There were moments in the New Hampshire boarding school time - that time when they used to beat me - moments in that time when I had hope - hope maybe from the discovery of serious necking in the shadows of a rare dance at our sister school, though they beat me.
Hope maybe because I was New England's champion debater and barely 15 years old, though they beat me.
Hope from last summer, so long ago, up in the White Mountains. I was popular there and I was loved by a pretty girl with freckles under her tan - which was as strange to me as my deep unpopularity here, as strange as that I was the unpopular, hated, too-smart boy now, while last year I had been the unpopular, hated, too-dumb boy. It had reached such a point that they held me down, ran a sword blade across my throat, bent my arms back till I thought they¹d snap. They made sure I was always in pain, always in fear.
But some events were proving that I was not what they thought,
And also there was a more mysterious hope:
He don't plant taters, he don't plant cotton,
And them that plants 'em is soon forgotten.
But Ol' Man River, he just keeps rollin' a-long.
One cold night in what we called the schoolhouse - its core an actual old one-room schoolhouse with classrooms added round the big, dusty, central room, the assembly and study hall room where we each had our old ink-stained, rutted desks,
In this chilly and dank flourescent-lit room - empty now - alone now - pushing a push broom - twenty-five minutes to ten, which was very late in this school world where they got you up in the dark and made you turn lights out at ten - late in this hollow room, pushing a broom, hearing the voices from the crowded
day - the day voices of popular athletes whispering they would kill me - the day
voice of the very gray and disturbing master we called Grim. The sound of my
own voice in debate,
The robust sounds of young males singing a hymn, which we did each morning before classes began. (I joined in very careful, because I could not sing.)
Our shelter from the stormy blast
And our eternal home.
Pushing a broom now in this room where, a year earlier, I had been forced to sit each night in compulsory evening study hall, nighttime study hall which was only for the retarded, sitting on a seat attached to the desk behind me, living
without assignment into the anthologies at hand even though I was stupid,
discovering in secret first Kipling and then Shakespeare and Wordsworth, and
Conrad and Keats, taking in their words while trying to look like I was doing
homework in Algebra, which was taught by the football coach, or World Geography, where the text book was in baby talk, or Latin, where even the master lived on the edge of violence.
In this room at night alone now, sweeping up, which was my job here - each boy had a menial job and knowing while I was sweeping with one broom, then pushing with another, knowing we were out of earshot of brick dormitories
and brick masters' houses....
Knowing this, each night I sang. I sang....
Ol' man river, that ol' man river
He must know somethin', he don't say nothin'
He just keeps rollin', he keeps on rollin' along.
I sang mostly Ol' Man River. I had just been overwhelmed by the new movie version of Show Boat. Ava Gardner, so sad and tan - dress straps dangling down smooth bare skin....
And justice in that movie, like justice here, so skewed....
Singing as loudly as I could, pushing the broom, projecting what I hoped would one day be a real bass voice....
Bend your knees and bow your head
And pull that rope until you're dead.
I loved that it was loud. I had tried out with innocent hope for our school's performance of Patience, and I had been given the only non-singing role in all of Gilbert and Sullivan and they thought I was nothing and they might be
Loving music but wondering if the music in my head would ever come into my life, would ever be for me, wondering what surprising turns my life might take, wondering if I would ever sing, ever could sing, wondering and somehow getting peace from the loud somewhat, if not exactly, musical sounds of myself -
While almost certain I would die without ever singing....
You and me, we sweat and strain,
Body all achin' and rack with pain
Tote that barge, lift that bail,
Get a little drunk and you land in jail.
I get weary, and sick of tryin'
I¹m tired of livin' and scared of dyin'
But Ol' Man River, he just keeps rollin' A-long.