Patrick Walsh is Irish Catholic to the core; a literary man of deep sensibility who absorbs the marvel and futility of life at every turn. The fifth child of eleven, Patrick was raised in The Bronx and Staten Island. Patrick’s father died when he was sixteen. “That’s when I had to be a man, but I didn’t know how to be a man.”
Patrick kicked around for several years after high school and then studied literature at Rutgers. “I was full of Whitman and Kerouac. I had no idea how different America had become.” He spent four years in Barcelona, living as a musician and acting in American TV shows, then returned to teach at his former high school on Staten Island. “After one year I fled back to Spain. I felt like I didn’t belong in the United States, but I realized I didn’t belong in Spain either.” Patrick was drinking, a lot: ten Guinness’s a day he recalls. He needed to change his path, so he walked the 500-mile Camino de Santiago to clear his head.
He returned home. A long relationship ended. Patrick feared a life alone, on a barstool. Then he met his wife Jean, an artist living in a tenement flat in the East Village. Now they live there together, with their eleven-year-old daughter. Three rooms with a bathtub in the kitchen, guitars and paintings hanging on the walls, only one door in the entire place.
Patrick teaches English as a Second Language at a public school in Harlem. Two of his brothers were New York City firefighters; two were police officers. “Teaching in the past ten years has become so difficult. Obama’s Race to the Top wants the best teacher in every classroom. It’s like Bush saying he wants to bring democracy to the Middle East. Who can argue with that? But that’s not what’s going on. We’re so burdened with student tests and teacher evaluations. The single person who most influences my job these days is Bill Gates. Who appointed him to dictate how we educate? It’s his money.”
Almost all of Patrick’s students are black; African-Americans and East African immigrants. “The two groups are so different. The Muslim children are true believers, very devout. The African-American kids have no direction. I don’t blame them. They were raised by corporate America.” They’re not interested in guiding people toward purpose or contentment; they just want to sell things. “When you look at the African-American community since 1620, the Black church was immense. Where is it now? What substitutes for it? The Muslim kids’ lives have form.”
Patrick has found shape and meaning in his own life by returning, in a fashion, to the Catholic faith of his youth. “In the years I wandered in a spiritual wasteland I had freedom but no form. That’s a dangerous thing. I realized that everyone who loved me, who helped me was catholic. I realized how welcome I felt in Catholic countries. Max Weber, in The Protestant Ethic and the Rise of Capitalism, wrote – now I’m being completely reductive – ‘when a Catholic sees a tree, he sees an entity in nature. When a Protestant sees a tree, he sees something that can be cut and sold. That is reflected in cultures. England is a cold country. Ireland, at the same latitude, is hot.” Patrick doesn’t fathom the church’s preoccupation with sex, but he believes Pope Francis is a great man and could lead toward meaningful change.
A few years ago Patrick’s oldest brother and his youngest sister died within a few months of each other. Patrick was thrust into the role of ‘man of the family’. “I did everything I needed, especially for my mother, but I was all bottled up. He found release this time not in alcohol or walking, but in bicycling. He rode the Erie Canal towpath across New York State. Flat against the tight corridor leading to his apartments door is a bicycle he uses to ride to work each day, and also as a relief valve to unleash his spirit.
How will we live tomorrow?
“Unless we develop a conscience, empathy, we cannot go on. Ecology is the obvious example of how we’re failing, but it’s in our social, economic, and cultural lives as well. We are distracted with gadgetry we think gives us freedom, but it does not.
“Obama is a Manchurian candidate, symbolically important but not real change. Bush traumatized this country with his wars and his lies. Then Obama brings on Larry Summers and introduces ‘Race to the Top. I felt betrayed. It was the same stuff, repackaged.”