Lawrence – My Hometown
Brother Kenneth Robert
By Richard E. Noble
In this life we are constantly making judgments about one another. Does he or doesn’t he? Will she or won’t she?
We are forever choosing whether to make a friend of someone or let them pass by.
Being raised in Lawrence brought these day to day decisions to a higher level. Growing up in Lawrence, I asked questions like: Is this person “safe” to know? If we were out drinking together and I go to the bathroom, will this person steal any money that I have left on the bar? Is this person “tough” or is he actually violent and physically dangerous? Insanity being a given in Lawrence, is this person simply ha-ha, hee-hee crazy or is he “criminally” insane? Would he eat a live pigeon while sitting on a park bench at the Common? If I disagree with this person will he become violent and try to kill me or throw me out a second or third floor window? Does this person have a “trigger mechanism”? For example if I say the word “mother” or “sex” or “gawumpki” does saliva begin to dribble from a lower lip or does mucus start seeping from this person’s nose. If I date this Lawrence girl and then decide I’m not interested, will she bring her father’s police revolver to Mass on Sunday and clean it in a pew where I must watch?
Lawrence was different. After I left Lawrence it took a year or two for me to realize that most other males will not kill you just because your back is turned. When out to eat or on the town, it isn’t absolutely necessary to sit with your back to a wall. Which brings me to the story of Brother Kenneth Robert.
Brother Kenneth Robert was sick. This Marist Brother was the overseer of my freshman or sophomore year homeroom. He appeared basically normal but he had a “thing” about food.
Being my homeroom teacher, he also supervised “study” period. Study period came before lunch period. Many children in my homeroom class were hungry by the time study period rolled around and could not wait for lunch period to begin eating their lunch. If Brother Kenneth witnessed anyone nibbling a baloney sandwich, or gobbling a slab of chocolate cake during study period, he went bonkers.
Who would have known? Most other brothers could care less but Brother Kenneth was another story.
I did my homework during study period. I was busy scribbling out my geometry when I witnessed Brother Kenneth having his first “episode.”
I looked up and there he was steaming down the row of desks next to mine. He stopped at the kid sitting aside from me. “Are you eating?” he demanded.
“No Brother. I’m not,” blubbered Nicolas Lippoli. Nicolas’ mouth was full and even saying these few words spattered particles of chocolate cake all over the front of Brother Kenneth’s tunic. Brother Kenneth immediately shifted into “nutty” and began beating poor Nicolas. This first seizure culminated with Brother Kenneth demanding that Nicolas spit the remainder of his cake out of his mouth. Nicolas puked up his cake into the napkin his mother had wrapped it in. He then followed Brother Kenneth’s mandate and deposited his semi-digested cake into a nearby trash can.
Well, that was a little strange, but not completely insane. As the year progressed Brother Kenneth evolved from a basic neurotic with violent tendencies to a definite psychotic with psychopathic seizures and blackouts. When he attacked John Peligrosi for eating his tuna on pumpernickel during study period, I thought he was going to kill the poor kid. He slapped him; he punched him; he kneed him. He knocked his desk over and then punched and kicked him while the kid was trying to squirm away along the classroom floor.
Now other than watching mom and dad at home, I had never seen people act this way in a public setting. This brother was auditioning for One Flew Over the Coo-Coo’s Nest.
When John Peligrosi came to school that next day, he had a shiner and several band aides here and there. I remember thinking at that time about the spare-the-rod-and-spoil-the-child notion. Certainly one should not be eating a pumpernickel on rye during study period but should a grown adult be punching, kicking and scratching a medium sized boy for such an offence?
Finding such questions beyond my ethical evaluations at that stage, I decided to move on.
Christmas break was on the way and to my shock and disbelief there was John Peligrosi at my desk with an envelope. “Hey, we’re all chipping in a quarter to buy Brother Kenneth a Christmas present. Do you want to chip in?”
I must admit, I found John’s attitude surprising. “You’re collecting quarters to buy Brother Kenneth a Christmas present?” I asked dubiously.
“Well,” he smirked. “It’s going to be a joke. We’re getting him a wallet.”
“Yeah. Brothers take a vow of poverty, you know. They can’t have any money. We’re getting him a wallet to break his chops.”
“In that case count me in. Here you go.” I gave him my quarter.
The day before our Christmas vacation, Peligrosi slipped up to Brother Kenneth’s desk before study period began. He dropped a long thin package onto the desk. The package was all decked out in Christmas paper with Santa stickers and a bright red ribbon and bow. The whole class sat clandestinely, smirking but trying to act normal.
Brother Kenneth came into the room sporting his usual grumpy, warden’s face. He stepped up onto the platform where his desk was located. Immediately he spotted the gift. There was an envelope with a card attached. He reached hesitantly for the card. He removed the card from the envelope and read it. He stood frozen, captured by the sentiment. When he looked up at the class tears were streaming down his cheeks. He started bawling like a baby. He turned his back to the class and fumbled inside his tunic searching for a hanky. He blew his nose and wiped his eyes. He took a few minutes to compose himself then walked around to the front of his desk. He sat on the edge of the desk. The room was quiet. We were all shocked. Everyone was rolling their eyes and shrugging their shoulders in disbelief.
“You know,” said Brother Kenneth turning the package over in his hands. “All this time I thought that you guys didn’t even like me.” Everybody laughed and looked cross-eyed at one another. “No really,” Brother Kenneth continued. “Some of the other brothers told me that they had received gifts from their students but I never thought in my wildest dreams that you guys would buy me something.” He choked up and started crying again. “I don’t know what to say,” he bawled.
After an awkward silence, Peligrosi yelled, “Open up your present, Brother.” And then Peligrosi snickered. The rest of us sat there dismayed and guilty. Brother Kenneth would open it up; see that it was a wallet and then realize that the whole thing was a joke. What would he do then?
He fumbled like a two year old ripping off the bow and the ribbon and then the Santa Christmas paper. When he saw that it was a wallet, he beamed. “Oh my gosh, what a beautiful wallet! I know that you guys probably don’t realize this but as a Marist Brother we all take a vow of poverty, so I don’t have any money to put into this wallet. But I have family pictures of my brothers and sisters and my mom and dad that I can put in here. You guys have made the best Christmas I have ever had. This is the first year that I won’t be seeing my family at Christams time and you’re my first homeroom class ever. My dad passed away last year and my brothers and sisters are all grown and off on their own. But now – thanks to you guys – I can have everybody right here in my very own wallet. I’ll never forget you guys and this kindness.” He put his head down and rushed out of the classroom overcome and weeping.
We were all stunned. We sat there staring up at the desk where Brother Kenneth had been standing. Then, just as if someone had given a cue or pulled a string, we all turned and stared at Peligrosi. He stared back roaming from one stern face to the next. He then threw his arms up in the air. “How the hell would I know?” he grumbled apologetically. “I didn’t even think the big pr–k had a mother and father.”
Richard E. Noble was raised in Lawrence, Ma. and is now a freelance writer. He has published 7 books. Two of them have Lawrence as their setting, A Summer with Charlie and Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother. A Little Something is a book of poetry with portions inspired by life in Lawrence. Hobo-ing America, is an unusual workingman’s tour of the U.S.A. The Eastpointer is selected pieces from his award winning column about life in a sleepy fishing village in the Florida Panhandle.