Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Shelter the Pilgrim - Fred Licht

Fred Licht - June 9, 1928

I can still remember his name –


It still chokes me up. I can see the incident repeat itself over and over again.

I don’t remember the exact age that I was – or the grade but, my best guess was the 4th grade.

I attended one of the crappiest public schools in Norfolk during the early 1980s. Grades 3-6.

Third grade wasn’t that bad – I had a decent teacher Mrs. Clark(e). I was very happy with the class, and even had a little girlfriend – Jenny London. It was a good year.

Forth grade was where the problems began. Fifth grade was a disaster and 6th grade was the icing on top of the shit cake.

The school was a physical mess. Dark halls, paint (lead), chipping off the radiators – broken wooden chairs and desks – just a general nightmare.

I attended this school, JEB Stuart (yes named after the Civil War Confederate General) with a group of students that entered public school with me in kindergarten, and graduated high school with in 1990. We were black, white, yellow and green kids.

I was a little guy back then (well... still am) and being such, the bigger kids didn’t see me as a threat – so I was spared the beatings that others received. Beating me down wouldn’t move them up in the social ladder in any way.

Everyone pretty much left me alone. I was different, but not that different.

Now that I have sufficiently wasted your time with nonsensical memories of my inadequate education -

Back to the incident I started this post off with –

His name was Brian, and he was VERY different.

In the 1980s, there was an educational movement to place children with physical disabilities into a normal classroom setting.

He resembled – as best as I can describe – a baby bird –

He drooled, he walked with a limp, had brown hair, held his hands up next to his chest in two clutched fists, like a praying mantis – like he was constantly ready to strike out at the world.

He wore brown corduroys and a red and white striped shirt - that day – and there was a constant stream of snot hanging from his nose and plenty of crusty dried snot around his mouth - most days.

He spoke...but we couldn’t understand what he said – or we didn’t want to – most of his speech was accompanied by a spray of saliva and snot.

That day, I was lined up with half of my class on one side of the hallway.

It was after lunch.

Brian was with the other half of the class directly across from me.

Because of his disability, he aroused curiosity in some of us, and when he was around, we usually would hold him in a stare – as you would expect most children to do.

There was some sunlight coming through the window of a door just behind me and shining on the wall just to the left of Brian- he was slightly outside of the spotlight in a dim hallway.

The other children were all chattering with each other so I have no idea what Brian said to the boy beside him as I held him in my obvious stare.

The boy struck Brian directly in the center of his chest with a quick hard fist and laughed and Brian collapsed.

Right in his heart – if Brian’s heart didn’t stop, mine did. Brian crumbled to his knees, and fell over - the boy laughed and stood over him...I just froze.

Brian inhaled – I was sure I heard it. He glanced up with his twisted face, snot, saliva dripping from a painful - smile – and looked right at me.

I wanted to rush over to him and place my hand on his heart – to protect him, to take away the pain.

It was the cruelest thing I had ever witnessed up to that point in my life – and ranks at the top of the cruelest things I have ever seen.

As I write this the lump in my throat has grown, and yes, I’m holding back tears.

Why did that boy hit Brian?

I’ll never know.

I do know that I went home that night and cried as my mother held me. I explained to her what I witnessed, and she did her best to explain to me the cruelty of others. It was senseless- she said – but something that humans do to one another.

What happened to Brian?

Is he a 38 year old man now? Does he have a family? Is he even alive?

I know it is so cliché, but the fact that a story like “Shelter the Pilgrim”, can bring the memory of Brian back means that yes, someplace he is still alive. Brian will always be alive for me – to remind me of a bitter truth – of the cruelty that we all can inflict on each other.

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