The Lone Crusader

I have been inspired by Paul Cumbo, fellow alumnus and current English teacher at Canisius High School, who helped me design my website and set up my blog, to write about my high school memories. Paul has been working for quite some time on a book commemorating the history of CHS ahead of the school's 150th anniversary. Thus, I have decided to write a four-part blog entry, one for each year of my high school experience.

First a brief history of the school. It was founded in 1870 in downtown Buffalo by the Society of Jesus, a religious order of priests knows as the Jesuits. The name refers to St. Peter Canisius, a 16th century Dutch Jesuit priest who was instrumental in maintaining the Catholic faith in Germany following the Protestant Reformation and was a strong advocate for education, who founded several schools and universities in Europe. CHS moved into its current location in a former Masonic lodge complex on Delaware Avenue in 1944. With its impeccable academic reputation and culture steeped in Jesuit/Catholic principles, it has long served as one of the most prestigious college preparatory schools in the Buffalo area and has produced countless graduates who went on to become icons in the realms of government, business, sports, entertainment and journalism, locally and nationally.

It was Canisius' sterling reputation (and close proximity to my childhood home) that both attracted me to attend the school but also intimidated me. By eighth grade when it was time to decide where to go to high school, I had perennially been the top student in my class and my parents wanted me to continue my education at a Catholic institution. My father had begun high school at Canisius, but at some point transferred to Lafayette where he eventually graduated. No doubt he would be proud of me for finishing all four years where he was unable. The main problem for me, however, was that no one else in my elementary school would be going to CHS. Over the course of my nine long years at Cathedral School, I had grown extremely comfortable with the teachers and students, many of whom I had grown up with since kindergarten. I loved the familiarity of the facility, the people, the daily routine. Now after all that time, I had to go somewhere else, a new school with all new teachers and classmates, where I did not know a single soul, and it was quite frightening. My parents could not afford the full cost of tuition, so we reached an understanding that the only way I could attend CHS was to participate in the work-study program. I agreed so I spent many hours after school cleaning the cafeteria, washing chalkboards, and in the spring, picking up trash outside, while the students from wealthier families rode school buses back to their suburban homes. But I wouldn't have it any other way.

While I began my freshman year afraid of failing academically, expecting the curriculum to be much more difficult than what I had encountered in elementary school, my first grade report brought me a tremendous amount of relief. I got a 92 average on that 1st report and I was thrilled. Boosted by that confidence-builder that I could not only pass but indeed excel at CHS, I don't think I ever had a grade point average below 97 on any grade report after that initial evaluation. I went on to a 98+ average over the four years and graduated second in my class, which was a fantastic achievement at a school as prestigious as Canisius and far exceeded my expectations when I began.

My favorite/most memorable teacher that freshman year was Mr. Durkin, who taught English. Mr. Durkin was a stern, middle-aged, balding gentleman who was a real stickler when it came to the proper use of grammar and possessed high standards concerning critical thinking and the interpretation of literature. He was a very intense and intimidating man, and at the outset of the class, I was terrified of him because he could be downright brutal in putting students down when they made a mistake or an ignorant comment. But over the course of the year, I learned so much from him and gradually earned his respect with my improved grammar and literary skills, that he became the academic equivalent of Don Rickles, the recently deceased insult comic- nobody wanted to sit in the front row of class or volunteer answers for fear of being humiliatingly ripped apart in front of your peers, but when you got to know him on a more personal level, you discovered that he was a loyal and loving friend whose true aim was to push you into fulfilling your potential. Despite my initial impression of him as a monster, by the end of my freshman year I had nothing but respect for Mr. Durkin.

Even as I thrived academically, I was a mess socially. Being a painfully shy individual, and now ripped away from the familiar confines of elementary school, I suffered from profound anxiety and social awkwardness. Unlike most high school students, class time was my refuge. In the classroom, I could just concentrate on listening to the teacher and doing my own work. Between classes, I walked the halls and stairways in silence, with my head down, intimidated by the upper classmen and hamstrung in knowing what to say to my foreign classmates. Lunch time was the worst. I did not mind waiting in long lines in the cafeteria kitchen since the longer I waited, the less time to kill before the start of the next class. After picking up my meal, I ate by myself, not uttering a word. Then as a diversion to use up the remainder of time before the afternoon session, I would call my beloved mother on the pay phone located in the school's ornate lobby, near the chapel. Admittedly, it was pathetic, but I felt I needed to hear my mom's reassuring voice every lunch period to get through the day.

Not even sports could provide an adequate respite from my anxiety. I had been one of the best athletes at my elementary school. During 7th and 8th grade I played on the school's basketball and baseball teams, and I was clearly the best football player in my class, whether as a receiver playing touch in the rear parking lot, or especially when we played tackle football on the front lawn when there was ample snow on the ground, for no one was better than me in tackling or breaking tackles. So I tried out for the junior varsity team freshman year, but I did not stand out athletically and was so quiet that the head coach even told me to verbally report to him before each practice so that he knew I was there. I mostly sat on the bench the whole season, getting into games just a handful of times on special teams. I was so frustrated and unhappy that I nearly quit with two weeks left in the season. The practices and games just weren't any fun, but I am glad I stuck with it because as my next blog posts will cover, I truly blossomed on the grid iron. Furthermore, while my freshman year of high school was by far the most agonizing of my otherwise comfortable childhood, things got much better as the years went along.

#CanisiusHighSchool #Jesuits #StPeterCanisius #Buffalo #anxiety #socialawkwardness #football

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© 2017 by Peter McNeela.