Wednesday, November 28, 2007
WRITTEN WORD 32 - Joe
And now that I was 14 I was really trapped. Now I was not just in school from 9 to 3 and it was not the Connecticut public school, which had been an easy place from which to play hooky. Now I was exiled to brick buildings in the southern New Hampshire countryside in this very different and very regimented place and I was here 24 hours a day, with someone always watching me or trying to watch me. I might get off the school grounds for as much as a few hours, but I always had to come back. And there were clouds over the future. It would be years before I was released, and by then it might be too late.
There were these other bigger and better worlds somewhere. They were certainly there in movies and books. I suspected there was something truly fine about the mysterious places from which came the pretty girls who very occasionally visited at our school. Actually, bad as my life got, almost anything new would bring a surge of hope – as in the hymns sung loudly by the whole school, in assembly before the first classes of the day started and after dinner at prayers in Livermore Hall.
“Once to every man and nation, comes a moment to decide…”
Then there were the occasional evenings when the whole school would form into an audience in Livermore to watch two seniors demolish another two-person debating team from some rival, and always much bigger, school. I was amazed that something besides sports could be received so enthusiastically.
The school nurse, a tight, wrinkled woman with what might have been a wise look, Mrs. Krebs, made it still worse for me when she said, "You shouldn't feel bad because your brother's smarter than you. It's all right. Some people are just a little slow. Nothing wrong with that."
This seemed about right to me, these words of Mrs. Krebs, an accurate reflection not of who I was but of how I might always be perceived. Everyone said I was slow. And I was failing all my courses except English. And the boys, with cruel irony, had given me the school’s worst nickname – “Speedy.”
But one morning in the dining hall at the end of breakfast, Mr. Abbey, who taught English, was lingering over coffee and had a cigarette going. He was in charge of the table to which I'd been assigned and was now clearing. He asked me to sit down. He said he had something he had to say.
He was the master – we had "masters" here, not mere "teachers" – whom I enjoyed, for he read poems and stories aloud in his class. He was also the only master with a first name. "Joe." He frequently laughed, and he moved with confidence. A balding man who seemed ageless to me. His actual name was T. Charles Abbey. But the boys could, and did, sometimes call him Joe – in a place where every other adult (not counting workmen) was a "mister," a place where the boys were addressed by masters not with Mr. but not with first names either. So here I was usually “Speedy” to the boys, and “Poole” to the masters. At this point I was hardly ever “Fred.”
“Fred,” Joe said. There is something I've wanted to say to you. I think that somehow you’re convinced you're not smart like your brother. But you know, you are just as smart, maybe smarter."
Everything did start to change after that – and yet it wasn't hope that I felt at the breakfast table. On reflection I felt as if the skies had opened. But at first I was furious. I did not know why yet. I was as angry as when, years later, it was suggested to me in Manila that I write about the time when I was a forgotten child in Florida.