A BOY’S SCHOOL
To my friend and fraternity brother, Eliot Kalmbach (1985-2009)
We knew that day, that first day of senior year, that things were about to be different and that our lives were going to change. We anticipated the great stories we’d tell about events that hadn’t happened yet. We knew that we’d become closer, we’d win some games and lose some, we’d have sex with girls, we’d meet college counselors, we’d know all of each others’ grades, and we’d all compete to get into and eventually part ways at different schools. Well, we knew that 10 of the 50 of us would probably go on to Harvard together, or something like that, and that the rest of us might be lucky to have a fellow Buxton Latin alum at their new college. We knew all that. But what we all eventually learned is that there was a lot we didn’t know.
Five years ago, when we were sixies, we didn’t know much at all. There were only 40 of us then. We looked at all the older boys in wide-eyed wonder, we were curious about the stories we overheard in the student lounge about their sexual exploits, and we were terrified whenever they reminded us of the difficulties that lay ahead of us in the area’s foremost and one of the country’s top recognized boys’ day schools. Our soon-to- be home defied elitist expectations by having the lowest tuition amongst its peers, bringing in the area’s brightest and most racially and financially diverse population. While some of us belonged in a Nantucket clothing catalogue, the rest of us paid only a fraction of the pricey tuition and took the city bus to and from school every day, struggling to pay the $50 yearly class dues.
That was, of course, before 8th grade, when we added Joey Mazilli to the fold. He had a slick way of talking and we were all surprised by the way he wasn’t scared of any of us, even though we were all best friends and he was a stranger. And then freshman year, we added another 11, a group that usually fills holes in the class: a great singer (Teddy McShay), a big, bad football player (Big Frank Brown), and an all-around good student from a low-income family (Leon Williams), to name a few. This was after Eric Tompkins left (couldn’t handle it, and none of us liked him much anyway) and Steven Shettel moved to California with his family (he still got into Stanford). So then we were 50.
Sophomore year was when some of us started having sex. Slowly we found that the locker room gossip we used to overhear was now being spewed forth more and more by some of us. We were starting to listen less and talk more. It had started freshman year when Big Head Ted bragged about his first blowjob for weeks. Except he didn’t admit it was his first. Either way, I remember being remotely embarrassed and feeling a little awkward about myself because I hadn’t done much with girls yet. I always felt insecure listening to other people brag about it, and I didn’t want to ask questions. As it turned out, Big Head Ted told us that he was really deserving of his nickname now that he was getting head on a regular basis. It didn’t seem to bother him that his arrogance kind of bothered us.
But there were other rumblings beginning sophomore year. Sometimes you could hear it in the student lounge. We were dating now. Mostly girls from our sister school, Terhune, which was only a few minutes away in the city. But there were other all-girl schools with lesser reputations, and with those lesser reputations came lower standards,and for the most part, it was those girls with whom some of us were starting to fool around.
With the advent of sex, drugs and alcohol slowly followed, but they only really made their presence felt junior year and among only a few of us. The school had a strict drug and alcohol policy. If they ever found out you had so much as a sip of alcohol – even outside of school – you could get expelled. So I was also a late bloomer in that regard, though me and my best friend Denny Salley started to drink a little bit, just the two of us at the end of junior year, always making sure that we’d keep it between just us, even in times when it would look cool to just admit it. We had never really drunk before, so we had our fair share of incidents. But we also found that it was a great way for us to meet girls from out of town, even though those kinds of things happened only when we felt daring enough.
Junior year I also had my first real girlfriend. I had others before here and there, but it’s really hard to say that those counted. I hadn’t known much. I classify this “real” girlfriend as real because it actually lasted more than a few months. She went to one of those less reputable girls schools, but within that community I’d have to say (though I was kind of biased) that she was probably an exception to the rule. She was a real sweetheart, and not only did she bolster my reputation among my girl-crazy classmates, but she also broke my heart because she was a year older and chose the adventures of college over the same old dinner and movie dates with me. Couple that with the death of my grandfather a month after we broke up, and I was having bouts of depression through the end of my junior spring and on into the following year. I was relegated to a therapist whose job it was to remind me that I still had some kind of worth when he wasn’t falling asleep listening to my rants.
So all these events led to senior year. We thought we had the world in our hands. We’d faced bullies, cooties, dramatic victories, tragic losses, sex, drugs, alcohol, SAT’s, and heartbreak. The next step was to get into college, and we all kind of just knew we’d be okay somewhere because that’s just how it was. We rested on our laurels. Man, we really did think we had the world in the palm of our hands.
I think this story starts in my mind when Jimmy Chambers finally let the cat out of the bag about his SAT scores. He was one of those guys who was pretty good at a lot of things – not amazing – but still enough to be considered an all-around performer at
BL. Jimmy was really tight with another guy in our class, Allen Berkowitz, and a lot of us would jostle them from time to time that they were gay together. But I think what it comes down to is that maybe some of us were jealous of their success; after all, they had won two of the four book awards the spring before, and their other good friend, Alex Mint, had won the third. I never had any problems with Jimmy. No one did, really. We all hassled each other.
Anyway, we were sitting in hall in the morning before class. It was one of those long boring halls where we had some Jewish guy coming in to talk to us about the upcoming major holidays. Our wooden chairs were squeaking as the restless amongst us constantly shifted positions. Big Frank Brown was sitting to my right and he kept elbowing me in the ribs as a joke because I kept falling asleep. Everyone was so tired all the time, school was so tough.
When the thing was finally over, and Headmaster Browning called “Class One,” we rose, and immediately I heard Joey Mazilli – who had been sitting to my left – talking to Jimmy in what was apparently a conversation that had started before the hall.
“So we’re between 1400 and 1500…that’s pretty broad man. I mean, that’s the difference between Swarthmore and Harvard. Nothing against Swarthmore, you don’t seem like a Swarthmore guy, you’re too cool for that school, for those nerdburglars…”
Jimmy looked frustrated. His face was reddening and he had clearly noticed the other ears around him that had perked up.
“I’d say it’s closer to ‘Harvard’ then, but that’s really it…”
I wondered if maybe Jimmy was thinking Harvard. He didn’t seem like a Harvard guy. Not that he didn’t have the credentials, but everyone knew Joey was hell-bent on capitalizing on the BL name and going down that path, and if there was any reason Jimmy wouldn’t want to talk to Joey about it, maybe it was part of that competitive nature we always saw from him on the soccer field and the wrestling mat.
That’s when Allen intervened and gave Joey a light shove. He had actually bumped into me because he was right behind me and could overhear the conversation.
“Buddy, let him be.”
Allen was a pretty built guy. He was captain of the wrestling team and, like I said, very well respected. Joey, with his greasy, slicked-back hair and beady eyes was exactly the opposite. It was like watching a lion paw at a mouse.
“1470?” Joey craned his neck around Allen, who had placed his two hands firmly on Joey’s chest. Jimmy blushed, and then shrugged his arching shoulders apprehensively. With a crooked smile, he replied, “You got it man. What can I say?”
And that’s how we figured out Jimmy’s SAT score. Joey called him a rat bastard and gave him a pat on the back, and for the rest of the day, that’s what we talked about. Jimmy was really one of the last ones to tell us, or at least the last guy who had a legitimate shot to go Ivy.
It probably continued in the lounge. At least that’s where I first picked up on it during third period after senior English was out. There was a congregation of guys – I distinctly remember Tony Flanders leading the charge (Mazilli had class) – who were just ranting about Jimmy’s SAT score. Admittedly, a pang of jealousy had swept over me when I heard it first-hand. But there was no time to dwell on such insecurities; the moment I walked through the door, Big Head Ted called from across the room.
“Yo! Richie! You were there for that shit, right? 1470? Are you serious?”
I nodded my head and in the process of doing so, implicated myself in this guilty scheme of jealous scuttlebutting that had plagued most of us for the past five years.
I say that this story started then because I had put the SAT scandal behind me and I didn’t think about Jimmy for another week. But the story could begin anywhere. It could begin with sixie year, because he was the first boy in the class I’d met. I fondly remember feeling slighted that I was the second boy he’d met – Theo Smith was the first, and the first black person Jimmy had ever met in his life, which is hard for me to forget – but I’d soon get over that. Or there was another time in eighth grade when I had brought my lunch to school and dropped my sandwich on the floor. I must have looked like I was about to cry because Jimmy immediately offered me half of his.
But it began then because I had forced him out of the annals of my memory, and I recall that as the last time I’d be able to do that in my life with anything. As I look back on it now, I tell myself that the story had to begin then, because I was so traumatized by what happened and unable to push it out of my mind that I had to think about the last time I could push something out of my mind in order to try to cure myself. And even if it was the random time we gossiped about Jimmy’s SAT score, it had to be something.
It had been a typical day. Homeroom went by, Salim Singh (our president) read the announcements, and we, for the most part, listened to half of it. We were just too tired. We of course hissed when he spoke about planning the upcoming social with Terhune and we cheered when he reported the Varsity Soccer team’s 5-0 exhibition thrashing of Fillerton on the Hill. That’s where Jimmy comes in: I distinctly remember not seeing him in that madness, our proud captain of the soccer team. Something struck me as that moment being particularly strange and inappropriate, and though I did not feel the emptiness then, it’s an emptiness that I feel about that moment when thinking retrospectively all the time.
Latin class went on as usual during the first period. Mr. Allen, an esteemed teacher of over thirty years at the school, read off our quiz scores publicly. This form of public humiliation had motivated me to succeed in Latin when I was a fifthie in Mr. Allen’s class. At BL, it was not okay to be a lot of things: a virgin, a homo, a loser, whatever – but if there was anything you didn’t want to be, it was dumb.
And it was during that moment of timid anticipation that Salim Singh burst into the class and told us that we had to leave immediately because there was an emergency hall. An empty weight crashed inside my stomach. We looked at each other in wide-eyed silence, muttered a word or two as we half-stood and half-questioned Salim’s sense of humor, and then rushed out of the room.
Other students were congregating and flooding through the creaky hallways and down the wooden stairs toward Ashenfelter Hall. We whispered anxiously to each other about the possible explanations for this disturbance. Was there another terrorist attack? God that would be awful. Maybe it was some new kind of catastrophe. What came with the internal fear was a slight sense of excitement that made me feel culpable for my nothing role in the matter for quite some time.
One of these images that I’ve photographed in my memory forever is the expression on Headmaster Browning’s face as we locked eyes when I entered the Hall. He was supremely grim-looking, and he had these paunchy cheeks and laser-like lines running under his eyes as if he had not slept in days. He had been talking closely with Assistant Headmaster Cork and I soon realized that Headmaster Browning’s clerical collar (he was also a priest at a local Church and often reminded us of the old maxim “From those to whom much has been given, much will be expected”) was ruffled and twisted in an unshapely way. I noticed because Assistant Headmaster Cork fixed it for him in that split-second of time that my eyes met with Headmaster Browning’s and I realized that the man who knew all – the man who had been told about the great disaster – was in greater fear than I was because he knew what he was about to do to us.
I solemnly took my seat toward the front with the other seniors and folded my hands over my lap. My heart was beating very quickly, and even though everyone else was looking at one another for an explanation, I tried to act honorably and respectably. It appeared that we were relatively late arrivals, aside from a few sixies who were appearing here and there, not really understanding one way or the other why we held these halls 65 times a year in the first place. Ultimately, I couldn’t help but rubberneck; as I craned my head around the blob that was Big Frank Brown behind me, I could see Headmaster Browning conferring with Mrs. Sheridan, the Sixie group leader. Shortly thereafter, they parted ways and Headmaster Browning adjusted his jacket, kept his head down, and walked with determination to the front of the hall.
The clapping of his black dress shoes was the only noise that reverberated in the hall. It seemed like a painfully long time that he walked, and you could tell he felt all the eyes that were on him because he was constantly arranging and then re-arranging his hands around his jacket. We remember the way he hesitated at the steps as if he reconsidered telling us. But then after that first step, he popped up the other two as if making up for lost time. We talked about that later on. We wondered what was going through his head. When he got to the top of the stairs, he looked out at us, sighed, fixed his jacket again, and squared his attention on the podium. When he got to the podium, he deliberately placed his hands on either side and squeezed and looked straight into its wooden surface before taking a deep breath and raising his head.
“Boys, this is no easy task, I assure you that…”
As his voice trailed off, the silence pounded against my body, literally clogging my ears.
“It is with great, great sorrow and sadness that I must inform you that senior Jimmy Chambers was in a serious car accident last night. As he was driving home after the varsity soccer exhibition game, he fell asleep at the wheel, crossed the median line, and crashed into a tree on the opposite side of the road. He is currently comatose, and we received word of all this just now, and that he is not expected to live.”
From the back of the room, we could hear Mr. Gittlin shriek “No!” among the others; Mr. Gittlin was Jimmy’s advisor for all six years, a good friend to say the least. The last sentence had sent the hall into an uproar, and Headmaster Browning backed away from the podium to let the news sink in. He had tears in his eyes. It was one of those situations where you know the bad news, but you’re waiting to find out just how bad it is. As I’ve learned now, whenever you hear about someone who dies, you never know the extent of the bad news until that fateful last line. It’s always, “He fell” or “He had an accident” or “He wasn’t looking” and then, almost every time, “he died.”
As for me, the world lost its shape and credibility all at once. Everything was moving so fast in front of my eyes, and yet nothing was happening at all. It was a dizzying madness of misperception, as if I was being shaken so much that I could not use my senses. And yet I could still see that we were all just sitting at the same time. Headmaster Browning regained his poise.
“After conferring with Assistant Headmaster Cork, we’ve decided it would be best to cancel class today. When more details are made available to us, we will share them with you. At the current time, it would be best for everyone to pray for Jimmy today, and return tomorrow and attempt to move forward the best that we can. Counseling will be made available to any student; please speak with Dean Charles if you have any questions about that. I’ll only ask that members of Class One please meet in the Lecture Hall immediately after the Hall before dismissing themselves.”
He seemed to have mastered the situation by now, but he was still concerned. You could see it in the way he delicately paused over each word as he simultaneously soaked up our reactions. For him, the grieving process had to occur quickly. He was more worried about us, his children, and he was not allowed to look weak. He was probably ashamed for shedding a tear.
“God bless you all, boys, and be strong. My last feeling is that, well, is that you stand up and that we observe a moment of silence before saying a prayer.”
We stood up on command, like zombies. I placed my hands on the chiseled, wooden chair in front of me. Someone had carved their initials, and to the right of that, the school’s Latin motto: mortui vivos docent (the dead teach the living).
It was an impregnable silence, and still I remember how it seemed to resonate within me like the plucked string of some delicate instrument, shaking my foundations without really moving me at all. I did the logical thing: I thought of Jimmy. It all seemed surreal. Just last week, we had found out about his SAT score, he was humble and disappointed all at once, and now he was gone, for no apparent reason at all. I didn’t cry, but I did feel sorry and I wondered what the odds were that Jimmy might live. Then, without warning, the Lord’s prayer:
qui es in caelis,
sanctificetur nomen tuum.
Adveniat regnum tuum.
Fiat voluntas tua, sicut in caelo et in terra. Panem nostrum quotidianum da nobis hodie, et dimitte nobis debita nostra
sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris. Et ne nos inducas in tentationem,
sed libera nos a malo. Amen.
“Class One,” Headmaster Browning said, raising his index finger. We departed unceremoniously and in unison, unsure of whether or not we wanted to console ourselves with one another. Not yet. Too soon.
As I ambled to the back of the hall, I saw Mr. Gittlin sobbing with his head in his hands. Another image that engrained itself inside my memory against my will. I was unconscious to the possibility that teachers could be on the same level as us, unknowing, unenlightened, equals on a level playing field. He had, as it appeared, just found out, just like the rest of us. What’s more is that he had a more palpable reaction than any of my classmates, except perhaps Allen, who I hadn’t spotted yet. It’s not to say that no one cared, because quite the opposite was true: several of my peers were sobbing, and as it became clear over time, they were very upset about the news. But there was something altogether startling about the discovery that our teachers cared about us more than just as students. We always knew we had special relationships with the faculty that could not be achieved in a different kind of school. I just never thought they would cry over us.
That reality became even more apparent as I stepped outside to take the shortcut to the Lecture Hall. Some of my classmates were with me, and others went the longer way indoors. Regardless, I had not yet mustered the courage to speak to any of them. There was no time, as it turned out. Mr. Stevens, my advisor for the past three years, grabbed me by the arm. I hadn’t seen him. It’s like he was lurking outside the whole time, waiting for me.
He led me a few steps away from the front of the school by the senior grass, far enough away from everyone else that we could speak privately. Mr. Stevens was my favorite teacher, and he had been for the past few years, which is why I made him my advisor. He was like a close friend, and part of that was because he was so young and good-looking that I felt popular and attractive myself just by being in his presence so frequently. Things that were not my business – his girlfriends, his weekends, his college stories – became my boon every week that we met over a period of time as he gradually became more comfortable with me. I reciprocated by telling him every living fear in my soul.
“Richie,” he said, and then, grabbing me by the shoulders and shaking me, “Richie. Richie!”
I looked up at him, squinting against the sunlight, still in a fatigued haze and overwhelmed by its pulverizing force.
“Richie, I just want you to know that you will get through this. If you need to talk about anything, anything – ” (he pointed his finger as he emphasized it) “then I will be here for you. Do you understand?”
I nodded my head slowly, and he started up again.
“I know you were depressed about Maria last year and I know how down you can get. I’m worried about you.”
“I’ll be okay,” I said, motioning toward my classmates who had almost completely filed out of the double wooden doors in front of the school. He bit his lip, but he understood. I thanked him, immediately regretted that my shock over his repeated inquiries led to such dismissiveness, and trudged away in silence.
The lecture hall was, as I recollect, a terrifying scene. In a lighter way, it reminded me of being in the locker room sophomore year when our football team was losing 30-0 to Oceanside Academy at halftime. No one spoke. People had tears in their eyes as they stared into the nothingness ahead of them in disbelief, appearing transplanted from some other ghastly world beyond the one we were in. Some of us shook our heads, crossed our arms, swore silently. We all had different ways of dealing with it. Then there was Allen.
Allen had, apparently, cursed at some sad-looking sixie, telling him that he didn’t even know Jimmy, so why the fuck was he sad? Allen was the most vocal among us, muttering things out loud and mourning without any kind of outward self-consciousness. Some of us didn’t know what to do. We wanted to apologize to him, but we were perplexed by our own feelings for a couple of reasons. First, Jimmy hadn’t died – there was no real “loss” to apologize for. And secondly, it was a shared misfortune. I guess it just seemed right that we apologize to him because he was the closest to Jimmy, and even though it was all of our loss that he was in such bad shape, it was Allen’s before ours. So, some of us, myself included, we went up to Allen and we just gave him a hug. Under any other circumstances it would have been weird. But right then it felt brotherly and compassionate and correct.
And I think it was shortly after that, in those final moments before Headmaster Browning entered the room, that reality hit hard: we were human. The sadness of Jimmy’s crash was one that put a chink in our armor. Not only did we care about him, but we had done everything over the years with each other, and there was a consolation in that, knowing we overcame the same struggles. To have someone go down so late was a way of breaking that solidarity, a way of telling us that we were alone going forward, and that any one of us could get rejected from Harvard, or better yet, drop dead at any given second.
“This one time,” sniffled a teary-eyed Alex Mint, “I remember Jimmy and I were at a dance, back in like 8th grade or something, and all you had to do was point to a girl and Jimmy was on her three seconds later. He’d come back and he’d know everything about her – her name, her relatives, her birthplace, and her phone number and a movie date all lined up, every time.”
It lightened the mood slightly, brought smiles to peoples’ wet faces, and instantly opened up the door for more people to speak, more people who had wanted to say something but held back because we didn’t know what was appropriate in these kinds of cases. Over and over, we talked, we listened, and I know I was on the verge of telling the story but just couldn’t bring myself to do it because I didn’t want to call any more attention to my already weakened emotional state, something my classmates had picked up on already and ribbed me for since I had been acting for some time like the world was going to end.
Junior year, Jimmy and I were hanging out after sports practice because we had a Debate Team meeting that night. He was visibly shaken. Then for no reason at all, except for that he trusted me as a friend, he confided in me. With that unstable voice you get when you’re about to cry, he told me that a girl he really liked, a girl who was his best friend, had died in a car accident just a couple of weeks ago. We’d all heard something about it, but I didn’t know just how much it had affected him. He said that if he were to go out, he’d want to go out the same way because it just “wasn’t fair that she died like that and I’m still at this big old prestigious school and shit.” I didn’t know what to say, except that things like this made me question if there was a God or whether the world was even a good place to begin with. I had been dealing with my own quiet teenage depression for a little while at that point, and I had this glum perspective about everything, and hearing Jimmy’s story stirred some deep form of compassion within me, this desire to connect with Jimmy in this lonely moment of time where we could. I wanted to put my arm around him, but I couldn’t muster the energy. And I’ll never forget what he said to me, shaking his head and wiping away a tear in his eye. “No,” he started, “No, the world is not a bad place. I think the world is a great place, and the only reason I know that is because we get sad when people die.”
Headmaster Browning entered with a flurry, Assistant Headmaster Cork following and Mr. Gittlin right on his trail. He was a wreck. Just like Headmaster Browning earlier, he looked restless. Headmaster Browning now looked hurried and out of breath, and as for Assistant Headmaster Cork, he remained stoic but in a subdued way, as if he had been drugged and was slowly fading away from reality.
“Boys, I appreciate you coming to meet about this very, very sad news. I thought it would be appropriate to speak with you because you are Jimmy’s closest friends. I want to fill you in a little more about what is going on, and I hope that we will be able to move along and pray for Jimmy.
“Jimmy had both of his legs amputated. It was necessary, otherwise he would have died from the terrible infection that was caused when the dashboard drove into his lower knees. He is currently comatose and the doctors have no idea at the moment how long they expect him to live, let alone whether he can ever fully regain consciousness. I am hoping that once we’re able to cope with this, that those of you who wish to see Jimmy will be able to do so in peace, God be on our side.”
Pointless to tell you how people received the news. We imagined Jimmy leg-less, without vitality, his athletic body decimated to nothingness, a lonely cripple peddling on the sidewalks, the kind of person we had associated with that group called “the less fortunate” who we barely knew.
“It is of the utmost importance that you carry on. You will be okay. You are the shining light for everyone else. The way you conduct yourself will be noticed by younger students. We will get through this. Just keep faith in Jimmy and in yourselves.”
He scanned the room for questions. Or maybe it was just to see how we were feeling.
“You are all dismissed. May God be with you.”
After a night of awkward conversation with my parents that involved convincing them I was okay, as well as listening to them on the phone with all the other parents, I returned to school the next day timidly, as if one wrong step could kill my friend. We all acted that way. The fragility of each waking moment became apparent to us; the world moved in slow motion as we became conscious of time and our own mortality. It was no small coincidence that we were reading Wordsworth in senior English during first period, and Mr. Stegman paused on “the still, sad music of humanity,” as he looked up from his book and noticed most of us just staring into space, or reading the words but not really reading at all. Just that morning, we’d received the word in homeroom that Jimmy should hang on for at least a week, which was encouraging news in some ways, but also odd in the sense that it placed a timeframe on Jimmy’s life. We imagined a clock ticking over his bed now. Before, he could die at any second but he could also stick around for ten years if he wanted to. Now, time was of the essence.
Realizing the futility of the situation, Mr. Stegman closed his book and sighed. “You miss Jimmy, don’t you guys?”
We looked at one another, surprised at Mr. Stegman’s brazen attitude. He was always kind of rogue. In his early thirties, he was always setting some stylistic trend; a shirt not fully buttoned, some overly fancy dress shoes, a moppy hairdo. And yet he had been teaching at the oldest school in North America for almost ten years. We all thought he was a cool guy, but we wondered a little bit about the more personal aspects of his life, which we had to try and decipher through his advisees. Nevertheless, slowly we responded to him, nodding our heads.
“Yeah, I figured. I miss him, too,” and then, pulling a box of cigarettes out of his back pocket as he leaned backward against his desk, “You guys mind?”
We shook our heads no, of course not, we muttered. Cigarettes, like alcohol, were banned from campus. But it seemed like we were suspending the rules in light of the circumstances, for now. Mr. Stegman motioned toward the door. Big Frank Brown went to stand in front of it, so that no one could see what Mr. Stegman was doing.
He was kind of spacey, either that or madly intelligent – I couldn’t tell which. He propped himself up from the desk and moved over toward the window, which he opened after plopping the cigarettes down on the radiator. There had been a light drizzle, so it was a little dark and damp outside, and we could feel a little wave of coolness entering the room. He sat down on the radiator and lit up a cigarette without hesitation. He took a puff and blew it out the window, looking out at the flagpole and Schoolhouse Field, as if
he’d forgotten us completely. We sat with tepid anticipation, our senses dulled by Jimmy but magnified by the excitement of some kind of revelation.
“Yeah, we all miss Jimmy,” he croaked, then a puff, and then, “he’s a good kid.”
Normally we’d feel uncomfortable with this bold act of rule-suspending- filibustering. But when was the last time Stegman did something like this? He’d done it countless times, stopping class to talk about discos or crazy nights he had in college. With the top buttons of his shirt loose and the psychadelic designs on it as he kicked back and smoked a cigarette, the hair flowing down to his shoulders, he looked like he had transported himself with a time machine from a 1970’s be-in. He was the super friend. Either that, or he was a lonely cowboy, or an old man, or a gas station attendant, someone who had idly watched the years go by and quietly observed all the people that came through over that time. And then, in the same way that Jimmy had confided in me for no reason other than that things just seemed different all of a sudden in his world, Mr. Stegman did the same with us, albeit very discreetly.
“People are gonna let you down in your life. And you’ll never see it coming. They’ll build themselves up in you and just…stomp on you, they’ll stomp you out. But Jimmy…he’s not gonna let you guys down. He’s gonna go a long way in your lives.”
With that, he re-adjusted himself and took a long drag. I didn’t quite understand the meaning of Stegman’s last line, that Jimmy would go a long way in our lives. What I did silently understand along with everyone else was that Stegman was talking about his own personal experience, some tragedy of his or set of tragedies that were far beyond our comprehension, something that would make Jimmy’s car accident seem relatively
meaningless. He rubbed out the cigarette, closed the window, looked at us with a pitying glare, and told us we were dismissed early.
For the rest of the day, we speculated about Stegman’s story. An ex-girlfriend? The death of a friend? Or some other kind of accident we couldn’t even fathom? It went on and on, this violation of a trust that Stegman had in us. Or was it a trust at all? It seemed like Stegman didn’t really care any more. His business was everyone’s business. He’d had enough.
A day like that turned into a week like that. The football team lost its opening game 38-0. At halftime, Big Frank Brown ripped into us (“Jimmy would be fucking pissed at you guys!”). The soccer team, suddenly without its captain, looked deflated as well, dropping a 1-0 decision to Filton School. We thought the loss of a friend would inspire us. We didn’t realize that it had, but that the sadness had vastly outweighed the inspiration.
During that week, Allen had gone to see Jimmy in the hospital. When he returned to us the next day at school, he was shaken. We of course tried to be sensitive to the situation, but we couldn’t help but to try and satiate our curiosities with questions. What did he look like? Pale, very pale. What had the doctors said? Regained brain activity. Might make it awhile longer. Wasn’t that good news? Not the way he looked. Not the way he looked. What do you mean? I can’t explain it. Please…not now.
Allen carried himself like that during that whole week. Everything he did was deliberate but without feeling. He was going through the motions. Many of us acted similarly but to a lesser extent. We couldn’t help but notice how pale Allen looked. It was as if Jimmy had given him a ghostly kiss of death. We worried about him.
But at the end of the week, Allen’s words were confirmed in homeroom by Salim: Jimmy had shown signs of brain activity and the doctors were hopeful that he would live for weeks, even months. There was a chance he’d snap out of it. There was hope. We gave a loud cheer, and Salim introduced a new plan to us: every day after school, or practice, or whatever we had going on, two or three of us would go and visit Jimmy. We’d pick our own groups and sign up on a calendar. Everyone was excited about it, even the ever-stoic Bruce Chen, who marveled at the idea after homeroom in a way that I’d never heard him talk about anything.
The following week, the visits began, and with each passing day, two things happened. First, we received an update on Jimmy. Had he regained brain activity, or had it gone down? We tracked his movements like an investment banker watching the stock market. The update came at the beginning of every homeroom, and it was followed either by a loud groan or a hearty cheer: time had allowed us a lighter perspective on the matter even though our hearts were still heavy. Jimmy would have wanted it that way.
The other thing that happened is that two or three boys would come into school each morning with haunted expressions and little to say. Even Big Head Ted looked like he had been raised from the dead. The toll of a sleepless night and reality crashing hard on him had altered his perception of life, and his perception of the rest of us as well. He was even apologetic for his arrogance. I just feel terrible about how I talked stuff all the time, he said, I didn’t mean it, I was just trying to impress you guys, it was dumb. We told him we didn’t know why he was talking about that and he said never mind. Every day, there was a change for a few of us, and the rest of us just saw the effects. By the time half of us had seen Jimmy, it was as if half of us were in on some big secret, some adult comprehension of seeing the world, and the rest of us were still starry-eyed children.
Eventually, it was time for Denny and me to go visit Jimmy. After football practice, we got in my car and drove over to the hospital. We didn’t speak much. We asked each other questions about Jimmy, pointless questions that were about to be answered anyway. What do you think he will look like? Do you think his parents will be there? What should we do when we’re there? How long do you want to stay? And then, when that was finished, the usual kind of questions about our upcoming weekend and whatever girls we might be seeing. Appropriately, it was snowing now. Winter had set in, and Jimmy was still alive.
When we got into the hospital room, we didn’t know what to focus on first. To the left of the bed were Mr. and Mrs. Chambers, looking just as grief-stricken as we would have expected when the accident had happened a month ago, toward the end of September.
And then there was Jimmy. He looked like his plain-old self, which is what made the whole experience frightening. It was as if God were mocking us. It was his way of saying that he didn’t have to ravage us to take us down. He could take us just the way we were and paralyze us, take away our consciousness, our love, our hurt, our pain, and all our feelings in one fell swoop. He was pale, I’ll grant Allen that, but it was the complete lifelessness of my friend that moved me. We could see from the shape of the covers that his body was cut off from the hips down, and though we had imagined what that might look like, seeing it in person threw this empty void into my mind, sending a prickly little chill through my legs.
“Denny, Richie, it’s so good to see you guys,” Mr. Chambers said softly.
“We love seeing all of Jimmy’s friends. It means so much to him,” Mrs. Chambers sobbed, “so thank you so much. We’ll leave you guys alone.”
She smiled at us. An act. An illusion. Mr. Chambers put his hand on her back, faked a smile, and escorted her out of the room. We barely nodded our heads as our attention focused back on Jimmy. We sat on opposite sides of the bed, me to Jimmy’s right, Denny to his left. We looked at Jimmy, at each other, at the walls, at nothing at all. We didn’t say anything for a long time. We just thought in silence.
At first, when I looked at Jimmy, I was hampered by an emotion that I cannot possibly relate to you. I had been gripped by it when I first entered the room, but thought it impolite to focus on it too much since his parents were there. Once they left, however, it re-entered my mind. I saw a Jimmy in my mind kicking a soccer ball in a net and then realized what was before me, the lifeless, frail body of a friend who once had everything. I wondered if he would even want to come back to life in this state. I thought of everything he might miss in his life, and I thought of all the people who might miss him in their lives, and then there was this feeling as I looked at the limp blob below me that made me gag repeatedly until I took a few deep breaths, closed my eyes, and assumed my seat. The best way I can describe it is that it was as if some force from Jimmy’s crippled body was tugging at me, blurring my thoughts, my vision, my speech, my coherence, and my very own sense of myself. To make the idea clearer: I had to rub my arms and my legs for comfort as I sat down. I don’t know why, but I just had to.
I thought about my Jimmy memories again. I hadn’t really done this for a couple of weeks. The whole thing had been dragging on, and though we didn’t forget Jimmy, the initial solitude and sadness we felt had become stagnant. We still felt it, but we weren’t as sensitive to it. We had accepted it. It wasn’t painfully fresh any more. I wondered if I should feel guilty for not really thinking much about Jimmy until then. The thoughts seemed nostalgic. It was a nostalgic pity for myself. I missed the way I felt sorry for myself. There was something profound about that sadness. I had earned it. And then Denny asked me to leave the room for a few minutes. I was surprised, but I obliged.
I shut the door behind me, and to my surprise, the Chambers family was not there. Perhaps they’d gone to the cafeteria. I thought some more about the stagnancy of the whole Jimmy ordeal. Yes, we were not actively thinking about him now like we had been when it first happened. We mostly thought about him when we noted his absence. On Exelauno Day, when several boys recited lines in Latin and Greek in front of the whole school and a freshman won the big award, we all realized that Jimmy had always declaimed on that day. We remembered him when the wrestling team lost by a few points because with Jimmy we would have won. We missed him during the debate tournaments at all the big preppy boarding schools in Connecticut because he was a good character to have on the bus. But when we didn’t miss him in those particular instances, life continued as usual. We just had scars.
I eventually wondered what Denny was saying. I debated with myself for a little while, but I just couldn’t help but put my ear to the door and listen.
“…and you’ve gotta pull through because like, for example, Richie’s been going through so much and I don’t know what he’ll do if you die…”
I took my ear off the door and narrowed my eyebrows in consternation. What was he talking about? I knew he understood what I’d been going through, but it wasn’t like Jimmy and I were best friends. I mean I was definitely upset about it. And then I thought, maybe Denny knows me a little better than I really know myself. Maybe this whole thing was weighing on me more than I thought it was. I hadn’t cried at all, and Denny knew that, but I think he also saw beyond that: he knew I was hiding my fear. And when Denny said all that stuff to Jimmy, about how he was worried about me, that’s when I thought that he was going to be my best friend for life. But strangely enough, I was still kind of pissed at him for making a bold assumption about me.
When he was done, he opened the door and we stared at each other. It was obvious I had been listening. He hugged me, and I held still. My first thought – in spite of my heartfelt appreciation for Denny’s friendship – was that this was really gay. Actually, exceedingly gay. But gradually I came to embrace him harder than I’ve ever embraced anyone in my family, any girlfriend, or any guy for that matter, and that includes people at my grandfather’s funeral. I told Denny that I didn’t want to see Jimmy any more, and so we left. The doctor had said Jimmy’s condition had remained the same, so we gave a neutral report the next day at school.
As time passed, our lives continued to change but we began to regain the sense of normality I had thought about in the hospital. By the turning of the new year, we had learned that Jimmy was in for the long haul. It seemed very unlikely that he could ever regain consciousness. The issue had become less about life and death, more an ethical
issue now of whether or not it would be best to pull the plug on Jimmy’s life. But any kind of decision on that would be premature before the doctors made their prognosis.
Denny applied and got into Duke early. I got into Dartmouth, and in doing so, I became part of that statistic that determined what percent of our class would attend an Ivy League School. That statistic was always close to 50%, and if you counted the people like Denny at Duke and the Stanford kids and the MIT kids and so on and so forth, that figure sometimes surpassed 50%. Still, I couldn’t help but feel jealous when Denny first got his news, even in spite of my genuine excitement and happiness for him. The feeling, I think, was mutual when a week later I called him on the phone with my news. Still, it was a load off our shoulders, and for about half of us, our idea of “school” changed dramatically. The biggest piece of the puzzle was over, and it allowed us to focus on other things.
One of those things was a return to Jimmy. We’d kept up our visits, but slowly Jimmy had already died within us. The way it happened was probably the worst but most delicate way we could imagine. It was a gradual realization that, even though Jimmy was alive, he was dead. For a few of us, Jimmy was still really alive, and so we never dared to speak about our feelings.
We decided we’d try to encourage Jimmy in any way we could to come back to us. We started decorating his room. We hung up pictures of ourselves on his walls. When we beat Oceanside Academy in the big wrestling meet, Allen took a big photo of the whole team celebrating and pinned it right above Jimmy’s bed. Every time I came back, there was some new artistic variation in the room. Allen Craig-Drew, the resident artiste of our class, had sculpted a wrestler in warrior-like pose to commemorate the season Jimmy was missing. It was not Jimmy himself, he said, but a warrior who would fight in Jimmy’s place, who would watch over Jimmy as the team battled on.
And battle on they did. Using Jimmy as the catalyst for their success, they had an undefeated season and won the league championship. Allen, the fearless captain of the team, had reminded them about Jimmy in tearful speeches before every match, and each member of the team won matches that they were not supposed to win. Even though Jimmy’s accident had changed the way we moved forward, even though it took us off balance in the way we viewed our schooling and friendship, witnessing our peers use nothing but motivation in the sport of ultimate will and effort and exertion – it replenished us with something that had been missing. Wrestling became the most popular sport that year and it brought life back to the school. As Allen went on to become league champion, New England Champion, and All-American, a magazine caught wind of the story and ran a feature on the school and the friendship between Allen and Jimmy. In it, Allen talked about how using Jimmy as motivation for his success made him feel selfish, but how he still knew Jimmy would be so happy to hear about it when he woke up. When he wakes up, I thought. When he wakes up. I tried to believe.
Soon, and as more of us received our college acceptance letters, we brought this energy to Jimmy in whole new ways. The jazz band performed for him one morning before school, and though we were upset to hear that we would have to miss the jazz band Hall so that they could perform for Jimmy, we felt good knowing that Jimmy would hear it instead. Joey Mazilli asked Allen what they should play and Allen shrugged his shoulders but said that Jimmy always loved that song “Hang On, Sloopy” and that he wouldn’t be surprised if Jimmy found it amusing to play that song over and over again. So that’s what the jazz band did, apparently, and with much vigor in doing so as several elderly hospital patients wheeled themselves into the room and clapped their hands, excited to see so many young faces.
We began to paint the walls. At first, the nurse told us not to do it, that the Chambers family would be fined for doing it. We felt dumb. But then Mr. Chambers said so what, fine us, and the nurse shrugged, and after some hesitation and a little goading from Mr. Chambers, the walls gained color. They were red, yellow, brown, crimson, lavender, purple and even pink. The room was an art exhibit unto itself. It took the place of art class! Mr. Tien took some of his classes there for visits on occasion, mostly his younger kids. For once, it seemed like we were doing something for fun, not just for our college applications. It seemed to give us a sense of meaning. It was a passion. With each stroke of color, with each painted “Get well soon,” message, we tried to will Jimmy back to life through some mental force. And the most frustrating part about it was that, in spite of these magnanimous and wide-reaching efforts, every time I looked over at Jimmy for some sign of life, some jawing awakening, he looked more and more dead every time, and we couldn’t help but feel that something had been lost.
As winter turned into spring and we began to coast through the rest of senior year, our efforts intensified. We performed plays. We did stand-up comedy routines. We gave play-by-play reports from the baseball team’s league championship game, a game that Jimmy would have played in himself if he were not helplessly confined to the hospital bed. All this on top of what was changing in our personal lives. College decisions, girls, concerts, drugs, alcohol, parties, senior projects – what have you. But we knew to keep our priorities straight. Even though our lives were changing rapidly, Jimmy was our
constant. And as we picked up our pace in trying to enter the purgatorial world that Jimmy inhabited to drag him back into ours, we began to connect with each other. We saw, after all, what Stegman may have meant when he said that Jimmy would go a long way in our lives. We bonded over our efforts to bring Jimmy back, we became the closest friends in the world, and we owe that all to Jimmy.
Every boy has a different perspective on how senior year went by at BL. We all saw the tragedy through a different lens. We all had different histories, different reasons to be sad, different reasons to ask “Why?” We’d all have different experiences with Jimmy and with each other, and we’d all learn different lessons at different times. But the reason I’m the one of the 49 of us telling this story is because of what happened next.
I had been meeting Mr. Stevens regularly through the year. I took his words to heart that fateful day when he grabbed me after Headmaster Browning made the announcement about Jimmy. I had spiraled into a deep sadness junior spring when Maria broke up with me, and with a series of other events, not the least of which was Jimmy’s accident. Even though I had not yet cried about Jimmy at all, I felt different. We all did. To me, it was the icing on the cake; my dreary outlook on the world was confirmed by the inexplicable events of a seventeen year-old boy so full of life suddenly falling asleep at the wheel and crashing into a tree. It seemed altogether unfair to me that his last conscious thoughts were something completely arbitrary as he drove home, that he didn’t have time to think before his death about how much he loved his family and his life. And then I selfishly and nihilistically thought about how I had no such thoughts myself at the time, and how maybe I should have assumed Jimmy’s place before the accident.
Mr. Stevens was like my own personal, unqualified therapist. Over the course of the year, I had to be referred to a real doctor so that I could obtain a prescription for an anti-depressant, but by February I no longer needed it. It wouldn’t be uncommon for us to have some kind of conversation where Mr. Stevens would ask how I was, and had I cut myself again? No, I only cut my legs up once last year because I wanted to see what real pain was like, but that was once, and it was foolish. Well, was I having any suicidal thoughts? No, none of that either, but I guess maybe if something happened to me, I wouldn’t mind. Like what? Like if I was in an airplane, and it went down, something like that, but maybe not as violent. So you’re passively suicidal? I guess so. And all of that seemed to relieve Mr. Stevens – it was okay to be passively suicidal, and nevertheless, he’d remind me every time: you have so much to live for. And by the end of the year, I was starting to agree as I was prepared to start a new journey at Dartmouth. Now, I was happy it was Jimmy in the hospital bed and not me, and realizing that made me start to hate myself all over again.
On what seemed like any other day during the last week of the school year, Mr. Stevens came into the student lounge and told me and a few others that we had another emergency hall. The words “emergency hall” rang hollow. We could only assume the worst. As we walked out, Mr. Stevens waited for me as I dragged along and whispered, “I’m glad you’re here. Headmaster Browning is looking for you.”
As he led me to the Headmaster’s office, I didn’t ask any questions. I wondered why Headmaster Browning would need to speak to me in any kind of emergency. I tried to get some clues from Mr. Stevens, but he looked normal, though I couldn’t help but feel that he was stealing glances at me here and there, checking to see how I was dealing with
this set of consequences, or perhaps just reciprocating for my own curiosities. When we finally got to the office, Mr. Stevens knocked, and Headmaster Browning answered the door.
I imagined that what happened next could have occurred in two ways. The first way would be that Headmaster Browning would bring me inside his office, where, much to my surprise, Jimmy would be smiling at me cheerfully from a wheelchair as I would try to avert my gaze from where his legs should be. I’d be surprised that no one had told us about his sudden recovery, a bit confused as to why I was being led into the office, perhaps happy that Jimmy was alive, but above all, jealous. I’d be jealous, I knew, that Jimmy would be elevated to the status of a hero, myself all the more saddened that perhaps I would lose the solidarity I had built all year with my classmates rallying around his soon-to-be-corpse, angry that his stubborn, selfish refusal to just die already had put such terrible thoughts into my head in the first place.
But when Headmaster Browning ushered me inside the empty room, I realized that my second guess of events was more accurate, and I knew well before he told me that Jimmy had died. It simply wouldn’t have made sense for me to be there and not Allen if Jimmy had lived. Immediately I was relieved, as if some kind of burden had been lifted off my back, and what followed was a terrifying wave of guilt for my relief, which replaced the burden altogether. It was in those few seconds that I finally realized what Jimmy had meant to me. I wanted to magically reproduce him so I could tell him I was sorry for my rash thoughts about his selfishness, my jealousy that he would be a hero. In those painstakingly long few seconds of inner turmoil, I realized that I didn’t like myself too much – maybe hated myself – for these kinds of morbid thoughts I had, and that I
wanted someone like Jimmy around, to prove to myself that I could do without those thoughts, and, finally, because I truly did miss him and hadn’t really known it all along.
I’d never felt so conflicted in my life when he told me that Jimmy had passed away that afternoon. It’s a hazy recollection, but pretty much Headmaster Browning waved me in and invited me to take a seat. I put my hands on my lap and leaned forward as he assumed the seat in front of me. I was calm and more anxious perhaps than I had ever been in my life. He took a deep breath and looked me in the eyes.
“Richie, I’m very sorry to tell you this, but aside from Allen, you are really the first to find out that Jimmy has passed away this afternoon. The doctors have known for some time now that Jimmy would never regain consciousness. Even if he did by some faint miracle, he would be a vegetable, and the Chambers family couldn’t bear to let Jimmy continue suffering. They wanted him to move on.”
He offered me a tissue. I declined. Something sad was stirring inside me. I had already grieved for Jimmy some time ago, for the whole year really, and in some ways he had already died. At the same time, his corporeal presence, the thought in my mind that I knew his body was out there in that hospital amidst all of our decorations, gave me a sense of comfort that he was still alive, that there was some kind of hope, however slight. And then after that, I asked myself in anger why Jimmy’s parents would pull the plug on that chance. Yes, to redeem myself for my morbid thoughts, I forced myself to hate Mr. and Mrs. Chambers. I sat there angrily, narrowing my eyebrows at Headmaster Browning, trying my best to maintain my disappointment in them. But slowly during that short silence, I knew I was probably being stubborn, that I couldn’t repent for my evil thoughts just by having more of them. Hell, the Chambers family had so much money, it was not an issue of resources: they couldn’t bear the constant degradation of their son as he idly sat leg-less in a hospital bed each passing day, torturing all of his friends with a hope that would never come to fruition.
After that, I discovered why Headmaster Browning needed to see me. He put his hand over mine on the coffee table in front of us. The contact took me aback.
“Richie, I know you’ve been very, very sad at times, and you were doing a lot better, but I’m worried about you now.”
I was seething. I thought I had built a trust with Mr. Stevens, but he had backstabbed me and told my deepest secrets to Headmaster Browning. I continued to be mad at Mr. Stevens until the end of that day, when I finally realized (gratefully) that Mr. Stevens hadn’t betrayed me at all, but had instead tried to help me. Yet in that moment, I angrily brushed aside any notion that I was sad.
“Richie, I’ve called you in here because I’m worried about everyone. I’m worried about Allen. I’m worried about you. I don’t know how they’ll take this. You’re an immensely well-respected figure in this community. You also happen to be representative of that part of our community that has expressed symptoms of depression. I need to know a few things.”
“Will you be okay?”
I nodded again, more assertively.
“Can you help everyone else to be okay? They really look up to you. That’s why you’re here.”
“Yes, of course,” I said without hesitation.
“Good,” Headmaster Browning said. And then, unexpectedly, he began crying. I didn’t know what to do. I always felt subservient to the faculty. I felt like I’d cry before they would in all situations. Here I was with a grown man, an established religious figure used to caring after others, crying before me.
“My last question, is that I worry about everyone, I worry about you hurting yourselves. It would break my heart if any of you hurt yourselves. You all forget how lucky you are sometimes. Please promise me you will all be okay.”
I thought of the time Jimmy told me about his friend in the car accident, and how I had an outpouring of faith in him in that single moment of time, how I wanted so desperately to let him know that I was exactly the same person as he was. The reason I tell you all this, it’s because that’s how I felt about Headmaster Browning now, and I let him know as much.
“We will all be okay,” I declared on behalf of my 48 peers, “I promise.”
Headmaster Browning and I were the last people to enter the hall. I took the empty seat next to Allen, who was, surprisingly, not in tears. Perhaps he felt the same way about having grieved for some time already. Maybe he was trying to be strong in front of everyone else. Either way, when I got there, we looked at each other and nodded our heads in silent understanding, and I saw a sadness in his eyes that almost brought me to tears for the first time since this incident came to light.
The school was quieter than it had ever been when Headmaster Browning got to the podium, ironically quieter at full capacity than at any moment when it was empty. I imagined the stillness of the place, the desolation, the nothingness. I imagined the empty
playing fields that knew little of tragedy, and only defeat. I imagined the empty halls that did not know of sadness itself, but only of the stories it overheard us telling about it. I imagined the darkened classrooms that knew us as people, but not as friends. And that’s when the school breathed new life into me, when I realized that the school was not a place but a person, a thing that desperately wanted to mold us into young men but could never really know us at all. It had seen so much, and it was grieving for us now, in silence.
“It is with great sadness,” Headmaster Browning choked, “that I have to tell you that Jimmy Chambers has died.”
The reaction was mixed at first. For most of us, our fears were confirmed: this was the end of our futile battle, the one we’d waged some time ago knowing full well that we’d lose. Some gasped, others remained calm. But Headmaster Browning paused because he didn’t know what to do next, and that’s when it happened. Allen stood up next to me and just started clapping. You’d think it was completely inappropriate, but it felt like the most appropriate and correct thing to do in my life when I got up next to him and clapped frantically. I clapped until my hands hurt. Soon, all of the other seniors were standing. And then the juniors, and the sophomores, until the sixies and the faculty, and even Headmaster Browning all followed our example. We clapped for what seemed like minutes on end but I have to guess that it was really a minute ovation for Jimmy. We clapped to celebrate his life. And when it was over, and Headmaster Browning explained exactly what had happened and when the funeral would be, we had no regrets.
We graduated a few days later. Mr. Stevens was there, as were all of the faculty members, and I thanked him for his sincere attempts to help me through the years, and in confidence, I told him that I was okay, and I was ready for a change, and I’d stay in touch, and that we’d grab a beer the moment I turned 21. He told me to fuck that, because we were going to get one the moment I graduated that day. I smiled, and I realized I was getting older, and it actually made me sad. It might seem like graduation would be a fitting ending to my senior year, but that was not the case at all.
By some cruel twist of fate, Jimmy’s funeral was the following morning. Although we all could have met at the Church, we decided to meet at the school and take a bus over together. Even though we had dressed up in jacket and tie for graduation the day before, it was an odd sight to see everyone in that attire with their dull expressions. Jacket and tie events were supposed to be happy ones. Graduation had given us that idea. And now, there was no room for happiness.
We boarded the bus and rode in silence. I sat next to Denny, and though I’d realized that the end had come to our BL days, I knew our friendship would last forever. We knew at that time, though, that it wasn’t the right time to discuss such things, and so I rode with my head against the window wet with rain.
While the Priest was talking, I tried to think about the whole year, and what it would mean for me going forward. By now, I had learned to consider how it would affect us, not just me. In fact, I thought to myself, that is what mattered the most. Yes, I realized, this might be the last time all of us will be together until our five-year reunion. I looked around at everyone without trying to draw too much attention to myself, and then I looked down at the pit with the casket below me, and I tried to figure out what exactly
what we had learned. When I came up with an answer, I began to cry for the first time since we had heard the news about Jimmy back in the fall, but it wasn’t because I was completely sad over the realization.
We learned that Wordsworth was not full of it when he wrote about his pending mortality. We learned that you could find out more about someone over a cigarette than a piece of chalk. We learned that sometimes you learn who your best friends are behind closed doors. We learned how lucky we were but that we were undeniably human. Above all – as the 49 of us tossed our diplomas into Jimmy’s earthy grave – we learned that love was never fleeting.