“You all look like semi-educated cows chewing intellectual cuds,” the dome-headed sexagenarian remarked, not unkindly. We hovered over an Entenmann’s Danish ring that looked fresher ten days earlier when opened and not exposed to the faculty lounge’s also unfresh cigarette reek. Male students at a Catholic high school didn’t understand dishwashing or hygiene. We didn’t know what cuds were. Few fifteen-year-olds do. Br. Eugene didn’t explain; finding answers was our duty, our problem. The dozen sophomores and juniors crammed in that lounge had their own reasons for taking a six-week summer course on Greek literature: college board ambition, parental pressure, curiosity. After a tenth grade honors English course in which we crunched on the dialectical subtleties of Clive Cussler and Dean Koontz, understanding Aeschylus’ concept of justice in Prometheus Bound gnarled our brains at 8:30 a.m.
Teaching with a mix of seriousness and camp, Br. Eugene held our attention. It helped that this man of Polish descent looked like a Roman senator. The domed head, yes, but the plump sensuousness of his cheeks and long-fingered hands, the unyielding way in which his milky blue eyes held yours, the casualness with which his body accommodated itself to desks and chairs. Like his mentor Edith Hamilton, he taught with no additional material; to write a name or idea on the board signaled a surrender to our collective torpor. He was the first teacher who stopped us if you interjected that reflexive placeholder, “like” and its close cousin “you know” (“But I don’t know” came the automatic response). I quit the habit (I’m likelier to use “ahm”). We read Sophocles, Aristophanes, the Iliad, Odyssey, and that dullest of lifts The Aeneid; Virgil writes like a lawyer attempting a novel.
I got little chance of relaxing. The sheer weirdness of Eugene’s erudition compelled me to register for his yearlong humanities course my junior year. And what a year. From Etruscan pottery to Rauschenberg’s graphic art, Eugene kept our attention. Haydn, Verdi, or Mozart pieces would greet us from a CD player. Some of the most execrable writing known to man he endured when he assigned us to describe a symphony; the adjectives swarmed like gnats. In an elegant penmanship whose curved vowels betrayed no Palmer method influence, he left scabrous comments, some of which I can recite like the Lord’s Prayer: “Your argument is flat, weak — what is its basis?” He owned several tons of art books; how he got them my friends and I would nastily speculate. That year it was full-on Eugene. Besides Humanities, I qualified for membership in Erasmus, named after the Renaissance figure. An honors society that met every other Tuesday in our library, Erasmus picked a theme or period of study for nine months. Ours was the Enlightenment. We read Candide and Dumas and discussed Hogarth and Gainsborough and les philosophes. As an addendum to Humanities, it couldn’t be bettered. We offered Eugene the sincerest gesture of flattery that students are capable of: imitation. We’d make up obscenities or just utter simple sentences mimicking his breathy peach fuzz of a voice that often surprised us with its glints of malice.
Like many an adolescent crush, its intensity waned. He repeated himself something fierce. He’d earned that right after almost thirty years of teaching at that point. But to high schoolers who can barely grasp the reality of what twenty-five or, yikes, forty might look like, teachers aren’t men or women but imitations of them. Even if we dig what they teach, we rarely linger on them as people. In a sense Eugene made it easier to go on thinking this way. We knew he once owned a sheepdog named Brandy. He had a nephew named Chris because he called my buddy Greg Chris because, Eugene said, “you two are terribly similar-looking.” Otherwise we didn’t know what background he had to transcend to attain a mind so capacious. Marist Brothers aren’t Jesuits; their energy and pragmatism distinguish them from the other Catholic educational orders. I admire my Columbus tenure because it never confused aesthetics and asceticism. Many brothers shared tolerant views of homosexuality and the Church allowing marriage. Abortion wasn’t a cudgel. This particular Marist cohort was a Bah-ston working class capital-d-Democratic kind. Eugene himself served as Columbus’ treasurer for several years, a living example of the horse shit of the left brain/right brain canard: he could read Italian and ancient Egyptian and handle the hieroglyphics in the school’s ledgers.
A mind made noble leads a noble life, he liked to say. He coined the phrase. If he cribbed it, I wouldn’t hold it against him. His belief in the ennobling and civilizing capacities of art — especially painting — rivaled his ostensible religious devotions. An absurd binary. His Neoplatonist’s view of God fed his aesthetic appetites. To love Titian and Hans Hoffman was to love God because they manifested God. Other than his beloved Dante and the librettos of W.S. Gilbert (he took Erasmus to a local production of H.M.S. Pinafore), he had little taste for literature, surprisingly. Fine. During an era when I scratched poem and story after story in spiral notebooks, I admired the idiosyncrasy as a principle.
I saw Eugene just once after graduation. At the performance of a play I attended as a rare and unrepeated gesture of nostalgia, I spotted him in the back row, laughing loudly in the right places. Br. Eugene Trzecieski — jus’ folks! He struggled to remember my name when I said hello to him afterward: he made sure to insert it in the right places in the manner of a candidate for public office who wants to demonstrate he cares. I was slightly hurt — this is the thanks for enduring him four consecutive semesters? Now I realize the polite standoffishness was purest Eugene. He’d fulfilled his mission: he’d tried to ennoble my mind. To ennoble my life was my duty, my burden. Looking backward he admired in scholars, not people.