As I’ve been making my way through the online Ignatian retreat here, one of the exercises from early on encouraged us to review our lives. One point, as I experienced it, was to lead to a deeper gratitude for God’s action in my life.
The sense of gratitude continues, but another piece that’s been popping up into my active consciousness is how many near misses I’ve had with the Jesuits over the years. I almost laugh out loud with at least four significant misses, or avoidances, or just ships passing in the night. I have no clue if these mean anything.
As I look to head to my first Ignatian school adventure this coming summer, I wonder how it will all finally go down after more than forty years. Will there be some amazing insight I missed that will inspire face-palm? Probably not. But these are still amusing stories, especially the first one, as I remember it.
My choice of high school loomed before me in 1972. There was a Jesuit school in my hometown. All boys, so I didn’t want to go there. Closer to home was one of two diocesan co-ed institutions. Better choice, I thought. Girls, plus I could walk. More economical also, which was a consideration as my dad had a humble but steady job, and money wasn’t exactly plentiful.
Enter my grade school principal who harbored a fanaticism. Each winter, the Jesuit high school held their annual spelling bee. One student came from each of the diocese’s grammar schools to compete. At my school, Sister Mary Ellen cultivated an eight-grader each year. Her stash of saved spelling lists went back to the 40’s. This lady was serious about having the winning student. I don’t think she ever had one, up to this point.
One Fall day, she called in the top three male English students to her office one day: Dan, Mike, and me. After a brief conversation and a short competition, both Sister and the other guys anointed me The One. I remember Dan and Mike smiling, and I felt very good about being nominated to compete.
I was sent home with multiple sheaves of Jesuit spelling words. I also decided to read the dictionary in preparation. First prize was a full four-year scholarship to high school, valued at $2400. My dad grilled me on words every night after supper. The biggest dictionary in the house was about a thousand pages, so I figured if I read ten pages a day, I would finish up in about three months, when the competition was held.
I was confident, but also worried. One of the few times I confided in my mother, the night before I told her I didn’t really want to go to that high school. But if I won, I would feel obligated because of family finances. She told me that I shouldn’t worry about that money, that she and dad would make it work, wherever I decided to go. I have enough of a competitive spirit–I really wanted to win the bee. But I also felt relieved that I could attend the high school of my choice.
So Saturday morning dawned, and I remember wearing number 4. It was on a piece of cloth, frayed at the edges and hung by a string around my neck. I was suddenly very nervous. I was glad I wasn’t the first kid. He got up to the mic, and when he was given his word, he said, “Surprise, S-I-R-P-R-I-S-E, Surprise.”
I thought, “Oh man, this is in the bag!”
No more nervousness from then on. The rules of the competition were thus: single elimination as you see on ESPN. Misspell your word and you’re out. The Jesuits started with a few dozen prospective freshmen, and once we were whittled down to the final ten, they called a break. My friend Dan was in attendance, and he was still smiling, “I never would have gotten half the words you got,” he confessed. Sister seemed pleased, too. My parents were in attendance, one of the rare times I recalled either one of them spectating at any of my school events.
In the final round, the ten spellers were given the same ten words, and we had to compete for the prizes thus. The speller with the most correct words would win the full scholarship. Second place was worth a half-scholarship. Third through seventh would get a medal.
These last words were quite difficult. In the preliminaries, one kid, when it was his turn, strode up to the microphone almost arrogantly, spelled quickly and correctly every time. I was sure he was my top competition. He missed nine out of ten words–that was how tough the final was. The winner had eight correctly spelled words on his sheet. Clear second had seven. I had six–as high as I could get and not win the scholarship. Aside from the numbers, I also remember one of my misspelled words, hemorrhage. I’ve never forgotten how to spell it.
As I looked back on my life, I wondered how much would be changed today had I been under Ignatian influence during high school. I don’t think I have any real regrets, but I do hold a curiosity. I was a “hemorrhage” away from being schooled by Jesuits. Would that have been enough to become one of them? Or to go to college at one of their outposts? Almost forty-two years ago, I was fairly recently baptized and on track to make the first really big decision of my life. If I had won, what would I have done?
I kept my number 4 and my medal for a long time. They went missing years ago. I feel a bit sentimental about them as I recall this story today. But just a bit. That medal, I don’t remember anything striking on it. For all I know it had some simple motto, like “Magis” on it. Soon enough I’ll be attending my first Jesuit school. Only forty-two years after I first heard of them and thought I didn’t really want to go there.