By Suzanne Strempek Shea
“This essay is part of a series I’m doing on my parochial school days, a recurring theme being the ‘other’ in my world at the time. Culture often created distance, sparked assumptions and fear outside the walls of church, school and home. We need the physical distance right now, but let’s skip the assumptions and fear if we can.”—Suzanne Strempek Shea
There was something wrong with him. There was a word for what they said Władek was, and the way they used the word told the rest of us it was an insult. We heard the word a lot, because in two towns right next to ours, State Schools with sprawling campuses housed thousands of people they called the mentally retarded. The school just to our south was on a hill, and a common question from parents was “Do you want to end up on the hill?” This was asked when we were blue, sad in any way, moping. It was a threat. A lady we knew was brought to a building there when she started having problems that lots of ladies must get—there was a whole building full of them going crazy due to whatever happens to you at that age.
I figured there also had to be a whole building for kids who were sad. I was sad often as a kid—everything would get to me. The change of a season, outgrowing a piece of clothing, hearing my grandfather trying to breathe through his asthma from the bedroom just below mine. But I put on a face as much as I could. Lest I end up on the hill. There were buildings full of Władeks on the hill. Grownups who looked different, moved different, talked different, spoke different, and of course, had to think different. The different was pronounced in Władek, who was short and stooped and whose ears curled forward like they’d been interrupted in the growing process. His face was ruddy and compact. His tongue protruded, hid, returned to look back outside again. Could he even talk? If he could, what was it? Polish? English? Something else? We didn’t even know he could make any sound at all until that day he came walking over to the schoolyard at Saints Peter and Paul.
Before that day in fourth grade, we’d only seen him from across the street, walking back and forth in front of the house in which he’d grown up and where he still lived. We knew he was different, and there was always some faraway fright in me because of that, the same one connected to the deaf milkman who hopped from his truck in my driveway to place fresh bottles near the door and remove the empty ones we’d left out. I always made sure not to be down by the back door around the time the truck arrived. I don’t know how I knew the guy was deaf, just that he was—and what ever would I do if he suddenly was there in front of me? What would I say—and that was no joke—I would want to say something even if he couldn’t hear it. What if he said something to me, and I couldn’t understand it. I never thought beyond that, never thought, So what? or, Just smile. When I imagined that moment of standing in front of the deaf milkman guy down by the back door, it was pure fright. And when Władek made a very uncharacteristic beeline for our school that day in fourth grade, the same fright hit me. A murmur waved through the throngs of kids out for recess. Then his voice bubbled up through it, and some hands began to point, maybe forty arms straight out.
“He’s coming over here!” The girls I was with moved back toward the side door of the school. There was some laughing from the boys, and a few small screeches from the younger kids. And more shuffling toward the safety of the building. Władek didn’t rush. He moved with the same slow pace with which he always walked the sidewalk across the street. But this time he was headed right for us. At the same moment everybody stopped moving, someone dashed from Władek’s house and flew across the street and over the grassy lot between the church and school. Like the cavalry, saving us from whatever might happen if we actually found ourselves in front of somebody who was so unlike us, yet still so like us. A hand was put around Władek’s shoulder. He was turned around. He made some noises that weren’t words. Then he was walked back across the grass, across the church sidewalk, across the empty road and up to the front of his house, where he otherwise stayed for as long as I ever knew. We’d see him there, walking the sidewalk and the driveway, and we were leery now that we knew he had it in him to cross the street. Even though, once he got there, he’d done nothing at all.