide hill, which sprawled out in low, rolling ground of neatly trimmed grass, shrubby trees, and gnarled mesquites. The brick buildings of the campus’ center were a generic toasted brown color, with non-descript, rectangular residence halls on either end of its perimeter. The only major landmark was a toast-brown brick bell tower – imaginatively called “The Tower” – that rose up, vaguely Space Needle-ish, from one end of the wide, bricked promenade called “The Mall.” The Mall, which effectively bisected the college campus, ran its length until it ended at a wide, blocky, three story building. Various campus buildings were on either side of The Mall. The Mall itself was dotted with trees, benches, and a little fountain, all of which seemed to be occupied with students either reading, studying, socializing, or napping.
One of the buildings immediately to the left of The Tower was, on closer inspection, the Science Building. I went inside and immediately noticed that it looked newer inside than outside, with its white walls and humming machinery behind those walls. Not wanting to interrupt classes that were in session, I stuck to the hallways and people watched, peered through division office windows, and read professors’ nameplates on their offices.
At one nameplate I stopped as if I had hit an invisible wall. “Richard P. Olenick,” I said. “I know that name. Why do I know that name?” After a few moments I realized where I had heard – or rather, read – that name: the closing credits of The Mechanical Universe. Dr. Richard Olenick was its Associate Project Director. He was also the person behind C3P, the high school physics curriculum program that Mrs. Cannon, my long-suffering Honors Physics I teacher, had trained in and therefore used to teach her calculus-deficient students.
Dr. Richard Olenick was a physics professor at UD.
I looked up at the ceiling, expecting another sign from the universe, as I said to myself, “Really? REALLY?”
Now, I was never going to be a physics major. I was already going to declare myself as an English major if I were to enroll at UD (even though my parents wanted me to be Pre-Med). But I suddenly wondered what a class with Dr. Olenick would be like. Certainly there were physics classes for non-physics majors, right?
When it was close to my interview time, I made my way to the non-descript rectangular building that reminded me of a 1960s elementary school; it housed the Admissions Office. There I had my interview, which was mostly just a question-answer discussion about my essay about Socrates and wisdom. One week later, I got a scholarship amount that, in addition to federal and state grants, a work-study on-campus position, and a small loan to cover my decision to live on campus, I officially accepted UD’s offer a week before my eighteenth birthday.
“Look out – there’ll be a lot of reading,” I joked, knowing that Todd, who also got a UD scholarship, was more of a doer than a reader.
“Well, there’s one book that UD requires that I’ve got the better advantage,” he replied.
“And what’s that?”
He grinned. “The Bible.”
So that’s when, using Mom and Pa’s birthday money, I went to my old stomping grounds, Forum 303 Mall and Century Books, and bought my very first Bible. It was The New American Bible – that is, a Catholic’s Bible. At Todd’s recommendation, instead of trying to read everything on my first try, I read specific selections as a sort of biblical overview: Genesis, Exodus, the Gospels, Acts, and Revelation. As I read them, I said to myself, “Hold on – this sounds really familiar.”
I didn’t mean that they reminded me of the excerpts from the Bible that were part of the first (usually from the Old Testament), second (usually from Paul’s letters), and then Gospel readings in any and all Catholic Masses. I meant that the story – the plot, the characters, even the conflict – felt really familiar.
Then, just like when I realized who Dr. Olenick was, I started as I realized what I never saw, even though I had read and studied them over and over again: The Chronicles of Narnia was C. S. Lewis’ reimagining of the Bible as high fantasy for children. I remembered Jill’s scorn, that the Bible was a bunch of fairy tales written by dead, white men. While I didn’t believe that about the Bible, Lewis must have been aware of this atheist viewpoint, and he wrote a bunch of fairy tales – and he indeed was also a dead, white man.
Obviously, I needed to revisit my old friend Lewis.
When it was time to write my last research paper in high school, this one again for Mrs. Longorio’s English 1302 class, I wrote a two-part paper. It was both a history of Lewis, his works, and his faith and an analysis of The Chronicles of Narnia in light of that history. (The fact that five-year-old Lewis demanded that everyone call him “Jack” made me smile.) While not a perfect paper, it was the bridge from my public school past to my Catholic university future. On a whim, I added an addendum to that research paper, a two page short story. Written in the narrative voice of Lewis, I tried to answer the question “Whatever happened to Susan Pevensie, the older sister who no longer believed in Narnia?”
As I wrote the story, I asked myself, “What would Jack do?”
So, I killed her off – in order to meet Aslan again, of course: a Lewis happy ending.
I eventually did take a Dr. Olenick class – Basic Ideas of Astronomy — in the spring of my junior year at UD. In a class designed for non-science majors, I didn’t even need to use the calculus that I learned in Calc I and Calc II during my freshman year. Dr. Olenick’s last project was a creative one, so I wrote a short story. I imagined the birth of the solar system as a maternity ward. Considering that Dr. Olenick was an old bachelor who often brought his “kids” — his two-dimensional borzoi dogs – on campus, I could only imagine what he thought of as he read it.
That same spring semester, my siblings and I were finally Confirmed in the Catholic Church. When my youngest sister Cheryl was of Confirmation age but neither Eric, Wendy, nor I were ever Confirmed, Father James arranged for all of us to have Sunday school classes. My siblings were in the traditional Confirmation classes for teenagers and I was in an adult Bible study class that was like a “light” version of the heavy-duty Understanding the Bible class that I took in my freshman year. All four Ramos kids, in one fell swoop.
The following semester, the fall of my senior year, was when I finally made it to Rome, Italy. There, I took a class with Father James – Philosophy of Man. I finally got to see my priest in grand professorial action, dressed in the white and black robes of the Cistercian order. The esoteric and abstract coursework of philosophy was never easy for me, and whenever Father James saw me struggle, he chuckled, “Builds character!” However, he was a priest first. He roped me into being a church choir of one singer since I knew all of the hymns that Father James preferred in Mass.
It’s October 2014 as I write this. Todd is long gone, but both Dr. Olenick and Father James are still teaching at UD. Between those two professors were many others who deepened my Catholic faith, healed the division of science and religion, and made me a better reader of the Bible and beyond.
Jill and my other atheist friends may see them as fools, and I understand their viewpoint. However, I am honored to have these rational yet religious professors as my mentors and my teachers. If I’m lucky, I might someday be as foolish as they.