Originally written in 2005.
(name withheld because the Internet is a crazy place)
My wife and I were well pleased with your achievement of valedictorian. She was hoping that you, her former piano student, would achieve this. But the piece in the paper (sorry, surfers, paid subscription required) was a surprise. I’ll get to your comments about the erosion of the “rights” of gay marriage and those of reproduction in due course. However, your general pessimism and characterisation of the world in a “downward spiral” was, in some ways, more interesting to me. This was because I myself tended to be cynical and pessimistic when I graduated from prep school. (Warning: reading this site may show little change!)
There are many things to be bothered about these days. But, as the wine enthusiasts would say, 1973 was a very good year to be pessimistic.
The Vietnam War had ended. This got us out of the draft but the backwash of bitterness over the war was still very strong. (John Kerry and the Swift Boat veterans reminded us that it was still there in 2004!) Watergate was in full swing; the left was saving our political system by destroying it through hyped scandal, a legacy that came back to haunt the left during the Clinton years. In January of that year Roe v. Wade forced legalised abortion on us by judicial fiat; even Roe regrets that now. Later that year, the Yom Kippur War between Israel and Egypt initiated our first “energy crisis,” with high prices, long lines and possible gas rationing.
For my part, I was in as deep of gloom as anyone. There seemed to be only two choices out there. The first was communism and (even worse) home-grown social liberalism, with their enforced atheism and widespread loss of life and property. One teacher screamed at me when I had the nerve to cite my parish priest’s interpretation of the Sixth Commandment. The other was the hard, authoritarian conservatism I had been raised with at home. This was not a happy set of choices for someone who wanted to live somewhere else than the power holder/power challenger dialectic which is the norm in the upper reaches of our society, more so now than then.
By God’s unrecognised direction, I made two decisions that would ultimately change everything.
The first was my conversion to Roman Catholicism, done the fall before I graduated. At a liberal Episcopal prep school, this was an act of rebellion, and our school chaplain didn’t miss the point. In addition to getting me into a more conservative church, it also got me out of the “rich kid” millieu and amongst real people. When my brother came to Mass with me, he noted that the people around me looked like they had actually worked with their hands in life. Raised at the church where Donald Trump was married the third time, this was a novelty.
The second was, in its own way, similar to the first: my decision to go to Texas A&M University. Needless to say, this was greeted with horror at school, a horror I did not anticipate. They felt that such a decision dishonoured the school, especially with a graduating class that sent two people to Harvard. But I had my own ideas about where I wanted my career to go and went anyway.
It took two years after graduation for the full impact of these two decisions to make itself known, but when it did, it produced a major crisis. My response at the time was to express myself in fiction; that response can be found in the first instalment of what is now The Island Chronicles, on this site. But ultimately it went beyond fiction; the winds of renewal were blowing, the people around me were real, and I ultimately realised that God did have a reality of His making for me to live in.
Unfortunately many of my contemporaries didn’t have this experience. Some of them ended up as the teachers and school administrators you are leaving behind, but there are more where they came from. The legacy they are leaving is one of confusion. Their idea about “reproductive rights” is solely related to their mania for sexual freedom, which they have turned into making being sexually active the forced norm. Today a decision for chastity is a hard road because of their desire for “freedom;” their main weapon is not the law but peer pressure, which Palm Beach taught me to be a very blunt instrument in the wrong hands. With gay marriage things are even worse, because they taught for so long that marriage was a feudal, hierarchal institution which they neither have the conviction to abolish nor the sense to honour in the form God intended it from the start.
Prep schools are amazing institutions. One the one hand, they tell us that they want us to find fulfilment in life in a very idealistic tone, but when they turn from the abstract to the concrete they cast this fulfilment in terms of material success via getting into “good” universities and entering highly compensated (and/or politically powerful) careers. You, for your part, are doing your duty in both respects. But it isn’t their life, it’s yours. God has given it to you, and the road to fulfilment isn’t the one that school or society says, but the one He set forth for you from what I like to call “negative infinity.” (The ultimate goal, of course, is to be with Him at “positive infinity,” where this site gets its name.
This page and its companion highlight the result of my own voyage. When I sent my first two published books to my prep school’s alumni director, along with an account of my varied career, his response was that “you have lived an interesting life.” God has an interesting life for you too. It’s your choice: make it.