Monday, September 16, 2013

The Man in a Glass Box

In 1961 I began a four year pilgrimage to St. Joseph's Prep, a Jesuit high school at 17th Street and Girard Avenue in North Philadelphia. I was 14 years old, weighed maybe 100 pounds, and was scared as hell.

It took an hour each way to travel a tad over 15 miles from the western suburbs. Each morning I braved jammed trolleys, ELs (elevated trains), and subways. In snowstorms and rain, wind and heat, I carried a gym bag bottom heavy with textbooks and assignments. I had three hours of homework every night. Cicero and Virgil, Moliere and Steinbeck spoke to me of wars and brave men and broken hearts.  Over 720 days and nights, I persisted in leaving the quiet safety of my suburban home for chaotic city streets and the demanding hallways of a school that had been teaching boys since 1851.


Because I believed that this expensive (I had to work weekends and summers to help pay the tuition) pilgrimage would help shape my mind and my spirit. I hoped that the brilliant teachers and fellow pilgrims would give me the skills to find my way through college. And I trusted that, if I worked my tail off, I just might develop the endurance I would need to face whatever might come my way in the future.

I was right. Years later, when my mother was very ill, I wanted to complete my doctorate degree at the University of Pennsylvania before she died. My victories were always my Mother's victories, and, with her health failing, I wasn't sure if I could complete the research and write the dissertation in time. Tapping back into my Prep days, I presented my proposal, did the research, wrote the paper (295 pages), and defended in 11 months time. I taught during the day and worked every night and weekend. I knew how to work hard.

Eight months after my Mother wept openly as she watched me receive my Doctor of Education degree in the International House at the University of Pennsylvania, she died. Neil Gaiman wrote: "You have to believe. Otherwise it will never happen."

However, I never could have imagined that I would be taking yet another pilgrimage to North Philadelphia. And this time, not to the Prep, but to a man in a glass box.

After teaching for 17 years, I decided to leave public education and received training in a variety of counseling fields. For four years I saw clients with a wide range of concerns. My daughter was getting ready to attend college and salaries for public school teachers were starting to go up. After much reflection, I decided to reenter teaching. The problem was, with much better salaries, there were 500 applications for every opening. And worse, why hire a teacher with 17 years experience when you can hire someone fresh out of college at a much lower salary?

I was in a difficult place. My determination and hard work couldn't change the hiring climate. The upcoming college tuition and room and board and books were steep, and I wasn't getting invited in for interviews. The well worn academic paths I had learned at the Prep had served me well, but they weren't working now.

That was when I remembered the man in a glass box. My relatives had made visits to the shrine of Saint John Neumann in North Philadelphia. I remembered hearing how John Neumann had come from Bohemia and started the first Catholic diocesan school system in the United States. I also knew that he had been Bishop of Philadelphia in the mid 1850s and canonized a saint some years back.

I decided to visit his shrine and was stunned to discover it was only 1.1 miles from the Prep. I had not been in North Philly for some time, and made my way in late March to Broad Street, then east down Girard to North Fifth Street. The Church of Saint Peter the Apostle sat on the corner. Below the church was a low ceilinged chapel. And, in the front of the chapel, just before the altar, lay the body of John Neumann. He was clad in white bishop's garb, as if asleep, encased in clear glass.

It was very quiet, the sounds of Girard Avenue gone. A man in an expensive suit was kneeling at the altar rail, only several feet away from this priest who had been declared a saint, the only male US citizen ever done so. The man in the expensive suit was quietly weeping. They were not tears of joy.

I sat in a pew in that quiet place. Finely wrought applications and snazzy cover letters had not landed me an interview. Ernest Hemingway wrote: "The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them." I decided to trust this sacred man, in this sacred place. I asked humbly for his help. I asked if he could find a position for me where I might help kids to think and question and wonder. I asked if he might give me the strength and patience to find my path.

Two months later, I was called in for an interview. Two weeks after that, I was hired. I taught in that school district for 20 years, retiring in June 2010.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: "All that I have seen teaches me to trust the Creator for all I have not seen." My trust that March day in a man in a glass box changed my life, and taught me that hard work, determination and belief in more than yourself is a worthy pilgrimage.

Copyright (c) 2013 by James Hugh Comey

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