James Chapman went to Jesuit, an all-male Catholic school, for his freshman year after going to Country Day’s Middle School. He returned to Country Day his sophomore year.
“Some of you won’t be returning next year, be it for disciplinary reasons, grades, or for something else, but very realistically it could be that the fellow freshman sitting next to you may not be here next year. Get used to the idea. It could be you.”
That’s what my freshman class and I were told at the beginning of the Jesuit 1985-86 school year. We sat quietly on the bleachers inside the gym where we were told the way it was. Together in one place at one time, over a hundred freshmen were grouped.
We were greeted, told that we should be grateful for being able to attend Jesuit, and that the less desirable among us were going to be weeded out.
That made me happy. I wasn’t a trouble maker, so what did I have to worry about? Wouldn’t I be coming back? After all, it was I who had won the best sportsmanship award on my little league baseball team. And I had never ever had to serve a single minute of detention, anywhere. I’d be coming back, wouldn’t I?
Actually not. The truth is that after a year at Jesuit it was no longer to my liking, for a variety of reasons, so I went back to the school where I had attended junior high: Country Day.
What I encountered at Jesuit was something that I had never nightmared of in my life: a school where the students seemed to strive to be like one another, to be somewhat of a clone of one another. The social pressures that I found were suffocating.
Between the students the peer pressure that I saw wasn’t for students to stand out or do well academically, but to fade into the background and to follow the norm. Perhaps I wasn’t hanging around with the right crowd but it appeared to me that very few students made studying their number one priority. The priority that I saw was popularity.
Although popularity is an important thing at every high school, the social atmosphere at Jesuit seemed to place the students under more of a microscope than was necessary. Every action, word, and thought was carefully weighed by the students before committing so as not appear uncool or nerdy. That was the law.
The truth is that among freshmen the most envied quality was physical strength. I mean to say that the people who could beat you up, removed your bowels, and then go on to score the winning touchdown against Christian Brothers in three minutes flat were always spoken of as if they possessed some virtue fit for God himself. It was these people that set the popularity code which demanded to be observed under pain of public embarrassment and ridicule. At least it seemed that way compared to my last three years at SCDS, which is basically one of the most socially free schools on the West Coast.
I remember one occasion when a fellow, one of the designated nerds, showed up at school with a new jacket. It wasn’t a bad jacket, but the problem was that it also wasn’t a Guess jacket, a Polo jacket or a Member’s Only jacket. It was a jacket to keep you warm.
What happened was that he was tortured all day long by preppies who seemed to enjoy his pain. It was then that I learned that in some instances it’s even worse to see someone else ridiculed than it is to be ridiculed yourself.
If I had to summarize my freshman year in a few sentences, I would describe it as more of a socially learning process than anything else. But let me explain it this way. If I had the choice of reliving my frosh year at Jesuit or being cast into the Black Hole of Calcutta for eternity, I guess it would have to be the black hole.
But seriously, what I found at Jesuit was a large school with a great deal of social pressures and cliches dedicated to conforming students to whatever standards the popularity market was running on that week. The learning climate was relaxed, and the attitudes towards vulgarity and juvenile behavior seemed overly so. If spending a year in a situation where a student’s social acceptance is judged by the size of his biceps and willingness to conform to the norm, perhaps Jesuit is for you. Lord knows it wasn’t for me.
—By James Chapman
Want more retro-Octagon? Read the stories below to discover what SCDS students were writing about decades ago.