Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Lawrence – My Hometown

Julian’s Problem

By Richard E. Noble

Julian was a grammar school buddy of mine. I remember riding my bike up Park St. to call Julian and then us both riding over, with Julian on the crossbar or handle bars of my little red bicycle, to Johnny Welsh’s house to play or hangout.
Julian had no yard to play in but Johnny lived in a complex with a few tenements clustered onto a big lot. We had plenty of room for stickball, outs, or catch. We had old baseball gloves and could kill a whole afternoon just tossing a baseball around a dirt yard or hitting a few grounders.
I met Johnny and Julian in the first grade at St. Rita’s. Julian had a very noticeable problem in school. It was not so noticeable in the earlier grades but it became more and more noticeable as we progressed through the grades. Julian had big trouble with oral reading. Now me and Johnny were not all that great either. We used the old finger pointing technique, going from word to word on the page and we stuttered over sounding out unfamiliar words too. But Johnny and I gradually improved. We were never great at it, but other kids didn’t laugh at us when our turn came. Julian, on the other hand, got the kids giggling. He was exceptionally bad.
By the time we were all up to the fifth and sixth grade he was still reading on a first and second grade level. The fifth grade nun was a toughie. She had no sympathy for Julian. I felt bad for him but many in the class laughed. It was easy to laugh when a kid in the fifth grade was stumbling over words like ‘running’ and ‘jumping’. Everybody figured that Julian wasn’t doing his homework. He wasn’t practicing his oral reading at home or wherever.
I knew Julian wasn’t stupid. We played together all the time. He spoke as well as anybody and he certainly wasn’t dumb. Me and Johnny were both considered somewhat smart (for boys) and we were better at sports than Julian. So Julian started drifting off – even from Johnny and me. He made the grammar school basketball team but he never started (played on the 1st team) and only got to play when we were winning by a good margin.
The fifth grade nun figured that Julian was just goofing off or being a wise guy. She would call on him for oral reading all the time. When the class broke up laughing she took up standing behind Julian and giving him a little slap to the back of the head every time he stuttered over a word. She would also use her “clicker” to poke him behind the ear or on the shoulder. Occasionally she poked a little too hard even for Julian who had become accustomed to her abuse. He would jump from his desk and grab the afflicted area.
When the nun finally realized that Julian wasn’t going to sit for her “encouragements,” she resorted to a tall pointed dunce cap. She sat Julian at one of the corners in the front of the room and made him sit there with his dunce cap on his head for the entire class. By this stage most of the kids weren’t laughing anymore. I know I sat in dread waiting for her to call on Julian to read. It was unpleasant to watch this day after day.
When the dunce cap petered out and Julian continued in his negative demonstrations, she ordered Julian to come to the front of the room and crawl under her desk. I can still see Julian scrunched up under her desk as the class progressed. I don’t remember anything that the teacher was teaching, but I do remember Julian sitting there. He never cried. He never protested. He sat there with his head hidden against his knees. I remember feeling terribly guilty and, of course, very sad for Julian. But what could be said? He should be practicing his reading. He should have been improving. He clearly wasn’t trying. So under the teacher’s desk or in the corner with a dunce cap on his head was the appropriate consequence.
One day while Julian was sitting under the teacher’s desk a woman’s face peeked through the tiny window in the classroom door. I saw the woman looking in. Suddenly the door flew open and there was Julian’s mother. “Where is my son,” she demanded. “I know this is his classroom, now where is he?” Julian remained under the teacher’s desk. Julian’s mother went directly over to the nun. The nun rose from her chair and Julian’s mom boldly pushed her chair aside and looked under the desk. “Oh my God,” she said. “Julian told me about this but I did not believe him. Come out from under there son.” After Julian reluctantly crawled out from under the teacher’s desk, his mother pulled him to her side. “What is wrong with you,” she demanded staring heatedly into the teacher’s eyes.
This was a difficult situation to analyze for us young tough Lawrence kids. Was Julian a sissy because he told his mother about being punished in school? Did the nun have the right attitude or was Julian’s mother justified?
Julian was never considered a tough guy. He had no schoolyard reputation to uphold. He was always rather quiet and sensitive and, of course, got more so as the school years went by. Some of the nuns in the earlier years just passed Julian by when it came to oral reading or instructed him to practice more at home and never called on him again. I don’t know what grades Julian got in his other subjects but he was promoted each year and was moved along. I figured that he was simply a poor oral reader. Some kids were afraid to read out loud or to stand up in front of the class and recite or complete a math problem on the blackboard.
The nun and Julian’s mother went out into the corridor. I really don’t remember what was the consequence of that day’s events but many, many years later, I bumped into Julian at the 5 O’clock Club at Salisbury beach. I remember being excited to see Julian again after all the years. We had a few drinks and talked. He had grown up to be a sensitive and well spoken young man. We talked of those days back at St. Rita’s. This was the first that I ever heard of dyslexia. I remember thinking at the time that he was making this dyslexia thing up but it didn’t matter to me. We all go through our tough times and we all grow up.
It was a week night at the beach and I was the only cottage member who was staying at the cottage fulltime. We had both had a number of drinks and Julian told me that he was going to spend that night sleeping in his car because he didn’t feel sober enough to drive back to Lawrence. I invited him down to the cottage. I told him no one was there but me and we had a number of empty beds. He accepted my invitation and slept over that evening. We went out to breakfast in the morning and I remember thinking what a nice kindhearted person little under-the-teacher’s-desk Julian had grown up to be.
It was only two or three weeks later I met Julian at the 5 O’clock Club once again. We were both in the same condition as the first meeting and I invited him back to the cottage. He refused. Accepting once was fine but he couldn’t impose every weekend. I insisted but he declined.
I read in the paper that next morning that Julian R a young male from Lawrence, Ma. was found dead in his automobile with the engine running. His car was parked in a public parking space at the end of the beach. I couldn’t believe it. I had told him that he could come over to our place any week night. The place was empty for god’s sake. But he couldn’t impose. He didn’t want to be a “sponge” or a “leach.” It was so senseless and I felt so bad. Why?
I have always had the same problem with death. I find all death a tragedy. I agree with Ernest Hemmingway who considered every life a tragedy, because every life ends in death. I can’t make qualifications either. I can’t say well he was a bad guy, or he drank too much, or he deserved to die because he didn’t live properly, or he was old. I do understand that there are some people who are better off being put to sleep for the sake of the rest of us, Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden for example, but nevertheless I find nothing that excuses the tragedy of death. I find the whole thing totally unjustified from any point of view. It is always sad. I have learned very little from my many experiences watching it happen to others. But as with my grade school buddy, Julian, there is absolutely nothing that I can do about it. There is nothing that any of us can do about it. We can only watch as our friends, relatives, brothers and sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, wives, husbands, grandparents, boyfriends and girlfriends, treasured family pets, celebrities, national heroes and in some cases, our own children die right before our eyes. It is no fun – no fun at all.

Richard Edward Noble is a freelance writer and columnist. His local column, the Eastpointer, won the first place 2007 humor award from the Florida Press Association. He has published several books. All of his books can be viewed and purchased on Contact for information on writing a column for your publication or for bookstore discounts, volume sales and Noble Publishing special offers.

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