I was pasted firmly in the hump of the bell curve in high school. I had about an average number of friends and a modest personal profile, did fine but not super-fantastic in grades, played some sports early on but wasn’t good enough for Varsity Anything, got involved in a few extracurriculars but not a ton of them, and so on. I passed through, I learned a lot, and I don’t think I left any footprints.
But every year, I donate a decent chunk of money to that high school — Helias Catholic High School in Jefferson City, Mo. — in hopes of one day paying back everything they gave me. I’ve been successful for a long time in a really tough profession, and I think it is my high school that deserves much of the credit.
When you tell people you went to a Catholic high school, they start to draft a certain profile: Affluent kids, somewhat protected from life’s harsher realities, whose parents have used their money to buy an education upgrade and get God in the mix, too. But that wasn’t really what life was like at Helias.
First of all, almost all of the area Catholic kids (and there were a lot of them where I grew up) went to my high school. It was surprisingly affordable — and if families couldn’t swing the costs, the school would find a way to make things work. That meant that the school looked a lot more like the area’s overall population than a lot of Catholic schools can claim. We had rich and poor kids, townies and lots of farm kids, tough kids and pushovers, jocks and geeks. It wasn’t perfect — minorities were nonexistent and of course, there was no religious diversity — but it wasn’t some hyper-sheltered private school, either.
I was sick of Catholic school when I started at Helias, but I chose to attend because all of my friends were going there. I felt suffocated and had become confrontational with the nails-tough nuns at my grade school, and I almost got tossed from there a couple of times in my last two years. I assumed Helias would be more of the same.
It wasn’t. The nuns, Christian brothers and lay teachers brought a love of learning with them that I had not seen from many of my grade school nuns, some of whom got to keep their teaching jobs by divine right. There was the moral instruction you would expect from a Catholic school, but it was more of a lead-by-example form of teaching, instead of the beat-you-over-the-head stuff I had gotten in grade school. I loved it. And along with a genuinely terrific liberal arts education, I was taught so many practical skills.
Take Coach Jeffries, to pick just one of many teachers who filled this practical role. He was the wrestling coach at a school that took that sport very seriously, but he also was a history teacher who loved his subject.
To make sure we picked up what he was laying down, he started his classes every year by teaching his students how to take notes. His method — basically a way of writing an outline on the fly — has saved my bacon as a journalist more times than I can count and probably was the greatest factor in keeping my college GPA respectable.
I doubt Coach Jeffries ever thought his note-taking method would turn up in a reporter’s notebook, or that it would be used as the foundation for hundreds (if not thousands) of news stories, or that it would help end the careers of shady congressmen or record the thoughts of presidents, but there you go.
Helias deepened my love of music and literature. It helped me to become a critical, not just skeptical, thinker. It taught me the lasting value of real friendship. It shaped my personal ethics and morals in ways that have stuck, even after I drifted away from Catholicism.
College was valuable — I learned and honed my journalism chops there, and got a few important life lessons along the way — but Helias was transformative. Going in, I was a smart-assed kid heading in the wrong direction. Coming out, I had been shaped into an adult with a decent head on his shoulders. I owe Helias everything, and that’s a debt I plan to keep paying off.