Jason Doyle was the odd man out on this particular trip. Mrs. O'Brien the Guidance Counselor forced him to attend the student conference with three of his peers even though he didn't exactly subscribe to the mission statement and goals of St. Anne's Catholic High School.
Jason found himself in Janet Ranier's car travelling to Corpus Christi Catholic High School in Wethersfield CT along with his three colleagues - Janet, Sally Hodges, and Hannah Johnston –fellow high school seniors and friends who were among the brightest, most popular, and spiritual of the school. In other words, as far as Jason was concerned, bores!
Jason attended St. Anne's by default. He got kicked out of The Sunrise Lake School For Boys sophomore year for smoking pot on school grounds. He was asked to leave Hillsboro High a year later for lack of attendance – even though he was maintaining an A average in all his classes. So it was on to St. Anne's Catholic even though Jason wasn't particularly religious.
Jason's father warned that St. Anne's was his son's last stop and that if he washed out a third time – well, there was always that military school in Vermont that would be glad to take him. Jason was a fish out of water at St. Anne's but he walked the line as best he could because he knew the military academy would be even worse.
Jason learned to tolerate his more zealot St. Anne's classmates although sometimes he felt he was among The Walking Dead because it seemed that many of the students were brainwashed in their religious beliefs which Jason found frustrating, especially during the last election cycle. But he learned to keep his opinions to himself and he focused on getting through the school year to graduation without incident.
Not that everybody in the school were Saints and Angels, but Jason came with a reputation that left him on the outs with many of the more well-behaved crowd and he did little to try to change such opinions. If people wanted to pre-judge and stereotype, so be it. He mostly kept to himself, a book always in his hand to read instead of having to talk to people.
Jason knew his three car companions were among the intellectual elites of the school. Janet was uptight and suspicious, but a brain. Her close friend Sally was critical, opinionated and a bit of a snob, but she was a great debater. Hannah, who was sitting in the backseat with Jason, was quieter and shyer than the other two, positive and friendly, and she seemed to be more open to other viewpoints and she didn't wear her religion on her sleeve like the others who walked their Faith every moment in constant worship, prayer, and Bible quotes. Jason easily got annoyed at the typical devout Christians who saw everything through the eyes of Christ. 'Oh, look, a dog crapping on the front yard, isn't that a beautiful sight from God?'
The good news was all three were attractive girls which made it easier for Jason but he still felt like a kidnap victim being taken against his will to the stupid conference. He had to resist the urge to write a ransom note. Jason wasn't paying attention to the mindless conversations of the others during the trip, concentrating on the paperback in his hand he was reading. It was a cold late winter's day with a steady rain falling. Janet was going on about outside Christmas lights even though it was now March. Sally wanted to talk about the conference and their exhibition – all set on the power point – but what was there to talk about? They were prepared and good to go but Sally was still full of anxiety.
"Why do we have to compete with the others?" She complained.
"It's not a competition," Hannah said. "It's just a presentation."
"I wish I didn't care about what others think, but I do," Sally groaned. It's human nature."
"You set the bar way to high most of the time," Janet observed. "It's easy to fall short when you do that."
"If I don't succeed a part of me dies inside," Sally said.
"There is a difference between a desire to become better and an obsession not to fail," Hannah said.
"Sally always wants to be the star," Janet noted.
"What's wrong with that?" She pouted.
"Nothing," Hannah assured her friend. "Everybody is a star in someone else's eyes but sometimes we don't realize we already are that star burning brightly in the night sky."
Jason gave Hannah a funny look.
"What?" She asked defensively.
"Nothing," Jason said, deciding not to get into it with her.
"You don't think I'm sincere?" Hannah wanted to know.
"Oh, I'm sure you mean what you say," Jason replied.
"But life is rarely that Pollyanna," Jason replied.
"It is if we allow it to be," Hannah argued. "Are you criticizing me for having hope?"
"Faith isn't one-sided," Janet agreed. "Jesus is always on our side."
"Do you three trust me?" Jason challenged.
There was an awkward pause of indecision.
"About as much as you trust us," Sally said sarcastically.
"We're still getting to know you," Hannah said more diplomatically. "You'll need to share more about yourself for the three of us to want to become friends with you."
Janet drove the car off the interstate exit ramp and they used her GPS as well as some written directions to find the Catholic School in the rain. It was a large brick building behind a church. They parked in the lot and ran through the rain to the main exit, Jason observing how well dressed and presentable his three classmates were. He had been told to wear a shirt and tie – which he did, but with jeans, sneakers and a leather jacket and as soon as they entered the auditorium Jason stood out from the other males – all of who were wearing suit jackets, trousers and shoes with their shirts and ties, some of the representatives wearing school uniforms.
There were five Catholic schools participating in the conference, each with their own topic to present. There were a couple of Priests in attendance along with host faculty members and students from Corpus Christi. After the introductory prayers, a couple of singers sang motivational songs, including Janet who sang "Praise to the Lord" in front of the gathered.
After a few motivational speeches, the schools made their presentations. Corpus Christi led with 'Dare To Prepare Your Heart,' inspiring and challenging teens to prepare their hearts to serve God and people.
"Your hearts are like soil and in order to grow seeds, it must be prepared," one of the students said, urging those gathered to cultivate their hearts with the Word of God and water it with Faith to produce 'Fruits of the Spirit'.
St. Joseph's Catholic School presented their 'Maximum Strength For God' topic, discussing the importance to exercise both physically and spiritually to live up to God's potential. Appropriately enough, all four students were student athletes and talked about spirituality in sports.
St. Anne's topic was 'Fruit of the Spirit,' presenting how the 'fruit of the Spirit' favors love, joy, mercy peace, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Janet talked about loving God and others. Sally discussed the joy of Mercy and Forgiveness in daily lives. Hannah talked about peace, kindness, goodness and gentleness in everyday life. Jason was tasked with talking about self-control and he got a few laughs (including to his surprise from Hannah) ad-libbing and cracking jokes but he was honest when he talked about his pot-smoking days and his lack of commitment at his previous school.
"We need to be careful about the number of chances we think we get in life," Jason warned. "Because you never know which one will be your last."
St. Michael's talked about 'Doing Something' to make a difference in the world – walking the walk and not just talking the talk, including random acts of kindness.
St. Elizabeth gave their presentation on 'Christmas in Summer.'
"Oh, I wish we got that one!" Janet said from the St. Anne's row when the topic was introduced.
The St. Elizabeth's quartet talked about celebrating Jesus all year round instead of just at the holiday season by taking the opportunity to celebrate God's love and life and share that love in service and gifts to others.
In addition to the presentations, there were breakout sessions with the student groups separating out into teams made up of one representative of each school to review topics in a more intimate groups led by peer mentors.
Jason found interacting with people he didn't know to be awkward and uncomfortable so he didn't participate as freely as the others and he smiled at the ironic realization that he'd rather be with his St. Anne's classmates! He stayed to himself during the breaks reading his book – at least until Hannah noticed and began hanging out with him during such occasions.
"You don't mingle well," she observed, taking a seat next to him in the cafeteria where the snack table was set up.
"Never send an atheist to a Catholic conference," Jason quipped.
"You're not an atheist," Hannah determined.
"Well, agonistic anyway," he volunteered.
"I doubt that," Hannah said.
"What makes you say that?" He asked with surprise.
"I've seen your soul," she answered.
He gave her one of his patented funny looks.
"Last Fall," Hannah explained. I was standing in the third floor stairwell looking out the window and some of the underclassmen were picking on that special needs kid when they thought nobody was watching."
"Jeremiah," Jason said.
"Asperger's I think," Jason clarified.
"You were sitting underneath one of the trees with your face buried in a book as usual but you noticed what was going on and you went over and rescued the kid," Hannah recalled.
"That doesn't make me a Christian," Jason argued.
"If you do something Christian you are Christian," Hannah reasoned. "Even if you don't believe in God – which I don't believe you don't – God still believes in you."
Jason gave her a smirk, noticing perhaps for the first time how pretty she actually was with her long brown hair and probing eyes. Her chin had a Kirk Douglas divot in it and Jason noticed a small faint scar on the side of her mouth now that he was close up to her.
"You don't have to be nice to me just because I'm stuck here," Jason said.
"I know," she smiled. "I'm just generally a nice person!"
He laughed and she laughed with him and it was the first time in a long time Jason felt uplifted by a classmate.
"So, what's your real story?" Hannah asked.
"My real story?"
"Why are you at St. Anne's?"
"What'd you hear?"
"You beat some kid up at Sun Rise Lake and you got beat up by some kids at Hillsboro High," she answered.
Jason laughed. "I didn't even know I was a boxer!"
"I knew you weren't a mass murderer," Hannah remarked.
"You sure?" Jason asked.
'You're reading Anne Tyler," she observed, gesturing toward the dog-eared copy of St. Maybe in his hand. "I figured your story is much more emotional and cerebral."
"You mean dysfunctional," Jason said.
She bit on her bottom lip. "That too," she said.
"This is just a prop," Jason said, lifting up the paperback. "To fit the occasion."
"Only you always have a book in your hand," Hannah countered. "John Irving. Anne Tyler."
"Have you been stalking me?" Jason wondered.
She blushed. "I've been noticing you," she clarified.
Hannah was rescued by the start of the next session – a long talk by one of the visiting priests about Chasity and temperance, not exactly the topic Jason wanted to hear sitting amongst his three attractive classmates.
"Are you virtuous people?" The Priest asked. "Do you respect yourself? Each other? Do you believe in waiting until your wedding night? Do you believe in the sacrament of marriage? Are you proud of your virginity?"
"Can I get an Amen," Jason said quietly and that sparked a giggle from Hannah although Janet made a face at him.
"If you can't be serious about this you shouldn't be here," she complained.
"You're my ride," Jason replied and that caused Hannah to smirk some more.