Thomas Wolfe, the early 20th century author said, “You can’t go home again.” But both of us recently had a close encounter with the Southeast side of the 1960s in Chicago. We just finished reading The Brown and White, a “fictionalized memoir” written by Lawrence Norris, a 1971 graduate of Mount Carmel. We were so impressed with the author’s stories that neither of us could put it down. Because of its storied format and short chapters, we both finished it in a matter hours (and as John proudly proclaims, ‘not bad for a guy who was in the lowest section for all four years’).
The book was written about a student, the author, and his freshman year at a fictional all-boys HS, “St. Mary’s,” on Chicago’s south side (September 1967 to June 1968). The encounters he writes about between the upper classmen and the new freshmen included many experiences that many of us actually had during our first year at Carmel: being called “Bennies,” being the brunt of the upper classmen’s jokes and high jinx, etc.
Although the book is a fictionalized account, most of us tried to identify every character in the book with someone from our first year at Carmel, 1961 – 1962. Growing up on the South Side of Chicago was and still is a special kind of life.
The book takes its title from the brown and white school bus that the student rode and centers on the many experiences that he had coming and going to school in the turbulent late sixties: passing the (Aquinas, Mercy, Longwood, St. Francis, Loretto) girls who were waiting for their CTA bus, getting harassed by the residents in the “bad” neighborhoods that they drove through, all the while looking out for something or someone special passing by in a car.
The book contains various “hooks” that caught both of us as we scurried through its pages. First, the complex and confusing social aspects experienced in the Chicago during the Sixties (i.e., race relations, assassinations, the Viet Nam war, sportpractices, football games and girls) contributed to the personal development of each and every student at the school in the book, as well as our own. Second, for many us, there was one person at Carmel who had a lasting impression on each of us. In the book, a guy named Willie, the bus driver of the Brown and White, was the adult who had a special impact on the author and the other bus riders. As an unlikely adult, he would have a major role in two of the students’ lives. Third, the portrayals of each fictional teacher triggered our own imaginations, trying to identify each of them. Finally, family played a major roll for the author and for us. Whether ours were a loving and thoughtful family or one filled with dysfunction, the book captured this critical element in the development of each of us.
Finally, we both identified with the book’s main character in numerous ways. His freshmen experiences, in many ways, were our freshmen experiences. We think that anyone who reads this book will feel the same tug back to their freshmen year at Carmel. Mount Carmel High School, then and now, is more than just a school. It is what our society today needs: the challenges of pursuing hard work, following direction, obeying authority, developing right relationships among all students and teachers (regardless of race, academic capability or social background), and being presented with the opportunities to grow physically, mentally and morally/spiritually. The book is all about this growth for the author, and in turn, invites us to reflect on our own growth that we experienced at Carmel.
Mr. Norris did a great job with his book. We believe that new students and alumni should all read this fine work. It will bring back some fond memories for many alumni and contribute in many ways what the brown Our Lady of Mount Carmel Scapular is really about for new students. If you work hard as a boy you will leave a man: Ready to think of others in a challenging world where inclusiveness benefits all, where Our Lady of Mount Carmel points us to her Son, the God who lives with us and in us today, just as we learned in the Sixties hanging around the Chicago’s south side.