Day One, 1963
The September of my seventeenth year, devastated by separation from Anna Rose and the events that had tied us together, I found myself morose, looking smack into the face of another year in the asylum we called high school, daring anything or anyone to offer me peace of mind. All these people had spent the summer diddling around their back yards smoking cigarettes. I don’t know how I made it through the first day.
Looking ahead to nine months of purgatory, which they’d probably make me read about, I stumbled into history class where I tried to make conversation with the boy next to me. A book slammed into the side of my head. Mr. Nobson stood over me, glaring. “If you talk, it will be about history, and it will be to me! Understood?”
“Sir, yes sir,” I said. “There’s no need for violence.”
That was my ticket to the Principal’s office. Mr. Nobson believed in cracking down real hard on the first day, so everyone would know he was a miserable asshole, and would respect him as such.
The Principal, Mr. Binelli, scratched his head. “Boy, that didn’t take long, did it?”
“No, sir,” I said. “I guess I was out of line when I pleaded for mercy. But look, my glasses cut my ear. That book hurt.”
“What kind of thorn have you got in your butt? Help me out.”
“I don’t know. I just hate school really bad.”
“The people? Or the institution?”
“I’ll have to call your mom. Any time someone comes in here within twenty minutes on the first day, I call home. Sometimes we can get an attitude adjustment.”
“It’ll take more than that. I think I need brain surgery,” I said. “I hate everything.”
“No you don’t. You just have to identify a few dreams to live for. I’m here to help you, if you will let me. You can get through this.”
“No, I can’t. I’m hopeless.”
“How’d you spend the summer? It’s not about a broken heart, is it?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Well, you’ll have to talk to someone. Looks like you’re driving with the brake on here.”
“Not really. I’m pretty much parked.” It was a bad start.
When Binelli released me, after history, I went to Spanish Four class, which was a mix of kids of different ages, depending on their experience and language ability. A couple of dumb senior classmates, who should have been in Spanish Two, sat in the back, where I had to sit also because all the other chairs were taken. But the back seemed like the appropriate place for me.
I knew these seniors mostly by reputation. I didn’t consort with them. The one next to me was Gentry Longwell, who went by Gentry. I point that out because most of the guys went by their last names. I think Gentry sounded like a last name. He was a surprisingly gentle person, a great basketball player. Next to him was Dave Seader, whom we called Seed, who would go on to be a dentist. He was nice, but at that age was dull as a tennis ball. And on the end was Richard Harding, a dark, tormented spirit with a hostile remark for everyone. He sneered at me just because I sat down. I earned his hatred by simply existing.
Señora Ramirez spoke all Spanish, all the time, walking around the room with a pencil, which she tapped on her temple as she asked questions. I understood a lot of what she said, but couldn’t respond very fast. The other seniors tended to lean far back against the wall, with their feet sticking out in front far enough that she couldn’t walk in front of them.
Señora Ramirez’ English was horrible. I was wrong about one hundred percent Spanish. On rare occasions she used English for discipline. I felt sorry for her when she had to descend into her second language. She knew the senior boys well enough to anticipate their rudeness.
That day, in the middle of class, Harding dropped his book and made a commotion. She stopped teaching and waited for him to pick it up. But he just kicked it under the desk in front of him. “I’ll get it later,” he said.
“Are you in this school?” said Señora Ramirez with a stern look. I wasn’t sure what she meant.
He looked around, perplexed, and said, “I appear to be.”
“Pick your book,” she said. “You are to learning nothing here, with your feet. Where you grow up? New Jersssey? You were raised by los lobos?”
“Whoa! Easy,” said Seed. He was from New Jersey.
“I’m working on it,” said Harding. “My Spanish is about like your English.”
“Go from my classroom!” she snapped. “You are not to having minimum respect. Go out!”
Harding sighed and looked at Seed. “Well, I guess I’m done here,” he said. “Thought maybe I could make one day. Hold down the fort, babe.”
Seed and Gentry both sat up to let Harding pass. I did, too, but he smacked me on the head as he went by. “Sorry, Freako,” he said.
“It’s okay,” I said. “I know life’s hard for you, and I’m sure it always will be, being who you are.”
He took a step back, having passed me, then feinted left, and then right, like a little boxing dance, then slapped my cheek. I shoved my book into his crotch.
“God!” he grimaced. “You bastard!”
“OUT!” cried Señora Ramirez.
“Sorry,” I said. “These books have lives of their own.”
Harding put his hand on my face and shoved my head into the wall. I wrenched loose and stood up. He gave my desk a firm kick and headed out of the room. Everyone stared at me.
“¿Esta bien?” said the teacher.
“Si. Bueno,” I said, resuming my seat.
Gentry leaned slightly and said, “Forget it. Harding’s a dick.” He said it just loud enough that the back rows heard him.
“¿Perdon?” said Señora Ramirez. “En Español?”
Gentry stared at her. A few students giggled. “Yeah,” whispered one of the girls. “Put that in Spanish.”
Gentry smiled weakly. “Lo siento,” he said.
“Is that what you call it?” giggled one of the girls.
The day went on about like that. But I only went to the Principal’s office once, so I apparently made the necessary attitude adjustment.