News & Politics » Feature

Back to school with Bill Savage, class of '80

"A school that graded everything on a scale of 0-99, with no possibility of scoring 100—because, we were told, only God was perfect"

by

9 comments

Bill Savage is a senior lecturer in English at Northwestern University, a bartender, and brother of Dan.

In 1980 the area around St. Ignatius College Prep wasn't yet gentrified. Taylor Street hadn't recovered from the construction of UIC; to the west was the Chicago Housing Authority's ABLA public housing project. Tensions between the largely Italian-American population east of Racine, the African-Americans in the projects, and the mostly white students at Ignatius were palpable. Ignatius students were not allowed to leave campus for any reason during the school day. It wasn't quite a war zone, but the shortcut that led north from campus, along an overgrown vacant lot, we called the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The Jesuit priests who ran Ignatius emphasized stern discipline to go with the demanding academics, and early on, you just went along with the program.

But come senior year, the fear of punishment fades. You realize that "getting in trouble" is sometimes preferable to the gutless alternative, especially when Taylor Street offered such great food.

So, one fine spring afternoon in my senior year, a couple buddies and I were cutting through a gap in the chain-link fence that would deliver us to the lunchtime promised land: Al's Italian Beef. We had almost made it undetected when a priest nabbed us. Assuming the proper faux-chastened poses, we stood there expecting to be told to return to the cafeteria for that day's mystery meat and gluey pizza, and then to report for JUG after class that afternoon.

JUG was what every other school called "detention." The origin of the term was murky, but one theory held that it stood for "Judgment Under God." At a school that then graded everything on a scale of 0-99, with no possibility of scoring 100—because, we were told, only God was perfect—well, this etymology seemed plausible.

Instead of the immediate condemnation we expected, the priest said, "So, were you young men planning to go to Al's?" "Yes, Father," we muttered. "Bring me back a combo, no peppers?" he asked.

Amazed at our good luck, we scarfed down our own sandwiches at the stand-up counter facing Taylor Street, discussed how maybe some of these Jesuit jagoffs weren't total snakes, pooled our cash to buy Father his combo, and returned to find him waiting. "Here you go," I said, handing him the soggy brown paper bag. "Thanks," he replied. "Two days of JUG for each of you."

We sputtered: But, hey, wha? Wait, you can't, you asked for a sandwich . . . doesn't that equal permission . . . ?

He pointed out that it was against the rules to leave campus during the school day. He didn't give us permission to break the rules. But if we were going to do so anyway, he'd have a sandwich. "Thanks again," he said as he walked off with the combo we all hoped he'd choke on.

That moment, though, was pivotal to my high school education: I finally understood what my father and grandfather meant when they used the adjective "jesuitical" to describe a certain kind of serpentine moral reasoning.

Next: Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union

Comments (9)

Showing 1-9 of 9

Add a comment
 

Add a comment