Today’s story more closely fits the serious part of the theme of No Facilities. This story started 50 years ago this week and my telling it is long overdue.
I met Marty on the playground on my first day of 5th grade. Marty and I were not so much drawn to each other as we were both squeezed out like asteroids in the wake of Jupiter’s gravity. Cliques were forming around cool kids, around smart kids and around junior jocks but many ordinary kids didn’t seem to fit into those nascent groups.
I didn’t fit in because I was a new kid and the economy, demographics and the quality of the schools in the town I had come from were just not up to the new standard by which I was being judged. Marty didn’t fit in because Marty never fit in. He was awkward. He had unmanageable curly hair at a time when boys were just starting to let their hair grow long and Marty’s was funny looking. He stuttered and he was an uncoordinated sports injury waiting to happen – a trait that he and I shared.
Marty was a kind person. Marty was always smiling. Marty couldn’t be bothered by cliques and he helped me through some very tough days. Marty personified the notion that one needs to first accept oneself. Unfortunately, he could have been a poster child for the notion that people need to accept all other people, but that was not to be. Marty and I accepted a sideline status at a point where status was just starting to mean something.
Marty and I were close friends in 5th and 6th grade. In 7th grade the scale, speed and logistics of Junior High began to pull Marty and I apart. Neither of us were great students. Marty didn’t seem to care, and the system we were in didn’t care about him. The system didn’t care about me either but I was a bit more scared of failing. Marty’s and my academic schedule almost never overlapped. Ironically, our poor athletic ability brought us back together.
You wouldn’t think you could make junior high gym class worse, but you actually can. Some administrator had the idea that kids like Marty and me, kids who were always being picked last for the team, should be in a gym class by themselves. What might have been designed to be a compassionate and supportive experience was carried out as a humiliating ordeal by instructors who were loath to respect us. We learned to fence, we learned to dance and we learned exercises that might be called yoga today. We were never told why we were in the class and we were never told how we could get out of it.
We hated being in that class and the experimental nature was palpable. Eventually, I was allowed to rejoin the mainstream gym class. I’m not sure what achievement set me free, I was just told: “you can go back to Mr. Sullivan’s class.” Marty didn’t return to the normal gym class until we were in high school where there were no experimental classes.
Marty and I weren’t in any of the same classes in high school. In fact, at some point between 9th and 11th grade, Marty was held back because in January 1971, I was in 11th grade but the article describing Marty’s death, listed him as being in 10th grade. Yeah, Marty died.
I had seen Marty about a week before he died. I had been excused from class to go to the bathroom. I ran into Marty in the hall and I stopped to talk to him. He told me about some new friends of his, friends who he said weren’t judging him. He didn’t tell me that he and his new friends were doing drugs, but it wouldn’t have surprised me and it wouldn’t have mattered.
He told me about a Saturday when he had been at Point State Park in Pittsburgh. He had been buying popcorn and offering it to people as they walked by. He was pleased by how many people would take popcorn from him – the fact that they didn’t avoid him the way so many people in school did made him happy. He sounded hopeful, as if he was looking forward to being released from the artificial environment of our high school – another trait that he and I shared.
That is the image that I still carry of Marty, a lanky kid with crazy wild curly hair and an infectious smile giving popcorn away to strangers in the park.
I remember thinking that it was odd that, in a school with over 2,200 students in 10th through 12th grade, Marty and I stood and talked alone in the hallway. We talked long enough for me to be in trouble when I returned to class. A week later Marty was dead. Several of us attended Marty’s funeral but there was no discussion, no grief counselors and no official recognition.
Later that week a story circulated from Marty’s gym class. It seems the instructor yelled out “Oppenheim” – when he got no reply, he yelled again and someone yelled back “he’s dead.” The instructor moved on without a word.
People die from drug, alcohol and substance abuse all the time. Lots of people died from inhaling chemicals in the 60’s and 70’s. We saw those deaths as a sad statistic of our time. This death was different because I knew why Marty died. He died trying to escape from the world around him. He died because that world didn’t have room for him. Even though he’s officially listed in the class of 1973, I count Marty in my graduating class. I also count him among the small group of people who made the years I spent in that school system tolerable. RIP Marty.