Gang Aft Agley
They did it again. Junior Highs. My Junior Highs. They lifted up an episcopally-rejected itinerant preacher, namely me, and gave him reason to think he was still useful and wanted and loved.
Sunday morning at 5:00 AM I awoke without the aid of an alarm clock, shaved, and hit the road in the bright sunlight of a late June morning. The traffic was thin, no Dunkin' Donuts was yet open, and the trip to Babylon (Long Island, not Iraq) took just a little more than two and a half hours. IHOP served me breakfast while I studied the day's agenda.
My destination was a baptism at the United Methodist Church. The baptizee was the Newsday headliner from a few of months earlier. You can read his and his mom's exploits by going to the following corner of the website: The Quick Arrival of DJE. Donald Joseph Esposito would be one of three babes in arms baptized that morning. Pastor Raymond E. Lange generously agreed to share the honors with the pastor who had presided at the wedding of Donald's parents and had sprinkled the waters of baptism on Donald's mother twenty-five years earlier.
Which is where the Junior Highs figure, little Donald's mom and her sister, Allison and Tracy Starr. In their growing years they were often at Grace Church, participating in most of the activities the church offered young souls: choirs, orchestra, youth fellowship, DVBS, summer camp, etc. Mom, a shot-putter on the South High track team, would often grab my hand at the church door on a Sabbath following the service, and we would engage in a finger squeezing contest to see who gave in first (answer: neither of us). The motto for the youth fellowship was "Join the Junior Highs and see the world." We walked the Brooklyn Bridge. We got seasick at Great Adventure. We ate cookies in the homes of shut-ins to whom we sang carols. We climbed the Twin Towers. We dared the heights of Riverside Church bell tower. We sailed New York harbor on the Staten Island Ferry. And we ate, religiously, at every opportunity at every fast food outlet on Long Island's South Shore.
Poet Robert Burns was reading the mind of God when he penned the oft-quoted line, "The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft agley." Which is the way Burns wrote it but may not be the way you remember it, his point being that we propose but God disposes. So there I was in the spring of 1950 saying goodbye to my eighth grade Sunday School class at the Congregational Church in North Adams MA, smiling sweetly as best I could at a group of junior highs who, by comparison, made West Side Story's Sharks seem innocents. I didn't tell my class as I departed what I was really thinking and promising myself, that never, no never, again would I subject myself to the anarchy of 13-15 year old souls.
I proposed, God disposed. And for the better part of the next fifty-two years I found myself on Sunday afternoons in the company of eighth graders, plus and minus a grade. Thank God, who had a better idea for me. Like this past Sunday morning, with hugs all around, young adults telling me beautiful lies about how wonderful I was, the kind of compliments they were incapable of fifteen years earlier.
The maple syrup on my French toast this Sunday morning was the appearance at the baptismal of yet another Junior High, now forty-seven years old, still as lithe and blond as the afternoons in the Grace Church gym we shot hoops together. She just happened to be there, had no connection with the Starrs or Espositos. She and our daughter Gwen played on the church's girls' basketball team. Donna Gallagher knelt in the aisle beside my bench during the passing of the peace and told me she attended the UMC in Babylon because the preacher reminded her of me. Flattery will get you everywhere. I only hoped God was listening.
God was listening all right. And God was smiling a "gotcha."