The building roars and rumbles as the school’s “Group” period ends. Hundreds of teenage boys stream out of classrooms and into hallways, pushing, taunting, humming, poking, laughing, chatting. Brother Asiel and I are salmons swimming against the hallway’s tide. As the teenage boys of St. Benedict’s Preparatory School in Newark, N.J., head for a stairwell in one direction, Br. Asiel and I zero in on an elevator in the opposite direction.
Br. Asiel Rodriguez is 27 years old, a scholar of St. Augustine, fluent in five languages, and a Benedictine monk. With his closely shorn hair, baby face, slender build, and near-perpetual grin, he could easily be mistaken for one of our students. His black, hooded cassock that covers him all the way to his ankles, however, gives away his special status as cleric and teacher. The bottom edges of his garb swing as we walk, bell-like. Together, we lead a group of 20 students as one of 18 formally named student clusters that meet daily as a sort of midday homeroom.
We continue to thread our way through the jammed corridor. We are finished with Group and rushing to the elevator to get to class, hoping to arrive before our students do. Br. Asiel needs to get one flight up to his airy classroom, where he teaches ESL while daydreamers can spy a spectacular view of the Newark skyline, topped by the 578-foot, neoclassical National Newark Building, and Manhattan beyond. I must cut across a complex of corridors, stairwells, and a pedestrian bridge to reach my Newsroom Production Class in the basement of the complex’s oldest building. Br. Asiel, as usual, is teasing me and making me laugh. The Cuban-born monk is insisting that espresso is the only real kind of coffee.
The stainless-steel doors of the elevator swoosh open and we enter. The sharp odor of chlorine stings my nostrils, wafting from a basement pool where I swim before classes. Instead of hitting the Floor 3 button, which would bring us directly to his level, Br. Asiel presses 1, lighting the plastic wafer.
“You could have pressed your floor,” I said, in an argument that we have daily. “At least one of us should be on time.”
He never listens. The elevator mechanisms whine and grind and, within seconds, we are delivered. I hesitate. I spy the brick walls and trophy cases lining one side.
“We’re here,” Br. Asiel says, looking at me quizzically. “This is your floor.”
I don’t get out. Is this my floor? Two large portraits of wrestlers adorn the left wall. They look familiar. I am relieved.
“Sorry!” I smile. Then I lie: “I thought for a second that we were on your floor, that you were tricking me.”
His eyes scan me and move away. He is inclined to kindness and says nothing more. The doors close on him as he resumes his upward journey and I move forward toward my class, heading down and down. There is something wrong with me. And I fear that Br. Asiel is catching on.
I have been worried for weeks, since I began teaching at this private Catholic high school for boys. The school is selective and draws bright young men from Newark and the blighted areas around it. Many of the students bear the scars of poverty – neglect, abuse. It’s our job to help them on their road to wholeness, infusing them with high ambitions. I know how to teach journalism – I spent more than two decades writing front-page science stories for a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper. It’s my diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder that worries me. It came up a few years ago when I visited a doctor after suffering repeated bouts of vertigo. I was traumatized by my husband’s lengthy, rollercoaster illness, I was told. Walter died on a bright summer day more than 10 years ago from a post-surgical infection. With his sturdy, six-feet-three frame, he lasted longer than the doctors and nurses could fathom – fighting for life for eight months in the ICU of a New Jersey hospital. Some weeks he would stabilize and we would exhale. During others, Death hovered. I thought I was keeping it together. But the relentless pattern of crisis, relief, repeat made for a debilitating mental ride. My neurons and synapses are warped by tarrying too long in the hot kiln of fear. Sudden loud noises will send me leaping out of my chair, my heart beating wildly, my skin cold and clammy. I am easily lost, disoriented. Crowds make me light-headed and panicky.
“Flashbacks are common with PTSD,” my therapist told me one sizzling summer morning as we sat in her Princeton office. As the cicadas sang, I pondered what she meant.
Weeks pass. I’m back in Group where Br. Asiel and I and our students are packed into a small math classroom. It’s time for homework and study groups. I chat with Brendan, a standout junior who, in this largely student-run school, daily lives up to his title of “Group Leader.” I want him to attend a new summer scholars program at Johns Hopkins University. With his nearly perfect grade point average and bevy of activities, he’s a shoe-in. But he’s never heard of Hopkins. Lots of our students are from low-income homes where the focus is more on surviving daily trials than laying the groundwork for long-term aspirations. Suddenly, Samuel, one of our group’s quietest students, flings the classroom door open. He’s wearing one of those puffy winter coats that are in style. The blue coat is a bad sign – it’s supposed to be in his locker. Also, Samuel is 15 minutes late, a trait not tolerated here. He enters through a door near the front of the classroom and does it with such force that the boys freeze and stare. He strides over to Brendan, who is sitting with me. Samuel grabs Brendan’s hand, loosens his grip, and pivots to me. Br. Asiel is at the room’s opposite side, helping a student with Spanish. But he is alert and watching. I am seated at a teacher’s desk in the far front corner. Samuel faces me, bends over me, his long arms pulling me to him, and grabs me tight.
“Help me, Ms. MacPherson,” he whispers. “I’m in crisis.”
We have never spoken. He usually sits at a desk by the far wall, talking with a friend. He wears his hair in short braids capped with gold beads that sparkle. He’s smart, with good grades. He’s of medium height, trim and muscular, and a gifted athlete. Even from a distance, I’ve noticed that, underneath his smiles, there’s something heavy about him. Right now, he’s trembling. While I am not a professionally trained psychologist, I am, strangely, not afraid. I’m confident, almost serene. I can’t explain it, but I am filled with overwhelming love for this young man. Since Walter’s death, I have likened my heart to a car windshield after an accident – intact yet shattered. Could it be that this young man knows this, senses this? Is my brokenness – in this place – a gift?
Samuel folds his powerful arms in front of him and drops into the desk where Brendan had been sitting. He casts his eyes down and retreats into his coat hood. He says he was admitted to the hospital yesterday. It all started, he says, the week before, during one of the school’s prayer days – the special day-long events of reflection and discussion. In our group, Brendan told us how his brother died from a drug overdose and how it changed him from being a “bad kid” to someone with drive and ambition. At the end, just before we dispersed for lunch, Samuel had spoken. It was a throwaway line. “I’m afraid to talk,” he said. “Because if I ever start talking, I might never stop.” I remember his comment because it was the first I ever heard his voice. I must have looked startled because he looked straight at me after he spoke, then turned quickly to a friend.
Now, Samuel tells me, words started spilling out the day before.
Bad memories, flashes of anger flowed. His mother sat listening as he paced the house. When his recitation became a tsunami, swelling in volume, uncontrollable, his mother made a pronouncement.
“Time to go to the hospital,” she said.
The root of Samuel’s unrest was not obvious to the hospital staff. “The nurse asked me if I was on drugs,” he says, almost snarling.
“What did you say?” I ask.
“I said, ‘No’!” scoffs Samuel, an honor roll student. “I don’t do drugs.”
“They released me this morning,” he continues, “and I came straight here. Right to the counseling center. I’ve been talking there for hours. Just now, the counselor told me it was time for Group and it would be okay if I missed it. But I said, ‘No. I want to be in Group.’”
He wanted to be in Group!
For seven years, Samuel, now 16, had constrained his pain. “I guess I couldn’t do it anymore,” he says.
Brendan stands by us and addresses the students: “Okay, everybody, get back to your studying.” The tears roll down Samuel’s chiseled face. He’s embarrassed. But he can’t stop. He continues to whisper.
“My stepfather moved in when I was nine and started beating me when my Mom was at work,” he says. He starts to pull at his coat sleeves. “I’m hot,” he says. Brendan and I help him remove his jacket. Perspiration dots the lower part of his gray cotton T-shirt. He is sweating out the way I do when I have an anxiety attack.
“I never told my Mom about the beatings,” he says. “I didn’t want to ruin her happiness.
I love my little stepbrothers and sisters. I don’t want them to lose their Dad the way I did…”
He picks at his fingers for a minute and resumes. “My father is not a part of my life. And that’s no good.” He’s right. I think of the hospital intern’s dry but devastating words to me the night my husband died. “He’s gone,” he had said. I recall my children’s pained faces when I informed them, one by one, and their sorrow since.
We talk more. I ask him if it would be okay if students in our Group give him a hug. The school’s motto is “Whatever Hurts My Brother Hurts Me.” I’m not sure what will happen. Samuel might not want the attention. The boys might be too cool to be kind. I am wrong.
“Yes,” Samuel said. “Tell them to come up.”
The younger students leap at Brendan’s word and gather around Samuel. Some clasp him in bear hugs. Others pat a shoulder and squeeze it. The older students approach. One senior, Arturo, is a boxer and artist who has overcome homelessness and an absent father. He edges close. “It’s okay – you have to let it out, can’t hold it in,” Arturo says. “What you are doing takes a lot of strength.”
Another student, a loner who is struggling with dismal grades and his parents’ divorce, circles behind Samuel and hugs him from the back.
I hear myself say, “Everyone here loves you and is with you. You are safe. You don’t have to be afraid.”
Samuel says he is hungry. He hasn’t eaten since the day before. And he wants to sit at the Group’s cafeteria table.
“Okay, then,” I say, speaking louder than usual. I signal the students. The boys hoist Samuel up from the chair where he has stationed himself. He straightens, blinks, and, looking at the floor, turns to the door. We surround Samuel and slowly, like a packed school of fish, flow through the corridors. Our human wall protects him from any stray bumps or stares. As we traverse jammed hallways, students clear a path. We stream down a main staircase, then we veer off in unison, slicing the air as if it is water. We head to a seldom-used set of side steps that function as a secret passage to the lunchroom. I don’t know where I am. I hold on and, though I must be walking, it feels as though I am being carried. Reaching the cafeteria, we plow through bodies, arriving at our destination – a scuffed, round Formica lunch table. Samuel collapses into a red plastic chair. Someone darts away to buy him lunch. Ever so gently, I touch Samuel’s shoulder and whisper, “Going now. You’re good.” I don’t know if he hears me. He dives into a platter of chicken fingers and fries.
Br. Asiel, who was in the huddle, and I head toward a quiet hallway. I stand against a wall of yellow cinder blocks and exhale. We are wordless, shaken, and stunned by what has unfolded so quickly. I am also astonished. That I knew how to act. That Samuel trusted me.
Time passes quickly in high schools. In what feels like an instant of time but is actually several weeks later, I find myself perched on the bottom row of bleachers in what we call “Convo,” a daily morning gathering of the faculty and student body that kicks off classes. To my right is my colleague, Br. Asiel. He is smiling, telling me a joke. Samuel sits behind us a few rows back, laughing with someone. I sit edgily, my feet tingling from the vibrations of nearly 600 energetic bodies moving in the packed gym. Stay still, I tell myself. You’ve survived this long. Look around. You’re safe now. My fingers grasp the edge of the bleacher, steadying me.
The gym echoes with the loud voices of students and staff singing one of their favorite gospel songs. I add my alto to the mix.
“I always wanted to be a hero,” I sing the lyrics, almost shouting. “Now I got me a hero.”
In Newark, they say you can hear the St. Benedict’s boys when they sing at Convo clear to City Hall.
About the Author
Kitta MacPherson is an award-winning science writer who has worked in daily newspapers and at Princeton University. She blogs on science and life at https://fathom-science.com
During her career in daily newspaper journalism, most of it at The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J., she reported on numerous breakthroughs in science. MacPherson has won recognition for her work from the National Association of Science Writers, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and the New Jersey Press Association. Her fiction and essays have appeared in The Copperfield Review, Mused, Medium, and Down in the Dirt magazine. She teaches journalism at Rutgers University and St. Benedict’s Preparatory School.
This is an excerpt from “Monked,” a memoir Kitta MacPherson is writing about her first year of teaching at St. Benedict’s Prep.