Survival Till Seventeen

It is strange that I remember the days of my middle childhood — that is, the years from seven till fourteen — better than I do the period of the next four years that followed. The Jesuits were responsible for that.

At the age of thirteen I was taken from the charge of the nuns, and sent to Boston to be educated by the Jesuits. It was a most fortunate choice on the part of my parents.

I was just at an age when a vivid fancy and an undisciplined fondness for daydreaming were ready to roam for no serious purposes, and deserved to be checked. It was the precise time when the essential intellect, in itself and for itself, needed to be given something substantial to do: to stop amusing itself by way of reverie, and to be informed with the habit of reflection.

Up till fourteen, a boy’s imagination is as aimless as a butterfly, and it is best to let him browse through books as he pleases, rather than harness him with commands to read only what is important in literature. Up till fourteen a boy is too sensitive to be in charge of anyone save a woman. Up till fourteen the psychological differences between a boy and a girl are so slight that they often thrive on the same stories and play the same games.

But at fourteen, a boy’s world changes. Henceforth he must set his face toward the life ahead with a military outlook and a soldier’s reserve. Co-education after fourteen is a farce. There is a world for woman and a world for man, and you will confound the two at your peril.

I got a head start on the critical age by one year.

The Jesuits, though soldiers, did not put uniforms on us or give us guns to carry. The Jesuits, though psychologists, did not outline for us through biological charts and graphs the emotional evolution through which we were passing. The Jesuits plunged us into the classics.

It was well enough to think, but did you know what you were thinking and why you were thinking it? And had you noticed, in your blank moments, the frightening dependence that must exist between thinking something and expressing it?

“Let us take thought out of the mold of language in which you are now using it,” said the Jesuits, “and recast it in another mold, so as to show you exactly what its face value is. Let us choose as a medium of expression that used by men at the highest points of culture in the world’s history, the civilizations of Greece and Rome. You are young American boys employing a hybrid, uninflected language, bristling with so many and such diverse rules that not even a professional grammarian knows them all, a language completely dissociated from its origins and all but unintelligible in its etymology save to the most meticulous savants. Is that a nice language for a boy to learn how to think in? No, not if there is a better at hand. And there is!”

“We will teach you,” said the Jesuits, “the two most beautifully ordered and inflected languages in the history of the world. Let us see you try out your thoughts in those languages! You may have them as rich and pure and free from mongrel importations as little boys once received them in ancient Greece and Rome. Then you will know what is worth saying, and how best to say it, from having first learned what needed to be said at all. And it will fill your life with purpose.

And you will begin to be refined little gentlemen. And you will always know what to do.”

We began with Latin grammar, and had hardly got on to the syntax and vocabulary of that, when it was followed by Greek grammar. We began to study the by-paths and delicate detours of human thought in such matters as intention, purpose, result, causality, wish, surmise, exhortation and command. We learned the “moods” that could affect a statement by reason of indicative, infinitive, subjunctive and optative colorings. We took sentences apart and studied their complexity, dependence, and the various ways in which an idea or phrase could be qualified. We watched a single word alter its ending as it went from nominative to genitive, to dative, to accusative case, always letting you know what it was by its root formation, and what it was doing by its variable syllable. In no time we were reading the letters of Cicero, listening to the stories of Herodotus, surveying in a virginal, poetic vision, the whole of life with Homer.

What with themes, tasks, exercises, memory assignments, translations, parsing — the Jesuits left you time for little else in life besides your lessons. One would almost say they allowed you as few distractions as an angel. You took language completely apart, and reformed it with the graces of personal choice. It was the birth in you of what is known as “style.”

In a short time you found that you were thinking differently from other boys in your neighborhood, more fundamentally, with more care in your statements, more maturity and sureness in your judgments. You could detect fallacies in what others had to say, and were inwardly censoring what you had to express yourself. Other boys noticed this in you, and either avoided you as one above them, or else came to you for advice. There might be a tendency in this training to make one a snob, but a touch of snobbery in a boy, like a touch of vanity in a girl, is not necessarily dangerous, and often the foundation of future greatness.

Back, back, back you went with the Jesuits, through the history of Western Civilization, back through the Middle Ages, back to the times of the Roman Emperors, even back to the Greek gods and the twilight of mythology. Civilization became the most important word in your vocabulary. And little by little you began to be civilized, to differentiate what was of the spirit and what of the senses, what was trivial and what important, what was ephemeral in man and what never changed.

The Jesuits put no premium on your being clever, only on your being intelligent, and on your ability to give reasons for what you thought and said. They weaned you away from a world, then known as Lewis Carroll’s, and now as Walt Disney’s, and drove you to an admiration for the Roman valor and the Greek restraint. You were able literally to trace thought, classical and purposeful, in the outlines of the Doric, Ionic and Corinthian columns. Imaginary figures derived from abstractions began to people your mind: Minerva and her wisdom, Ceres and her fruitfulness, Juno and her righteousness. Thought came first with the Jesuits, and symbols second, reversing the order of the kindergarten. Illustration followed the values established by essential reason. The day of the picturebook had passed. The day of the dry text had begun. Mother Goose had flown off on a broomstick, never to return. Santa Claus had at last died in the frozen north.

“If you send your boy to school to a slave,” so runs an old Greek proverb, “he will become a slave!”

If you send him to school to a Jesuit, will he become a Jesuit?

It so happens, sometimes.