Saturday, April 17, 2010

Part 27: Of Mice and Men

"Tell me like you done before,
about them other guys and about us...

"Guys like us ain't got nobody in the world
that gives a hoot n' hell about em."

~ John Steinbeck

"Went to school and I was very nervous
No one knew me, no one knew me
Hello teacher tell me, what's my lesson?
Look right through me, look right through me"
~ Roland Orzabal

It is funny how real life mirrored the books we were reading. Maybe that is why the book one person loves is a book another person can't bear to read, because a story hits a little close to home; somethings in life are just too painful.

If you look carefully at the class photos in the yearbook you can see the the guarded looks, the uncertainty and fear in some of the faces.

New Kids: we all bore some scars. Having become global nomads at a young age, some having been ripped from parents that loved them, some from parents who were indifferent at best. Transferring from country to country, school to school, most of us were inwardly nervous those first days, weeks and months. Would we fit in, would we be accepted, would we have friends? Brent was pretty good at absorbing new students into the group, but there were always those who were on the fringe, those that kept to themselves and never seemed to make friends.

The 1972-73 school year brought a wave of new students to Brent, the
U.S. Department of Defense parents were sending their kids out of the war zones. In January we got another batch of new students, a mixed lot of private business and military related kids. Some were boarders like Robin Ennis, Terry Drye, Leigh Gilmore, Beth and Kathy Duncan, Bill Rassmussen and others were day students: Anna Marie Franco, Dayne and September Florence.

Leigh, Terry and the Duncan sisters soon became part of my circle of boarder friends. They joined me, Jaime Case and sometimes Peg Hamill at the same table at supper time. I really liked Robin and Kathy. Kathy was blond with pretty eyes and a big smile, we became friends and would go shopping or to movies together but that is as far as it ever went. I didn't understand yet that just because you like someone in a certain way doesn't mean they like you in that way too.

Robin was a cute little redhead and because I liked her I teased her. A lot. I was an ass. The more I teased her the more she didn't like me. One day, fed up with me, first she blurted out something that I didn't understand, and then something else that I did; I avoided her after that. Later she apologized and I guess she meant it, I told her I was sorry for teasing her; but there are some things once spoken that always stand between two people.

We all had our little quirks and peculiarities: my roommate would wash his pens and pencils, scrub his notebook and school book covers; Jaime's leg would bounce up and down at the dinner table causing the silverware to vibrate; he had this habit of tearing up paper into tiny little pieces which was quite annoying when it happened to be your homework. Beth had a loud booming laugh and if you got her going she would snort too. Kathy liked to try different things on her ice cream: salt, pepper, soy sauce, ketchup, mustard, vinegar and the salty fish sauce called
patis. Terry was quirky and eccentric, she could be very quiet, proper and reserved one minute and the next she would cuss like a sailor; I learned some new words from her. Leigh was loud and boisterous with a sharp tongue and burning wit. Then there was Matthew.

Matthew was a little weird and he made people uncomfortable. He wasn't ugly, he wasn't dumb, he made OK grades, it was just that when he opened his mouth the words came out wrong. When he spoke this goofy smile played about his lips and this didn't help things either. He would hang a sock or tie out his window. Norman asked him why and he said that all the windows looked the same and he wanted to know which room was his
when he flew back to the dorm at night. Sometimes he would get shoved or punched, sometimes someone would stop the bullies, sometimes not. He had this piercing stare that was magnified by his thick glasses, sometimes when you found him staring at you it felt like he was reading your thoughts. This seemed to bother the girls quite a bit. Like most loners he was observant, cataloging the words and actions of those around him, storing it up in some vast database. I think he was lonely and like anyone else, he wanted to be liked, he wanted to have friends. So, he tried too hard and the harder he tried the stranger he seemed, the more he was ostracized. Mrs Pettitt tried to get the guys to include him, but because he was different he scared people. I was a bit of a loner too, spending my free time in the library reading while the other boys were down at the mini court playing basketball. I could feel the pain he felt at being left out and sometimes when we in the sala watching TV he would sit next to me because I was the only one who would let him. He was polite and solicitous of other people's feelings; he had a funny sense of humor, but still I never really knew him. Mathew had a favorite expression "Buck Up", which he proffered whenever anyone was down. He never said what he felt, rarely spoke of what he was thinking. The way he was treated made me begin to review my own actions and inaction, not just with him but with everyone.

I was in the bathroom brushing my teeth, feeling guilty about teasing my roommate for washing his bar of soap, pondering the injustice of the world when I happened to look at myself in the mirror. And it struck me like thunderclap, now all the innuendos and slights, the subtle slurs became clear. I did not fit into the cookie cutter mold, I was not up to the
common standard. What I saw in the mirror shook me to my core, I was seeing myself for the first time: a skinny kid with dark brown eyes and jet black hair. Now I comprehended the words "you ugly, stupid dirty little Flip" and how it applied to me. Now I knew why some girls wouldn't consider me as suitable; and all this time I thought we were the same. Sure, I knew that some people had blond hair and some people had black hair, but I thought that was just part of the variety of nature. I didn't realize that distinctions were being made, you were constantly rated: your weight, the straightness of your teeth, shape of your nose, color of your hair, shade of your skin, cut of your clothes or the accent of your voice. It never occurred to me before, I thought I was just like everyone else. The box was opened; I wanted to go back to being naive again.

Because we were always looking for things to do, a bunch of us boarders signed up for The Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA) workshops. They sent up some instructors from Manila to do classes at Brent. These workshops were to teach acting techniques and we did stuff like learning to project our voices, enunciation and pretending we were inanimate objects like trees or chairs, or animals like cats or dogs. I am not sure if we actually learned anything that stuck with us, but we had fun. It was a break in the routine, we could be out of the dorm at night. Jaime and I bummed cigarettes off the instructor:
"Mr Slim Menthol 100s" and tried to act cool, we thought we were pretty hip.

One evening we gathered in Binstead Hall to do some "past life" exercises; the idea being that an actor can use those experiences to help them flesh out a role. It was a simple drill, where we sat in a semi circle around one individual who held a flashlight and shone it up to their face. We each took turns sitting there in the dark with a flashlight shining up at our faces, trying to imagine what we were in a past life. Then each member of the group would take turns saying what they saw and lastly the person who had the flashlight would tell what he imagined. In the 1973 post
Rosemary's Baby era there were some in the group who were very uncomfortable with this Ouija Board like activity. Some were extremely nervous at sitting in the dark calling up past lives. But at first it was pretty boring and uneventful. Then it was Matthew's turn and after several minutes as he sat there I saw his thick glasses fade away, his hair was streaked with gray, his t-shirt turned into a collared shirt and heavy cape. It kind of looked like he had fangs. I guess someone else saw it too, because one of the girls shrieked making everyone jump, then we all started nervously laughing and talking and the facilitator turned on the lights.
"I was a vampire"
Matthew blurted out of turn. I was a little uncomfortable because I had seen something like that too. Maybe it was the power of suggestion because some of the others said "I thought that too!" The facilitator tried to get things back on track, getting us to tell what we saw, but Matthew interrupted again to say "I killed her", pointing at one of the girls in the class. She was visibly upset and refused to stay for the rest of the session. The incident was reported to the Headmaster, decisions were made, phone calls placed.

Well, that was it. In this day and age of "zero tolerance" it would come as no surprise, but back then it was a shocker. Within a few days Matthew was taken out of school and sent for psychiatric evaluation. He never came back.

A month or so later found us nervously climbing the stairs to the Faculty Lounge in Ogilby Hall. Matthew's mother had come to Brent to speak to some of the upper school students and boarders at an assembly. None of us knew what to expect. One of the students in front of me said
"this is so sad". I blurted out "Buck Up!" which caused her to laugh, releasing the tension. I remember thinking how brave Matthew's mother was to come before us and talk about her son. The headmaster's wife stood next to her and gently held her arm as Matthew's mother spoke with a quaver in her voice. Gently and clearly she told us about his condition, of the happy little boy she had raised, of the young man he now was. She told us "I know some of you are hurt and angry about him being taken out of school. I want you to know that he truly needed help and getting this help will make him better. I am hopeful that one day I will have my son back" Then she smiled through tears as she read a note that Matthew written telling us "to be happy for him" and "not to worry and buck up"; about his "new friends in the loony bin". It was a good letter, funny and self deprecating. But I couldn't help thinking that just because he really did need psychiatric help that didn't absolve us from the way we treated him. He was a better person than the rest of us. His letter made me think of a book I had read "Flowers for Algernon"; maybe Matthew had read it too. Here it is, an excerpt from the book by Daniel Keyes:
"If you ever reed this Miss Kinnian dont
be sorry for me Im glad
I got a chanse
to be smart becaus I lerned a lot of
things that
I never even new were in
this world and Im grateful that I saw
it all
for a little bit. I dont no what
I did wrong
maybe its becaus I dint
try hard enuff.
I remember I dids
something but I dont remember what.

Good-by Miss Kinnian and Dr Strauss
and evreybody. And P.S.
tell Dr Nemur not to be such a
grouch when pepul laff at him
and he
would have more frends. Its easy to
make frends if you let
laff at you. Im going to have lots
of frends where I go."

1 comment:

  1. I attended a PETA workshop in the 80s and met some friends from PETA through the years. Do you still remember your instructor's name?

    In high school some of my classmates experimented with the ouija board -- we used to call it 'spirit of the glass -- freaky!