School Days

:: Cruelty ::

In recalling Junior High School, I remember mostly our cruelty. We were seventh grade boys whose reading matter leaned towards war and torture. We were fired up on testosterone — a new drug we did not handle well — and felt the rush of freedom as we were actually allowed into the halls to change classes. We were at liberty to victimize the small and weak; I was one of the small and weak, but still part of the group that mocked the retarded kids, the special education students, who had their own classroom with its giant “how to tell time” clock we could see through the doorway as we passed, lowering our voices to foghorn depths for a call of “ree-taaard” on the way to our next class.

Miles had been in my class for a while, in elementary school, a boy who always wore a black suit, white shirt and tie, and carried a briefcase. He had glasses with extraordinarily thick, filmy lenses, and tight curly hair that he would twirl with his fingers, inspect closely, and then pop into his mouth, eliciting sudden inhalations or soft cries of “oh” from anyone who happened to be watching him. He ate his boogers, too. Miles was a gentle soul; I think some of us actually tried to help him with his work, but he ended up in the special ed room anyway, in exile.

Billy was a very large boy who decked me in the shower after gym. My head came midway up his back, an enormous back still wet because he did not know how to towel off parts of his body he could not see. Instead he waved his towel over his shoulder and then put on his clothes, the water soaking through his shirt. While we were dressing I bumped into him and was halfway through “excuse me” when he pushed me down hard on the slippery concrete. “It was an accident, Billy,” my friends said, and they calmed him down before he could floor me again.

Gary was as huge as Billy, and had a nose like a beak and eyes like a mad stork behind his glasses. We would say his last name under our breath as we passed him in the hall, causing him to swing around with a “what? what?” expression.

Harpo was the boy who finally made us feel shame. He was called Harpo because he looked and acted just like Harpo Marx — light curly hair, eternal smile, never spoke, even dressed like Harpo, everything but the horn and top hat. Of course we said, “Hey, Harpo!” every time we saw him and he would smile back like a lunatic.

One sub-zero winter morning, we were trudging to school, dreading the moment at the door when we would have to reach out to grab the curved brass handle, so cold you could feel it chill your bones right through your mitten. But as we turned the corner of the walk, looking up through the steam of our breath, there, holding the door open, was Harpo. He wasn’t wearing gloves; he wasn’t even wearing a coat or hat. He was standing out in the cold, one step down from the doorway, leaning way back, holding the door wide open barehanded, smiling insanely and nodding at each of us as we stepped inside. “Thank you,” we said, and he grinned. “Come inside, Harpo,” we said, but he stood out there until every student had come into the school.

I don’t know if we learned everything about cruelty that morning, but I do remember that we made no more jokes about Harpo.

:: Dora Hatfield ::

The most terrifying teacher I ever had was Dora Hatfield, and I never met a student who was not afraid of her. Miss Hatfield taught art to terrified seventh graders. Not martial arts, but art. To our wide, young eyes, she was an old woman. She wore plain cotton dresses and dark sensible shoes. She had white hair, short and permed into tight curls, but there was nothing frail or grandmotherly about her. She had a head like a hatchet, eyes that burnt like coals and a voice made for shouting. She was built tough with strong arms that pumped as she walked. She seemed always on the brink of rage, always ready to come around her desk and head down your aisle. How I got through a year of Art without wetting myself, I will never know.

One day, we were instructed to draw patterns. I drew alternating blue and white stripes, filling in the blue, and then adding a little string of dots to the white stripes. She approached. She stopped at my desk. She reached for my paper, held it up for everyone to see and said, “THIS IS GOOD.” It was the most frightening compliment I have ever received.

Dora knew her stuff. She taught us perspective: how to draw a horizon line, work from a point on the horizon and create the illusion of depth on a flat sheet of paper. And she imparted a great lesson. Sitting at her desk on the very first day of class, sweeping the room with her eyes, she said, “There are two kinds of people in the world. Those who create, and those who use. Be a creator.”

I’m trying, Miss Hatfield. I’m trying.

:: Driver Ed ::

The pain for me started Tuesday morning when I woke up. It was Driver Ed day, and I would have to drive. In a car, on an actual open street with other cars, with Mr. DeFelice telling me what I was doing wrong just moments before a crash. By a quirk of fate, I had Study Hall before Driver Ed, so there was an hour devoted purely to fear, watching the hands of the clock move. And then the parking lot, blinking in the sunlight, one of us getting behind the wheel and three into the back seat to wait our turn.

One day, I spotted a magazine in the back. Here was something to take my mind off the imminent peril and terror of driving. It was an old Life magazine from the early 1950s, and the cover story was, “Carnage on the Highways.” Mr. DeFelice never missed a trick.

In the classroom, he showed us a filmstrip consisting entirely of accident scene photographs — hand-tinted black & white photos — of dead people, mostly teenagers. The blonde girl in the white blouse, half in and out of the car. The dead mother whose head had hit the windshield; she was still in the passenger seat and her young son, seated next to her in the middle, was looking up at her with wide eyes and an open mouth. The two men trapped in a burning wreck after driving under a truck, with no hope of rescue, begging a state policeman to shoot them. All with a creepy narration — “Welcome to the Suicide Club” — on a scratchy record, with the little bing to tell Mr. DeFelice when to advance the film strip, although he knew it by heart. My friend Fred sat with his head in his hands until his elbows slipped in his own sweat and he fell off his chair.

And then, of course, there was the car, with double brakes and a lever that lifted the gas, so Mr. DeFelice could postpone our meetings with St. Peter.

In every Driver Ed carload, there was one ringer, and ours was Lon. He had the thickest glasses I have ever seen, and that should have been a big red flag right there. Lon was an academic standout, but hand/eye coordination, spatial awareness and quick decisions were still areas for growth. There was a turn on Colvin, a place where the street curves to the right but a smaller street goes off straight into a quiet residential neighborhood, where Mr. DeFelice liked to practice parking. One day, as Lon guided the car down Colvin and we came to the curve, Mr. DeFelice said, “Go straight here.” Children of the 1950s were nothing if not obedient. Lon crossed over the lane of on-coming traffic as if it was not there. And for him, it wasn’t. But for Lon’s unwilling passengers, it was. I think Mr. DeFelice’s exact words were, “Whoa Ho!” but it was too late to hit the double brake, so we all reviewed our lives instead. We lived, but did not feel shower-fresh again until the next day.

A classmate’s car had its own Lon, whose name was George. He too had thick glasses, but George was also very short, and so he looked through the steering wheel, rather than over it. One of the acid tests was driving on the Youngman Expressway, three lanes wide on either side, where cars actually went fast. It was on a sunny afternoon on the Youngman, in the days before air conditioning and power windows, that Mr. DeFelice asked George to roll down the window. George did so promptly, and covered all three lanes of the Youngman, while cranking, in a Jersey Sweep that had the car sounding like a crowded theater during a horror movie.

I am sure not a lot has changed. When Abbie was in Driver Ed a few years ago, she came home the first day bursting to tell us about her ride with another student. I said, “How bad was she, Abbie?” And she replied, “Dad, I was sitting in the back with two people I’d never met and we were holding hands.”

* * *

On the subject of Driver Ed, there was one image I recalled from the “Suicide Club” film strip that I did not cite in the original piece; it was too grisly and I thought I’d already made my point. Later, in search of information for another obsession (photographer James Abbe’s famed picture of Bessie Love), I bought The Photography Book (Phaidon Press, 1997), a collection of 500 photos by 500 photographers, with a short essay on each image and its creator. When I got to the D’s, I found William W. Dyviniak’s “The Automobile Accident,” taken in 1945 in Cheektowaga, N.Y., the photo from the film strip, just as I remembered it, a car wrapped around a telephone pole, the driver hanging by his neck high above, caught in a strut among the wires. Below, spectators look upwards, bewildered, trying to understand just how he came to be up there among the wires. It horrified me then; it horrifies me now.

:: The Dagger & the Rose ::

I miss different people at different times. Today I miss Bill, whose last name recalls a Roman statesman but I’d best not mention it here. We met in Junior High, I guess. It was as if we’d always known each other. Bill got tall early, but he never lost his cherubic features, pink cheeks like a baby, blonde, curly hair, blue eyes. Outside of school, we were in DeMolay together, meeting at the Masonic Temple, talking on the sidewalk after the meetings.

I was somewhat slow to find myself, but Bill was precocious. Very early in high school, for example, he was getting tattooed. Not just once, but often, with old-school biker and sailor favorites of the flaming skull variety. He had a dagger & rose on his forearm that was especially memorable. I was told that the first time his mother saw his artwork, by chance as he stepped out of the shower, she screamed.

Because of his baby face, Bill was occasionally teased by waitresses in all-night coffee shops. When this irritated him, he would slowly roll up his sleeves, revealing his tattoos one by one, a forearm, the other forearm, a bicep, the other bicep. This was the early 1960’s, and tattoos signaled crime, moral turpitude, a familiarity with motorcycles and sudden violence. People didn’t tease Bill for long.

The last tattoo Bill showed me made its debut at the Kenmore Firemen’s Picnic. I was walking through a crowd, and suddenly, there was Bill. He’d come from the beer tent, and was even rosier than usual. “Kihm,” he shouted, and pulled up his shirt. “I just got this one!” There, just above his belt and below his deep, dark, perfectly round navel, were three black letters, “OIL.” It was perfect, brilliant. I burst into laughter. “Great,” I said, “great.”

I never saw Bill again after that night. I went away to college. Bill was arrested for climbing to the top of an electrical tower, one of Niagara Mohawk’s really big ones. From the printed comments of the arresting officers, I could tell they were none too happy about getting him down. A year or so later, a mutual friend found some men in suits at his front door, asking about Bill. Had he seen him lately? Any idea where he might be? No and no, and that was the last we heard of Bill. I miss him. As different as our worlds were, he was always glad to see me, and I was always glad to see him.

:: Harry ::

Did you ever think about how the initial letter of your last name has shaped your life? I, for example, sat in the fifth row for most of high school behind Harry W. and I’m definitely not the same person I would have been over in the A’s, or even the M’s.

Harry moved as if on the stage. He was tall, broad-shouldered. Even as a teenager, he could gaze down imperiously. He had poise, presence, a sense of drama. When Harry was on, you were never really sure where things were headed.

He had the soul, charm and poise of a 40-year-old man of the world, trapped in the body and circumstances of a 9th-grader. Harry was scornful of authority, marking time. I was as naive as one could possibly be, sheltered, gullible, clueless, a 9-year-old in a 13-year-old’s body. I think Harry saw in me someone who could be misled, someone who was going to have a very dull life indeed if he was not misled.

I was easily shocked, and Harry was nothing if not shocking. He once turned around and whispered, “Have you ever had sex with a dog?” I gasped, and said, “No-o-o” giving it about three syllables since I couldn’t shout for emphasis. Harry paused for a moment and then whispered, “I have.” His eyes closed, his face broadened into a dreamy smile, and he said, “It was a collie.” Then there was the story about the bordello and the man with flaring nostrils which I will not repeat here.

Harry saw to my education in other ways. A chat about the Spanish Inquisition (I did have dark interests) prompted him to loan me Torture Garden by Octave Mirbeau, written in 1899 and variously described as “a hideously decadent fin-de-siecle novel,” “irreducibly horrible” and “the most sickening work of art of the 19th century.” On the heels of that one, came The Insidious Doctor Fu Manchu by Sax Rohmer. “My father says you’ll like this,” Harry said. And I certainly did.

(Harry’s father, there’s another story. Harry occasionally stayed home out of sheer boredom and then asked his father to write him a note, an excuse. “What do you want me to say?” his father asked one morning, as Harry was preparing to return to school after a day of leisure. “Oh, anything at all,” Harry said. So his father wrote the note and Harry tossed it on the desk of his homeroom teacher, who opened it and read, “Harry was not able to attend school yesterday as he was having his period.”)

Harry got in as much trouble for attending class as for missing it. I remember one book report, Harry standing at the front of the class, working without notes. “I read an interesting book this weekend…” This was trouble already, as we were supposed to have worked on this report for a month. You could see the frost forming on our teacher as he went on, “I read The Mint, by T. E. Lawrence. Now, Lawrence was a homosexual…” “Sit down, Harry,” the teacher said. “…and as a homosexual…” “I really mean it, Harry.” Harry shrugged and came back down the row to his seat. We never learned another thing about T.E. Lawrence or The Mint.

That particular teacher was at war with Harry for an entire school year. Harry once declined to do something, and she said, “If you do not, you will not be able to go to college.” “I’m not going to college,” Harry said, without blinking. The teacher sputtered, wanting to spit out “Of course you are!” but realized that if she said that, it would contradict her statement of seconds earlier. Harry had her that day.

A highlight of Harry’s high school career was the call he made to the NAACP about the ancient murals in the cafeteria that depicted stereotypical darkies doing something traditional with cotton. Representatives of the local NAACP chapter appeared one day and took the principal to task. When he found out who had made the call, his comment about Harry, delivered with some heat, was, “He will never become a member of the National Honor Society!” And then the principal called the painters.

After high school graduation, I didn’t see Harry until the fall semester of our senior year of college. He had just occupied the Dean’s office on his campus, leading a sit-in to protest the war in Vietnam, and the Dean wanted to see him for a little chat over tea and biscuits. Harry decided to allow the Dean some time to form his thoughts, and he came to Syracuse, unannounced, appearing in the doorway of the room I shared with two fraternity brothers. We were sitting watching television after dinner. Harry stood there, unspeaking, staring at me. I said, “Oh my God.”

Harry said nothing. He just walked into the room and sat down next to me, and we watched television. There were other brothers there, and they all wondered who this person was, but didn’t want to ask. After about five minutes, a conversation started about who might be the next president of the fraternity. Someone mentioned a name, and Harry spoke for the first time, saying, “He’s a dildo.”

“Well,” said one of our newest brothers, “who do you think should run?” And Harry said, “I’m running.” I just focused on the TV, wondering where this was going but not wanting to cramp Harry’s style. “Are you a Delt?” someone said, and Harry replied, “Yes, a transfer.” I never did explain Harry to them. After the room cleared, we talked. It was, as always, a pleasure. He slept on the couch and disappeared in the morning.

We met next in the lobby outside the auditorium where the Grad Record Exams were being held for colleges in the region. I had signed up for the GREs in the delusion that I would be able to beat the draft, but upon emerging from the Advanced English exam, I realized my dreams of grad school were dreams indeed. With God as my witness, I swear that at least one-third of the questions that day were on the works of Anthony Trollope. I had never read a word of Trollope. I couldn’t tell him from Thackery in a police line-up. I was shell-shocked. And there in the lobby, as I stumbled out of the auditorium, sat Harry, beaming, relaxed after finishing early. “Anthony Trollope,” he said before I could say a word, “my favorite author!”

About this time in our history, in a development having less to do with Trollope and more to do with trollops, he began calling me Quim, a bit of Victorian slang that rhymed nicely with my given name.

Unlike me, Harry wasn’t going to have trouble with the draft. From his first day of college, he had involved himself in religious matters and associations, and his application for status as a Conscientious Objector had been accompanied by letters from a pastor, a priest and a rabbi — covering the bases nicely.

A year or so later, while on leave from the Air Force, I returned to Syracuse University for a weekend, and found Harry there again, working on a Masters degree in religion. And still later, I spoke with him on the phone. He was going to law school. “I’m working on my third career,” he said. I haven’t seen him since, but I do know that career choice panned out for him.

I miss him. No one since has abused me with such style, shocked me so frequently, invited me to marvel at his audacity. Imagine, one person providing me with all that, and Sax Rohmer as well. All because my last name begins with W. What a stroke of good fortune.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: