As anyone who has ever taught a class can tell you: four years in front of a chalkboard can seem like a very long time. Ask most teachers about the prospect of spending FORTY years there, and you're likely to get called — at best — a little crazy.
That's a label that doesn't fit former Catholic High teacher Michael Moran. Hard nosed? Yes. Dedicated, yeah. But not crazy. A 1961 graduate of Catholic High School for Boys in Little Rock, Moran returned in 1968 as a teacher. Over the next 40 years, before his retirement in May 2008, he taught English, Religion, Latin, World History, National Problems, Introductory Mathematics, and Driver's Ed. In the process, he helped shape the life of thousands of young men. Moran's new book, “Proudly We Speak Your Name,” to be published this month by Butler Center Books, is the chronicle of a lifetime spent at one of the state's last all-boys schools.
Moran said that he wrote the book in two months, after a friend talked him into the idea that someone might want to read his reminiscences about the school. He said it wasn't an attempt to be a history, just a recollection. The stories in the book aren't really in any chronological order. Mostly they're just a series of humorous or touching vignettes, ranging from pranks pulled by the student body to tales of the school's legendary rector, the late Father George Tribou.
Some of the best stories in the book are Moran's accounts of epic washouts by newbie teachers. Moran said that because Catholic is males-only, the students find other ways to fill time that — in a co-ed school — might be taken up by the “delightful distraction” of girls. Often, this meant finding new ways to torment those teachers who had been deemed vulnerable to hijinks.
“It's not necessarily so that everybody is well-behaved,” Moran said. “That's an objective of Catholic High and every other school, of course, but you have to be prepared to go to some lengths in terms of effort and awareness to keep high school boys on task.”
For those who weren't prepared to go to those lengths, the results could be the stuff of high comedy. In the book, Moran recalls one new teacher who, day after day, spent the whole class period reading aloud from the textbook. While he was engrossed in the text, the students in class began incrementally scooting their desks toward the front of the class. By the time the teacher raised his head, he was surrounded.
“That teacher's ineptitude was just about legendary,” Moran said with a chuckle. “He also happened to be in the hands of an extremely bright, inventive group of juniors. That combo made for one incredible story after another.”
One can't really write about the last four decades at Catholic without talking about Father (later monsignor) Tribou. The principal of Catholic High for 41 years, Tribou shaped the school in every aspect, from keeping the academics up to snuff, to striking fear in the hearts of rule breakers, to redesigning the senior sweater — modeled after a sweater Tribou had seen Catholic school boys wearing in New York. After his death in 2001, the section of street in front of the school was re-named in his honor. Moran said that Tribou was an awe-inspiring figure to the student body.
“His reputation preceded him at Catholic High,” Moran said. “I ran into a former student of his who is even older than I am who said that he was at Catholic High Father Tribou's first year, and he was fierce from the word go. He was really demanding and uncompromising in his principles. He was a handful from the start, apparently.”
Moran said that Tribou was particularly concerned with making sure the teaching staff was attentive to the needs of the “least attractive, least appealing” boys. The smart kids and the attractive kids, Tribou told the faculty, would take care of themselves.
Asked if the boys have changed along with the tastes in music and hairstyles over the last 40 years, Moran said that he has seen a subtle difference emerge. While he said the smartest students at Catholic are as smart as they ever were — it's a place where it has never been out of style to excel academically, he said — it appears to him that there aren't as many boys in the academic “middle” as there once were. Moran said this might be due to the fact that teens spend so much time on other pursuits: television, games, the Internet and cell phones. For many, Moran said, reading for pleasure is a contradiction in terms.
In terms of the preserving the soul of Catholic High, one of the biggest changes Moran discusses in his book is the move away from clergymen on the faculty. When Moran was a student at the school, he said there were 13 priests who taught regular classes at the school. Now, there's only one. It's a national and international trend, Moran said, caused by fewer young men and women entering the clergy. Moran said that he doesn't like to think about Catholic High without a priest on staff. While the rest of the country wrestles over how much religion in public schools is too much or too little, Moran said that if religion wasn't taught at Catholic High, the school wouldn't have any reason to exist.
“There's a benefit to all the students, just in terms of being made aware of the multiple issues that four years of religion classes can offer,” Moran said. “There's a lot to be learned, trying to take students beyond their childhood understanding of what religion is and heading them toward an adult understanding of what it's about.”