father, son and holy beatles
“Fool on the Hill“ by the Beatles had barely finished playing when Father yanked the thin metal arm from the vinyl disc circling endlessly on the turntable of the portable record player he had borrowed from the principal’s office, where it was kept in a closet under lock and key.
He carefully set the delicate diamond needle on its holder before turning to the class. From my seat I could see the record going round and round.
“So, what do you think it means? Who’s the fool on the hill?”
Father surveyed the class. No one moved. Puzzled faces stared blankly at him. We were waiting for him to give us the answer. We weren’t used to being asked our opinion. Especially in religion class of all places. We also weren’t accustomed to a priest encouraging us to listen to rock music. Rock was the devil’s instrument. The Rolling Stones had made that perfectly clear by invoking Satan in album titles and song lyrics. The only time rock played anywhere in the building was at the Saturday night dances in the old gym. The disc jockey who sat in the booth loading the 45s on the turntable was instructed by the priest in charge to play groups such as the Supremes or the Association. No Rolling Stones or Beatles. No psychedelic music. “Middle of the road” was definitely the aim, though that term hadn’t been coined yet.
This was not the Saturday night dance. This was uncharted territory. It was only the second week of the new semester, my senior year. The mid-September Indian summer was making the room unbearably hot. The last place on earth I wanted to be was in a stuffy classroom with a priest who thought he was Mr. Liberal. Father had a thick foreign accent and kept his hair longer than any other faculty member. I had not seen him around the school before. He was probably new. What if he were trying to trick us in some way, get us to say things that could later be used against us?
You couldn’t be too careful at Bishop Neumann High School. The Enlightenment had missed the school altogether. The U.S. Constitution meant nothing. The priests could open our lockers or book bags at any time. They could even strip search us if they wanted. They certainly employed corporal punishment and torture. How many times had I seen classmates forced to hold up heavy books in the corner, or struck repeatedly in the back of the legs with a wooden ruler? My Latin teacher, Father Karate Chops, as I nicknamed him, had thrown me against a blackboard for whispering something to the guy sitting next to me. I had been kicked off the student newspaper for constantly submitting articles against the Vietnam war that the editor refused to publish. I was told by the priest in charge that freedom of the press was not a right given to us by the Bible.
“I know you have opinions,” Father said, pacing slowly in the front of the room. The front and back of his black shirt were spotted with sweat marks. His forehead and the sides of his face were beaded with moisture. He kept wiping it off with a handkerchief that he stuffed in the back pocket of his pants. Unlike most of the other clergy, he never wore a collar. He was also sporting sandals, the trademark foot wear of hippies.
After a long silence, Father pointed to a short thin Irish student in the front row. “You. What do you think?”
The kid shook his head. “I don’t know.”
“What do you mean? You honestly don’t have an opinion, or you’re too scared to tell me what it is? I’m not going to bite your head off, trust me, all opinions are valued in this classroom.”
“Uh, I don’t know, Father, really.”
“Okay. You don’t have to say anything.” He glanced around the room. “You know, if the fool were sitting up on a hill overlooking say Washington, D.C., what would he see? A lot is happening in the country today. Can somebody tell me about some of the things that the fool would see on that hill?” He waited for a reaction. Nothing. Just a sea of still-puzzled faces. “Does anybody here, uh, watch the news or read the newspapers?”
A few hands began to rise hesitantly.
“Good. Name one of the top stories in the papers.”
Someone knew the answer right away: An Italian student with horn-rimmed glasses and thick black eyebrows that met in the center of his forehead. He was wearing a striped shirt that didn’t match his plaid suit jacket. His face was riddled with acne scars. He seemed to have a permanent sneer on his lips.
“Yes? You don’t have to wait for permission. Speak your mind.”
Horn-Rimmed Glasses shrugged his shoulders, “There’s only one war, right?”
“Yeah, in Vietnam.” He was suddenly not so sure of his answer.
“What about what’s happening in the south?” Father pointed to one of only two black kids in the class.
The student, who sat near the front of the room, had hair shaved close to his head and almond-shaped dark eyes. He was husky and tall, with hands that seemed designed to play a piano. He was planning to be a science major in college. “You mean desegregation, Father?”
“Tell me about it.”
“Well, everybody knows about it.”
“I don’t,” Father replied. “I’m not from this country. You’ve probably noticed that from my accent. Describe it to me.”
I wondered if Father was serious about not knowing about integration. How could anyone not know about that? The kid began explaining about the civil rights movement and the fight to desegregate schools and lunch counters. He talked eloquently about Martin Luther King and the amazing work he did organizing a movement to fight against racial discrimination.
“Don’t you think there’s a war against black people in this country?”
“Yeah, there is.” He felt for sure that’s what Father wanted to hear. “There’s still a lot of prejudice in this country. Black people are still being discriminated against.”
“So you think the fool would see racial discrimination from the top of that hill in D.C.?”
“Yeah, sure. Lots of it.”
I was beginning to think that I had been wrong about Father. Though he was trying his best to be hip and with it, as we said, he seemed genuinely sincere. Maybe he did believe in the values that young people stood for. He was from another country. Perhaps the church was more liberal where he came from. It was going to be a great school year if all we had to do was listen to rock music and give our opinions about the lyrics.
“So the fool sees racial discrimination. What about poverty? Isn’t there a lot of poverty in America?” Father looked at a heavyset Italian student with a Charlie Brown face and curly dark hair. He nodded and looked nervously at the priest.
Charlie Brown couldn’t think of anything to say except, “Yeah, there is.”
“The fool would see a lot of poor people?”
Charlie Brown nodded.
“To take it to another level–Who thinks there’s a war against the poor in this country?”
Two hands darted up. One of the boy was enthusiastically waving his, desperate to get Father’s attention. He succeeded.
“What do you think?” Father asked as he walked over to our self-professed Sicilian radical whose greatest heroes were Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, the anarchists he believed were falsely put to death for the murder of a paymaster and his guard in South Braintree, Massachusetts in the 1920’s. Every Columbus Day, he wished everyone a happy “Sacco and Vanzetti Day.” When he graduated, he planned to join the Students for a Democratic Society and start the revolution that was going to overthrow capitalism. He was short and stocky with hair that couldn’t make its mind up as to whether it wanted to be straight or wavy. He had a heavy five o’clock shadow, even at 10am. He always carried a copy of the Communist Manifesto and quoted from it often. The consensus in school was that he was the student most likely to end up as a drugged-out hippie in the Haight Ashbury in San Francisco.
“I think there’s a lotta poverty cause we live in a capitalistic society,” our Marxist said proudly and without hesitation.
“Hmm, and what does that mean?”
“It means a few guys with a lotta money control most of the wealth.”
“You sound like you’ve been doing a little reading on the subject.”
“I have.” He smiled. He looked around the room for approval. There was none.
“So the fool would see a lot of poverty in America?”
“He’d see that the wealth needs to be redistributed.”
“That’s a serious challenge. How do you propose to do that?”
Marxist began to outline his plan. Father kept interrupting with questions. He didn’t seem judgmental at all. He came off genuinely inquisitive. I wanted to jump into the discussion, but was so mesmerized by the ease with which Father engaged what would, in any other classroom, be a forbidden topic that I decided to just watch and listen. I suspected Father would cut off debate when Marxist got too carried away, as he always did, but he didn’t. Marxist had his moment in the spotlight and he was going to get in every word that he could. The conversation wound down on its own, with both Father and the Marxist agreeing that massive social change was needed to address problems such as poverty.
“That was very good. Hope you all learned something. It’s not everyday that you get to hear from someone with a different viewpoint like that.” Little did Father know that Marxist lectured us daily whenever he could. He hardly kept his opinions to himself. “So back to my original question, who is John Lennon singing about in that song?”
Hands shot high into the air. A lot of kids suddenly had opinions. They answered with confidence, trying to outdo each other.
“It’s John Lennon himself.” That answer got a lot of nods from other students.
“And you?” Father looked at me. I hadn’t raised my hand yet. Which was unusual. I was often one of the first to express my feelings.
I hesitated, then cleared my throat. I had been thinking a lot about what I was going to say. I realized that I had never really understood the lyrics of that song. I knew it was about a guy sitting on a hill seeing through a lot of the world’s bullshit. But it was deeper than that.
“Since John Lennon wrote it and he’s an atheist,” I began and paused. That word had so much weight in religion class that I put special emphasis on it to see how Father would react. He didn’t flinch. How would he feel if he knew that I had decided the year before that God didn’t exist anymore than Zeus did? A friend had given me a copy of Sartre’s No Exit and it had changed my life forever. I stopped going to Mass and Confession.
“And? Continue,” Father said nonchalantly.
“Well, I don’t think he’s singing about Jesus or Buddha. I think it’s about all of us. Like if everyone’s telling me that I gotta join the Army and go kill people in Vietnam and I say no, then I’m feeling like that guy sitting on the hill.”
“Good point. How do the rest of you feel about that? Are we all the fool on the hill?”
“Lennon ain’t no a-tiest!” It was the kid with the dark-rimmed glasses. He was annoyed. “No one in their right mind would be!”
Father smiled. “But he says he is. He even said that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. Which is probably true. Jesus wasn’t followed everywhere he went by throngs of screaming girls. He should’ve been, but he wasn’t. Maybe if he and the Apostles played guitars.” He paused. He was pleased with himself. Some of the kids weren’t too thrilled that Father seemed to be siding with me.
“A-tiests are bad people,” an Italian kid with green eyes and olive skin said.
“Cause they don’t believe in God.”
“Interestingly enough, Lennon’s songs are very spiritual, even though he doesn’t believe in God,” Father said.
“I don’t think they’re spiritual.” It was the Marxist.
“Then what are they?”
“He’s advocating revolution. He even wrote a song called revolution. He’s a Marxist.”
“But the revolution song is critical of Marxists.”
“No. Maoists. He’s down on them.”
“Can you be a Marxist and still be spiritual?”
“Marxists are atheists.”
“Are you an atheist?”
“I don’t know if I’d call myself an atheist…” Mr. revolutionary wasn’t brave enough to admit it. He had better sense than I did.
“I’m an atheist.” I blurted out. I had become so relaxed by the discussion that I didn’t even think before I said it.
Father waited a couple beats before answering, “Are you really an atheist?”
“Yeah.” I knew immediately I had said something wrong. Father didn’t seem too upset, though.
“Do you know what the word means?”
“Course I do.”
He obviously didn’t believe me. Or he was trying to give me a chance to reconsider and back down. “It means that you don’t believe in a god. You don’t even believe in the possibility of a god. It’s different than being an agnostic where you leave open the possibility that a supreme being might exist. Are you more of an agnostic, perhaps?”
“This whole discussion’s crazy!” That was a skinny blond Irish kid with rosy cheeks and narrow brown eyes.
“It’s not crazy,” I said. “There’s no proof of a god. That’s why Lennon’s singing about the “Fool” on the Hill. This person’s up there on that mountain seeing the truth about everything including God and nobody believes him. They think he’s a fool, but actually they’re the fools!”
“Like you? You think you’re the fool on the hill?” It was Horn-Rimmed Glasses. He laughed. “Well, you’re a fool all right.”
“Hold on, class,” Father said. “So, you don’t think that there’s any proof that god exists?”
“Absolutely not,” I said. Pushing the envelope was fun. I didn’t care what the kids in class thought about me. And I certainly didn’t mind making Father uncomfortable. Trouble was, he was good at maintaining his calm. I wish I knew how he was really feeling. Panicked that a student had taken things this far? Perhaps I was flattering myself. Father came off cool as a cucumber.
“Man, you’re sick,” a tall kid with a long pointy nose and thick pouty lips said. Bored with most of his studies, he usually sat in the back of the room and drew caricatures of fellow students. “If you don’t believe in God, then you don’t believe in nothing. And that’s pretty bad.”
“Hold on now. Everybody’s got a right to their opinion.” To me, Father said: “There’s no proof that God doesn’t exist.”
“Checkmate. You can’t prove he exists and I can’t prove he doesn’t.”
The Marxist laughed. “He’s got you there, Father.” Students began talking amongst themselves.
“One conversation at a time.” Father snapped. I wasn’t sure if he was becoming annoyed at me or at my classmates who were speaking out of turn. The class quieted down. “Look at the incredible things in the world–nature, the stars at night, the rich variety of animal and plant life. The fact that we can think and dream. How could those things come into being without some sort of divine intervention?”
“Big bang. An accident. Evolution.”
“Have you ever read Fred Hoyle’s big bang theory?”
“Then how can you say it’s not enough. Have you read Darwin?”
“It explains everything.”
“They’re only theories…”
“Based on research and science.”
“There’s some faith. But your religion is all faith and no science.”
“My religion is your religion.”
“I’m an atheist, remember?” I was getting bolder by the minute. The Marxist was in seventh heaven. Horn-Rimmed Glasses had his hand up and was desperately trying to get Father’s attention.
“You’re still a Catholic.”
“Yes, you are, you nitwit!” Horn-Rimmed yelled.
“You’re in Catholic school,” Father said, holding out his hand to quiet down Horn-Rimmed.
“Not by my choice.”
“You go to Mass, Confession…”
“Can I plead the fifth?” I asked, smiling.
The Marxist laughed. “Way to go,” he said. He no doubt regretted that it was me and not him who had taken on Father.
“I suspect you’re not taking this discussion seriously.”
“How could I? It’s absurd. What’s it prove to bring Beatle records in here and act all hip when you don’t wanna hear what we’re really thinking. You don’t wanna hear how I feel about Catholicism or the Pope or even Catholic school. You’d probably expel me if I told you.”
“That’s what you deserve!” It was Horn-Rimmed.
“Speak your mind, brother!” Marxist shouted to me. “Freedom of speech.”
“Enough of that!” Father said to the Marxist. He took a deep breathe. “There’s a line that has to be drawn. I can’t allow chaos in this class. This is not anarchy.”
“The music you’ve been playing today is about rebellion and questioning. It doesn’t belong in a religion class. If Lennon had his way, there’d be no religion. I feel the same way.”
“You understand that with freedom comes responsibility…”
“That’s not freedom then.”
“So you can do or say anything you want and there shouldn’t be consequences?”
“There’s always consequences. When you open Pandora’s Box, like you did today, be prepared for what’s in there.”
I could tell that Father was angry. He wasn’t the type to explode. “See me after class,” he said, going over to the record player. “Now let’s listen to another song.” He put on “Eleanor Rigby.” I kept my mouth shut during that discussion and Father didn’t call on me. Horn-Rimmed was making a point about Father MacKenzie being a Christ figure, when the bell rang.
I was still sitting at my desk after everyone left the classroom. It was my last class of the day and I wanted to get home. Father didn’t say anything. He turned off the record player, closed the lid, then erased the board with slow methodical strokes. Finally he walked over to my desk.
“I want you to clean up the room. There’s a broom in the closet over there. There’s probably some gum under the desktops that needs to be scraped off.”
“What did I do?”
“I just need a helper, someone to tidy up afterwards, that’s all. You can also carry this record player back to the Principal’s office when you’re through.”
“I’m being punished for my opinions?”
“You’re being taught that there’s a higher power.”
I couldn’t argue with that.
originally published at sanfranciscosentinel.com, c 2004