I had been a substitute teacher for about two months in the fall of 2008 when I found out I had cancer. I had been feeling tired for months—if not a couple years—but all blood tests had proved negative for Lyme disease, Epstein Barr, and anything else that could cause fatigue. Then I woke up one morning with a pain in my lower left abdomen. I went to the emergency room, and a found out I had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
I had decided to try teaching because I thought I would be good at it—and perhaps because before being diagnosed I had a sense that something was seriously wrong with me and wanted to do something useful before checking out. It was also something of a crusade, or at least a nice ironic turn in my life. I had been a Holden Caulfield—or maybe Bart Simpson is more accurate—as a student, and here was a chance to attempt some karmic balance. Further, I had seen the damage that liberal schools could cause. I thought maybe I could prevent the same thing from happening, at least to a few kids. I had gone to private Catholic schools my entire life, but they were no bulwark against what had happened in America in the 1960s. The Left had marched through the religious institutions as well as the secular ones. I had had some brilliant teachers, whom I will discuss in a future installment, but also far too many communists, weirdoes and daft libertines.
Most of them were propagandists. As Joseph Goebbels knew, propaganda isn’t not only about what you say, but what you leave out—it is the art of the incomplete truth. There is nothing wrong, and in fact everything right, with schoolchildren learning about slavery, the labor movement, Vietnam, Watergate and the environment. There is something incomplete, if not sinister, in teaching these things while ignoring the role of Christianity in abolition, the life of Whittaker Chambers, the theory of natural law, and the Founding Fathers.
As it stands now, American education is like cable news. The liberals stick to their catechism, and the conservatives to theirs. In fact, it was this divide that drove me into teaching in the first place. Before becoming a sub I had been a journalist for 20 years. But increasingly, I found myself in a no-man’s land. I was a fan of the conservative journal The New Criterion, but also Rolling Stone. I believe in the natural law—that the conscience is, as St. Ambrose put it, “God’s herald and messenger,” and that because of this every human being in every culture knows that certain things are wrong. These things can be large and obvious like abortion, but also less diabolical and more liberal—like underpaying a worker or littering. I believe in the Great Books, and that rock and roll is great modernist art. I think John F. Kennedy was a great man, and that Sarah Palin is a dingbat.
This all made it hard to score a job in journalism or with a university of think tank. The Weekly Standard wasn’t interested in a piece about rock and roll, and Rolling Stone wasn’t about to question the radical and tragic abortion license in this country. The Heritage Foundation did not want to explore the anti-intellectualism of the Tea Party movement, and the days of Vanity Fair questioning sexual promiscuity—as Aldous Huxley had done in their pages in the 1930s—were over. Of course, with the Internet I had the freedom to write about whatever I wanted. But that didn’t pay. On top of that, I was increasingly feeling weak and nauseous. An accomplished swing dancer, I would get winded and dizzy after one lindy. I had a sad sense that I was dying.
So, naturally, I was perfect material for the pedagogic arts. I sent some résumés out, and almost immediately heard back from a nun who is a principal at a small K-8 school near my house. A dynamic and funny woman in her early 60s, Sr. Mary combines the better liberal ideas about running a school with a deep love of the Catholic Church and its magisterium. There is no detention in her school, St. Teresa. It is not needed. Sr. Mary can silence a room full of kids just by appearing in the doorway, but it is a discipline suffused with a deep spiritual love for the children. Our first interview lasted an hour.
A couple weeks later I found myself subbing for grades 5-8. I still remember what happened on my second day. I was subbing for fifth grade social studies, which that day meant monitoring the kids as they did homework that had been left by the teacher. At one point a female student named Amy came up. “Mr. Brehon,” she said, “why don’t women get pregnant every time they have sex?”
I froze. I peered into the future and could see the entire scene: I’m sitting in Sr. Mary’s office, being confronted by two angry parents because on my second day as a substitute teacher I taught their daughter the bird and the bees.
Amy pushed a paper into my hand. “It’s one of the homework questions.”
I looked at the paper. Indeed it was.
So the Catholic schools were now teaching sex-ed starting in fifth grade. Looking back on my own confusion about sex until I learned about it, yes, from a kid on the playground, I found that to be entire sensible and laudatory.
I explained to Amy that fertilization does not occur every time that a couple had sex.
“Ok,” she said cheerfully, and returned to her seat. I realized that the cliché you always hear about teachers affecting people for the rest of their lives is quite true. I thought of Amy in 20 or 30 years as a mother. She may remember the day in 2008 that Mr. Brehon explained that women don’t get pregnant every time they have sex.
I went home that day feeling I had done some good. But I still felt lousy. And the next morning I had this pain in my abdomen…
Augustine Brehon is a name assumed to protect the author, who is currently receiving his education certification near Washington, D.C.