I was eight years old and skinny and new to the school, and my parents spoke with thick accents. Bernie combed his hair straight back and often tilted on the back legs of his chair, a pencil stuck idly in his mouth, and there were several girls who walked by his desk a lot.
Bernie offered me his friendship not so much by anything he said, but just by following me out the door to recess a couple of times and lining up next to me for milk. We became partners in foursquare.
In the spring of that year we were doing morning math, me hunched over my desk, Bernie leaning back, gazing. There was a rocket-like suddenness to what happened next, Bernie shooting over the back of his chair and falling to the floor.
I barely stifled a laugh, Mrs. Agee’s “four legs on the floor” rule once again claiming its due.
As I turned to see with what sheepish look Bernie would rise to his feet, I saw Mrs. Agee from the corner of my eye, running, and things became very confused. Mrs. Agee had a long popsicle stick in her hand and was shouting at Theresa McGillvary, the buzzer monitor, to ring two times for the nurse, and she didn’t have to tell Theresa to hurry.
“Ooh, what is he doing?”
“What’s the matter withim?”
“What’s wrong with Bernie?”
How many times kids had fallen over in their chairs that year nobody could count; Bernie had more than once been the goat. Nobody laughed this time.
There was a fantastic arch to Bernie’s back as he twitched on the floor in front of us. I was wondering whether he had somehow broken it, or was in danger of doing so. There was a huge muscle in his jaw, too, that stuck out like a rock, which I had never seen before.
His shoulders shook with a violence, and each heaving arch of his back sent his legs straight as deadbolts, his feet rattling the back of his upended chair.
Mrs. Agee was bent down over him now. She shot another look at Theresa McGillvary, who continued pressing the buzzer.
Mrs. Agee was fumbling with Bernie’s jaw, holding the stick near his mouth, but Bernie seemed superhumanly strong and his head kept jerking from side to side and Mrs. Agee looked yet again at Theresa.
A few minutes later the nurse came and the bell rang and we all went outside for recess.
After a couple of days Bernie came back to school and we did our math and continued to team up in foursquare. Then it drew near summer, and after lunch Bernie and I would run to the drinking fountain and resume an unspoken competition over who could drink the most water, while the kids behind us in line told us to hurry.
One day the boys’ bathroom was being repaired and all of us were herded into the girls’ bathroom for five minutes in the morning, and Bernie and I locked the stalls from the inside and then crawled out underneath. When the girls went in and saw what had happened they ran and told Mrs. Agee.
I didn’t see Bernie over the summer.
In September we found ourselves with Mrs. Anderson, who was tall with choppy gray hair and a large birthmark near her lip. She always reminded me of Abraham Lincoln.
Bernie sat in a row ahead of me, and when Mrs. Anderson would read us a story, he would stick his pencil behind his ear.
A few weeks after school started Bernie got thrown back over his chair again, and old Mrs. Anderson seemed to run faster and bellow even louder at the buzzer monitor than Mrs. Agee had. Bernie was gone for a few days and then returned.
No one said anything to him about the chair.
Then it happened again and then again, and one day I walked by his desk and saw that his reading book and ruler and pencils were gone, his desk emptied, with the small strip reading “Bernard P.” that had identified the desk as his gone, too, and then I got into line to go out to recess and I never saw Bernie again.
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A lovely piece, Andrew. You have a gentle way and it gives us pleasure.
Many thanks, Chris Ann.
We certainly don’t know when the end of this life will come. Thanks for the reminder to appreciate our time here and especially those around us.
Gratitude is the coin of this realm, Karen—long as we can get up every morning with a full breath, remain upright for a while and move around a little bit. Glad this took you there!
This is such a sad story to me on so many levels. You as children probably had lots of questions and speculations and wonders about where your friend went and what happened to him. Seems to me that a really caring trusted adult could’ve had a loving conversation with you about Bernie, and what actually happened to him. The person could answer questions, calm rumors and speculation and help all the children deal with fears and sense of loss. This kind of openness and support when children are younger goes a long way towards creating a healthy foundation for dealing with loss as adults. I can only imagine what it must’ve felt like for you as a child to have your friend gone one day and not really understanding or knowing where he went, but having lots of ideas that may or may not have been real.
The good news in your acutely rendered observation, Karen, is to note how far we have come in the past half century in recognizing that kids are actual human beings with rich emotional lives that need tending and support from all the significant adults in their lives. It’s incomprehensible today that an event like Bernie’s departure from our school would go unmentioned, just evaporated like yesterday’s rain. Damn right we needed a lot more than what we got, which was nothing but Bernie’s empty desk and heads full of questions and speculations, as you suggest.
A generation before, my maternal grandmother died when my mother was 7, but my mom was not allowed to visit her during her illness nor after her death. They just carted the body away, had a funeral my mom did not attend, and that was that. They they packed my mom off to boarding school because it was considered verboten for a single man to raise a daughter. Imagine!