Some evenings from November to November I think back to my sophomore year, social studies class in high school at Newburgh Free Academy – NFA. Mr. Cushman was a wonderful teacher. He was a suede patches on the elbows, pipe-smoking kind of guy.
Once a week he made us all read a paragraph from our textbooks. He would start down one row and go down and up the other till the entire class read a selection. As a stutterer this was death by slow torture. When it got to me, I would sweat and stammer and stall and hardly get the words out. I wanted to disappear when it got to me. And I figured out a way to do just that.
As the dominoes were falling and the reading crept inexorably closer for my turn, I raised my hand to be excused to go to the bathroom. “Yes, Mr. Napoli? “ “May I please be excused, Mr. Cushman?” He would hand me a wooden pass that allowed me to go out into the hallways. This gnarled block of wood was sticky and had so many names carved on it. It looked like scrimshaw. Off I went to the Boys Room and I timed by return so the reading would have passed over me and on to the next row. WHEW.
Well there’s a legal limit as to how many times Mr. Cushman would permit me to “go”. I suspected he amusingly and sympathetically knew my ploy and he began to change up the patterns to trick me up and perhaps to ease up the tension of the inexorable countdown. In short, I was simply not in a congenial spot for getting away with this too much longer. I figured out if I spent more time in the bathroom the odds of being called upon to speak would be less.
So on one Friday afternoon I made my judgment call and left with my pass to freedom. As I sat in the stall (stalling so to speak), I looked at all of the writings on the partition. “See Sally for a good time – Joey’s mother wears army boots – I love Amy – The Nap is queer.” The last entry made my heart stand still. I tried to erase the magic marker entry with spit and toilet paper. It was indelible. When I was done, my fingers tips were blackened. I washed my hands but there were no paper towels. It still looked like I had been fingerprinted for a heinous crime. After a long, long anxious time I went back out into the hallway and to class.
The room and halls were empty.
All the classrooms where empty. It felt like that movie where the guy wakes up after taking too many sleeping pills and discovers the city is abandoned due to a nuclear bomb threat or by an invasion of aliens. I forget which.
I wandered down a corridor and turned a corner past the auditorium and the glass shelf full of trophies won by our football team, the NFA Goldbacks. There was one jock way down at the other end of the empty hall taking his cleats out of his locker. I approached the Senior cautiously. “Wh-wh-where is everybody? What ha-happened?” I sputtered. “Didn’t you hear, dummy? The President was shot.” The jock banged his metal locker door shut. The wooden pass dropped to the terrazzo floor.
I walked all the way home that afternoon, November 22, 1963.
“Don’t let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment
That was known as Camelot”