A Conversation With Carlton

by Rick Beck

Part 12

I'd become an athlete in 7th grade, with the assistance of my first mentor, Andrew Quattrocchi, gym teacher extraordinaire. He showed me how to turn myself into a running, jumping, climbing fool. Because anything Mr. Q showed me how to do, I did as well as I possibly could, because Mr. Q was watching me, and he expected my best effort every time, and that's what I gave him.

Being something was infinitely better than what I'd been, until I turned 12. Never being able to do anything to please anyone wasn't easy. It wasn't as easy as doing what Mr. Q showed me how to do. His praise, when I did what he showed me how to do, was addictive. Getting his approval became my reason for living.

I'd never had a reason for living before.

Living inside myself for most of my life, living outside myself, facing the world I lived in, wasn't the natural thing for me to do. I'd learned that the best way to get along with the people I lived with, was to avoid them as much as possible.

Why would people outside of my house be any different. It was obvious Mr. Q was an outlier. I didn't ask why. I was glad he was.

A summer away from the craziness at my house, did wonders for my disposition. The only thing better than a summer in Florida, would have been to live with my grandparents all year, but I knew that wasn't about to happen. At least I got to spend summers there.

After a summer away, with the affection of Granny and Pop, the friendship of Avery, and the full time adventure Fort Walton Beach offered, my mind was ready for whatever came my way. I knew better than to expect much, but now there was Mr. Q. There was someone who believed in me.

I had no idea what was waiting for me, soon after I returned from Florida. I couldn't imagine Florida in my wildest dreams, and now Florida was a temporary state of mind. It made life tolerable for the rest of the year.

Whatever else happened at school and at home, I'd be heading for Florida next summer.

As soon as Fort Walton Beach was out of the rear view mirror, I began adjusting to the way things were done at home. I had to ready myself for reentry into the craziest place on earth, after living a carefree life with my grandparents for over two months.

I didn't know I could be anymore than I was, but my life was being opened to possibilities I never considered before. Possibilities like Mr. Q seeing to it I became an athlete. I thought being an athlete was something, but I wondered if that was all there was.

I understood that it was all connected in some invisible way. Even my parents backed off the anger and hostility, after I'd been away for a couple of months.

Now, if they could only talk without yelling.

By the second or third week of school, I saw no way I could pass CORE. Failing CORE meant being held back, and being held back would ignite my parent's anger once more. I was helpless to do anything but stand and read in front of Mr. Warnock's class each morning. The kids who were my classmates, suspect that I wasn't very bright, but this was the first time my ignorance was put on display.

After considering cutting my throat, one morning before first period began, I ruled it out and I went to my desk to wait to be called on to read.

This is what I was stuck with, until Mr. Warnock got tired of hearing my stuttering, stammering, stop and start delivery. He was still giving me the words half the time. When would it end?

"Charles, stand and read from the top of page 124."

I stood with my usual enthusiasm, staring down at the jumble of words in the textbook. I was once more wrestling the words I hated, and my classmates smiled, and, by then, I'm sure they'd love to shove their fingers in their ears, but Mr. Warnock wouldn't approve.

I came up short. I was looking at another word I didn't even try to sound out, as the sweat rolled off my face.

"Manufacturing," Mr. Warnock said.

"Manufacturing... and...," I said.

"You've seen this a couple of times before, Charles. Pronounce the first syllable," the teacher said.

"Pro... Pro... dutivity," I said, letting my finger show the way.

I gave it my best shot, until I was told to sit back down, and I dropped into my seat.

Each day, I hoped, this will be the last day he calls on me. The next day, the same thought came to mind. It couldn't go on forever. Could it?

There was one thing I noticed about my ordeal early on. There was a towhead sitting in the next row over, one desk forward of my desk. Each time I read, his eyes stayed on me. He had to turn his head far to the left to achieve this.

At first I was sure he was mocking me, but after a while, I saw a great deal of sympathy on his face, He was probably one more wise guy. I didn't like him. I didn't like anyone at the time I was busy humiliating myself each day, but the kid was persistent. He seemed determined to get a smile out of me.

Didn't he understand that I was in no smiling mood? There was nothing to smile at, but each time I sat down, he gave me a smile. By the time I finished reading the next day, I didn't have enough energy to smile. What was he smiling at?

If he was determined to get a smile out of me. I was just as determined not to give him one. After making that decision, the boy started making faces, once I sat down after reading. I ignored the faces too. I wasn't smiling no matter what he did. I hated everyone, especially that towheaded kid in the row next to me.

I was communicating with Tommy, the name of the boy in the next row. My message to him was clear. Get lost. His message to me came back just as clearly. You're going to smile. Sooner or later, I'm going to make you smile.

The following day, as CORE class began, Mr. Warnock called on me to read. I stood and I began reading. He wasn't giving me the words but about half the time now. It was progress, but the ordeal was no less stressful. One day he'd get tired of listening to me read.

"Sit down, Charles," Mr. Warnock said. "Turn your textbooks to page one hundred and thirty-two."

As I sat down, I glanced at Tommy. Somehow, he'd managed to turn his head upside down, under his arm, putting his chin in his armpit.

I cracked up.

Tommy straightened himself up, smiled an, I told you so, smile, and he turned his attention to the front of the classroom.

I laughed out loud. It was the funniest thing I'd ever seen.

"Charles, do you have something to add to the lesson?" Mr. Warnock asked.

"No, sir," I said, putting my hand over my mouth to stifle my laughter.

Tommy had been determined to get a smile out of me, and I gave it to him. Now he ignored me. Two could play that game. He'd done what he set out to do, and now I was on my own.

The very next day, the two of us arrived at Mr. Warnock's classroom at the same time. This time I smiled at him.

"You're funny," I said.

"No, I'm Tommy," he said, offering me his hand.

"I'm Dickie," I said, taking the offering.

"Whose Charles than?" He asked.

"Charles is the stupid kid who can't read," I said.

"You're not stupid. You've gotten better at reading," he said.

"I suppose," I said, and we went inside to take our seats.

After that, each time my bus unloaded at the front entrance of the school, Tommy was waiting for me there. Once they unlocked the doors, we'd walked the halls and talked.

Tommy was determined to get me to smile, and I wondered if he was just as determined to make me his friend. Anyone who could get me laughing, under those circumstances, was my friend. I didn't need to give that a second thought.

What I did think about was, what do friends do?

After the day Tommy cracked me up, I think even reading became easier on me. Having someone in my corner was neat.

Tommy walked to school from where he lived, a half mile away. He was always waiting for me when bus 64 began unloading. I'd never had someone wait for me before, or act like they were happy to see me. If this was what friendship was like, I liked it.

I never talked to someone on a daily basis before either. It made coming to school better. I not only had a mentor, teaching me to be athletic, but I had a friend. Tommy was the easiest person to be around I'd ever known. I didn't worry about what to say. I didn't worry about how what I said sounded. It was easy being with Tommy.

I'd never had a full-time friend before. I'd never had a best friend before, but Tommy would become both. At the time, he hadn't had his growth spurt, so I was a few inches taller than he was. He was small, friendly, and easy for me to like.

As we walked in the halls, he said, "I live about a half mile from here. Want to come over to my house after school one day?"

"I walk home from school every day. I can come over today, if you want," I said.

"Cool," he said, and our friendship was about to take on a deeper meaning than either of us could have imagined.

Tommy met two of his brothers, one older, one younger, near the side entrance of the school. After introducing us, we walked through the woods, and down the hill to his house. When we got to his house, there were two more brothers and a sister. It was a real family.

I'd never been around anyone else's family before. I sure had no family, when you came down to it. There were other people living in the same house, but there was no sign of family, where I lived.

I was immediately accepted as being OK, if I was OK with Tommy, I was OK. He was the second oldest boy, and they seemed to get along fine. That's not to say they didn't argue, tease each other mercilessly, and laugh all the time.

Tommy immediately had me in the middle of it. Not all the brothers were all that friendly, but Tommy and Richard were ready to include me in everything.

At first, I wasn't all that comfortable with all those kids, but all those kids had friends, and there were more kids coming and going. It took some getting use to, but if I stuck with Tommy, it was all good.

That's to say, it was all good, after school. In school I had the same problem. When CORE class started each morning, Mr. Warnock called on me to read. I stuttered, stammered, and sweat my way through a single paragraph each day. Now, when I sat down, after reading, Tommy smiled a sympathetic smile. I didn't smile, we talked about it later. Tommy didn't mind that I was stupid.

October came and went, and then,it was November. My ordeal continued, but I was beginning to need less and less help with the words. It was a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving, and as class started one morning, I stood up as soon as Mr. Warnock said, 'Charles, read from page 247, second paragraph with "The main crop of the Ukraine....'

Mr. Warnock didn't need to give me the word one time. I don't think I stuttered or stammered once. When I finished my paragraph, I sat down.

Mr. Warnock said, "Charles, that was very good. You've come a long way, and in my opinion, it's no longer necessary for you to read each morning. Keep up the good work."

Tommy turned to give me his biggest smile, and I finally had something to smile about.

The daily ordeal had ended, and something totally unexpected took place, I realized That I must be reading at grade level, or close enough for Mr. Warnock. It was a happy day.

Tommy and I met at the side door of the school, and we bounced down the stairs, and we headed for the woods.

"You did it. You finally read good enough to please Mr. Warnock," he said. "I didn't think he'd ever be pleased."

"I was beginning to think it would never end," I said. "Thanks for not laughing at me, Tommy. You were the only kid that didn't laugh."

"And you get the last laugh," Tommy said.

I didn't know what to do with myself each morning, as CORE class began and Mr. Warnock started teaching the lesson for the day, without calling on me to read first. He would rarely call on me to read after that. Everyone was tired of hearing my voice, for now, anyway.

Life became very very good. I passed all my subjects on my first report card. Mr. Warnock gave me a C. I thought that was generous, considering all the time I spent learning to read. I got my usual A in gym, B in math, and a C or a D in the other four classes.

I got a D in art class. I'd made an ashtray out of clay. The teacher seemed to be offended by it. I'm lucky she didn't fail me. I remember when she sat the ash tray down on the table, it rolled away from her. The bottom was a bit on the round side. Except for that, and the fact any ashes in the ash tray would spill out as soon as the ashtray began rolling, was a bit disturbing, and she gave me a D.

How could anyone get a D in art class?

I saw the movie, War of the Worlds, one weekend

I loved good science fiction, and I loved the movie. I gave a great deal of thought to it. As my friendship with Tommy survived the Thanksgiving holiday away from each other, I was sure we were real friends, and once we were back in school, I walked home with him each day. I left his house a little after five to walk the three miles home, and I'd get home just before six.

My parents never asked me where I was after school, because I was there at dinner time. That was the rule. I gobbled my food. Asked to be excused, and that started the evening of vegging out in front of the TV.

The yelling at the dinner table had subsided after we came back from Florida that first time. I hadn't wet the bed since forever, and there was far less to yell about. I still gobbled my food and asked to be excused two and a half minutes into dinner. It still worked for me.

One afternoon, after leaving Tommy's house, while I was walking across the Census Bureau parking lot, I decided I needed to do something to show Tommy how much his friendship meant to me. What could I do that might impress him. I couldn't do much, but I had an idea. I'd write a story and Tommy and I would be the heroes.

I didn't know I couldn't write a story. I had learned to read. I should be able to write a story. Once I got home, I did my usual, asking to be excused, after gobbling my dinner, and I was excused.

I went to my bedroom, got out a brand new composition book, and I began to write, The Martian Disaste r.

'The landing had gone badly. The rocket was tilted at an odd angle. Tommy, the pilot, knew the rocket would never fly again. He knew, the return to earth that had been planned and practiced for, before the mission started, had been a useless exercise.'

I wrote Friday night, until I fell asleep early in the morning. I woke up, ate breakfast, and I went back to writing all day. I wrote Saturday night into early Sunday morning, and after I woke up late Sunday, I wrote until I finished, ' The Martian Disaster'.

I had filled one standard size composition book, except for two pages. That should impress Tommy, I thought. I was impressed. I didn't know I knew enough words to fill a composition book.

When my bus let us out in the front of the school, I walked to the other side of the school. I had a plan. I wouldn't meet Tommy to walk and talk that morning. I'd steer clear of Tommy, until the bell rang to announce it was time first period started. I'd wait a minute, so Tommy would be in his seat, and as I walked up the row between our desks, I dropped the story on his desk.

I went to my desk to sit down. Tommy turned his head to look at me. I smiled. He looked down at the composition book. He opened the cover. He began to read, resting his chin on his hand. He began turning the pages carefully, fully engrossed in the story.

"Class, turn to page two twenty-five. Today we'll be reading about Hungary," he said, surveying the class to be sure he had everyone's attention.

One head stayed down, as the rest of us looked toward Mr. Warnock, and his next instruction. He noticed there was one face turned down, and not waiting in anticipation of what came next,

"Tommy," Mr. Warnock said, immediately honing in on my friend. "Tommy," the teacher said a second time.

Moving to the space between rows of desks, he looked toward Tommy, before beginning to work his way down toward my friend's desk, not saying anything else.

I needed to get his attention, before it was too late.

"Tommy," I whispered. "Tommy."

I reached over to touch his shoulder.

As Tommy turned his head to look at me, Mr. Warnock arrived on the scene.

Then it happened.

Mr. Warnock seized the composition book with The Martian Disaster written inside.

Oh, no! He can't do that, but he could, and he did.

Turning toward the front of the class, holding the open composition book in one hand, I heard his stubby little fingers turn a page as he stepped back in front of the classroom.

His back remained turned. His head was turned down. His eyes were on my story.

I cringed. My plan had gone seriously wrong.

Tommy looked at me and shrugged, indicating he had no clue why Mr. Warnock had seized my manuscript. I shrugged, to indicate I didn't know why he took it, but I knew disrupting his class was not a good career move.

It was then that Mr. Warnock turned around to face the students.

"Tommy, where did you get this?"

Mr. Warnock knew my handwriting. He knew who wrote it, but he wanted verification before taking action.

In a flash, Tommy turned on me, "It's his."

I'd been given up by my best friend. I should have known better. I should have had a better plan. I'd spent all weekend writing that story, and now, not only didn't Tommy have it, but I was in dutch with Mr. Warnock, after I'd been doing so well.

Mr. Warnock looked at the composition book, he looked toward Tommy, and then, his eyes were on me.

"Did you write this, Charles?" He asked in a curious voice.

As I slid down in my seat, I positioned myself so the boy's head in the seat in front of me hid my presence.

"Out of sight, out of mind", I thought.

"Mr. Warnock remembered where I was sitting."

"Charles, I asked you a question. Did you write this story?"

"Maybe if I had some kind of seizure, he'd forget about the story," I said. "I was putting off the inevitable. He knew the answer."

"Tell me what happened. I can't stand it," Carlton said. "Your stories have more twists and turns than twenty miles of a Philippine mountain road. I understand it wasn't a bright idea to interfere with your teacher's class, but he had to see value in the accomplishment. You could hardly read, and now you're writing stories."

"I'd been caught in the act of attempting to impress Tommy. I'd put my friend in a very bad position, and with Mr. Warnock taking the story, there was no proof I'd written the story for him. What I knew was, adults are unpredictable, and anything could set them off. I expected to be punished, but the idea of losing the story sucked."

My plan hadn't included Mr. Warnock intercepting the story, before Tommy got to read it. I'd spent an entire weekend writing it,

"My plan has flaws," I said to Carlton. "Of course, Mr. Warnock would notice Tommy wasn't paying attention, but how did I know he'd start to read the story as soon as I dropped it in front of him. What would I have done if Tommy waltzed up to my desk and dropped a composition book in front of me? I'd have immediately opened it to see what was inside. I hadn't considered it, and I lost my story."

It was poor planning all right, and now Mr. Warnock had The Martian Disaster. How could I have been that stupid? What was Tommy going to think about me now? I'd not only put the heat on me, but I'd put it on him too.

"Charles, I'm speaking to you," Mr. Warnock said. "Did you write this story?"

Peeking around the boy's head in front of me, our eyes met.

"Yes, sir," I said, disappearing again.

"It is very good, Charles. I want you to come up here and read it to the class," he said.

I took another peek to see if he was serious, or if this was some ploy to get me out in the open, and then he'd lower the boom on me.

"Charles, I'm not going to ask you again. Come up here," he demanded.

I stood, slowly walking to the front of the classroom, and the students watched the drama unfold in front of them.

It was a fitting punishment. Make me stand up and read my story in front of the class. I had been reading to the same class since the first day of school. At least I knew what these words said. I knew what I wrote, and at least Tommy would get to hear the story, if Mr. Warnock kept it.

As I reached his side, he handed me the composition book.

I watched him move to his desk, taking a hold of his chair, he rolled it over to in front of the windows. He sat down, never taking his eyes off me.

I opened the the composition book, and I began to read.

"The Martian Disaster," I said, looking over my shoulder to see what Mr. Warnock was doing.

That's when he did something I rarely saw him do. He smiled, nodding his permission for me to take my 8th grade CORE class on a journey to Mars.

"The landing had gone badly," I read. "Tommy, who captained the disabled craft, knew the rocket would never fly again."

I stopped, looking at the class. Every eye was on me. I looked at Tommy. He was sitting on the edge of his seat, anticipating what I might say next. I returned to the story, and I finished reading just before the bell rang, ending first period.

I closed the composition book, looking back toward Mr. Warnock to see what would come next, after I read, "The end."

Mr. Warnock stood to lead the applause.

"That was very good, Charles. Write more stories, and I'll let you read them to the class," my teacher said.

"Yes," the class approved of more stories to eat up CORE time.

I'd come to school with a singular idea. I'd drop the composition book on Tommy's desk, and he'd be impressed. He'd know how highly I prized his friendship.

Life being what it is, and me being what I was, the real world got involved, and I'd impressed not only Tommy, but Mr. Warnock, and the class. The same class that heard me stumble over words for months on end.

Today, there was no stumbling. Today I didn't stammer, or hesitate to read the words from the composition book.

"Learning to read didn't make that much of an impression on me. It was relief from needing to read each day. I no longer was asked to humiliate myself. The idea that I was reading all the words in the textbook, told me nothing about myself. Not needing to humiliate myself each morning, meant more than anyone knew," I said.

"Little changed between the day Mr. Warnock told me I would no longer need to read for him each day, and the day I began writing the story I'd give to Tommy. I wrote the story for Tommy. I didn't know I couldn't write a story, and so, I wrote it."

"Certainly you had some thought of the progress you'd made," Carlton said. "Certainly you'd learned that your parents were wrong."

"My parents were my parents, right or wrong. My life was governed by their angry demeanor. While I could go to Florida and live a carefree life, I couldn't stay in Florida. I couldn't escape them, which meant I was forced to deal whatever they dished out."

"You made amazing progress between age 12 and 13. That proves you were capable of doing anything you decide to do," he said.

"In the beginning, I was a kind and gentle child, Carlton. I would do nothing to hurt another person, animals, or things that moved or were alive. To my parents, I was intolerable. It was clear they were stuck with me, even if they didn't want me. I didn't know if I would be allowed to stay in the places where they lived. They were so angry, I still worried they'd get rid of me if they could, and because they couldn't, they intended to make me as miserable as I made them, but I didn't do anything to them," I said. "My being there wasn't my doing. If given a choice, I'd have opted out, If, in the beginning, and I knew what was coming, I'd have opted out. I had no choice."

"This was my life, and I grew to fear them. Whatever I was born with that made me unique from all the other people alive, was lost in my despair. Whatever talent I had was lost in my fight for survival."

"If my own parents couldn't love me, because I was that bad, who would? I merely wanted to stay out of the line of fire, not make them angry with me for one day. I wished I would grow up as fast as was possible, so I could get out of their way, and they would finally have the happiness they had before I was born," I said.

"I shouldn't say how sad that makes me. I'm so sorry, Rick. You deserved better, and I can only pray you'll find happiness along the way."

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