A Conversation With Carlton

by Rick Beck

Part 11

I made it to the gym a minute late. I didn't get scolded or reprimanded. I got shocked into what it meant to be in junior high school. There were rules to learn if I hoped to pass gym.

I looked at the page. It was filled with writing I couldn't read. My focus increased, because if I needed to know two pages of rules to pass gym, I was already in trouble. How could they figure out a way to make gym class difficult.

I was ready to run, jump, and climb, and I end up staring at two pages of rules. It seemed excessive, but I knew if I didn't listen to Mr. Romeo, the chances of me passing gym weren't looking good.

"Rule 4," he said, and I'd missed another rule while thinking about missing the first two rules.

I gave the teacher my undivided attention.

'You will furnish one combination type lock for your gym basket. You can get one combination type lock at any hardware store. You will affix your combination type lock to your gym basket, after you remove your gym type uniform, described in rules one and two. Your clothes will be removed and put into the basket, and your combination type lock will be affixed to said basket. Do not leave your lock affixed to your gym basket, once gym class ends. If you leave a lock affixed to a gym basket, the lock will be cut off. If the lock is cut off, you'll need to buy another combination type lock. Do you understand this? I do not want to hear one of you ask, 'Where'd my lock go.' If you expect to pass gym class, do not ever ask me, where your lock went."

A half dozen boys mumbled something in reply. I was too mortified to mumble. There had to be some kind of conspiracy at work here. This was gym class. It was time to play. What rules did you need to know to play?

As I listened as he read one rule after another, I became aware of a man moving closer and closer to me. The silver whistle, red shorts, and white tee-shirt with the school logo prominently in the middle of the shirt told me he was a gym teacher, and now he had closed in to within a foot of me. He didn't take his eyes off me.

What had I done? I was late. Maybe that was it.

What did this joker want? I had to hear Mr. Romeo, or I was screwed on the rules deal. The only easy class I had, if you didn't count lunch, and I was already in trouble. I'd only been there three and a half minutes.

I did my best to ignore the second gym type teacher, who seemed determined to distract me, and I hadn't heard the last two rules, because I was trying to figure out what this dude wanted.

Finally, at rule ten or eleven, I found myself face to face with the second gym teacher. His nose was very close to my nose. We were the same height.

He began to lift himself up on his toes, letting himself back down. His dark brown eyes were watching my baby blues.

He kept lifting up on his toes, letting himself back down. He lifted up, came back down. I'd lost any contact I had with Mr. Romeo. So much for the rules.

What did this guy want?

After two or three minutes, the man finally decided to speak.

"I know you," he said, lifting up on his toes, coming back down. "You're the kid who cleaned me out over at Hillcrest Heights Elementary. You kept making holes-in-one. I remember you," he said in a voice that revealed nothing.

Of all the gyms, in all the world, why did I have to walk into his?

I didn't know who he was. I guess it could have been the guy. How else would he know that? That guy wore a suit. This guy was in gym shorts and a tee-shirt. This guys had biceps the size of softballs, and his legs were coiled steel. How did I know if it was the guy?

Was he holding a grudge. Had he really been ticked off by me winning his table full of prizes. He let me putt the ball as often as I wanted.

"You're a pretty good little golfer," he said, sealing the deal.

He didn't sound angry. He sounded like he liked what I did. Maybe I wasn't in trouble. Maybe walking into his gym wasn't all bad.

"I'd never putted a golf ball before," I said.

"I know. That's the problem. How did you manage to clean me out?" He asked.

"I don't know. You showed me how. How do I know. I just did what you said. It wasn't my fault," I said, ready to cry.

"Relax kid. We're cool. You learn fast. I was impressed," he said.

"And I thought you'd never see that guy again," Carlton said. "He was a gym teacher. He knew he was going to see you again. I bet he was waiting for you to show up in his class," Carlton said.

"I suppose," I said. "Most of my contact with adults goes badly."

"I couldn't be sure about him. His expecting me to show up, would be a logical assumption. Gym class is mandatory in 7th grade. With only two gym teachers, and with my school being a feeder school for the school where he taught gym, he probably expected to see me again. And there I was."

Seeing the images in my brain brought details into focus. I hadn't guessed the position I was in. I was suspicious of adults, even one who praised and encouraged me. As good as it was the day it happened, three months later, I couldn't be sure of anything, but it didn't take long to find out where I stood with him.

It took longer to realize that he had taken me under his wing. I was his boy, and one thing was for sure, no one was going to make fun of me, because of it. You didn't want to cross Mr. Q.

Mr. Andrew Quattrocchi, Mr. Q thank God, didn't make me wait long to find out what he had in mind. Once we had our shorts and tee-shirts, and combination type locks, we were to be tested the first day of gym class, after we dressed-out.

First was the standing jump. Each boy stood on the line indicated, and he jumped. Mr. Romeo measured how far he'd jumped. Each boy got a single jump, except for moi. As quick as I stood on the line, and jumped when told to jump, Mr. Q came over to me, clamping his very strong hands on my shoulders, guiding me to one side, away from where the testing was being done.

"OK, Charles, I'm going to show you how to jump properly. I want you to watch me. He began to swing his arms back, as his toes were on the red line, and he immediately saw the vacant look in my eyes.

Being no ordinary teacher, Mr. Q remembered the way he got my attention the first time, and activated the recording device in my brain.

He took my upper arm, and gave me a little shake.

"Are you paying attention, Charles?" He asked.

I immediately focused in on what he was about to show me. I remembered the secret combination that allowed me to succeed at something.

Mr. Q swung his arms back, brought them way forward, as if he were pulling his chest into the air. He repeated the motion, and he didn't move, but on the third time, when his arms came up like he was going to pull his chest into the air, it's what he did. His arms lifted his entire body off the floor, propelling him forward a long long way.

"Wow," I said. "That was some jump."

"Can you do what I showed you? You remember?"

"Sure," I said, and clamping his hands on my shoulders, he marched me back to Mr. Romeo.

"Let this one go again," Mr. Q said.

Mr. Romeo held his hand out to keep the next kid from stepping up to the line, and I stepped up. I played the tape back in my head, and I did exactly what Mr. Q showed me how to do. I added over a foot to my first jump, and except for one other boy, I had out jumped everyone in the gym class.

This was what Mr. Q had in mind. I wasn't sure right away, what he thought he was doing, but after seeing me sink all those putts, without missing one, if you didn't count the ball I hit like a rocket. He wanted to find out what else he might be able to get me to do.

The standing jump told him what he thought was true. I would respond to his instruction with a major effort. He came to me two more times the first day, giving me another lesson, and allowing me to jump farther and outrun the other boys.

On the following day, when the gym teachers were taking control of their classes, I ended up in Mr. Romeo's class for about a minute and a half. We were all gathering, once our names were called, behind the teacher indicated.

After all the names were called, and each teacher had 30 students, Mr. Q came over, clamped his hands on my shoulders, and he said, "This one is mine. I'll send you a boy to make it even."

From that day forward, I was Mr. Q's boy. No one questioned it. No one doubted that what I was doing was consistently as good as the best athletes in the two classes. For the first time in my life, I couldn't wait to get to school. I couldn't wait to meet with Mr. Q. He was more than a teacher. He made me feel special. He let me loose to perform for him, and anything he showed me, I repeated, and repeated, and repeated, until I did it better than anyone else.

I had never been anything. Now, I was an athlete. It was grand.

The 7th grade was the first year of school, when I thought I was able to do something. In a short period of time, everyone expected me to be the best or second best, in everything we did. Other boys were giving me plenty of room, because I was good at what I did.

No matter what I was doing, Mr. Q was close at hand. He wanted to witness what I did. There were few things Mr. Q showed me how to do, that I couldn't do the way he instructed me. My performances improved, as I applied what he taught me.

For as far back as my memory took me, I couldn't do anything. From the day Mr. Q taught me to putt a golf ball, my life had been on an upward trajectory. I'd never been anything before, and being something, being able to do something well, made me feel good about myself.

It felt good, being something other than a disappointment.

One day, being stuck inside because of the rain, Mr. Q came to get me. We'd been playing dodge ball. I followed him over to the ropes that hung down from the forty foot high ceiling. Two other boys followed me over to where Mr. Q waited. They'd seen Mr. Q instructing me, and they'd seen the results. These were athletes, and they wanted in on the extra lessons I was being given.

"I want you to watch me," Mr. Q said, as he grasped the rope.

Sticking his legs out at a forty-five degree angle, his arms bulging muscle, he pulled himself up, touched the ceiling, and he lowered himself. He made it look easy as you please.

"Now, I want you to do it," he said.

"I can't do that. You're all muscle, Mr. Q. I'm scrawny," I said.

The two other boys said nothing, but they watched Mr. Q.

"It doesn't take muscle. It's all in your mind. By moving your legs out of the way, your arms are able to pull your weight up the rope. You're letting your brain override the physics involved."

"I am?" I asked.

"Take the rope," he ordered.

I took the rope.

"Be ready to take your body weight onto your arms. Don't worry, your arms will hold you," he assured me.

I did what he said. My arms held me.

"Put your legs straight out," he said.

I put my legs straight out, as he'd done. My arms held my weight just fine.

"Now, keep your legs straight out, and climb the rope," he said.

I climbed the rope, touched the ceiling, and lowered myself. In some ways, it was easier than when I used my legs to help me climb. The legs weren't helping at all. They simply held the rope steady.

"I won't ask you to do anything you can't do, Charles," he said.

By that time, Richard Moe was climbing the rope, as Mr. Q instructed. He touched the ceiling and let himself down.

"Cool," Richard said. "It wasn't as hard as I thought it would be.

The third boy was flailing, as quick as he put his legs out, and he made it a few feet off the gym floor, before letting himself down.

"You let your brain get in the way," Mr. Q said. "You can do it."

These were little things that added up to a big thing. I did things few other kids in gym class could do. I felt good about that.

I would not brag about my athletic ability. I'd never use it to put someone else down. The idea that Mr. Q thought enough of me to want to show me how to do things right, made me feel special, and that feeling was enough to help me keep my mind on my business.

I watched Mr. Q. How much did he know, because of what happened in the Hillcrest Heights Elementary School auditorium?

Why did he spend so much time with me?

No one else got the attention I did from him, and there were better athletes. The only reason I could perform as well as they performed, was because Mr. Q taught me how to do things properly. Other boys began watching us. Mr. Q didn't object. What he showed me was the proper way to use your body to get better results. When other boys did what Mr. Q showed me, they got better results.

They all knew who the instructions were for, and that gave me the kind of status I'd never enjoyed. I had become somebody.

I didn't know what Mr. Q sensed about what I did in the Hillcrest Heights Elementary School auditorium. The way I reacted to him that day must have told him a lot. He may have wondered if there was an untapped well of ability trapped within the uncomfortably insecure boy who mastered his golf hole. He'd see what he could teach me, now that he had my undivided attention.

I didn't have enough experience with adults who encouraged me to know what his motives were. Mr. Q treated me like I was a regular kid. He couldn't know that I'd never been a regular kid. I did just as he indicated I should do. If I'd been born at 12, by the time I walked into Mr. Q's gym, I was hardly aware of the world around me, but I was learning at a frantic pace.

He said that he'd never ask me to do anything I couldn't do, and that was good enough for me.

As I worked with the man who had become my personal trainer, my status in the gym class grew. Part of it was because of what I'd learned how to do. The other part was the amount of attention I got from a well-liked gym teacher. Mr. Q was one of the good guys.

I knew few guys, and when it came to good guys, I knew one.

While I felt pretty good about 7th grade gym, it was the only class where I saw some success, if you don't count lunch. None of my other classes had much to interest me. I knew math, and I was good with numbers, so anything to do with numbers, I did well at.

Nothing else appealed to me.

The fear I took to junior high school with me, that this might be the year I was failed, was unrealized. I had just managed to keep my head above water. With an A in gym, a B in math, the rest were either a C or a D.

Mr. Q was a teacher, and I wondered how many boys he'd encountered in a gym class, who had the same vacant look in their eyes that I showed up with. Once I did what he instructed me to do, and then kept on doing it, things began to relax. I was expecting his instruction, and he expected me to perform at a high level. The other boys who came over to watch us, were a bonus.

Mr. Q no longer needed to take my arm and shake, to get my attention. As soon as he took me aside, I was focused on him. I wanted to know what he knew. I needed to do what he showed me how to do, and above all, I needed the atta boys he gave me.

By spring, bringing home an A in gym, B in math, and a C or a D in the rest of my subjects, it looked like I wouldn't fail 7th grade. Gym made each day worthwhile. Mr. Q was a man who kept me hopping.

In May, with the weather warming, and us going outdoors each gym period, we were playing softball on the lower of the two fields.

I came up to bat, watching the guy throw his lazy looping pitches over the plate. I watched the first two without moving, and when he threw the third pitch the same way, I gave forth with a mighty swing, timing it perfectly, and the ball arched up over our outfield, up over the second field, and it landed in the woods.

By the time the outfields were taking chase, I was rounding third base, when I heard Mr. Q yelling.

"Don't touch that ball. Leave that ball where it landed," he yelled.

I wasn't sure what was going on. Had I done something wrong.

Mr. Q disappeared into the school, and when he returned, he was carrying a measuring tape. He came over to me and said, "Hold this end on home plate."

By the time we were on the upper field, and in the woods where Mr. Q found the ball, he said, "Two hundred and twelve feet, Charles. That was one hell of a hit."

As we walked back down the hill to my team's field, Mr. Q put his arm across my shoulder.

"Hell of a hit," he said again.

I felt proud of myself for getting such a reaction from Mr. Q. It was the highlight of what had been my best year of school ever.

Once the school year ended, my brother and I knew we'd be going back to Florida for the summer. I couldn't wait to get back to Avery, my grandparents, the Gulf, and Choctawhatchee Bay.

It would be another summer of constant good times. There was more boating, more freedom, and more of everything. We went fishing, crabbing, water skiing, and on some days we became beach combers, walking from Fort Walton Beach to Destin. The pristine sands of the Gulf were white, and the water was green.

Granny fixed Avery and me a bagged lunch. It took most of my energy keeping Avery out of the food, until we'd at least gotten a mile or two from the Wayside Park, where we started.

Coming back to Maryland wasn't quite as depressing as it had been the year before. I'd found a reason to like going to school, and I couldn't wait to get back to Mr. Q's gym. As an athlete, I intended to learn more, doing even better, and collecting all those, 'Atta Boys' Mr. Q had to spare.

My life had become good. While I didn't have a lot to look forward to, I never had anything to look forward to before. The 8th grade was about to become far more intense than 7th grade ever was.

Gym class was after lunch this year. It was forth period. It provided two hours in the middle of each day when my brain could rest. This made school tolerable, and at the beginning of each school year, I often wondered if this would be the year I failed..

What made school intolerable was having CORE, a mixture of English, history, civics, and current events, rolled into two or three periods, depending on which day it was.

I'd rushed into the classroom the first day to claim the last seat in the last row, the one next to the windows. I was still scoring perfectly, managing to get that seat in every classroom. I was still champion, when it came to getting the seat farthest from the teacher's desk. Being an athlete had its benefits.

This would usually have me smiling for the first week, because teachers usually drew up the seating chart the first day, and after the kids were seated. It was the same with Mr. Warnock, but then he threw me the old fast, outside curve ball.

On the first day, in CORE class, Mr. Warnock began having each student read from the textbook he'd handed out. He started with the first student, in the first row, and proceeded one student at a time.

The thrill over scoring the last seat in the last row, was short lived. Everyone read a paragraph, and Mr. Warnock would read the next students name, and he read.

By the time it was my turn to read, I was worn out. It took until the second period to come to me. Twenty-nine down and one to go, but not so fast. I couldn't read from the textbook. I couldn't read from anything. I couldn't read, and when my name was called, I ignored it.

"Charles, stand up and read from where Brenda stopped," Mr. Warnock ordered.

My textbook remained closed on my desk. Mr. Warnock was one of those no nonsense teachers, when he told you to do something, it went best if you did what he told you to do.

"Charles, stand up!" Mr. Warnock ordered, and I stood up, looking down at the gray cover of the textbook.

I stuttered and stammered, but by that time, Mr. Warnock was on the way down the row of desks to where I stood. Grabbing the book, he slammed it open, used his stubby little fingers to turn the pages loudly, until he found one he liked. He pointed his index finger at a spot on the page.

"Read. Start here."

He went back to the front of the classroom.

The first word was a piece of cake.


"Productivity," Mr. Warnock said.

"Productivity," I said.

The class erupted into laughter as I read, 'Of,' and stalled out again.

"Shut up," Mr. Warnock roared. "Anyone who laughs will be making a trip to the office. Do I make myself clear?"

Clear enough for me.

I was still lost in words I'd never seen before. I stumbled, stuttered, and sweat my way through one paragraph, three sentences, and I was soaked by the end of my ordeal. Mr. Warnock had given me the next word about eighty percent of the time. He didn't ask me if I was stupid, but I guess that was obvious.

"Sit down, Charles," he said, going to the day's lesson.

Shame and humiliation was nothing new. I'd been the dumbest kid in every class I'd ever been in, but this was the first time I proved it to my classmates. Now, everyone knew I was stupid.

The one thought I had, once my reading ended the first day, he won't make that mistake again.

I was wrong. The next day, after the late bell sounded, Mr. Warnock said, 'Charles, turn to page twenty-seven. Read from the top of the page."

I couldn't believe my ears. Why would he want to go through this again? There was an obvious answer. I didn't care to think about it.

I stood up, turned to page twenty-seven, and I stumbled over the first word. Mr. Warnock gave it to me, and I kept stumbling along, stuttering, stammering, and sweating my way through another paragraph. It was worse the second day. He gave me the word eight-five percent of the time.

No one laughed at me, but there was a lot of smiling. I'd never seen a happier classroom, than when I was called on to read, which was every day at the start of CORE class. Every day it was the same. Every day I sat down exhausted.

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