In an earlier draft of The Grievers, the narrator’s life was closer to my own than in the version that eventually found its way to publication. One major similarity was that Charley and I were both teachers — a detail I changed for both dramatic and comedic effect when I gave him a job as a human dollar sign. Of course, this change meant I had to make some major revisions and cut a number of passages in which Charley talks about his ambivalence toward teaching (among other things).
You could probably make the argument that I hadn’t gotten very far in life. I was teaching a section of Freshman Composition at Russell Conwell University that summer, and I could see the twin spires of Saint Leonard’s Cathedral from my office on the tenth floor of the liberal arts building.
Technically Saint Leonard’s wasn’t a cathedral insofar as no bishop had ever made his home at the Academy, but we called it a cathedral anyway because no other word would suffice. In fact, just as we called our school the Academy, we simply referred to the Church of Saint Leonard as the Cathedral. Towering over the rundown neighborhood a few blocks west of the concrete quadrangles and redbrick dormitories of Conwell U, it was the fourth-largest place of worship in the Delaware Valley and the only survivor of the fire that gutted the rest of the Academy back in 1968 when my father and Buddy Dever were juniors there and my uncle Frank was a freshman. Two years later, my uncle Joe would enroll, and two years after that, my uncle Rich.
All told, my grandparents sent four sons to the Academy, and my grandmother was still making regular payments to the place as if they were all still enrolled. That’s the kind of pull it has, the kind of loyalty it engenders. Even so, I hate telling my students where I went to high school because they always react with an odd mixture respect and disappointment. On one hand, all the smart kids from their grammar schools went to the Academy, and now they were attending big-name universities like Princeton, Georgetown and Duke. On the other hand, these were the same kids my students used to beat the shit out of on a daily basis, a fact I happen to know because I used to be one of the smart kids myself, and between the ages of nine and thirteen, I suffered three black eyes, a chipped tooth, a broken nose, a dislocated shoulder, a scrape running from the inside of my elbow down to my bellybutton, two near drownings (one in a swimming pool and one in a toilet), a mild concussion and countless noogies, wedgies, Indian burns and wet willies. All in fun, of course, but it made me one of them. How in the world could I expect my students to take me seriously when they’d only finished beating the shit out of their grammar school equivalent of me a scant four years earlier?
The worst, however, was when the odd Academy boy who hadn’t made it into the ivies ended up in my classroom. Suddenly I’d have a new best friend who always sat in the front row in a hooded SLA sweatshirt and baseball cap, kept all his papers in a crisp, clean SLA folder, smiled with perfectly straight SLA teeth and without fail started doodling SLA RULES! in the margins of his SLA notebook with an SLA pencil the minute class started, lest I forget our unshakable bond. And every day there was always the obligatory conversation about how the librarian was a closet sadomasochist and the gym teacher was always hung over and the religion department was full of communists and Shane Kirkland had a million half-baked conspiracy theories and the crew team was a bunch of assholes and the stage hands all jerked off in the light booth and the track team was on steroids, and on and on for what seemed like an eternity, each of us adding lie after lie to the million or so bits of hearsay we both knew were ninety-percent fabricated in the first place, and all I could think was Jesus, this is the same damn conversation I’ve been having with my buddies for the past ten years. Something’s gotta change.