Learning to teach, the hard way, at St. Ignatius

Opinion: Columns

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Jim Bowman

The following is an excerpt from Jim Bowman's new book, "Company Man: My Jesuit Life, 1950-1968," which is available online at www.lulu.com:

After philosophy study at West Baden, Ind., came teaching at St. Ignatius High on Roosevelt Road, where students were a challenge. They could also make me laugh, as when I found several pushing a radiator around the classroom on a dolly, one of them riding it. You may ask what the radiator and dolly were doing in the classroom, but Ignatius was an old building, maintenance was ongoing, and you found things like stray, unattached radiators.

Ignatius had atmosphere you could find nowhere else in the province. The scholastics' "rec room" faced the projects across Roosevelt Road — ABLA Homes, which stretched a half-mile west and south to the tracks — beyond which lay the Pilsen neighborhood, once Bohemian, already becoming Mexican. Kitty-corner, stretching south and east, was what black residents called Jewtown — old, dingy, dilapidated but not public, housing. Jewtown was a Dickensian blot, black like the projects but considered tougher.

The building dated from 1869. When a fire broke out in its rear section, we were told, one of the old-timers cried out, "Not the new wing!" referring to the 1895 construction. Ray Grant had been the fire-breathing principal in the '40s and earlier '50s. I found him kindly and alert, a splendid individual. On Sundays I drew my assignment now and then to go with him to the nearby juvenile detention center, the Audy Home, where he said mass for the inmates. With them he was gruff but no more so than he'd been with students, I supposed.

Father Grant's secretary had been Brother Mike O'Connor, who served long enough in the position for the quip to gain currency, "Who's buried in Grant's tomb? Brother O'Connor."

Teaching was rough going, as was common in one's first year, but the year ended well. The students, mostly South and West siders, were a good lot from whom you could learn things. From a Taylor Street Italian I heard the word "paisan" used for "friend." It was a word I had heard used contemptuously by non-Italians. But young Caifano, a very good kid with the same last name as a prominent mobster, referred with a smile to his "paisano," meaning friend or at least countryman. You talked to people, you learned things.

Ignatius backed up on an alley just north of Taylor Street, Little Italy's Main Street. An 8-foot stone wall separated property and alley, enclosing a football practice field that had all the grass one would expect to find in a vacant lot. The coach was Dr. Ralph Mailliard, "Mal," a math teacher who also coached track, at which the students were successful. He was much loved and appreciated, but by the mid-'50s was much suspected of having lost that winning football touch.

His team's trademark surprise was a quick kick on third down, meant to throw the opposition into disarray as the punt sailed over their heads, depriving them of good field position but at the same time giving them the ball. The school gave up on football a few years later.

Historic Holy Family Church next door to the school had the old-church flavor, its inside newly and garishly painted and full of small altars strewn throughout, at which the school's many priests said separate, private masses every day, each with a scholastic as server, as early as 5:30 a.m. It was quite a way to begin one's teaching day in a huge drafty building on a cold winter morning.

Our students were rough and tumble. My problem was heading off daily commotion in a roomful of 42 boys, though one of the roomfuls had only 36! But by year end, when a cherry bomb went off in the library where I was monitoring a study period, I had a better grip on things. With great deliberation, I had one student shut the door, which meant I had the culprit in hand if I could distinguish him from the other 60 or so, which was impossible. I had another student take names. It was dumbshow. I was not about to jug the 60. I had not even a small chance of nailing the guilty one. He had covered his tracks. Main thing is, I did not get excited.

In the library stacks during another study period, I found a cute-little-archer "Bud Bowman" sign, a Bowman Dairy point-of-sale cutout, 4 feet high. I had to laugh, of course. By later in the year, I could stand in the gym next to bleachers at a basketball game with a bunch of my students and enjoy it. It was the likes of these who had put up the Bud Bowman sign.

Jim Bowman's book is available at http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/jimbowman.

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