This is going way back, I was probably in fourth grade at P.S. 178. I was maybe nine or ten. J0hn F. Kennedy was already dead, my father’s psoriasis was already an ongoing problem. I knew by then that around thirteen years before I was born grandma and pop’s families back in Vishnevitz had been killed by the Nazis.
My father had become angry when I kept inquiring about the Nazis, told me basically to be a man about it and stop whining. In second grade I’d been my beautiful young teacher’s pet, though Mrs. Endleman could also tell I was a sensitive and troubled boy. She wrote a beautiful letter to that effect to my parents. In third grade I began acting out.
I had my favorite teacher, probably ever, Mary Richert. My best friend that year was the first black kid in my class, Bryan Blackman. Young negroes, as they were then called, began arriving by bus in that first year of integration. Bryan and I hit it off right away, ran down the halls whenever we could. One beautiful spring day, after an outdoor punch ball game in the school yard, we stayed in gym after the class headed back up to the room in an orderly line behind Miss Richert.
The idea of going back up to class on such a perfect afternoon was very painful to us at that moment. Bryan and I raced up and down the empty gym and practiced hook slides on the lacquered wooden floor. There were bases painted on the floor of the gym, in the corners of a painted diamond, now that I think about it. I got a nasty floor burn on the inside of my elbow on my last slide, executing a daring steal of third. I recall it stung like hell and took a long time to heal, but I didn’t really care.
When we got back to class, sweaty and laughing, shirt collars open, ties off, our faces wet from a good long drink at the water fountain, Miss Richert, who loved us both, was beside herself. Too angry to speak she stalked over to her closet and yanked out the grey metal box containing our permanent record cards. She made a notation in pen on each of our permanent records. Somewhere those records, if they still exist (and how could they not, if they’re permanent?), indicate exactly what she wrote. We saw nothing but her rage as she made the slashing permanent notations as the class looked on in shocked silence.
We remained her favorites, though we continued to try her patience. I learned decades later when I visited the school as an adult that our third grade class had been her first year teaching. She was a wonderful woman with a great sense of humor. She was a great teacher. She was an inspiration to me.
In fourth grade, I guess it was, my mother began to pick me up early at school once a week, or maybe every other week. The class would be starting to get ready for dismissal, copying the homework off the blackboard and so forth, but I’d get out before any of them could leave. My mother and the teacher must have made arrangements, because the teacher just waved with a little smile as I left, maybe fifteen minutes, or a half hour, before the rest of the little prisoners. I remember the weather was nice, I don’t recall having a winter coat or any other gear, so it may have been early fall, or possibly spring.
My mother would hand me a snack and drive from the school to Sutphin Boulevard. I always loved the ridiculous name of that boulevard, which I’d later come to know as a stop on the subway home from the city. At Sutphin my mother would park and we’d walk over to the Bloyler Building and take an elevator, with an old fashioned folding brass grate, shiny where the operator pushed and pulled it, up to an office where my mother waited outside while I went in to speak to a woman who had a lot of questions for me.
“I hear you like to draw, Eliot,” the woman said. I did, as a matter of fact, and she handed me some drawing paper. I had my favorite drawing pencils with me. She had a lot of questions about what I was drawing. I don’t remember many, but I do remember one, because it shocked me at the time. “What kind of sick fuck?” I remember thinking when she asked it.
I drew a guy, kind of a skinny alien-looking character with bug eyes. It was a character I was drawing often at that time. She probably asked about his eyes, and I made up some answer for her on the spot. Truthfully, I had no idea why I liked drawing his eyes that way at that particularly time, I just did. I continued to draw. As I drew a belt on his pants she asked me why I was drawing the belt there. I told her it was to hold up his pants. She asked why I drew it so low. I told her I didn’t know. Then she fixed me with a strange look and asked “are you ever afraid that somebody’s going to cut off your penis?”
You could have blown me over with a feather. The idea, truly, had never occurred to me, but it was one of those images you get that become hard to unsee. Being killed by Nazis, sure, that thought bothered me a lot, but having my penis cut off? What? I told her I wasn’t afraid of having my penis cut off, damn it, but I also didn’t want her to get any ideas about it. It was certainly not OK to me if someone planned to cut my penis off, I could tell her that for sure. I had no idea where the hell was she going with this crazy line of questioning.
I remember my mother crying when I gave her shit about this lady’s questions. My father shook his head, already frustrated, defeated and starting to get angry. There appeared to be no help for me. I was winning battle after battle in the house and at school, but it was only a matter of time before I lost the war, according to my dad.
He predicted a long life of whining to shrinks about how terrible my parents had been to me. I told him he might have a point there, that maybe he should change tactics, start being less terrible. He absolutely hated it when I had a smart answer like that. Thinking back now, with the gift of adult hindsight, I understand why that was.
“You might win this battle,” he said with great disgust, his teeth practically gritted “but believe me, you’re going to lose the war.”
I dare say the man was nearly right. Took a bit of shrapnel, inhaled some chlorine and was subjected to several brutal techniques during my extended captivity, but the war didn’t beat me, in the end. In fact, it made me even stronger than the narrator of the Tell-tale Heart. I can give you the names of half a dozen shrinks I talked to over the years who will tell you the same thing.
“This piece was fine, until you ruined it with the cutesy ending,” said the skeleton, a piece of grass held pensively between his teeth.
Grandma used to tell me the same thing sometimes about my drawings and paintings.
“Grandma wasn’t wrong, Elie,” said the skeleton, returning to his drowsy nap.
That’s the beauty of the rewrite, I thought, suddenly feeling drowsy as hell myself.