Autumn 2007 Haverhill, Massachusetts, is a rusty, decaying old industrial town. It peaked in the 1940s, when it was the hub of shoemaking and leather-tanning. Hitler wanted to bomb it so our boys on the Western Front would have to trudge through the brutal German winters without boots.

The local gentry – lawyers and farmers – all send their kids to Sacred Hearts. It’s your typical North of Boston Catholic school. The walls are painted that drab pinkish-beige and bear either a Crucifix or a statue of Mary. The teachers all have Italian or Irish names and a low tolerance for insubordination. Boys are made to wear white polos and blue trousers; girls, white blouses and plaid, blue-and-grey skirts. Most are the grandchildren of immigrants. A few (mostly the Hispanics) are immigrants themselves.

I get teased relentlessly for being fat, bookish and Presbyterian. Kids will find any excuse to be mean to each other, but the priest is no help. One day, during religious education, he uses me to demonstrate extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. I’m the Protestant boy, aren’t I? Yes, Father. Well, no heaven for me. The following year rumours about his behaviour start up, and he disappears.

The new priest is Japanese. All the students love him, but I’ve soured to all this Catholic business. My teacher makes me go to First Confession with all the other students. When my turn comes and the priest begins his prayer, I hold my hands up. “Don’t bother,” I snarl. “I’m Protestant.”

He looks hurt, says a little blessing, and lets me go. I leave the confessional feeling triumphant – and, for some reason, a little ashamed.

Spring 2010 I did well at Sacred Hearts and earned a place at St John’s Prep in Danvers, Massachusetts – an idyllic, rural all-boys’ Catholic school. Most of the students here, too, are the children or grandchildren of immigrants. My best friend is Polish and wants to go to seminary. (He ended up working for House speaker Paul Ryan instead.)

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