The Tall Girl Comes Home

In Chapter 3, “Regulars” (pp. 34-35) of NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE, I write about a gallant intervention against a schoolyard bully that my late son Kevin made in the sixth grade, while we were living in Middlebury, Vermont. The passage is below:

 

A quality in Kevin that I admired perhaps even more than I admired his musical gifts can be summed up in a story I heard about him at his memorial service.

The story was told to me by a classmate of his, a beautiful young woman with long, thick, curly dark tresses and dark eyes. In sixth grade she had experienced one of those rare kidhood growth-spurts that almost overnight set her apart from everybody else. She topped out at six feet. Her height and beauty, neither of which she could understand, much less control, put her in the cross-hairs of certain boys in the class. She never invited this: her family was poor, her mother single, and she came to school in faded jeans and flannel shirts, or T-shirts with “cool” slogans. Just a kid in grade school.

One boy in particular seemed to take her innocently stunning appearance as some kind of personal reflection on him, or challenge. The boy was built thick and tough; he was on a track to star as a college ice-hockey player. His method for dealing with her daring to be tall was to swagger up to her on the school grounds before classes or at lunch hour, and punch her. Repeatedly. Hard. On her shoulders. On her chest. Sometimes in her face. She bruised, and she bled, but she didn’t know what to do. She stood there and took it. Sometimes the pain and humiliation made her cry silently. Other kids watched from a distance. No kid made an effort to intervene. No teacher, apparently, was aware what was happening. And the girl never told anyone.

This all stopped when Kevin walked up to the two of them one day while the punching was going on and said: “Patrick, you’re being a dick,” and walked away. Patrick did not go after him. It was as if he said to himself, “Yeah—I guess I’m a dick.” He grew up to be a pretty good guy. And a college hockey star.

It’s not for me to say, but I think the tall girl loved Kevin. Who didn’t?

Last week, the Tall Girl came back home to Vermont.

Her name is Leah. She has been living in Ireland for the last several years. She’d graduated the University of Vermont with a degree in gender and women’s studies, studies, married a boyfriend, and followed him to Cork, the graceful small city on the coastal southwest, bisected by the River Lee.

Another child; then divorce.

Leah found a community of young musicians (coincidence? Maybe!), did some radio announcing, and took up a career as a songwriter. She has never stopped thinking about my son.

I drove up from Castleton to Middlebury to meet her—she makes an annual trip home to visit her mother—and we had lunch on the deck of a riverside restaurant on a balmy midsummer afternoon. Leah is in her early 30s now, but she has not changed dramatically from her year in sixth grade, 1996. Nor from her appearance at the memorial service for Kevin in July of 2005. She had long since replaced the faded jeans and flannel shirts; she was wearing a chic summer dress and heels. She was no longer a gangly skinny kid, but the essential Leah was still fully present. She wore her lustrous black hair long and in curls, as she had through her difficult childhood. She spoke easily and warmly (I heard traces of an Irish accent); but her expressive dark eyes tended to drift, as if she were halfway inside a world known only to her.

I learned some new things from Leah as we talked.

I learned that it had been not one boy but two who assaulted her daily on the playground until Kevin walked up. The boys had beaten her arms and her face, often drawing blood. They had jumped up and down on her feet. They had spat in her face.

I learned that it was not true that teachers were unaware of what was happening. They were aware, all right. They just didn’t do anything about it.

I learned that the school playground was not the only place where Leah had suffered. She’d been tormented inside and outside the school. Once, the first bully grabbed Leah’s thick hair in both hands and dragged her out of her classroom seat by it. Another time, the two attacked her in front of the principal’s office.

In fact, Leah suffered more or less continually as a child. She led a life of quiet desperation. Her impoverished household was a version of Hell. Her mother had done her best to keep things together, but she was disabled and emotionally fragile and often needed tending from Leah. The father, a hard and scowling man, brooded over the family until Leah’s mother worked up the will to leave him. He died year ago.

I learned that Kevin was her savior, and not only on the day he confronted Patrick.

“The only reason I kept going to school was Kevin,” she told me as she studied the river. “He was the only good thing in my life. My mother would rant and rage as she drove me to school. But as soon as I got out of the car, there was Kevin, and we would start laughing right away. He could always make me laugh. He was so funny!”

Leah told of Kevin’s talent for mimicking other people—teachers, classmates. It was a gift that we’d noticed around the house, as well. Often, we noticed it while wincing.

She stuck around him. He seemed happy to have her company. Yet they never so much as held hands. Kevin may not have been aware of her adoration. Or he didn’t know what to do with it. He was just a kid. So was Leah.

They remained friends for three more years, through middle school. Kevin’s guitar talents were earning him a reputation by then.

In the fall of 1997, when Kevin was freshly 14, we entered him in his first competition, simply to get him some experience in that pressurized world. The competition was the formidable Down Beat Magazine’s annual student music awards. Kevin sat in our living room, one foot propped on the arch of the other, his ball cap on backwards; and, using retail mics and soundboard, recorded three tunes in each of two genres, jazz and rock. His choices were challenging and sophisticated. In the jazz category, he tackled “Blue Monk” by Thelonius Monk, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” by Fats Waller, and “Satin Doll” by Billy Strayhorn. In blues, he submitted “Stormy Monday” by T-Bone Walker, “The Thrill Is Gone” by B.B. King, and “Tore Down” by Sonny Thompson. The submissions were multi-track dubs, in which Kevin performed lead, rhythm, and, on some of the tunes, harmony and a bass line off his electric guitar.

We sent the submissions in, after warning him not to get his hopes up. This was just for experience.

The following June, Down Beat announced its winners. Kevin had won for his age-group in both his categories. He got his picture in the local paper.

Kevin never preened or strutted after these awards. That would not have been Kevin. He was proud; it showed at the corners of his mouth; but he didn’t talk about it. I don’t know what, if anything, passed between him and Leah concerning his new local celebrity. Probably not much, if I know my late son. They continued their friendship.

Kevin at Interlochen

Life began to pull them apart shortly after that. Kevin found to his delight that he had been accepted into the prestigious Interlochen Academy for the Arts in Traverse City, Michigan. He would take up his studies in the autumn of 1998. I would drive him the eight hundred miles from Middlebury to Montreal, then west along the majestic Trans Canada Highway to Sault Ste. Marie, and then south through pine forests that bordered the highway to the new home that would nurture and gladden him for the next three years.

“I knew that he had to go to Interlochen, and I was happy for him,” Leah told me. Kevin never mentioned the relationship, nor the parting. He was an intensely private young man.

“I was proud of him. Happy for him,” Leah told me.

I had taken out my camera to make some photographs of her, then put it down. It was when the talk turned to Kevin’s departure from Middlebury that Leah’s eyes filled.

My camera remained on the table between us. I’d made a few photos of her at the start of her meal. And now I wanted to lift the camera again and focus on Leah’s teary eyes. It would have been so easy, and her tears would have symbolized the closing of a circle between these beautiful young people.

But I could not do it. I could not bring myself to violate this private moment.

Leah told me as we said good-bye that she had noticed my hands hovering near the camera. She told me that it would have been all right with her.

But it would not be all right with me. Not with Kevin watching. Which I felt he was.

I left the camera lying on the table between us. I will be happy for the remainder of my life that I refrained from intruding on Leah’s private moment of grief.

And I will regret for the remainder of my life that I left my camera lying.

~

HERE IS KEVIN PLAYING “MY ROMANCE”

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