Pushed Away For Nothing Wrong
It was back in the fall of 1964, my home in the Bronx of New York. Over twenty years ago—I was only thirteen. How could I have not realized what was going on? How to be so naïve. Innocent, uninformed, manipulated. Although to be fair, what would you have done? You're lost, vulnerable, alienated, abandoned. Beaten, mistreated, bullied, scared, lonely, you don't know any better. You'd have done anything to make those thoughts go away, I know you would. You just don't know the depth. There's no right or wrong, still to this day. I'm not even sure if I would punch that man in the face or shake his hand and pat him on the back if I could see him today.
The day started out like a typical autumn morning. The sky was glazed in a grey coat painted among the clouds. A brisk wind tore through the cracks of the classroom window in Sister James' classroom. Shivers were sent up and down my spine, but I tried to focus my attention on the history lesson. I had a much easier time following along because of her tendency to get worked up, illustrating lush images that flashed in the back of my eyelids when I shut my eyes. Sometimes I could hear them, too. Depending on the lesson. I liked to pretend Sister James played movies that only I could see and I could get myself into a place where I could hear everyone, smell the fog on a crisp morning and the drained blood lining the grounds of war. Feel the dirt and grime beneath my hands as I crawled alongside the troops...
But my movie was stopped short as the door creaked open wickedly, revealing Sister Aloysius standing in the doorway. Her menacing cloud of scowling terror trailing beside her, never leaving her for a moment. She walked around to the back of the classroom and shivers were sent up my spine. I could feel it among my classmates. Paranoia. Fear. Is she coming for me? What did I do…? More to the point, what did she catch me doing? Sister Aloysius, the principle of the St. Nicolas Catholic School, was not someone you wanted to have breathing down your neck. Merciless, traditional, terrifying. God help the child she's coming for today.
Then I saw it.
The fairly hidden black cord dangling from a raven ear bud plugged into Jimmy Hurley's ear. I had to give him credit, the radio he was listening to was kept at an inaudible level and that's coming from someone who was sitting not twelve inches away from him. He stared straight ahead as if paying full attention to the lesson, but I could tell by the shimmering glaze covering his pupils that he was off in another dimension, another time.
I discreetly nudged my elbow into his, a desperate attempt to get his attention. I could hear the rhythmic tapping her shoes made on the cold concrete floor, coming closer with every step. Hopeless. She would see; she saw everything.
Coming up behind us. Tension building.
Maybe she'd go easy on him.
I nudged him again. His eyes fluttered and he shot me a glare that clearly told me to leave him alone. His expression changed when he felt Sister Aloysius' hand slinking around the back of his head. She yanked the cord out of his ear so fast the hair on his head flipped back as if stuck by a gust of wind.
I listened as she interrogated him. My body froze; face forward, as if urging the movie to come back on in my head. But it wouldn't. I had lost the focus and desire that kept the tape moving along. For when Sister Aloysius turned and left with her newly confiscated toy in hand, Jimmy shot me That Look. Thanks, jerk, it said. I sighed quietly so that no one could hear.
Story of my life.
After class I scurried down the halls. The hallways at St. Nick were horrible. Kids running everywhere haphazardly, it was a nightmare. Pushed and shoved, knocked into lockers, stumbling over other people's belongings and my own two feet. With all the chaos of children running everywhere, I was impressed with myself for not forgetting where my next class was.
I spotted William coming down the hall from an opposing direction. He was laughing with one of his friends, I wasn't sure of the name. I tucked my books up a little closer to my chest and kept my head bent down, avoiding his gaze like the plague. It wasn't easy being the only coloured boy in the school of white walls. Every day I woke up and feared the worst, just because of the colour of my skin. Horror stories you hear about, the ones that happened to a friend of a friend of yours, that come to life in your mind every night. For the most part, my fears had yet to be proven. Nothing too bad every really happened, despite my paranoia. But you couldn't take the glare out of people's eyes—the glare that said they didn't want you here, near them, breathing the same air. The glare that haunted William's eyes whenever I walked past him in the halls.
He approached me discreetly. In one quick, fluid motion, he grabbed the edge of my books and notebooks and pushed them to the ground with such force that most of them went skidding to the edges of the hall, and up to three or four feet in front of me. I paused, convinced I was about to receive a black eye, fat lip, bloody nose. I'm not stupid. William has proven himself capable of bloodying a nose; even his own just to get out of class for the rest of the day.
Nevertheless, he and his comrades chuckled and muttered something to me that I didn't quite pick up. I hung my head in shame for a moment, listening to his footsteps among the hundreds of other kids paying no attention to what had just happened in the hallway.
He was gone.
I had escaped a mere cruel act of fate with nothing more than a few books tossed at the ground… my life wasn't threatened in any way, I hadn't gotten physically hurt. If I were any other boy, I'm sure I would have shrugged it off, went about my day as if it hadn't happened. But this hurt. I wasn't sure why at the time. I felt singled out, alienated even more so. Mocked. Alone. I stared down at my open books that lay around me on the floor. Tears were forming in my eyes. That was something I could not, under any circumstances, be seen doing.
I dropped to the floor so quickly that I pretty much just threw my legs out from under me and held out my hands to break my fall. My hands shook weakly as I attempted to drag my belongings back towards me. A white hand. Twice my size. Firm and steady.
My eyes cast upwards and I saw Father Flynn standing in front of me, a warm and comforting gaze that immediately drained any stress and anger that had been building up for weeks. The soft smile, glistening eyes that showed nothing but concern and welcoming. Friendship. Kindness. Acceptance. Strength. Strength that was projected from his heart into my and I managed to stand. As if he knew that the effort had left me weary, I felt his hands on me. They started at my shoulders and pulled me towards him, sliding across my back and then pulling me towards him until my face was pressed tightly into his chest.
I didn't fight him.
It felt nice, I threw my arms—tiny in comparison—around his waist and just stood there, allowing his robes to soak up my tears. I shook as I sobbed, trying to be prudent for I knew, somewhere in the back of my mind, that we were still in a crowded school hallway. And yet, at the same time, I didn't care. I didn't want to care. It was me and him against the world and that was all that mattered. Focus… the chatting kids, the stomping, running footsteps echoing off the walls… none of it was there anymore.
I concentrated on the security. How do I even begin to describe the strength this man had given me? The way he'd always find me at my weakest. He'd take me back to his office with him and just hold me, convince me everything was perfect as long as I was with him. Reassurance, support, hope, faith. Whenever I questioned my faith, whenever I didn't think I could make it through, he knew when to swoop down and pull me back towards the light. I loved him. The way he'd just… hold me.
Everything was going to be okay.
Suddenly Father Flynn moved his hands from my back and grasped my shoulders; pushed me away from him. I lifted the cinder block resting on my neck and managed to lock eyes with his. His lips were pursed and he tapped me on the shoulder.
The moment was over.
He knelt with me and helped me gather the rest of my books before I hurried off to class. I glanced back over my shoulder at him, hoping for one last soothing look, but he wasn't watching anymore. I followed his stare to find that it was speared into Sister Aloysius' eyes. The two were having some sort of silent conversation, something too trivial and far beyond my maturity level it seemed. Of course.
I turned my back on my saviour, my father, my friend. Third period was starting.
I hadn't known it at that precise moment, but that would be the last bit of courage Father Flynn would ever pump through my veins.
He started to avoid my gaze if we past in the halls. In church he would look right over me. I started to think I had done something wrong, and yet, I could never muster the courage it would take to see him privately… All I wanted to do was get him back. For all intensive purposes, he was my best friend. I missed him. He was my safety net and every day was the struggle of keeping my balance on a flimsy rope suspended a hundred feet off the ground. I needed him.
A couple days later, I watched him step up to the podium to begin his sermon. The icy words that announced his departure. He was leaving us and not coming back. This would be the last time I ever saw him. I could not believe it. I could feel the lump in my throat rising, stinging in my eyes as the salty tears overflowed my eyelids. I could hear the tearing sounds where a hole in my chest was forming.
It was stupid. Utterly, totally, and completely stupid. What did I do? What could I possibly have done that would make him leave? Make him leave me here helpless, broken, alone. After all this time.. He knew nothing about me. Stupid man. I hated him. I hated him for doing this to me; for making me believe it would work out in the end and then leaving me with nothing. I hated him. Hate with a burning passion, loathe entirely!
He stepped down, walked between the pews shaking hands with the grown-ups. I hid my head. I didn't want to face him. I couldn't trust myself to keep it together. I couldn't trust anyone now.
Father Flynn stopped at my pew. I kept my head bent. His eyes were on me, I could feel them. He expected me to turn around, to say "Hey, see you around buddy!" I don't know. I didn't move. I couldn't. I wouldn't. I could hear him inhale as he moved on to the next pew. And just like that, he was out of my life. I had been shoved aside, unimportant. I didn't do anything wrong. I couldn't think like that. I'd just been pushed away, for nothing wrong.