Saturday, April 19, 2014

Bullies, Black Eyes, and Bifocals

How an act of kindness transformed a scared kid with two black eyes into a future writer.

As a kid, I was acutely aware of invisible things. By day, I fought pitched battles to defend my backyard from them. By night, I trapped them inside my closet by blocking the door with a mushroom-shaped ottoman. I never noticed the invisible line running down the middle of my street, though. It was a different kind of invisible.

Nestled in the heart of middle class suburbia, my elementary school was the kind of place where the kids all wore clothes from places like Dillard’s and Macy’s. Most of the boys belonged to the same Cub Scout troop, myself included. Everyone went to the same church. From kindergarten until sixth grade, this was the whole of my sheltered, little world. And then invisible line exiled me. It sent everyone I knew to a place that resembled our elementary school. It sent me to SJB.
I wasn't even
  this intimidating.

There were three carjackings within a four block radius of SJB Middle School during my first nine weeks. One of the school’s buildings, a concrete corpse in the middle of the campus, sat boarded up and condemned. The boys at SJB joined “posses,” not Cub Scouts. And there I was, a chubby, asthmatic, four-eyed kid with designer clothes and an epic collection of baseball cards.

I got into my first real fight on my third day. My adversary was a sixteen-year-old 8th grader in a Megadeth t-shirt. At twelve, I barely came up to his chin.

Years before, my father, a retired career military man, prepared me for the eventually of fighting with a bit of sage advice. “Put everything you’ve got behind your first punch,” he’d said. “If the other guy’s still standing after that, you’re pretty much screwed.” ("Screwed" wasn't precisely the word he used, but I think I've conveyed the spirit of it.)

Yep. This about sums it up.
Turns out, Dad was right.

Megadeth sent me home with two black eyes, a bloody nose that just wouldn’t quit, and a busted lip. I hadn’t started the fight (or played much of a role beyond “punching bag”), but in keeping with the school policy of punishing all parties involved in a fight, I was suspended for two days.

The following Monday, I returned from my extended weekend and expanded my vocabulary through hands-on experience, adding “getting snuck” and “being jumped” to my middle school vernacular. The four boys who jumped me were suspended, and once again, so was I.

My situation felt pretty precarious. I had no friends, and the chest-thumping coalition had marked me as persona non grata, or as Megadeth called it, “Get Him!” So, when I returned from my second suspension in as many weeks, with the constant threat of being jumped (and suspended) looming over me, I started looking for someplace to hide during lunch/recess.

Ms. Care, the school librarian, was a perfect storm of apropos attributes--the kind of person you simply cannot use in fiction lest you face that most scathing pejorative “cliché”. She was mousy and ancient. She wore bifocals, of course, with a little chain that ran from one earpiece to the other so that she could wear her glasses as a necklace, which she did from time to time. As a finishing touch, a medical condition physically prevented her from speaking in anything more than a raspy whisper.

The Concrete Corpse
Kids would climb the metal stairs on the left, daring each other to jump back down.
Bragging rights went to the kid who jumped from the highest step.
My best was an ankle-twisting 10 steps.
Her lunch break coincided with mine, meaning that the library was closed at that time every day. Ms. Care locked the doors, and passed the time behind her desk, reading books and eating unidentifiable things from Tupperware containers. I knew the door was locked, but I knocked anyway, and to my surprise, she let me in with no questions asked. She did it again the next day. And the next.

By the third or fourth day, with nothing better to do, I resorted to reading. The library had two floors. The first was dominated by nonfiction, so that’s where I began--with books with titles like “Gunmen of the American West”, “Great Battles of the Civil War”, and “The Life of a Medieval Knight”. A week or so passed this way. Ms. Care would let me in, lock the door behind me, and then return to her lunch, never once inquiring about my purpose. For my part, I spent the time learning a lot about nothing in particular.

One dreary afternoon, Ms. Care deviated from the script. “Would you mind putting these books where they go for me?” she asked, gesturing toward a small, perfectly stacked pile of books on the returns table. I was delighted at the chance to repay her kindness. “These go on the second floor,” she rasped.

I collected the books, all small hardbacks, and set about my task, thinking that I thought I was doing her a favor. Ah, but she was a clever one. The second floor was where fiction lived, and every book she gave me belonged in the science fiction and fantasy section. I went up the stairs with about a dozen books. I came back down with three. One was by Isaac Asimov. The other two featured dragons prominently on their covers. Ms. Care smiled in her gentle way, and stamped them with their new due dates. 

I returned all three the next day and promptly checked out replacements. This became my habit, and every day Ms. Care would smile and give me few stacks of books, always science fiction and fantasy, to put back on the shelves.

"Violence is the 

last refuge of 
the incompetent."
-Isaac Asimov

Eventually, the resident ruffians forgot about me. I can’t really say when it happened; I wasn’t paying attention. There were new worlds to discover, arcane beasts to confront, and the occasional damsel (or planet) to rescue. One again, I was immersed in a world of invisible things. Time went on, and Ms. Care began openly recommending books. I unfailingly read them. Rather than eating her lunch in peace and quiet, she would invite me to discuss my impressions of her suggested readings. We spoke of things like magic and plotlines. She never once spoke down to me.

When boxes of new books would arrive, there were always a couple of that seemed almost deliberately chosen to pique my interest. Ms. Care gave me first dibs on them, letting me check them out before they’d even touched the racks. That’s how I discovered Rose Estes. She wrote several delightfully gimmicky books commonly known as “choose your own adventure.”

For the uninitiated, “choose your own adventure” books allowed the reader to direct the story by choosing which page to read next. Will you fight the dragon? If so, turn to page 12. Want to run for your life, instead? Turn to page 45. Ms. Care had purchased three of Rose’s books--The Pillars of Pentegarn, Dragon of Doom, and Mountain of Mirrors. I spent the rest of that day exploring fallen empires, battling frost giants, and bargaining with a dragon to save the world. It was glorious.

Undead dragons!?
  Mind blown. 

No, it was more than glorious.

It was inspiring.

The idea of participating in a story, of deciding what happens next, led me to a new frontier: the blank page. When I’d filled a dozen of them with the beginning of my first story--the tale of a knight commanded by a mad king to singlehandedly rid the realm of dragons--Ms. Care was the first person to read it. I sat nervously across the desk from her, struggling to obey her single commandment: “Don’t say anything until I’m finished.”

“Well?” I asked the moment she sat the last page down.

My grasp of grammatical conventions was poor; my spelling and penmanship were worse. In short, my writing was a red pen’s fever dream. Despite that, Ms. Care looked up thoughtfully and asked, “This is good, but how will you maintain the action in the next part?"

“More dragons!” I replied. And that’s exactly how I did it, too.

When I returned from the summer break, Ms. Care was gone. I would later be told that her throat condition had been some kind of cancer. Ms. Care had crossed yet another kind of invisible line. But thanks to her, I remained acutely aware of invisible things, and so I can still see her. 

She's on every page I fill with stories. 


  1. There were two librarians in my K-6 elementary school. They saved me, over and over. Not from peer bullies, of which there were plenty who found me a satisfying target for various reasons. No, that aspect of my school experience was beyond their controllable domain. Nevertheless, they tracked that I was a kid who suffered and it never failed that when I went into the library, there would be at least one, sometimes more, books waiting under the checkout counter—for me. The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel), Susan Cooper's Dark Is Rising series... Dozens of hundreds of books over half a dozen years.

    Entering kindergarten reading on a 5th/6th grade level was an asset in this way. And yet, the librarians never burdened me with expectations of persistent intellectualism. If I brought Ant and Bee or CDB to the desk, they checked them out to me with just as much warmth as more challenging fare. One of the things I loved best was that they understood why I often read the same books several times, checking them out periodically to dive in again.

    My fourth grade teacher had a small library in her classroom. It was sectioned off by bookcases and had pillows on the floor. I was invited to go there any time I was bored or had finished an assignment ahead of others. And sometimes, when I opened my desk, there would be a book she'd selected for me from her collection inside of it. She even let me keep one I particularly liked, "Follow My Leader."

    I'm not a writer, but I appreciate language in a way that I know is informed by how much I've read. And those woman are a big part of why that is so.

    Thanks so much for inspiring that memory!

  2. Thank you for sharing that story. It had me smiling at your descriptions, and brought tears to my eyes at the end. I believe every young student needs a Ms. Care in their lives.

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