Remembering A Childhood Friend
Friendship doesn't come easily to me, it never has. By the time I was six or so I realized that I was destined to be an outsider, not one of the popular kids. I was probably socially clumsy, though I didn't realize it back then. I was also uncoordinated and definitely not physically adept at sports or games.
I did well in school, it came easily for me, but my teachers often complained to my mother that I daydreamed too much. That's true, I would grow quickly bored with the endless drilling and recitation, or find myself wincing in pain for the classmate struggling to read aloud or do math problems on the board while being prodded by the teacher. Often I escaped out the large windows of our old brick schoolhouse and traveled to happier places in my mind, only to be embarrassed when I was abruptly called back to attention.
Then and now, I felt sorry for those who struggled in class, for the underdogs, and especially for those who were different, the ones who everyone picked on or made fun of. I knew how it felt to be an outsider, when inside every child yearns to belong, to be a member of the group.
Though I attended grammar school over 40 years ago, I can still recall the names and faces of several children I encountered in my classes at various grade levels who were different than the rest, set apart, made fun of, thought strange. I would like to say that in each case I extended the hand of friendship, but I didn't. I was too awkward and shy. I do recall a lot of shared glances and encouraging smiles though, me trying to convey a bit of emotional support. I've often wondered how each of those children fared in life, and if they overcame the stigma of being different. Perhaps, like me, they have learned to live with it, and to make the best of it. One such person that I recall fondly came to our school in the fourth grade. I shall call him JS here, though his full name was of German descent, long and cumbersome like my own.
In "the old days" children walked to and from school in the small Midwest town where I grew up. There was no being carted back and forth by parents. We knew all the houses along our sidewalks and who lived in them. One house that fascinated me was a very large old three story white clapboard affair with broad porches, somewhat dilapidated, that had stood empty for some time. It had known better days.
One day I noticed activity at the house, a new family had moved to town. Rumors soon said that they were a bit strange. The father was a minister at a tiny church down the block, and they had a large brood of children. The children dressed old style, with the boys wearing pants held up by suspenders. Their clothing was worn, and their hair a bit shaggy. They talked with a slight accent, though that wasn't uncommon, growing up in an area rich in German, Polish, and Norwegian heritage.
One of the boys, JS, was assigned to my classroom. Needless to say, the other boys had very little to do with him. I wonder now if he had a single friend among them. His desk was near mine and it didn't take long to discover that he was a braniac nerd like me. Soon we were visiting at recess time and sharing our sack lunches at noon. We talked about all kinds of things, from science to religion. We played marbles together, and he shared his love of baseball. He explained things like why it wasn't a good idea to eat snow from off the ground.
Soon we were known as a couple, and I remember him giving me a ring to wear that he'd gotten from a gumball machine. I remember being made fun of by some of the other kids for hanging out with this "weirdo", children can be cruel. JS carried my books home from school one day and my parents learned of our schoolyard friendship. It didn't go over well. After all, my dad was a businessman in the community and had an image to uphold! His daughters couldn't be hanging out with "those kinds of people". (This line of thinking continued to interfere with other friendships all the while I lived at home.)
I remember JS and I having some kind of a minor disagreement one day after school, and me giving him his ring back. I have no idea what we argued about, but that was the end of our friendship and we went our separate ways. It wasn't long before his family moved away again, probably a pattern that repeated often in their lives. I wonder where he is now, and whether he is a scientist or a philosopher, or just living an ordinary life like mine. I wish him well, he was a good friend for the short time we shared.
Note: This story was written for Monday Memories. Stop by and read some of the other memories being shared this week, and add one of your own!