Essential School Days
WHEN school starts again, I think of a gray granite set of buildings in Joliet, Illinois. Farragut School was part of a cluster of institutions that anchored my neighborhood, each of which was only minutes from my home. Each was a stopping point on my little weekly circuit - school, church, the school store, home ... always home.
The years in which I progressed from learning the ABCs to reading Newsweek were spent largely in those gray granite buildings. They are full of associations with experiences that, decades later, are still rendering their meanings to me.
So when school starts I go back there in my mind. I go not for nostalgia. I go to look again and penetrate more deeply into that which memory and maturity illumine; I go for the truth that was missed while events were happening. That is the gift of memory; I can ride that neighborhood circuit again for the lessons that could not be mine then but that awaited their birth in what, from one angle, is a world that no longer exists.
I cannot say that Bobby was a close friend. But we did go to school together, and we were in the same grade. Bobby had that unusual last name - Overall. As you can imagine, this caused some jokes. It was not the only cause for teasing among school children as we went to school with Bobby. He was disabled and walked with great effort, making noises that were to his peers both scary and funny.
He was also older than we were, for his disabilities were educational as well as physical. "Bobby Overall! ... Bobby Overall!" The kids liked to say his name out loud because it was funny to be named for "overalls." Bobby went to school with us, and I had to decide how I would relate to this boy with the strange name and even stranger personal problems.
I remember the day that Bobby asked me to come to his house to play. I did not announce this invitation to my other friends. But I went. And it was fine. Bobby spoke slowly and with difficulty, but he had an infectious laugh, bizarre because it came out more like a scream, but wonderful because he was so free with it. We played and laughed at Bobby Overall's house.
I decided to invite him to my house for lunch. When that day came, I remember we were both happy. I don't think Bobby had gotten such an invitation before, and I felt something that I had not felt before, the freedom to be a friend to someone like Bobby Overall. So we went to my house, had grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup and went back to school.
It only lasted an hour. I did not see Bobby again after that year ended; he was sent away to a "special school." But something happened for me that school year that I wish for my children. I hope a Bobby Overall will come to them, someone with whom they will learn to reach out beyond the boundaries of whatever group is theirs.
Mr. Dinoffri (or "Dino," as we called him behind his back) was every sixth-grade boy's ideal - strong and handsome, smart and kind, a jock without having to talk about it. He was the best. He was the only male teaching in the school. Then he left.
Whammo. One day in December he said he would not be back after Christmas. And he wasn't. Another man was there in January. He was named Racich. He was fresh from college, skinny and awkward, nothing like Dino. I hated him before he had a chance to open his mouth. When he did, I heard everything just the way I wanted to, and it was always the opposite of "what Dino would have said."
I clammed up. Racich got mean. If anyone had ever said that I was in grief over my loss of Dino, I would have said that they were nuts; it was Racich who was always wrong. But it was grief, real grief, unexpressed and therefore channeled against this new teacher.
It made the rest of that year a disaster. My friend and teacher had gone, poof, to become a banker, and I was left at age 11 to handle that. I couldn't handle it, and Racich couldn't handle me. Such are the ways of a grief that does not find a way to speak and to heal.
I met Racich 20 years later at a party only a few blocks from that school. The years had taken me to many other places, but there I was again in front of the man I had hated as a child. He remembered me. I didn't bring up the events of that year, but he said something that opened my eyes to how life is sometimes.
He said that during that first school year he had had to work a night shift at a steel mill in order to earn enough extra money to support his young family.
No wonder his fuse was short, I thought. The guy had a family (Dino didn't) and got no sleep (Dino had time to play golf). I wondered how different that year might have been if I had known to share my grief with him about Dino and if he had known to share his tiredness with us.
Soon after that party, I was forced to get a second, menial, fatiguing job in order to support my young family. I met Dino one day, and he asked me to go golfing. But I had no extra time or energy for golf (let alone money for the greens fee). It was good to see Dino again. But it was even better to visualize Racich making it, day in and day out, with two jobs, through his hard year. I finally let him teach me something.
My exit from the little circuit of childhood had about it the drama and illusion of adolescence, the drama of irreversible personal changes and the illusion that "life is elsewhere."
I left a small city in Illinois for the orbit of the biggest city of all, New York, and a school in Connecticut peopled with the children of a class that Americans don't like to admit exists, a rarefied upper class. That is the new circuit I wanted and for which my parents willingly paid.
But what I found, even there, was the everydayness that defies economic and social cloistering. I was fortunate to encounter people there, rich and not-so-rich, who brought me back to the work of wonder, which became, as those four years passed, irresistible to me and the unexpected gift of that school. Charlie the cook was one of these people.
It was the beginning of my senior year in high school. I had spent much of the summer in New York City getting a head start on some college courses. I had given my friend Charlie my phone number, and he said that he would visit. I looked forward to seeing Charlie and sharing with him a bit of my summer in the city. He never came.
When I got back to school, I looked for my friend in the place where he was boss - over the hot grill in the kitchen where he was the master of pancakes and scrambled eggs. Charlie was the head cook. Every night before dinner I went to see him to talk about my day. He always seemed interested in whatever I had to say, even if he had to keep cooking and wiping the pouring sweat off his brow. I hadn't heard from my friend all summer and that was a disappointment. But it didn't matter as much as beginning, once again, the conversations that had helped keep up my spirits through previous years of friendship.
I went to the kitchen, but he wasn't there. Then I saw the dean of the school, and he came over to me. He knew that Charlie had become my special friend. He said, "Bruce, I have some bad news. Charlie died a few weeks ago. When we were going through his things, we found a phone number. It was yours. I think he was planning to see you."
I learned something from Charlie, something that has stayed with me longer than many of the lessons of that school. I learned that memory is a wonderful gift. It can give back to me the essence of what another person has been for me and what I have learned from him or her. Charlie is still making mashed potatoes and listening to me. That image will always be mine. And remembering him encourages me to try to listen to others, even if I am busy.
I know, because Charlie knew, what listening to another can do. It gives life back to mere living. And not even death can take that gift away, once it is really shared.