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Mister C.

          Three years after breaking up with Shelly, and only two weeks from finishing my student teaching, I found myself awake in bed at three in the morning, speaking into the empty darkness of my room, “I can’t do this anymore!”

          My mind was reeling! I had a 3.2 grade point average, an impressive resume for a graduating teacher that included a year as Assistant Director of the Hatboro YMCA’s Summer Day Camp, and two letters of recommendation from professors whose research projects I’d assisted on. And, to top it off, I’d paid for it all myself. I had achieved the improbable task of graduating without any student loan debt. Most people in my position would be proud of their hard work and feel ready to take on the world. I, however, felt like I was on a runaway train barreling headfirst toward a future I didn’t want. My anxiety went way beyond the teaching career I knew I was settling for. I wasn’t worried about whatever horrible classroom I got stuck in. That wasn’t half as bad as the expectations my family (and society) had for a man after college graduation. The typical path everyone took was, get a job, find a wife, buy a house, and then of course, have some kids. 

 

          I sat in my bed that morning and listened to the silence that echoed around my words. “I can’t do this anymore!” And from someplace deep in my head (or heart), I heard, “Then don’t.” And just like that, I knew what had to be done. At 3:30 in the morning, I got out of bed, feeling incredibly light, like I’d cut loose a fifty-pound weight tied to my back. After a strong pot of coffee and a quick shower, I packed a bag, and was in my car driving to State College, clear and excited about my life for the first time in years. 

 

          From a phonebooth at a rest stop somewhere outside Harrisburg, I called my student teaching supervisor and let her know I wouldn’t be returning. She wanted to talk with me about why, but I didn’t have the time, or desire, to explain, so I lied and just said something about one of my parents being sick and hung up without waiting for a reply. I got back in my car, turned the volume up on the radio, and continued my journey singing along to Culture Club and Madonna at the top of my lungs.

 

          I landed in State College before nine o’clock and decided to grab a quick breakfast at The College Diner. After leaving a very generous tip for the waitress old enough to be my mother, I walked across campus to my advisor’s office, a guy I’d met only once over four years. When I told him I wanted to drop out, he shuffled a few papers around on his desk, and asked me again when my name was. He paged through my file and then made a half-assed attempt to get me to finish my student teaching. For the second time that day, I lied and said that my family needed me. After reviewing my transcript, he shrugged and said what I already knew, “Well, you have enough credits to graduate. But, until you complete your student teaching, you won’t be certified. Which means you won’t be allowed to teach in the public school system. There was a brief pause and then he offered, “You could teach in private schools, though.”

 

          I let him know my teaching days were over and after signing a few forms, I left his office, walked back to my car, and drove another five hours back to home, windows open, music playing, not sure of anything and ready for all of it.    

          I waited a few days before telling my parents I quit school. Naturally, they were confused and worried about such a sudden a rash decision, “…with only three weeks to go?” my mother asked, her voice colored in layers of guilt and defeat. How did I tell her that I was living a lie? That I was a gay man who couldn’t keep moving toward something they thought I was supposed to be. How could I admit that I would never fit into the strict, Irish Catholic “made for marriage” mold my parents and siblings were living. I gave her some kind of non-answer about still graduating and taking time to think about my next steps. Neither she or my father were sure of my answer, but knew they could do little, except watch, and wait.  

 

          I spent the next year waiting tables, and partying – a lot. What else does a twenty-two-year-old do with cash tips and a work schedule that didn’t start until 4 pm? It was fun, a lot of fun, and I have some great memories of that time. But by the middle of year two, the hangovers and day after re-caps of drunken stories that used to amuse me were less fun, or funny. They were just redundant – and often pathetic. It occurred to me that many of the people I was working with were going no further. I could see them ten years from now still waiting tables, convinced that they had it better than the brainless corporate workers because they made their own schedule, had cash on the ready, had time to pursue their art. I needed an exit plan.

 

          It was early September 1984, when a curious twist of fate brought me back into the classroom. A silent wish I’d kept from everyone, including myself, had been answered. I got a call from a friend and former classmate, Linda, asking if I had any interest in being a teacher. 

 

          Linda and I shared quite a history during out time at State College, much of it involving copious amounts of weed and alcohol. More than once we found ourselves jumping up and down at a house party, singing along to Bruce or the Stones and stumbling back to the dorms at three in the morning. I remember one party when I felt so high, that I wasn’t sure I could walk to the bathroom. Instead, I got on my hands and knees and crawled down the hall laughing hysterically as Linda threw rose petals on the floor in front of me. 

 

          Linda was one of the few people that made my life at State College bearable. I lost touch with her after I quit my student teaching and was surprised when I heard her Philadelphia accent on the phone.  “Hey Ter, it’s Lindah.” 

          It took me a second to register who it was, and she took the silence as permission to continue, so she did. “….Lissen, here’s th’ deal. I’m teachin’ at dis school in Wes’ Oak Lane – St. Alloysious Elementary School. Ever hear of it?” Again, before I could open my mouth to answer, she continued.
 
          “Dudn’t matter. Lemme tell ya what’s goin’ on.  One o’ th’ seventh grade teachers quit t’day. Outta th’ blue. She was this little woman, kinda tense, ya know, with thin lips ‘n bad shoes. Anyways… she stood up in front o’ class t’day after mornin’ prayers and shouted, ‘You kids are IMPOSSIBLE!!! I QUIT!” Someone tol’ me durin’ facul-dee lunch that it was cuz Anthony Brown farted… She quit cuz one o’ her kids passed gass??? Whatever. Next thing we know, Sister Eileen, she’s th’ princi-pul, she holds this ‘mergency staff meetin’ a’ lunch ‘n asks us if we know someone who could step inta th’ seventh grade position, pronto, ‘n I thought o’ you. Interested?” 

         

          We both took a breath, and then she was off again. “I’ll tell ya th’ truth. This class DOES have a bit of a reputation. I had ‘em las’ year. They were tough, but they’re also really sweet. They jus’ need someone who c’n give ‘em a liddle structure – ‘n listen.” 

 

          I get in a quick, “Linda!” in a tone that registers somewhere between a surprise and a scolding. But that didn’t stop her. “It’s a great school,” she said. Did I tell you it’s all Black? Most of the staff? We’re white, but th’ kids – all Black. ‘n they are adorable! ‘n th’ rest o’ th’ staff is great. This is my second year here ‘n I love it. You will too. Wadda ya think…. still wanna be a teacher?” 

 

          I stepped into the silence before she could continue, “Linda… C’mon!” I tried not to laugh, “Me? In a Catholic school. Me… teaching religion class???” But she wouldn’t take no for an answer and before I could stop her, she said, “Hold on a sec, here’s…the principal, Sister Eileen.” 

 

          “Terry!” barked into the phone, “are you available tomorrow morning at ten? I could meet you at the school entrance after nine o’clock mass.” It was reflex that made me stand up straight, an emotional muscle memory from my childhood. I knew that energy. I remembered that impatience. I felt my heart pounding in my chest as I answered, “Yes, sister.” I hung up and sat in silence for a minute or so, trying to wrap my mind around what just happened. 

 

          I was getting a second chance. Not that I knew exactly what that meant. I still wasn’t convinced I could be a good teacher. Still, this was my opportunity to prove to myself, and everyone else, I had what it took. Or not.

 

          Of course, I had to close the restaurant that night and didn’t get home until after 2 a.m. I popped open a beer, lit a joint, and watched TV for a while to unwind. My plan was to be in bed by three, the alarm was set for eight, I could get a solid five hours of sleep. I stumbled up to bed by three-fifteen and was floating in that space right before sleep in no time. I could hear the crickets outside the bedroom window. I exhaled as a quiet breeze swept into the room. Then, I felt something. Or I dreamt I felt something. My body shifted to the right; my legs stretched into another exhale. And there it was again, a slight tingle on my leg. My mind scrambled, trying to identify this sensation, when suddenly, an electric shock pierced my calf.

         

          “What the Hell!!” I screamed and lunged out of bed, my hands scrambling for the light switch. Once my eyes adjusted, I looked at my bed and saw a bee twitching and crawling through the sheets. I grabbed a tissue and squeezed it tightly around that sucker until I felt the pleasant squish of revenge. I limped to the bathroom and flushed it down the toilet, growling “Won’t be stinging anyone else now, will you?” 

 

          The red numbers on my alarm clock blinked at me when I climbed back into bed: 3:45 a.m. With any luck, I could still get four hours of sleep. It took a while, but eventually, my heart rate slowed down, and I could feel myself slipping away, until…

 

          ….STING! …STING! …STING!!! 

 

          “Argh!” I screamed as I jumped out of bed. This time I found three bees stumbling around my bed. I felt like I was in an episode of The Twilight Zone. (I would later learn there was a nest outside the bedroom window). 

 

          At this point sleeping in my bed was out of the question, so I grabbed my alarm clock and made my way to the couch. I tried to close my eyes and relax but now, I was hyper aware of every itch and sound. I distracted myself by thinking about my interview with Sister Eileen and fell into a restless sleep where I dreamt that Sister Eileen was a bee. She was sitting at her desk interviewing me, but her stinger kept sliding towards me from under the desk, scratching my leg.

 

          When the alarm went off at 8 am, I was already awake. There were three huge welts on my left calf, one on my right. My eyes felt like they’d been rolled in sandpaper, and my neck, after being pressed sideways into the arm of the couch, wasn’t too happy when I pulled myself vertical. There was no way I could call and reschedule this interview. Besides, I was pretty sure I was going to get the job. How could I not? It was the end of September. Where else was Sister Eileen going to find someone? I had desperation on my side. 

 

          I threw back a few cups of strong coffee, took a hot shower, finished up with a some Visene, and was out the door by nine-thirty. I was driving to the interview when I began to really think about being a teacher and what that would look and feel like. For a few minutes, I allowed myself to see a future where I was successful. Wouldn’t that be something? A few blocks from the school, I stubbed out my cigarette and pulled a bottle of Listerine out of my gym bag. At the traffic light by Cheltenham Ave, I took a big swig of mouthwash, swished it around, gargled and spit it out the window. At the next light, I thought of meeting Sister Eileen, and decided to rinse out my mouth again, just to be sure it was smoke free. 

 

          When I pulled into the parking lot of St. Aloysious Elementary School, I saw her standing by the school’s front door. Sister Eileen had short, salt and pepper hair and a stiff posture that made her seem taller than she was. Her white habit was pulled so tightly around her waist, I wondered if she could breathe. But it was her face that made me almost continue driving right out the exit. Even from the car, I could see that there was no light behind her eyes, just a black fire filled with impatience and judgement. I felt like I was in trouble already, and I didn’t even know what I had done. As I parked, I took a few deep breaths, trying in vain to slow down my heart rate. I wondered if she would make me call my parents to tell them about the quarter ounce of weed hidden in my glove compartment.

          Once in her office, Sister Eileen’s made it very clear that discipline would be my best tool in dealing with this class. She quickly handed me a pile of books and a file filled with a week’s worth of papers to be graded while asking me how well I wrote lesson plans. Then, without waiting for an answer, she gave me a weekly planner and let me know she’d taken care of my first week of lessons, but after that, I was expected to submit to her a set of lesson plans for review every Friday. There were no questions about me, my interests, my goals. She was stuck and I was quite literally her only solution. 

    

          Sister Eileen marched me down the hall as she reviewed some other details about the job: lunch duty, when the next staff meeting was, who my seventh-grade partner was. In my new classroom, I had a two second review of the subjects I would teach, where I could find chalk, and what time I was expected in the schoolyard Monday morning. Then Sister Eileen looked me squarely in the eye and said, “This class is a wild bunch, Terry. They need firm limits. They don’t need a friend. Am I understood?” 

 

          “Absolutely, Sister” I responded; already clear she wasn’t happy with me. “I will do my best.” I just wasn’t sure it would be good enough. 

 

          Getting this job was the news my parents had been waiting for. I was finally settling down, growing up. The fact that I would be teaching in a Catholic grade school only made the news that much better for them. I had to quickly squelch any hopes they had at my complete redemption by saying, “And get this…. I’m teaching religion! How’s that for ironic.” They were still worried about me, I could tell. I wasn’t following the script they’d written, and they weren’t sure how to handle this. I could feel them watching me, all tight smiles and emotional tap dancing as we ate dinner. 

 

          But this teaching job? It gave them (and me) some hope.

 

          The truth was, I loved teaching at Saint Athanasius. Getting up in the morning clear-headed and with a sense of purpose was a new feeling, and I liked it. I also loved the kids I taught – they were funny and curious, and at times, difficult. But they responded to me, tried hard to show some respect. Which was more than I could say for Sister Eileen. She was a tough boss and a tougher principal. Discipline was one thing, but she resorted to this heartless violence that seemed to overtake her. Back in my grade school days at Saint David’s, I’d seen that deep rooted anger consume, and excuse, other nuns for incredible beatings against my classmates. More than once I’d watched in fear as a nun slammed a yardstick, over and over, against a friend’s backside and legs. But like the students at Saint Athanasius, and the parents who sent them, I felt powerless against such a formidable presence. 

 

          I don’t remember what my salary was, but it definitely wasn’t enough, so I supplemented my income waiting tables Tuesday and Friday nights, and Sunday brunch. It was an exhausting schedule, but it was the only way I was going to survive. More than once, I had my restaurant friends over after closing the restaurant on Friday night to help me grade papers. We’d smoke a joint, open a bottle of wine, and sit around in a group with our red markers, laughing at the essays my students wrote and the stories about Sister Eileen. 

 

          It was during this time that I was finally allowing myself a bit of exploration around my sexuality. It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t often, and…I never told anyone. But once a month or so, I’d get stoned and drive to one of the gay clubs in Philly, or out in New Hope. It was both frightening and a relief to see other people out, and happy in their gay lives. I never met anyone on these little field trips, never picked anyone up. I just watched from a quiet corner for an hour or so and then left before someone I knew saw me. I kept telling myself that I was just “doing research,” that I was straight, I just hadn’t met the right woman yet. And for the next few weeks, I’d believe it, until I started getting that urge to go see what was on the other side

 

          Back at Saint Athanasius, I decided it was my job to lighten things up, in my classroom, which ran counter to Sister Eileen’s need for control. Once, she scolded me in front of the class in the middle of supervision because I allowed my students to answer a question without raising their hands. She stood in the back of the room and said, “You can’t let these kids walk all over you!” throwing me the same look she used on the students. It was curious to me that she thought giving young minds a little space and respect was a sign of as weakness, surrender. In those first few weeks, we butted heads more than once over my teaching style. We eventually came to an unwritten truce built around an assumption we both shared but wouldn’t say out loud: this teaching gig was a one-year thing. 

 

          Sister Eileen liked to use the school intercom system to listen in on different classes. In fact, it wasn’t unusual for her to interrupt a lesson, like some kind of omniscient being, her voice booming from the little wooden box above the door, “Mr. Connell! Could you have someone in the class summarize what you just said about mitosis? Given the little voices I hear in the background, I’m not so convinced everyone was paying attention!”

 

          I tried my best to keep a slightly tighter rein on the class, and she appeared a little less judgmental – just a little. There were still the regular reminders she barked at me to keep my class in control, usually in the school yard as they lined up to go inside from recess. One day, one of the girls looked at me after getting scolded by Sister Eileen and said, “Don’ worry Mister C. She jus’ up tight. It ain’t yo fault. My Momma say, ‘For a woman o’ God, she spend too much time bein’ angry ‘n not enough reflectin’ God’s light!” 

          One of my favorite moments from teaching at St. Aloysious, was the computer in-service the faculty was required to attend. Not only was it the Feast of the Annunciation, which meant we had the day off. I made plans with Linda and some of the other teachers to meet for lunch and a movie. We were sat in the staff lounge during lunch break trying to decide which restaurant to go to, when who should walk in but Sister Eileen herself. With a straight face, she announced that she had some very exciting news. One of the parishioners arranged for the donation of a ten-station computer lab to our school. It would be delivered on the Holy Day. Sister Eileen reminded the staff there were no classes on the Holy Day. “But…you are all expected to be here at ten.” She interrupted the collective groan with a lift of her eyebrow. “On behalf of the school, and our parish, you will be here to thank our donor and participate in a free computer class. Understood?” She relaxed her eyebrow and nodded as we answered in unison, “Yes, sister.”

 

          A few days later, we sat in the new school computer lab listening to the P.T.A. president talked on and on about the donor, the impact of the program, blah, blah, blah… I was miserable and a little annoyed that my day off would be spent in a classroom. I typed a joke onto the screen in front of me and nudged my friend, Linda, who was sharing the computer terminal with me. She tried to hide her laugh by coughing, regained control and then, with her eyes looking straight ahead, she wrote something back to me. In no time, our whole row of teachers was soon writing notes to each other and getting more and more rowdy. Sister Eileen clucked like an angry chicken at us, her beady eyes and grim mouth trying to stop the acting out. 

 

          We calmed down. And then, it started again. This time, Linda wrote something, and I bit my tongue, unsuccessfully trying not to attract Sister Eileen’s attention, who did what any good disciplinarian would do. As the speaker droned on, she casually got out of her chair, strolled into the row of desks behind us, and took a seat directly behind me and Linda. We put our hands on our laps and stared straight ahead, fighting back tears of laughter. It was juvenile. It was rude. And it was completely out of our control. Later, at a bar not too far from school, we all roared with laughter as Linda imitated Sister Eileen’s angry face.

 

          The next morning, there was a mimeographed letter on school stationary from Sister Eileen in all the teachers’ mailboxes, expressing her disappointment at our “ridiculous, rude, childish behavior.” I considered having my mother sign the letter and bringing it back the next day but knew the joke would be lost on both my mom, and Sister Eileen.

 

          A few weeks later, after stopping at a friend’s holiday party and very getting stoned, I was on my way to the school’s annual Christmas show, a big event at Saint Athanasius. The auditorium was packed with parents and kids, carols were playing over the PA system at full volume. The noise echoing off the walls with such intensity, I had to cover my ears. Then Sister Eileen took to the stage with a microphone and in seconds, the room grew still. I’d never seen anyone dominate a room like that. She literally willed everyone into silence. 

 

          The show was what an elementary school Christmas show should be – sweet, boring, and way too long. The last performance was a solo by, Kenna, one of the eighth-grade girls. There was a huge roar of applause as Kenna took the stage. One of the teachers leaned over to me and whispered, “Wait ‘til you hear her sing! She’s sounds like Whitney Houston.” Kenna stood there in this homemade red dress, with puffy sleeves, her hair pulled back, knees rocking back and forth nervously. She sang “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord,” from Godspell, the music teacher accompanied on piano. It was a big moment for a little girl, and her community. And the way the parents and kids were shouting and waving their hands as Kenna sang reminded me of being at a Luther Vandross concert! 

 

          But Sister Eileen? Poor white, pulled tight, Sister Eileen. She didn’t know how to deal with such spontaneous expression, or the complete loss of control when the song was over. She quickly strode onstage as Kenna took her bow to cheers and stomping feet, grabbed the microphone and cut a five-minute ovation into thirty seconds. 

 

          I was responsible for teaching math and science, reading to both seventh-grade classes, and religion, of course. My grade partner covered history, geography and the advance reading. I’m not sure how it happened, but I was also the lucky one chosen to teach sex education. 

 

          As I set up the filmstrip to begin the sex education class, I wondered if Sister Eileen would listen in, and decided not to think too much about it. If she wanted to spy on me as I read through a script prepared by the diocese and presented anatomical drawings on the overhead projector. I did my best to show some level of ease around words like vagina and testicles. It was a strange, somewhat ironic twist of fate that a sexually repressed gay man was teaching sex education, in a Catholic elementary school to a group of inner-city kids.  

 

          As a teacher, my intention was to always treat my students with respect and give them the freedom to express themselves. So, I should not have been to surprised when one of the boys raised his hand during the lecture and asked quite sincerely, “Mister C., why do girls be smellin’ like fish like they do?” I tried to process what he was asking and couldn’t find the words to respond, when Syreeta shouted, “That’s cuz they don’ clean themselves. That’s nasty!” 

 

          It took a while to get the laughter under control. One of the kids pointed to my face and asked why I was turning so red. I ignored his question and put the next image up on the overhead. “Moving on!” I chanted and tried to get the class to focus on the anatomical illustration of intercourse, looking very similar to all of the picture I’d seen when I was their age. I heard Kenard, one of the nerdier kids, squeak out a question from behind me, “You mean that’s it? You just stick it in?” 

 

          Again, I was saved by the quick wit and intelligence of my students. From somewhere further back, Charles couldn’t contain himself. He said, “No man. You wanna move it around cuz it feel GOOD!” Again, the class erupted in laughter. Once I got them under control, I spent the few minutes trying to explain the mechanics of intercourse, and that Charles, was actually correct. “A little friction is necessary to achieve orgasm.”

          By the beginning of March, after months of dealing with Sister Eileen’s constant glare and the constant exhaustion from working two jobs, I was ready for Easter break. I’d made plans with James, one of my restaurant friends, to spend eight days in Vail, Colorado visiting some our friends Jo and Edie – two former waitresses from the restaurant who were now working for the Ski resort. I’d never been skiing; I’d never been in an airplane. In fact, this was my first vacation that wasn’t spent on the Jersey shore with my family. I felt like such an adult!

          The morning of my flight, I stood in my bedroom staring at an ounce of weed I’d bought, trying to decide if I should surprise everyone with it. I was a bit worried about getting caught, but also had visions of laughing with my friends in a hot tub, joint in one hand, drink in another. I threw caution to the wind and wrapped the baggie in a T-shirt and stuffed it into the middle of my duffle bag. Fortunately, back then security wasn’t as tight, though there was a tense moment when my bag went through the x-ray and the attendant squinted at a dark spot on the screen. I held my breath, felt my heart pounding in my ears as she turned back to me… and smiled. I gave her a quick wave and walked to the opposite end of the scanner. 

 

          It was a fantastic vacation. Jo got us lift passes for the week. Got me free ski rental equipment for the week, and a few free ski lessons! By the end of the vacation, I was skiing the double-diamond slopes. I wasn’t very fast, and I still fell at least twice on a run, but I got the basics down. The weed I brought, of course, was a great addition to the trip and though we didn’t have the hot tub moment, there were plenty of others where a joint and a drink were involved. It was just the kind of week I’d hoped for – good laughs, good people, in a great location!

          Maybe a week or so after Easter break, Sister Eileen approached me in the parking lot after school. “Mr. Connell!” she called, her cold stare holding me in place by my car. I scanned my mind wondering what I’d done wrong this time as she walked towards me, ready for another reprimand. But I wasn’t in trouble. She wanted to know if I’d be interested in coaching the track team. “We can’t pay you anything. But I think this is a good project for you.” I gave the idea a quick second and said, “Sure. Why not.”

 

          She handed me a manila folder and said, “Good. Here’s last year’s information. You’ll see practice schedule and a roster of the team. And this,” she pulls out an index card, “this is the name and phone number for the diocese track director, he can give you all the details on when and where the meets are.” She looked and me and her face softened a bit, “We’ve actually got a few very good runners at St. Aloysious. I think you’ll be impressed.”

 

          There were about twenty-five kids from grades six through eight, boys and girls. We practiced twice a week on an overgrown track behind an abandoned high school, about three blocks from St. Aloysious. I acted like I knew what I was doing, calling for high knee sprint drills, followed by fifty-yard backward runs and then quarter mile races. I had no clue what I was doing. Every decision was made on the fly. I was just making it up as I went along. The kids didn’t seem to mind, in fact they were having a great time, and so was I.

          I organized parents to drive the team to a few meets and learned that Sister Eileen was right, several of the kids were really fast. One of my students ran an incredible half mile and we had several good sprinters. We won quite a few medals at the championship meet, including a first place in the 4 x 100 relay qualifying the team to run in the city champs at Franklin Stadium. 

          Sister Eileen came into my class the Monday after the championships and congratulated me and the team. The class, of course, got very rowdy and jumped up and down as they cheered and yelled, “Mis-ter C! Mis-ter C! Mis-ter C!” 

          Sister Eileen, of course, stepped in front of my desk and clapped her hands, and shouted, “Enough!” The class took their seats and folded their hands in unison. “Why must you always ruin a nice moment by being so rude and out of control?”  She looked at me with those black, angry eyes, “Really!” and then marched out the door. But my class wouldn’t be denied. They began to whisper/chant, “Mis-ter C! Mis-ter C! Mis-ter C!”

 

          As the school year ended, I was glad to see that my instincts were right when I decided to quit my student teaching three years earlier. I didn’t like being in a classroom. I was at best, an adequate teacher, which is not good enough. But my time at Saint Aloysious also showed me my strengths. I was good in smaller groups and one on one interactions with the kids I taught. My interests lie in who they were, not what I lesson I had to cover and what they scored on a test. I may not have been a good teacher, but I was a good listener. 

 

          At our last Friday night of grading papers, my friend James announced that he’d been accepted to grad school and would begin classes in September for a Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology at Temple University. He handed me a brochure about the program, and said, “You should apply. I think you’d be an excellent therapist.” 

 

          A month after school closed, I found a job as a counselor on the adolescent unit at a psychiatric hospital not far from my apartment. And…my salary was high enough that I didn’t have to wait tables anymore, so I quit working at the restaurant. Like my friend James, I was also accepted into the Counseling Psychology Program at Temple University, but I put off starting classes for a year to focus on my new job. I thought it made sense to spend time observing and learning from the people on my team. I also wanted to take this time and get into therapy, confront my own fears about being gay and how it would affect my relationship with my family.

 

          Four years later, I had an amazing boyfriend and a Master’s Degree. I was working as a Social Worker on the Adolescent Unit at The Ambler Clinic. One afternoon, I was in the cafeteria, carrying my tray to a table, ready to join some of my colleagues when I saw the patients from the Substance Abuse Unit file into the room, and there at the end of the line stood Sister Eileen. She saw me approaching and smiled, her spine still at straight as it ever was.

 

          “Hello Terry,” she offered. I was speechless. After a few long seconds of silence, she says, “I was admitted last night. Had a drunk driving incident…I guess this (she waves her hands around the room) was inevitable.” (Note: Ambler Clinic had recently signed a contract with the archdiocese to provide substance abuse treatment for their priests, nuns, and other employees).

 

          The line moved forward, Sister Eileen looked ahead, then looked at me. I said, “Good luck, sister. I know the staff on that unit. You’re in good hands…Be warned, though, they are tough. Even on the nuns.”

 

          “I should hope so,” she responded and stepped forward. I walked back to the table and took a seat. My colleagues all wanted to know the story of the old woman from the Substance Abuse Unit I was talking to. 

          I just shrugged and said, “An old family friend.”

* Author’s notes:

 

The names of people and places have been changed to respect the privacy of those mentioned in this piece.

"Mister C." is from Connell’s next book titled, Dragging My Feet, a collection of essays that highlights the different work experiences he’s had, including a dishwasher, camp counselor, waiter/bartender, teacher, acupuncturist and yoga instructor. In each job, Connell gained not only a better understanding of who he was and his place in the world, but introduced him to an incredible cast of characters who helped pave the way.

Published by The Plentitudes.  July 2021.