From WITNESS, a memoir in progress
One morning grandma, somewhat recovered from her most recent illness, announced it was time for my first day of school. “You’re going to St. Casimir’s,” she said, “where you stayed for a while when you were sick, remember? Remember?”
I said I didn’t want to go, I wanted to just stay there. She said no, come on, get ready, and she dressed me, and took my hand and walked me down Superior Street, then over to Jefferson. I resisted. She got angry, and pulled me along until I walked fast to keep up with her grim, purposeful stride.
The Ursuline Sisters of the Roman Union looked weird in their starched white linen head and breast covers, and the black cloth of their hoods and floor-length habits. The long rosaries hanging from their belts clicked faintly when they walked. One of them, Sister Regina, clapped her hands to get our attention, and ordered us to sit at a big table with lots of brand new stuff on it, like Crayolas, and colored chalk, and jars of paint and brushes, and building blocks and lots and lots of modeling clay.
Ignoring the other children I gathered up the blocks and a large lump of clay and began to make a replica of a cinderblock wall. I pushed down on the blocks and the clay oozed out. I used a popsicle stick to carve away the excess so that the wall looked just right.
I called Sister Regina over to see what I’d done, fully expecting her to remark what a clever little boy I was, but when she saw it she freaked out. “Oh, you bad, bad, BAD boy! Look what you’ve done! You’ve stained and ruined those pretty new blocks!”
Time passed. The nuns made us rehearse for the Polish Garden Festival, to be held in the auditorium in the church’s basement. The big day came. Onstage I held a large piece of cardboard cut into the shape of a carrot. It was painted orange, with a sprout of green leaves at the top. There was a hole for my face. The other kids were cabbage, celery, tomato, potato, and so on. Mr. John Lipinski of the Lipinski Polka Band played the accordion. We all sang. I stepped toward the bright stage lights. I looked at the people sitting out there, their eyes on me. I remembered my line:
“W tym ogród jestem carot!”
In this garden,I am a carot!
Applause. Smiles and laughter all around.
Gradually I became Sister Regina’s favorite. I’d say things in class that surprised her. Like when the subject was how the moon sometimes passes over the sun to create an eclipse. I raised my hand.
“You can see an eclipse any time you want.”
“How so?” she asked.
“Just take a half-dollar and hold it up and cover the sun and squint your eyes. It’s almost like the real thing.”
“Very good, Johnny! Very good!”
Behind me Billy Organic and Marty Rodginski snickered. Which is what they did whenever I showed off like that. Sister Regina looked annoyed. She clapped her hands sharply twice.
“William! Martin! Stand up! NOW!”
“William, did you do your homework?”
They said nothing.
“Come up here, right now.”
They shuffled up the aisle and gave me a hard glare as they passed. They knew exactly what was coming. Sister Regina opened her desk drawer and withdrew a big wood ruler with a thin metal edge. She told the boys to hold their hands out, palms upward.
Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! Three hard strikes each.
“Owwwww!” Billy cried.
Marty said nothing. He would never admit to being hurt, that was his style.
At recess I went to the basement to use the boy’s bathroom. Marty and Billy were waiting for me. Apparently they noticed I always went there to take a leak at that time of day.
“You think you’re better than us, don’t ya?” Marty said, and he punched me hard on my upper arm. Billy came up behind me, threw his arm around my neck, and wrestled me to the smelly urine-covered floor. Marty kicked my thigh.
“You better keep your smart mouth shut you skinny fuckin’ runt,” Billy said.
I gritted my teeth and tried to push him off, but he straddled me, pinned my arms over my head. Then he moved up and sat directly on my face. I smelled his shit-stained underwear, which enraged me. I kicked furiously and twisted violently and threw him off.
He and Marty laughed.
“You better watch yer fuckin’ step from now on, smart ass.”
After that episode in the boy’s room, I formed the judgment that we intelligent kids were much less prone to violence than the dumb ones. That judgment was fully confirmed later, when from a distance I watched Marty wrap up a stray tabby cat in a towel to keep it from scratching or biting. To my astonishment he shoved a firecracker up the poor animal’s anus, then lit the fuse with a chrome-plated Zippo he stole from his father. He dropped the cat to the pavement. It took only a few frantic steps when the thing went off with a loud POP. Tabby cat howled. I couldn’t imagine doing something as cruel as that. But for Marty it was just business as usual. I loathed him.
Not too long afterward he was showing off for his outlaw friends. He made a fist and at its top he spat in saliva. He moved his fist to his crotch and made a pumping motion, and then threw back his head and went ARRRGHHHHH! and flicked the spit into the air with his thumb.
I had no idea what in hell that was supposed to mean. But his fellow outlaws did. In retrospect, Marty wasn’t really as dumb as I thought.
Marty and his gang of thugs always called me a little fuckin’ runt, and that was true because I had extremely slender arms, wrists and legs. For a long time I believed my fraility meant I was inferior, abnormal, substandard. That is, until a few years later at the Belmont Avenue branch of the Youngstown Public Library when I ran across Sheldon’s description of the three major body types—ectomorph, endomorph, mesomorph. All three in fact are equal, merely different from each other. Skinny is descriptive, not judgmental.