I got the worst kids my size or bigger could give me, especially the bigger ones. They spared no lie, no trick, no punch or kick, no insult or injury, however shameful or brutal. Why? I was a chump. And what was that? Why that was a guy who deserved lies, tricks, punches, kicks, insults and injuries. Doesn’t the logic seem circular to you? It did to me too. Yet I annoyed every kid or grownup I asked for enlightenment, as if I were disputing something as obvious to me as it was to him. They didn’t even really want me to change. I was convenient. So what was a chump? I wasn’t ugly, I didn’t smell bad, I didn’t have a funny voice or raise it, I didn’t do anything disgusting or offensive, belittle other kids or bully them. Nearly all of them were guilty of such sins and yet they weren’t chumps. Or at least they didn’t think so and grownups seemed to agree. I did notice one thing, though. I was always making people mad, even my own parents. It was something I said because I thought it was true or right. They didn’t like hearing it from me, maybe they just didn’t like hearing it.
“You are lazy and twice as big as I am,” I told Russ Kraft, who was picking on me because I was passing and he was failing for the second time. He made a face scarier than comic books, but a teacher was watching so he didn’t get me then. Instead, he waited until after lunch when I went and sat on a swing, alone as usual. The next thing I knew, our hefty school nurse was looking down at me with a light green ceiling over her head. We liked Miss Stanley because she treated us rough and the girls didn’t like her for the same reason.
Only then did I realize it was swollen shut and throbbing with pain.
“Whose fist? I never saw him.”
“ Was Russ Kraft one of them?”
If she had been the principal, Russ would have behaved and done his homework. The right people are never in charge. When Russ saw my eye, he snickered and a chorus of sycophants joined in. Questioned by the principal, the boys who had taken me to the infirmary swore they hadn’t seen who had done it. He told my parents no such incident had ever happened before and would ever happen again. They took his word for it despite the examples I had given them. I didn’t bother to remind them. Once my eye had healed, everybody forgot, except me.
The parents who get the most attention take pride in offspring who can do no wrong. Mine had no such prejudice. Mom: “What did you tell him?”
“ The one who hit you.”
Dad: “No wonder he hit you!”
Mom, rolling her eyes: “It’s always your fault, always.”
Dad: “Yes, your fault.”
Mom: “You told him that? No wonder he hit you!”
Dad: “It wasn’t very tactful to remind him that he’s bigger than you and in the same class.”
Mom: “And calling him lazy!”
Dad: “Rob: What’s the point in getting the second best grades in your class if you never do anything but study? Play ball with the other guys. I wasn’t very good at sports, but I had lots of friends because they could always count on me when they chose up sides. The ones I admired didn’t get the best grades, but they were good athletes and they are doing fine now.”
Mom: “Grow up with your nose in a book and you will sneeze the rest of your life.”
So anxious were they to get me away from books that they enrolled me in Camp Sesquatokee as soon as I was old enough to go. Confiding in my counselor, who had a dapper mustache, they hoped he “could do something with me.” Ken’s smirk reassured them. As soon as they had left, he assigned the smallest boy in Squirrel to the bunk over the biggest.
His smile disappeared, his brow wrinkled, his eyes swelled and his mustache drooped. My complaint seemed so dumb to him that he saw no need to respond. After a second of silence, my bunkmate, who had a raucous voice, burst out laughing and soon most of the others had joined him.
” Waller’s been around,” Ken reassured me. “Show him the ropes, Waller.”
From then on, we saw little of our lieutenant and a lot of his sergeant.
Among the ropes Waller showed me were the tricks a lower could play on an upper. When I could sleep and he couldn’t, he hit the mattress below my genitals with both feet. On target, his third attempt gave me the worst pain I had ever known. My scream delighted him: “ Hey, he’s got balls!”
Again his laughter led a chorus. The next morning, Ken, who occupied a bedroom in the corner of the cabin, asked about the scream.
“ That was Gibbons,” chortled Waller.
“ I just wanted to see if you had any.”
Ken smirked his mustache. “You had a mattress under you.”
Despite their laughter, Waller and his cronies were furious: I had told Ken. Never tattle to grownups, settle your own scores. Later, Waller told me I had better tell Ken I deserved to be kicked for snoring. Hadn’t I waked the whole cabin up? The trouble with snoring is that you can’t hear yourself. A fellow victim told me I hadn’t been snoring, but I had to promise not to say anything so I wouldn’t get him in trouble. Well, I wasn’t going to tell Ken I deserved to be kicked. Waller took that as an excuse to punish me for tattling. For the time being, he contented himself with grabbing me when I tried to clamber past him at bedtime. Cries of pain and humiliation enraptured him and his cronies. I was having my nightmares before I laid down to sleep.
A fervant Rousseauist, the camp director had probably never read Rousseau. Did Lou Page even know who he was? I doubt that this droplet-shaped wrestling coach read much more than sports magazines and the sports pages of The Mapleton Vigilant. The daily dip was a verse in his gospel. Nothing fortified boys, body and soul, like jumping nude into a river at five in the morning, splashing each other, ducking each other, shouting and laughing, maybe even swimming a little bit. Exhorting us constantly to participate, Lou inserted a disclaimer that anyone absolutely had to, for instance those who had “a health problem” (skeptical shrug). He ran a competition between the cabins to achieve the highest percentage of participation, rewarding the winners with an extra scoop of ice cream after Sunday dinner. Nor did he hesitate to pressure reluctants like me by sending unofficial messengers like Ken and Waller to insinuate his carrots and sticks. Even less subtle, the graces he said before lunch and supper often included a request for divine enlightenment of a camper who had done something he shouldn’t have or hadn’t done something he should have. Imagine how I felt when he prayed the Lord to “inspire the little fellow in Squirrel in the top bunk in back on the
left side to follow Jesus’ example and bathe in the river!” How eager I was to expose myself to Waller and his gang! Yet I did like to swim and I knew the initial shock of cold water dissipated quickly if you did a lot of swimming. Neither Ken nor Waller persuaded me when they told me I was keeping Squirrel from winning the extra scoop, but others including my fellow sufferer were more convincing. So I went to dip for a week, we won the extra scoop and everyone treated me pretty well, even Waller although his hypocrisy revolted me.
I had begun to enjoy dip so much that I didn’t want to give it up. I shouldn’t have gone back the next Monday, because Waller and his gang had no further motive to leave me alone. You didn’t win the extra scoop two weeks in a row. Since Lou was vague about the figures, we suspected him of adjusting them to keep the competition exciting. After much hesitation, I got up that Monday and followed the others to the river. Medieval Last Judgments remind me of those naked bodies, all sizes and shapes in frantic agitation. Even the groans and grimaces of the damned resemble the guffaws and grins of dip. The shivering, chattering and dripping, the hair slicked over foreheads, the bouncing genitals and the wild exhileration: was I one of them? That Monday, I didn’t forget Waller and his gang. I stayed in the crowd, close to the two counselors who were taking their turn to watch us. Ken, who was one of them, was bragging about his latest raid on the girl’s camp upstream. Eager for “fresh talent,” he had run out of counselors, so he was sampling the older campers. Lou forbade the wrong kind of language around the boys, so Ken used a code. Every time he shouted “touchdown!” with his mustached leer, the other counselor and the older boys laughed. He scored every time he raided, if we could believe him. One of us could have drowned before he realized anyone was in trouble.
Nothing happened to me while I was in the river, neither Waller nor any of his cronies tried to sneak up on me underwater. I felt relieved when Ken blew his whistle for us to come out, dry off, get dressed and return to our cabins. Each of us had hung his towel and clothes on his peg, Squirrel 7 in my case. My towel wasn’t hanging over the peg as I had left it, but rather by the loop at one end of it. Assuming that it had fallen when someone brushed by it, I looked at it to see if it was dirty. It wasn’t, so I dried myself and put my T-shirt, underpants, shorts and sandals on. At breakfast, my underpants began to itch and soon I was twitching and twisting in my chair. Waller and his cronies were casting furtive glances at each other and trying not to smirk. The itch began to burn and, desperate, I asked Ken at the head of our table: “Sir, may I leave, please?”
All the boys around the table were howling with laughter and Ken’s mustache was smirking.
I tried to get up and leave unprissily, but a roar of laughter dashed my hopes. In the bathroom, I discovered a rash on my genitals, my belly, my thighs and my buttocks. The camp nurse called the camp doctor and they did what they could, but I suffered so much the next five days and nights that I thought of killing myself.
Lou came and saw me in the infirmary, where I was standing because sitting or lying down itched worse. He stared at me like the Grand Inquisitor. "Who did this, Son?”
“ Who were they?”
“ Waller. What did you do to him?”
“ He rubbed your underpants on some poison ivy. Are you going to tell me he did that just for fun?”
“ You said he thought it was funny.”
“ Are you going to tell me he didn’t do it?”
Lou continued to stare as he reconsidered a few seconds. “Were there any other incidents between you and Waller?”
I told him Waller occupied the bunk under mine, he had kicked me and accused me of snoring. Another boy had told me that I wasn’t snoring.
“And you never did anything to Waller?”
“ I know you did... Why did he do these things to you? It takes two to have a fight.”
“ Why doesn’t he like you?”
“ I bet you don’t like him.”
Lou got up and left without a further word.
Later that afternoon, Ken brought me my belongings and told me I would get my meals in the infirmary. I would have welcomed this exile if it didn’t imply that I was responsible for my poison ivy. No sooner had it healed than I heard my parents were coming to take me home. Precautions were taken to ensure that my departure attracted as little attention as possible. My parents cooperated by picking me up ever so furtively. They spoke with no one except the nurse, who alone seemed to suspect an injustice. Although my parents had little to say during our return, they regretted that I hadn’t measured up. Not even Ken and Lou had succeeded in “turning me around.”
I knew my parents better than they knew me. The Lord had burdened them with an unworthy child to try their faith, a blessing in disguise since it implied that their faith exceeded that of others. Yet they envied parents with children who had many friends; pleased teachers, counselors and their parents’ friends; shone in school, on the playground, at camp, everywhere and in everything. My parents’ conception of Last Judgment resembled arrivals at Auschwitz. Sitting at his desk at the end of the line, the Lord motioned the weak to hell and the strong to heaven. The church my parents belonged to and the Sunday school they sent me to reinforced this wisdom by endless sermons and lessons. The man on the throne with the long, flowing beard and the eyes staring through me would send me to hell and my parents to heaven. Wasn’t I already there? Although they weren’t in heaven, the others they envied were. The man staring through us was punishing victims and rewarding aggressors right now. Yet he had created them thus.
Before the sixth grade, I rarely dared to express such ideas, but then I discovered Thelma. A plump black, she often wore the same clothes, worn, faded and too small for her, but clean. She loved to humiliate classmates she caught teasing me. She harassed them into admitting that an opinion of mine they had scorned was right or true. “Pete: what are you fussing about?”
“ Aren’t you rich and lazy?”
“ Doesn’t your Mom drive you to school and home?”
“ My Mom doesn’t. I have to take a schoolbus.”
“ How many have you got?”
Chuckle: “Three? Four?”
“ How far do you live from school?”
“ Three blocks? Four?”
“ Then why don’t you do your homework?”
Thelma confided in me that her Dad was a night watchman and her Mom cleaned offices in the evening, but they wouldn’t let her work because they wanted her to study.
She spent her afternoons in the Mapleton Library, so I was meeting her there, sitting beside her and reading what she recommended. As long as my parents didn’t know about her, they merely nagged me about not playing touch or softball with the other boys. I had given up explaining that the other boys didn’t want a bad player on their team. They weren’t competing for exersise, but rather to win and enjoy the humiliation of their opponents. Wasn’t that the true motivation behind all sports? This question exposed me to another confrontation with Pete and his cronies. Thelma came to my rescue again, forcing them to admit that my stricture applied to them. They hated being confounded as much as losing. Wasn’t it a kind of losing? The first friendship I had ever had ran into trouble when my parents found out about it. Someone must have seen us together going into the library, sitting together or coming out. Although my parents said nothing about Thelma, they joined the Mapleton Country Club and urged me to take advantage of the swimming pools inside and out. Didn’t I like to swim? They had always shunned the Club because it was too expensive. So they thought that they could keep me away from Thelma! I got all the exersize I needed riding my bike to the Club and, after a half hour in the pool, to the Library. Thelma kidded me about my bloodshot eyes and my slick hair.
When Dad found out I was only swimming a half hour every afternoon, he offered to enroll me for tennis lessons. He loved to watch tennis on television.
“ You have to try it and see if you like it.”
“ Maybe you could learn how to win.”
“ What’s wrong with that?
“ Of course!”
“ Well... ”
“ Sure, that’s what makes it interesting.”
He was embarrassed and I felt sorry for him. It may have been the longest conversation we had ever had.
Then Mom took a turn. She had a more forceful approach.
“I enrolled you in cotillion.”
“ It’s for boys and girls your age. You learn how to dance.”
“ It’s a good opportunity to meet nice girls.”
“ Don’t be ridiculous!”
“ Boys and girls don’t mix in school at your age. When you dance with a girl, you get to know her a lot better.”
“ I have already sent them a check.”
“ You aren’t old enough to be asked.”
“ You spoiled a wonderful opportunity.”
“ ... If you had only told Mr. Page the whole story!”
The glare in her eyes warned me to stop arguing. My conversations with her often ended like that. How many of their friends realized that she wore the pants in our family?
These schemes to separate me from Thelma amused her. “ Your Mom’s right: You will get to know other girls besides me.”
“ Maybe some of them will be pretty.”
“ Isn’t that what boys are supposed to like girls for?”
“ Not because I’m pretty.”
“ Would you be jealous?”
“ Other boys don’t like me either. Look: Why do boys and girls like each other? If you think about that, you won’t mind.”
“ All right: you come home with me. Mom and Dad are there so it will be all right. They have some of those gooey records people dance to. They are going to teach us how to dance.”
“ You will wow the others at cotillion. The girls will go crazy, the boys will be jealous and you won’t give a damn. You know what I mean?”
Fillmore, where Thelma lived, boasted sidewalks shaded by fully grown trees. The houses were older, smaller and closer together than in Sheffield where I lived, which didn’t surprise me. What did was that, with few exceptions, they were in good repair and didn’t need painting. I liked the variety of the colors, except for a violent yellow and a sickly green. Although one yard was full of weeds and another, cluttered with discarded furniture, the others were well kept, some with flowers, some with grass and most with both. Most of Thelma’s neighbors were taking care of their own property, so it looked its best. My neighbors’ didn’t because they were paying people to do it for them. The windows in Thelma’s neighborhood were so clean that you could see inside. I was afraid of blacks
would look askance at a white in their neighborhood and especially one with a black girl, but only a few kids stared. A lady we met on the sidewalk greeted us as if she was glad to see us together. Surprized but friendly, Thelma’s parents welcomed me and agreed to teach us how to dance. If I had brought her home with me... How fond and proud they were of her! Her Dad cleared enough space in the living room for one couple to dance and her Mom put some Nat King Cole on. I had never heard of him, but I understood what Thelma meant by “gooey.” Her parents danced to it to show us how, I began to like it and I liked it all the more because I knew my parents would hate it. Then Thelma’s Dad danced with her while her Mom gave advice. After an awkward start and some missteps, she followed his lead. When my turn came to dance with her Mom, I felt a little awkward because I had never been that close to a black woman, not even Thelma. Despite remarks about “niggar stink” by trash like Russ and Pete, I didn’t smell anything. On the contrary, I was afraid of smelling bad myself. It’s harder for a woman to teach a man how to dance and yet they do it better. When my turn with Thelma came, we managed pretty well. After another visit and another lesson, we felt at ease together and enjoyed it.
The day after my cotillion, Thelma asked: “ Well, did you wow them?”
“ Only a while?”
“ You didn’t have to let her know.”
“ So from then on... ?”
“ You sound like you enjoyed it!”
“ So you have been promoted from chump to creep.”
Mom’s check came back a few days later with a letter telling her that her son, who already knew how to dance, had discouraged the other young people by his performance. Mom was so angry that a curl shook loose from her hairdo and kept on shaking. I wondered if her eyes would set something on
fire. Yet she ignored me for the hour it took her to decide what she was going to do to me. Only then did we have a deaf dialogue.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“ How did you learn?”
“ You mean a girl.”
“ What kind of girl?”
“ You know what I mean.”
“ You are playing with words.”
“ You are too old to whip.”
At the Library, I not only got sympathy, which I seldom got at home, but also the opportunity to discuss my troubles with someone who cared. Thelma wasn’t a girl friend, she was an older sister. Leaving the library one afternoon, she took her bus and I rode my bicycle. Taking my usual shortcut through an alley, I encountered three black boys sauntering down the middle. Except for the color, their Afros resembled the puffballs of daisies going to seed. They ignored me until, about to pass me by, they turned and trapped me against a wall on the side. They were grinning. “Hey! where you going, man?” asked the one beside me, who had a gold upper front tooth.
“He going home,” purred the one in front of me. “Ain’t that nice?” A shiny red droplet dangled from his left ear lob.
The fat one behind me had a dagger goatee and a tenor voice: “Maybe you better go some other way.”
Red Droplet: “Like something might happen to you if you go this way.”
Gold Tooth: “This is our alley. We don’t want no whiteys coming through here.”
They kept grinning as if they expected a reply,
Red Droplet: “He don’t want no trouble.”
Again they cackled.
Gold Tooth: “Like messing round wif our sister.”
Fat Tenor: “You sposed to read in a library, you ain’t sposed to sweet-talk.”
Red Droplet: “You got plenty a whitey girls to make out wif at school.”
Red Droplet: “He’s a nice little boy.”
Fat Tenor: “Don’t make out wif nobody.”
Gold Tooth: “But you trying to make out wif our sister, ain’t you?”
I shook my head.
Gold Tooth: “Maybe you better stay way from her.”
Red Droplet: “So nobody get da wrong idea.”
Fat Tenor: “You understand what we are saying?”
Gold Tooth: “Maybe you better go on home now.”
Fat Tenor: “Like it’s getting dark.”
Red Droplet: “Your Momma’s worried bout you.”
Leaving, I heard them cackling. The decision not to tell my parents came at once, the one not to give Thelma up took longer and the one to avoid places where black thugs could prey on me kept me awake that night.
A week later, I was coming home from school, taking another habitual shortcut and carrying my bicycle across a railroad track. Three white boys emerged from behind a trailor on the other side and approached. “Where do you think you are going?” boomed a big one.
“Hey! This is our shortcut,” sizzled a scrawny one.
While my head was turned, the big one took my bicycle away from me. “You owe us a bike.”
Sizzler: “He don’t need one no way, he got shoes.”
“Shoes are good enough for nigger lovers.” That one had a habit of biting his upper lip in the corner of his mouth.
What if a train came along? I was facing the big one when a shove from behind sent me stumbling over the rail and my mouth hit a discarded tie beside the track. Pain was throbbing in my upper lip and one of my two upper front teeth. I clapped my hand over my mouth and blood oozed between my fingers. Grinning down at me from between the rails where I had been standing, the scrawny one sizzled:
“Ain’t got nough sense to get off the track.”
Boomer: “What if a train came along?”
Lip-Biter cackling: “He was going to blame it on us.”
All five of them were standing around me. Were they going to kick me?
Sizzler: “Hey! What’s that red stuff on your chin?”
Lip-Biter: “A beard? His hair ain’t red.”
Another one behind me: “He couldn’t grow whiskers no way.”
The Boomer kicked my feet: “Hey! Get up!”
Another one: “Lying there like a worm or something!”
As soon as I stood up, the big one boomed: “We are going to let you go this time.”
Sizzler: “If we see you with that black bitch again... ”
Lip-Biter motioned me to leave, but I hesitated. “Hey! What are you waiting for?”
Another one: “He told you you could leave, didn’t he?”
Sizzler: “Beat it!”
They howled with laughter, except Boomer. Sizzler yanked a book loose from the pile lashed to the rack on the back of my bicycle. Ripping the pages out fistful by fistful, he scattered them across the railroad. With nothing left but the binder, he looked around, threw it in a briar patch and grinned at me as if daring me to go and get it. Three others followed his example, the first throwing his binder into a muddy ditch, the second, his down a steep embankment and, the third, his into some weeds.
“Poison ivy!” he chortled.
Lip-Biter grabbed my looseleaf notebook, but, increasingly nervous, Boomer took it away from him and handed it to me. Then he gave me my bicycle. “Beat it!” he said pointing down the path.
Despite the pain, the blood and a wobbly bicycle, I worried about Mom’s reaction. Would motherly love finally prevail? How could she blame the victim of such injustice, arrogance and brutality? My bloody mouth and shirt did frighten her, but the shirt as much as the mouth. More than pity for her child, her emotion arose from the challenge of the emergency. Losing my books irritated her, losing my tooth angered her and both against me. She rushed me to our dentist who, as soon as he had taken a good look, yanked the tooth out without warning me. Though severe, the pain ceased before I could yell. At school, I caused a lot of curiosity and particularly that of a pretty girl who had never noticed me before. She kept glancing at me trying to catch me with my mouth open. It took the dentist two appointments and two weeks to close the gap with a false tooth. It closely resembled the live one next to it, except for the top, visible above the gum line. Although I had seldom smiled or laughed, I resisted the urge from then on. Little sympathy did I get from Dad, even less from Mom.
No sooner had I told her what had happened than she wondered how I had provoked my aggressors. If anything like that had happened to Thelma, such a question would never have occurred to her parents. Yet Mom kept asking until I finally retorted:
“ and by hanging around with that black girl!”
Dad: “Our friends’ children would be your friends too if only you made an effort.”
Mom: “You are always doing and saying things that offend people. No wonder they resent it!”
“ A right? What’s that got to do with it? This isn’t happening in a courtroom, it’s happening in the real world.”
“Thanks for answering my letter! There isn’t anybody here I can talk to. Instead of putting up with boys and girls five days a week, I have to put up with boys day and night seven days a week. I can’t go home and forget them until tomorrow. They are everywhere, the dormitory, the dining hall, classrooms, the study hall, the chapel, outdoors. The only place where I can avoid them is the library, but I can’t stay there very long because we have to participate in a sport every afternoon. Imagine how eager I was for football or cross-country! If you can’t or won’t try for a team, they put you on the ‘sweat squad’ for silly games. This afternooon we had wheelbarrow races and we played catch with frisbees. I was such a wobbly wheelbarrow that we came in last and the guy holding my feet was disgusted. Even he hates to lose. They didn’t like the way I threw a frisbee either. It was always hitting the ground in front of me instead of sailing towards the guy I was throwing it to and curving around to him at the end of its flight. I have to admit that the trajectory of a well-thrown frisbee is beautiful, but I wonder if the other guys on the sweat squad care.
“I’m the lowest of the peasants at St. Bernard’s. The knights are all athletes. The head monitor is the tailback on the football team and the monitor on my dormitory floor is a foreward on the basketball team. Everyone admires them, even the teachers. They entered my room without knocking Sunday evening when I was studying. They were glaring at me as if I hadn’t eaten my spinach or something. Why had I spent Saturday afternoon in the library instead of supporting the team like the other rats? That’s what they call us here: ‘rats’! I told them I didn’t think my attendance would have helped much. The Crusaders had lost 24-7. The tailback, who hadn’t gained forty yards, was so mad he sputtered. Substituting for him, the foreward tried to browbeat me into admitting that I had ‘a bad attitude.’”
Here is how that dialogue went:
“ I don’t understand, Sir.” They made us call them “Sir.” “This is a school, isn’t it? What’s wrong with studying?”
“ I wasn’t hiding, Sir, and I wasn’t looking at magazines. I was doing my homework.”
“ I’m sorry, Sir, but that’s not true. I was going to a public school before my parents sent me here. Everything is different and I’m behind.”
“ I have to spend a few every weekday afternoon playing games and stuff.”
“ I was getting all the exersise I needed riding my bike and swimming before my parents sent me here.”
“ Maybe it’s a better school for you than it is for me, Sir. I didn’t want to come here, I didn’t want to waste my parents’ money, but they insisted.”
They looked at each other. Then they urged me to try harder and, sooner or later, I would realize how lucky I was to attend St. Bernard’s. I tried harder all right, but only to avoid offending the nobility. By deeds rather than words, the knights, my fellow peasants and even our teachers had
convinced me that I was the unluckiest boy at St. Bernard’s. Now I realize, however, that others were as unlucky as I was but dared not admit it, even to themselves. School propaganda had convinced them that being unlucky would be their fault.
Here’s the rest of my letter to Thelma:
“You asked me why my parents sent me away to school instead of telling the police about the thugs who waylayed me, especially the white ones who knocked my tooth loose and tore my books up. That didn’t surprize me because they have always regretted that their son is a peasant. When knights mistreat a peasant, it’s the peasant’s fault. Knights are always right because they are arrogant, peasants are always wrong because they are humble. Sounds Medieval, doesn’t it? Yet my parents pride themselves on being good citizens in a modern society. They don’t think they deserve all the things that happen to me. The more they happen, the more they are convinced that they are my fault. If the only friend I have is a black girl, both black and white knights are right to punish me. Sending me away to boarding school keeps me from offending them. But they can’t stop me from writing you and telling you things I would never tell anybody else.”
So much for that letter. Our correspondence continued and it probably kept me from resorting to something desperate. Disdained by the monitors because of my indifference to sports, I alienated the teachers by my skepticism over “religion”, which they lavished on us at every opportunity, from grace before meals to a required course on the subject. I didn’t mind reading the Bible, it was often interesting and sometimes amusing, though rarely because of the lessons our teacher derived from it. A lump of a man, he wore a black suit, a white shirt and a red tie. His head resembled a turtle’s, hence his nickname: “the Nutcracker.” He had a beaklike nose, a carnivorous grin and a predatory gleam in his eyes when he searched the class for a victim. He devoted most of every hour to questioning his students about the Scripture assigned for that day. Taking the passages one by one, he called on a boy to stand, read it and explain it. Then he ridiculed him embarrassing him and inciting the class to laugh at him. For instance, he asked one student standing with his hands clasped in front of him: “Are you a nude statue?”
“ Then you don’t need a fig leaf, do you?”
Some of the class began to laugh even before he understood, blushed and jerked his hands away, but then all of them did including the victim. Nutcracker noticed I wasn’t laughing. The more he humiliated his victims, the greater their prestige with the other boys and he chose his favorites among the knights. on the literal interpretation, the only one expressed in the King James Version. I wonder
if he saved an exception to this rule for me. When he called on me to read John 2:1-11, I noticed that his smile had inverted to a frown.
“ According to this passage?”
“ You mean he didn’t really do it?”
“ No, he certainly wouldn’t have! But don’t you see he created nonalcoholic wine?”
“ Yes, nonalcoholic wine.”
“ The Holy Spirit left it to your common sense. Didn’t you say Jesus wouldn’t have wanted the guests to get drunk?”
The other students were smiling to each other and Nutcracker was smiling too.
“Come now, Gibbons, you don’t have a broken leg. Do you need crutches to walk?”
He laughed inaudibly, tossing his head, thus inviting the other students to roar with laughter. Even after they had stopped, he kept grinning at me expectantly.
Glaring at me ferociously: “What?”
The other students were staring. He waited until the intensity of their scorn had culminated, then he hissed:
“Listen, young man: This will be the most important lesson you will ever learn. There is no fool like a learned fool, no sin more arrogant than trifling with Holy Scripture and nothing more unhealthy at your age than roosting in a henhouse... Sit down!”
Everywhere I went and everything I did from then on, I heard a clucking of hens.
If you want freedom of thought, you have to keep your mouth shut. I never could keep mine shut. A course on the history of Christianity gave me my next opportunity. Lurking behind thick glasses, little blue eyes looked at you without seeing you or saw you without looking at you and you didn’t know which. The students admired Dreamsee as much as the Nutcracker. Every hour, he exposed the facts as he had selected them without hinting at any opinion and then, during the last fifteen minutes, encouraged us to express ours. You might have expected a variety of conflicting opinions. On the contrary, his students recited church propaganda as if they had thought of it themselves. They disagreed with each other, for instance, only on the degree of Christian righteousness and Muslim iniquity. St. Bernard came off as the Churchill of the eleventh century. They agreed with each other so vociferously that they ran out of steam before the end of the hour. I was keeping my mouth shut, but Dreamsee nodded in my direction and words gushed forth as if from Moses’ spring. The Crusaders were a barbarian horde all the more eager to destroy, kill, pillage and rape because they thought God wanted them to. Hadn’t Bernard led the Church in preaching this lie on the excuse that the Muslims were threatening the Holy Land? At the cost of catastrophic losses, the expedition didn’t even achieve the conquest of Damascus, the irrelevant objective its leaders had settled for. Resentment over these futile assaults on a superior civilisation continued among the descendents of the Muslims who survived it. Only Bernard and the Church profited from the debacle when they acquired the lands of the knights killed on the crusade. He had found a more cunning policy for the liquidation and spoliation of his rivals than Hitler and Stalin. The Church promoted him to saint for it. The other students in the class were seething, but Dreamsee observed me as calmly as ever. “You consulted the works in the bibliography.”
I must have been the only one in the class. Outraged, both the knights and the peasants were muttering. They treated me like a leper from then on.
Puberty didn’t sneak up on me any more than others my age. Wasn’t sex beckoning in every movie, TV show, magazine, etc.? Though never as sexy as actresses and models, girls were flaunting themselves through the shopping mall near St. Bernard’s. Pascal might have described them as village princesses. On the other hand, the young ladies invited to football games, parties and weekends by the knights were even more exciting than the professionals, because we could see them walking and dancing, hear them talking and laughing, get a whiff of their cologne as they passed. Low cut at the top and high cut at the bottom, their clothes displayed their flesh, which invted caresses. The knights
held them by the hand, an arm around their waste, kissed them when no one was looking and everyone was watching, gave them a discreet pat on the nearest buttock, for all of which the ladies advertised their appreciation. Nor did the exploits in parked cars and motel rooms escape us. Competing in this sport too, the knights bragged so loudly that all of the peasants and even a few teachers knew the details by the next afternoon. As usual, the peasants imitated the knights, taking satisfaction in less charming and less brazen girls, in other words, peasant girls. With all of this going on around me, how could I ignore the need for a girlfriend? Although I could dance pretty well, who would accept an invitation from an atheist who hated sports? So what if I had decent grades in all my subjects except religion? We could invite out-of-town girls, but I didn’t want to subject Thelma to my ostracism. While we had token blacks at St. Bernard’s, they were athletes on scholarship and therefore black knights who dated black girls. Not only would Thelma and I be the only mixed couple, but also the only sexless one. I couldn’t imagine kissing Thelma. Our friendship just didn’t fit that mould.
I had resigned myself to sitting parties and dances out in the library when the least enlightened of the peasants began to smirk and sneer again. I say “again” because they had already waged campaigns against the atheist who didn’t like sports. They had burnt crosses into my textbook covers in my room where the rules forbade them to enter. They had also chalked crosses on the backs of my sweaters and the sport coat I had to wear to dinner, chapel and church. I had to take the coat to the cleaners to get rid of the dust. At Homecomings, they spray-painted one of my sheets with the words “Beat St. Bernard’s” and hung it from my window. Imagine how the alumni took that! The latest campaign against me didn’t puzzle me for long since my enemies were asking me questions and making remarks about my absence from events where girls were present: “ He hates sports, he hates Jesus, he even hates girls!”
I was queer! To drive the point home, they warned everyone to stay away from me, hence a space around me everywhere I went. My roommate asked if he could move to another room, the boys who sat next to me in the dining room asked if they could move to another table. No one sat next to me in the chapel where benches accommodated all of the boys only if they squeezed together and three of them stood in back. Nor did anyone sit near me in class. When I sat at a table in the library where others were seated, they left.
Determined to humiliate me by inflicting a homosexual reputation on me, they couldn’t have cared less if I really was a homosexual. Indeed they were rejoicing in this hypocrisy. Their injustice revolted me and drove me to confound them. No sooner had I decided to invite Thelma to Easter Weekend, however, than I got a letter from her. There were things, she reminded me, that she couldn’t tell anybody else either. She had met a boy whose company she enjoyed and with whom she had a lot in common. His name was How for Howard. He took an interest in his studies, he read a lot, he wasn’t crazy about sports, he even liked serious music. Since he and Thelma liked each other, he had suggested that they go steady and she had accepted. She had told him about me, explaining that I was a friend and not a boyfriend, but he was jealous. That made her laugh, but I didn’t laugh.
You were expected to have a date at Easters. Even the other peasants subject to ridicule had one. I must have been the only boy at St. Bernard’s who didn’t. I roosted most of that weekend in the henhouse, where I didn’t go unnoticed. Since the others had branded me as a queer, I decided to read up on homosexuality. At first, all I could find were books and articles that condemned it on the grounds of health, morality and religion. The authors trumpeted their abhorrence and muted their ignorance. The librarian, a stout middle-aged woman, offered to help. Assuaging my embarrassment by kindness I hadn’t expected, she found some works devoted to adjacent but less controversial subjects. They contained chapters or paragraphs about gays, a word I didn’t even know. The more I read, the better I understood the arrogance of ignorance and the misfortune of exception. Since I didn’t even have a date for Easter Weekend, I must have hated girls as much as I hated Jesus and sports!
This conclusive evidence emboldened my persecutors, who began that Monday to sneak up behind me and goose me. My reactions incited hilarity and further attacks, so I couldn’t go anywhere without taking awkward precautions. A fellow victim who had always avoided me approached and started sympathizing with me. Hearing someone run up behind me, I spun around and slugged him in the nose, which spurted blood. I turned on the false friend, pummeling him and driving him backwards. Then I felt a painful grip on my shoulder. It was Bull O’Grady, a guard on the football team, who had laughed earlier that morning when someone goosed me. Restrained by him, I was an easy target for the gooser who was kicking me and the traitor who was slugging me.
“ Your own medicine!” he growled. Turning me around, he started me off.
A headmaster worshipped by boys present and past, Crack Hickory had earned his nickname by his performance in the three balls and his charisma in the classroom. His chiseled face and sculpted body inspired respect by even the disrespectful. He stood all the straighter because he was short and he looked you in the eyes as if he were reading your mind. You stood in his presence while he walked around you firing questions, to which he expected an immediate and pertinent answer. He treated you like a sergeant disciplining a recruit whoever you were and whatever you had done. Everyone agreed that he would have made a wonderful officer, although he had never served in the armed forces. He didn’t have to ask me my name, class, dormitory and floor, hometown and grades, all of which he recited with a frown over my 81 in religion. Glancing at Bull: “Why did you bring him to me?”
“ With whom?”
“ What did they do to him?”
“ Only when I speak to you, Son... All right, tell me the rest of the story.”
Crack went over to him: “True?”
“ Why are they goosing him?”
“ Do you think he is?”
Glance: “Not unless I speak to you... ” Staring at Bull: “Why do you think he doesn’t like girls?”
Coming over to me: “Do you like girls?”
“ Why don’t they like you?”
“ Is there anything wrong with you?”
“ Yes, that’s what I mean.”
“ Then what is it like?”
“ Because the truth hurts?”
“ Give me an example.”
Crack was digesting what I had said. “That’s an honest, sincere and courageous example, Son. [Glancing at Bull:] I don’t get one like that very often. I’m going to ask your parents not to send you back. This is the wrong school for you. But you have been getting good grades. Study hard for finals and keep on wherever you go? OK?”
“ I want everyone to know right away: There will be no more goosing.”
I could hear the boys singing “Gaudeamus igitur” in the gym when my parents came to take me home. Despite their anger, resentment and disappointment, I could tell that they wondered what was being sung. Finally Dad asked, so I gave them a rough translation:
“ Rejoice, for we are young! After happy youth and aging misery, we will be buried.”
And I was thinking: ‘What’s so happy about youth?’
Little was said during the trip home, not even about my finals.
Dad had found a job for me that summer in the warehouse of Bogan, Shazzo, a company that distributed automobile parts. As soon as the director saw me, he sent me upstairs where the smaller parts were stored. I saw
the second-floor superintendent in his air-conditioned office, where a large window exposed rows of shelves outside. He explained that parts were constantly coming in from manufacturers and going out to stores. Since his employees were busy putting them on the shelves and taking them off, they didn’t have the time to keep them tidy. Different types were jumbled together in some places despite empty spaces in others. An employee in a hurry might confuse one with another. My job was to separate the types from each other and spread them out evenly on the shelves. Hot air slapped me as I left the office and I dreaded working all summer long under a roof heated by the sun. The work wouldn’t have bored me if I could have learned the purpose of the parts. Most of the labels on the shelves mystified me. The permanent employees could have told me, but I noticed that they were avoiding me and even ignoring me when they approached looking for a part. What was wrong with me now? When lunch hour finally came, the others took their lunch boxes and thermoses downstairs and outside where they sat under some trees. I started to follow them, but they let me know by the expression on their faces that I wasn’t welcome. Stopping at the vehicle exit, I was looking for another shade to sit in when a fork truck rumbled up and the driver, who had a patch over his eye, shouted: “Hey! Lunch with me!” He pointed at the empty palette on his forks and I sat on it. Driving around to the side of the building, he stopped by a slope ten yards up to a barbed-wire fence. As he hopped down from his seat, I noticed that he had a stiff leg; otherwise, he looked like a boxer. Despite his handicap, he climbed the slope faster than I could. Grabbing an upper and a lower strand of wire, he spread them and beckoned for me to go through. Then he jumped through and let the wires go. We sat down under an oak and each of us had eaten half a sandwich before he said anything more. I have never seen anyone who looked more dangerous.
He jerked his head towards the other employees: “Cold shoulder?”
He made a kind of snort that substituted for a laugh. “Call me Claw. OK?”
“ Not what you did. What you are.”
He gave me a look that nearly made me shudder. Was he trying to decide how he was going to rebuke me? We had finished our first sandwich before he spoke again. “Nobody can help what he is. Everybody can help what he does.”
“ You know what I mean?”
I lived for lunch with Claw that summer. Mornings and afternoons, I wondered if dying were as bad as the heat. I was sympathizing with witches and heretics burned at the stake. Sweat flowed down my body, wetting my arms and hands, which I had to dry with a rag, and all the way down to the floor.
He sounded almost sympathetic. Yet they continued to avoid and ignore me, which Claw attributed to a belief, encouraged by the union, in their right to fill all vacances with their relatives and friends. I was just a rich kid taking a job away from a poor kid who needed it. Claw had a gift for expressing complex ideas with a few rough words. Dreamsee, whose eloquence occurred to me then, would have built an elaborate sentence that required little analysis by his students. How easy it had been to take notes! I couldn’t have listening to Claw because he kept me busy thinking. “ Your father did you a favor.”
Claw nodded: “See things up close... The company wants labor. The union wants power. What do the employees want? Money. Anything for money, the things money buys. Slaves, all of them. Freedom? Democracy? Bullshit!”
He didn’t belong to the union, associate with the other employees, lick the boss’s ass. But he did like to work and the harder the work, the better he liked it. He liked it best when it was raining or snowing, when the wind was blowing hard. Lightning and thunder? He looked for excuses to go outside. Work with his eye, his hands, his arms and his legs, the steel and plastic one as well as the bone and flesh one. Get the job done and done right, even if the boss expected something different. The boss had learned not to fuss. When the men loading or unloading his forks needed help, he jumped off and gave it to them. He could lift and carry as much with “one and a half legs” as they could with two. His mind was working just as hard too. How could he do this job better, how could he do others better, even others he had never done before. No one on the ground floor knew better where to store or find things, how to make room for more. If he quit or the boss fired him, he would have another job the next day. The boss would have to hire two or three men to replace him and how many weeks would it take them to learn the job? “ I’m free because the company needs me and I don’t need the union. I’m free because I’m doing what I like and earning all I need. I’m free because I don’t have to ask nobody for nothing.”
“ Sure I mind! But I’m free. You got a woman, you got kids, you got friends: you belong to them, you ain’t free. If you want to be free, you got to pay for it.”
Did I have enough in the bank?