In the late 1950's, fourteen year old Philip Noland is a gay but sexually inexperienced freshman at St. Sebastian’s, a Catholic high school for boys. Alone and emotionally isolated, with the exception of two friends named O’Riley and Carlin, there are no familiar guideposts for Philip to follow, just an excess of rules and regulations that make no sense to him.
A late bloomer, Philip learns to masturbate effectively and fall in love for the first time, but his greatest challenge isn’t the regimented behavior at St. Sebastian’s -- it's surviving a bully named Molinara who has set his sights on Philip.
Can Philip navigate the minefields of St. Sebastian's and emerge victorious?
Freshman orientation and Mother dropped me off at the school entrance. She tried to hug me but I wouldn’t let her. I was almost fourteen, for Christ’s sake. Boys were already lining up in the school parking lot and I didn’t want to be late. It was orientation, my first day as a freshman in high school. I was almost grown up. I was a St. Sebastian student. And terrified.
A young-looking priest -- I’d only known the old and Irish ones in my parish -- pointed to the rows of freshmen and told me to line up. Black cassocked priests with their rosary beads dangling from their belts, walked up and down the lines, telling us not to speak to our neighbors in front or in back, or in the columns now forming adjacent to us. I’d never seen a priest this up close and personal. True, I’d gone to Sunday Mass for years and catechism classes, but my association with priests was pretty much at a distance, as I presumed it was for most Catholic public-school kids. Wrong!
Once arranged in rows like vegetables in a very large garden, we walked in silence into the lobby, winding our way down dark corridors with bars on windows, only to be met by other priests who waved at us as if they were directing traffic. Which of course they were. Us. Someone broke formation and a priest smacked him on the back the head. He was directed to the end of the line. Some boys snickered but no one spoke. I wondered if they were as terrified as I was?
They ushered us into a large auditorium with basketball hoops hanging on opposite ends. The bleachers were folded up against the walls. There were sixteen rows of twenty chairs. I know this because as I waited for each row to fill, I passed the time counting them.
A hand signal from a priest and we sat down in unison. Minutes later, another signal and we stood. Father Kavanaugh, the Dean of Men and the top guy at the school, was introduced. He walked across the stage to the podium and began to recite the Our Father. My first thought was, hell, we’re in for a full rosary. But after a Hail Mary and a quick Glory Be, he told us to sit. And, with a collective sigh, we did.
“These are the rules,” he said, “rules that must be obeyed at all costs lest your souls burn in hell for eternity.” I’d sat through years of Sunday sermons, so I thought this was no different. He went on to describe all the don’ts of life at St. Sebastian’s. Where were the do’s?
“No talking in the corridors and hallways; when moving from class to class, the rule of silence must be obeyed; no chewing of gum; always wear your school uniform. You will receive demerits if you come to school in street clothes.”
I looked at the boy next to me and wondered what demerits were. I was a public school kid for God sakes.
“Those of you who drive,” he continued, “must obtain and pay for school lot parking permits. Always stand in class when your teacher calls on you. Never fail to stand when I, or any of the teaching staff, visit your class. If you have to use the little men’s room --” Snickers here. “-- do not attempt to leave the classroom without first securing a pass from your teacher. Do not wander the hallways during class time without a pass. Do not dawdle. When you are in the little men’s room, do your business quickly --” Several guffaws here. “-- and then return immediately to your room. You must buy all of your own books,” He looked up, perhaps, to drive his point home. “I mean all of your books,” then he glanced back to his notes.
“Classes begin on Monday. This is Thursday. If you wait until Monday to purchase your books, you are already too late. You will have eight classes per day and will be assigned a homeroom. Your homeroom teacher will take roll in the morning.” I must have drifted off somewhere here. I looked around me. Some of the boys were jabbing each other in the ribs with their elbows and others, who I assumed had heard all this before, being Catholic school graduates, looked bored. Father came to the end of his notes but he wasn’t done yet. “One last word. At all times, keep your hands out of your pockets.” This brought snickers and laughs. “We know what you are doing and, if you are caught, notes will be sent home.” Gasps. “Are there any questions?” Silence.
“Good, and welcome to St. Sebastian’s.” The Dean flashed a pair of gleaming white teeth. The better to eat you with. “We wish you a pleasant and successful year. If you are new here, a freshman or transfer student, I wish you good luck. And above all, remember, the rules. Disregard them at your peril.
The Dean then introduced the teaching staff, ten faculty and five laypersons -- the latter produced more snickering. Once we were assigned homeroom teachers, we followed them out of the auditorium and down the long corridors in silence.
Firsts are usually memorable, yet other than what I’ve recounted, I remember little about that first day at St. Sebastian’s -- only the echo on waxed floors of shuffling feet and boys walking past me, furiously working something inside their pockets. What was that all about? I was soon to find out.