With thanks and gratitude to Mrs. Carey, Mrs. Conboy, Dick and Mo Conville, Mr. DiRaffaele, Mrs. Fitzpatrick, Mr. Hammerstein, Mr.Hastings, Mr. Luippold, Rev. Mand, Mr. Phillips, and the other adults of the Amherst regional schools and the First Baptist Church of Amherst who noticed me and made me feel like I was an actual person. And extra special thanks to my parents, who loved me through it all.
Prologue: The First Day
You’d think room C-32 would be easy to find. Probably between C-30 and C-34, or near C-33. But nooooooooo. It doesn’t seem to be anywhere. There’s C-20 again. Again! Okay, that’s C-18. Is anyone watching? Turn around. Oh, no, there’s the bell! I’m late! And probably no closer to C-32 than I was four minutes ago. Any moment, some teacher is going to come up behind me, put their hand on my shoulder, and quietly but firmly tell me it was all a gigantic mistake and I have to go back to Marks Meadow Elementary. Is anyone there? No. No one in sight. Good. I guess. Okay, what if I take this turn? And…. Whew. There it is. But the door is closed. Everyone’s going to stare at me. The teacher’s going to yell at me. But I can’t stay here forever. Okay, here we go… “Hi, have a seat! There’s one over there.” the teacher smiles. And no one laughs! Maybe I can do this after all.
Once I had found C-32, I settled pretty quickly into Mr. DiRaffaele’s Russian History course, which I loved. It took me places no other course ever had, assuming I could think deeply about complex questions. Astonishingly, I found that I could. This was where I first read The Endless Steppe by Esther Hautzig. Her memoir tells the story of when she was deported, along with countless other Polish Jews, to Siberia. Following her through the years there, attending school, and making friends and lamenting her family’s poverty when compared to her Russian friends, taught me a lot about what people have in common as well as what separates us, even when it shouldn’t be so.
Although I thought of myself as a pretty decent musician, I was surprisingly unfazed by being relegated to the back row of Concert Band with the other 3rd clarinets. Perhaps this was in part because Bill Tyler, Bill McLaughlin and I would cheerfully greet each other – “Hi, Bill!” – every single day as we assembled our instruments. Also, I loved the chance to do any music at all in school, having given up singing (and all unnecessary talking) when a waiter, with all good intentions, reacted with surprise and shock to my prematurely low voice, totally unexpected given my size.
Indeed, I was short enough that I was able to convince my parents to take me to Boston and see if I would grow bigger than 5’3″, the adult height predicted for me according to the Wonder Bread commercials of the time. The doctors (accurately) predicted I would reach 5’7″, which was fine with me – “7” was my favourite number.
My size may have been one factor for an older little kid named Randy somehow singling me out for special attention, getting his friend Richard to help him chase me daily into a bathroom, roughing me up, and dumping me in a garbage can. Eventually, my parents persuaded me to let them call the principal’s office, and while he didn’t agree to my plan of letting me leave class a minute early, he did allow me to walk through a connecting door to the empty classroom next door, the better to get a good solid running head start when the bell did ring. After a week of this, I figured Randy and Richard had given up. They had.
Meanwhile, at church, Rev. Mand came one Sunday morning to see us 7th graders. We were more than a little awed that the minister himself had come to talk to us, and felt almost honored when he invited us to attend Pastor’s Classes with him during Lent in preparation for Believer’s Baptism, according to my church’s tradition. I attended classes and enjoyed learning about the history of the Baptist Church, our beliefs and traditions. But I became increasingly nervous as Easter drew near. I knew what I wanted to do, but didn’t know if I had the courage. Finally, I decided if my parents would support me, I could do it. “Mom, Dad,” I said, “I’m not sure I’m ready to be baptized.” They asked me why, and I explained that I had always felt all religions were equal and I didn’t want to favour one religion over another. They said that made sense, and I could keep thinking about it in the year to come. As my parents had predicted, people in my church were nice about it, telling me it would mean even more to me next year. I wasn’t so sure. What if I was actually meant to be an agnostic? (I’m not sure I even had the word for it at the time, which certainly didn’t help.) As it turned out, I did get baptized in 8th grade, reasoning that my choosing to follow the path of Christianity didn’t preclude my respecting or supporting anyone else in their own chosen path.
(to be continued…)
-Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean