The following  is an excerpt from our book, LIVING THE DREAM ON A BOX WINE BUDGET.  I was inspired to print it after hearing an interview on the radio this morning with an outraged mother of a student enrolled in a Chicago college prep charter school.  She was angry with the school’s disciplinary policies.  Her son had racked up dozens of detentions for what she called “benign infractions” (sleeping in class, talking in class, etc) and had to repeat his freshman year.  She claimed it is the school’s way of trying to get rid of poorly performing students in an effort to keep its test scores high.  Wow, seriously?   Read on…





            My BWB partner and I both sent our sons to a Catholic and Benedictine, all-boy, military academy.  Once, when my son, Brian, described his school in that way, the response was “Wow, that’s a lot of discipline.”  Precisely.  For my family, it was something we’d planned even before the boys were born.  My husband graduated from the same school, as did his older brothers and his father.  Sending sons to this school is a tradition in many families.

In fact, when we were expecting our first baby, we did what all expectant parents do – we thought about names.  Only in our house, I was told that, for boys names, initials had to be considered.  Perplexed, it was explained to me that if we had a boy, once he reached high school, he would be required to wear a name tag with his first and middle initial and that some initials invited merciless teasing.  So, in my attempt to name our son something he could proudly display on his name tag, which would not result in lifetime of therapy, I had to keep initials in mind.  We finally gave up and concluded that boys can be quite creative in the art of nicknames and decided to go with “Michael Patrick” (initials: MP – which, actually, may have helped a little in a military environment).

The school had a resident program with dorms for those who lived too far away to commute.  We had students from all over United States as well as several countries, including Hong Kong, Korea, and Mexico.  When my husband was a student there, it was a much tougher place, having no reservations about corporal punishment.  Over the years, however, the faculty and administration mellowed – a direct result, I’m sure, of the newer generation of parents who sought a kinder, gentler environment for their boys.  Even with the softer approach, though, my sons will still tell you that the detainees at Gitmo had it easier than they did in high school.  A bit of an exaggeration.  I’m pretty sure.

Ask the boys and they will tell you high school was torture.  Ask any parent and they will expound on the wonderful, nurturing environment interspersed with push-ups.  Yes, they were often told by teachers (monks included) to drop and give ‘em twenty if a book was left in a locker instead of being brought to class.  We always said a school like that teaches the boys to be resourceful.  For example, they were expected to be dressed in the correct uniform everyday, which included their name tag and military hat.  If a student was stopped in the hall without being properly attired, he would be asked to present his demerit card to the authority figure and immediately be given demerits (the number of demerits depending on the seriousness of the infraction).  If the boy did not have his demerit card to present, more demerits were added.  The school offered opportunities for the boys to work off their demerits volunteering their time to helping office staff or the Mother’s Club with upcoming events. Some kids would let their demerits multiply, though, leading to detention, which consisted of a killer physical workout at 6:00 a.m. before the start of the school day and was reputed to often end with bouts of vomiting. The students often joked that you could tell who the troublemakers were because they were so buff.

A friend of mine once told me that her son was without his military hat when he saw a teacher approaching.  He quickly asked another boy if he could borrow his extra hat and upon grabbing the hat, he noticed the name inside was his own.  Hats, shoes, and gym clothes had a way of moving around as needed.  No one got upset – that was how they all got along.  What’s mine is yours in an emergency.  One year, as Brian was waiting in line to have his school photo taken, his name tag suddenly broke.  He did what any other kid would have done in that situation.  He asked the guy behind him in line if he could borrow his name tag.  So his yearbook picture shows him wearing “E. M. Sanchez” on his chest.  Just another typical day in the life.  In ten years of being at that school, I don’t think we had a gym uniform that had our own name on it.  And I knew lurking about somewhere, a kid (or probably many) had shirts and shorts with our name on them.  And I was okay with that.

The curriculum was college prep and every year, the graduating seniors would outdo their predecessors in scholarships awarded, totaling millions of dollars.  Some people chose to send their boys to this school because of the academic success and scholarships awarded to the graduating classes.  Once there, though, parents often came to realize that the true value of the school went far beyond the academics.  The Benedictine monks who run the academy are the absolute essence of the school.  As much as the boys would readily admit to hating certain aspects of their high school years, they all agreed that the monks were the best part of their day.  I think what they liked so much about them was the recognition that these were very holy men who role-modeled everyday what it meant to live their faith – not just learn about it in a classroom, but really live it.  But, they were much more than that.  Besides being such positive mentors, they were a lot of fun and often behaved just as silly and immaturely as their students.  The freshmen were always surprised by that and the upperclassmen ate it up.

One of the monks used to tell a funny story about a fellow Benedictine visiting inmates at a prison. He was wearing a jacket with the name of the school on it and, as he was leaving the grounds, he heard someone yell out from behind the bars, “Hey, Father, I went to that school.”  Well, he figured, not everyone is upper management material… He just probably needed a little extra detention.

As a parent, one thing I loved about that school, though, was knowing that every single boy was valued for who he was, not how smart he was or what a great athlete he was, but simply because he was a part of their Benedictine family.  The monks could find something of value in each boy and show him how to use that gift.  One of my sons struggled in his academics.  He was not one of the shining stars of his class, but he did find himself attending daily mass (probably even to his own surprise). Mass was celebrated during a scheduled break in the school day as an opportunity to refresh oneself. Attendance was not mandatory.  Boys, instead, could use that time as a study hall, meet with a teacher, prepare for military drill competitions or perhaps attend a club meeting.

But my son almost always chose to go to mass and soon became a recognized face in the chapel.  As a result, he was asked if he might like to become an altar server, which he eagerly accepted.  He was later an assistant to the Chaplain, preparing the chapel for mass everyday and, as a senior, he became a Eucharistic minister, distributing Communion. He then became active in outside Campus Ministry events, such as volunteering with Special Olympics and playing Bingo with the residents of a nursing home.  So even though he was not a stellar student, he was valued for his contribution to the Campus Ministry program at school. And because of his involvement in these activities, he was selected, as a junior, to attend a senior class retreat, so that he could then return the following year in the role of a leader.  That was quite an honor and gave him a chance to see that other students and administrators recognized him as a leader.  These experiences gave his self-confidence a needed boost and I think were the reason he was offered many generous college scholarships.

But guess what?  This school was expensive.  Not as expensive as some private high schools, but still very difficult for us to pay.  As you can see, though, we felt it was important enough to do whatever we had to do to make sure our sons attended.  And now, our daughters are  students at a similar high school for girls (without the military, we’ve assured them).  That is expensive as well, but the payoff is worth more to us than the struggle.

This is why we were never able to amass any sort of college fund for our children.  We’ve just been trying to keep our nose above water ever since they started school.   I am aware that this was a choice on our part to send our children to parochial schools instead of the public schools (which we are already paying for) – public schools, I might add, that provide an excellent education – but the intangible benefits we’ve witnessed have made our decision a necessity, not a choice.

How embarrassing would it be, though, if my friend and I ended up doing time for acting on our ridiculous criminal plan (discussed in a strictly fun and never-to-be-acted-upon-by-good-Catholic-girls way), only to be confronted by one of our sons’ teachers as he lived out the corporal work of mercy of visiting the imprisoned?  I can just see myself now, calling through the barbed wire fence, “Hey, Father, I used to be the Mothers Club President at that school!”

*** The criminal plot alluded to in that last paragraph refers to a wildly pathetic and completely flawed act of larceny hatched in our opening chapter by a couple of desperate people I may or may not know…***

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