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more than the Riot Act

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on Tuesday, 12 May 2009 in Uncategorized

Riot act


This is the front of a Mothers Day card from my son Ben.  The inside says: "Thanks for reading us more than the riot act"---and it's amazing that he found such an apt card (four children two girls and two boys)--okay, so we never had the ugly lamp or the ugly wallpaper or the ugly drapes...but we certainly had the nightly story-reading and the giggles pictured here.

But I am thinking of another child, a little boy named Anthony, who spent three summers with our family. On  the anniversary of Brown.v. Board of Education, a book called LINDA BROWN, YOU ARE NOT ALONE anthologized stories related to that momentous decision. I wrote about Anthony for that book, now out of print; and I'll copy my contribution here.




ANTHONY


“He’s crying. We were playing keepaway and he just started to cry.” My children, all four of them, came thundering  through the back door into the kitchen, where I was stirring spaghetti sauce. “What should we do?”

I glanced through the window of the Maine farmhouse and saw him standing in the back yard. Sneakers untied. Head down. Skinny shoulders heaving. Tasha, our Newfoundland dog, was at his side, loving but unhelpful. Quickly I wiped my hands on a paper towel and headed out to try to comfort him.

“You guys stay inside,” I said. “Set the table. Seven places, remember, not six.”

“Let’s fold his napkin funny,” I heard one of them say to the others. “It’ll make him laugh.”

Anthony had arrived that afternoon. He was six years old and had just finished first grade. He had ridden that day seven hours in a bus from New York City. Now he was in our backyard in Maine waiting to have dinner with six blue-eyed blond people whom he had never met before in his life. I didn’t blame him for crying.

I had not specified age, gender, or race when I applied to take a Fresh Air Child into my home that summer of 1968. My own four children were both boys and girls, two of each, and they ranged in age from six to ten. Whoever arrived on that bus would find a niche somewhere in our family. There were plenty of toys to share, an assortment of bathing suits for borrowing, and room for one more at the table. The dog adored children indiscriminately, and the cat ignored everyone with the same amount of disdain.
But when they called my name at the Greyhound station, and a little African-American boy, wide-eyed, wearing a nametag with ANTHONY on it, appeared at the door of the bus, I found myself thinking: he’s so small.

My own son, Ben, was also six and had also just completed first grade. But watching the two boys as they walked side by side to the station wagon (Anthony lugging his small plastic suitcase, refusing any help), I could see that Ben was a head taller.

“Shall we call you Tony?” I asked him as the children arranged themselves in the back of the car.

He glared at me. “Why?”

“Well, ah, I meant that Tony is a nickname for Anthony. So maybe you like to be called Tony?”

“No.”

My son came to my rescue. “My name’s Benjamin but I like to be called Ben. Look, I can touch the ceiling of the car with my feet.”

“So can I.” These were pre-seatbelt days. Anthony lay on the seat of the car beside Ben and they touched the dome light with their sneakers. In the rear view mirror I watched the skinny legs, white and brown, vie for positioning.

His brief tears in the yard before supper were simply from a lot of fatigue, a little homesickness, and a certain amount of uncertainty about spaghetti, which he claimed never to have tasted before. But dinner was a hit. Slurping spaghetti was fun. He laughed in the bathtub, and made a soapsud beard, copying Ben. The two little boys traded pajamas; Anthony wore Ben’s baseball players in return for the Tarzans folded in Anthony’s little suitcase.

They were ironed. “Your mom irons your pajamas?” I asked him in astonishment. His answering look said you mean you don’t?  I let it pass.

As night fell, all five of them, smelling of shampoo, arranged themselves on the yellow couch where we gathered every evening, and I opened a book to read aloud as I always did.

The reading ritual was new to Anthony.

“Doesn’t your mom ever read to you?” one of the kids asked him.

“She too busy,” he replied defensively. (Ironing pajamas? I wondered)

Over the summer we would learn more about Anthony’s super-industrious mom. She was a lawyer, a doctor. Rock star.  Bank president. She rode a Harley, sang with the Beatles, had been in the paratroops, spoke several languages. Hardly a moment to read stories at bedtime.

“Well, what about your teacher at school? Doesn’t she read stories to the class?” I asked him.

Anthony grinned. “She yell at us, is all.”

He snuggled in and watched the pages. “What it say there? Don’t turn so fast.”

“That’s just the title page,” I told him. “The story doesn’t begin yet.”

“Read it,” Anthony commanded.

So I backtracked and read the title page to him. The book was by an author named Dayton Hyde, I told him.

“He the guy wrote it down?”

“Yes. Dayton Hyde is his name. And the title of the book he wrote is—“

Ben interrupted. Ben was proud of having learned to read this year. “Cranes in My Corral,” he read, with his finger following the words on the title page.

Anthony pushed Ben’s finger away. “He get that right?” he asked me. “Is that what it say?”

“Yes. That’s the title. Cranes in My Corral.”

“Lemme see where it say that.”

I showed him the words of the title and he repeated it. I could see that it was going to be a long evening.

It was our custom to read one chapter of a book each night at bedtime. Dayton Hyde’s book, (now sadly out of print), was a charming true story of a family of sandhill cranes that nested on his ranch, disappeared each year as part of their migration, and returned faithfully every spring. By the end of the first chapter, the cranes had acquired personalities, and of course the star was the goofy, mischievous littlest one.

Anthony looked startled when I closed the book at the end of Chapter One. “Finish it,” he demanded.
But finally he reluctantly accepted the fact that it was bedtime and that the story would resume the next night. With the too-long legs of Ben’s baseball pajamas dragging on the floor, he climbed the stairs to bed.

He was an intelligent, curious, energetic, and very determined child. When, the next day, the application for the usual summer swimming lessons arrived, and stipulated that each child must be at least four feet in height, I measured Anthony and found that he was simply not tall enough. But he glowered when I explained to him that he wouldn’t be able to go.

“We’ll find something fun to do while they go to swimming lessons,” I told him, but he ignored me and disappeared, scowling, into the bathroom.

When he emerged, he ordered me to measure him again. He had stuffed folded washcloths into his sneakers, elevating his feet uncomfortably at least an inch, and he had raked at his own hair with a comb, trying to make it stand in the air.

It didn’t make him four feet tall, but it made me go to the phone and wheedle a dispensation for this one too-small child so that he could learn to swim.

On his third morning in our home, I asked him if he would like to send a postcard to his mother to tell her that he had arrived safely and settled in.

He shrugged and said no.

“Well, you could tell your brothers and sisters that we have a horse and a dog and a cat. ”

The prospect of such gloating seemed to appeal, but he still said no.

“You write it,” he said. “I be telling you what to say.”

So I wrote the postcard message that he dictated, telling his family that he could not only swim but do award-winning dives, and that he knew how to cook spaghetti. I addressed it to the Bronx housing project address that I’d been given, and handed him the card so that he could sign his name.

He didn’t know how. I held my hand over his on the pen, and we made the letters together: A N T H O N Y. I showed him his nametag, which we had hung on the kitchen bulletin board, and he looked at it with some interest, now that he knew the name was his. Then he took his card to the mailbox, and lifted the small tin flag to let the rural mailman know that A N T H O N Y had written to his mother, who was herself, he told us, a mailman on the days when she wasn’t being a violin player or a chef.

Each evening he was first on the couch, with the book in his hands.  I showed him how the word “crane” looked on the page, and that he could, if he tried, find it in other places.  From time to time his small index finger crept onto the page, to point to another sighting of the word as I read.

I don’t remember how many chapters Cranes in My Corral contains. But I remember clearly the night that we read the final one.

Summer was passing. Anthony had learned to dog-paddle his way across the pool. He had sat on our horse and had his picture taken and the photograph was inside his suitcase waiting to be shown to his pals and siblings in New York. He had eaten lobster, and then he had eaten more lobster and still more. He was hoping to eat twelve lobsters by the time he went home. Next summer, he said, he would come back and eat forty lobsters, and he would not only sit on the horse next summer, but he would let the horse walk while he was sitting.

I read the last chapter of the book. One more time, the family of cranes returns to Mr. Hyde’s ranch corral. One by one they appear in the distance, and then swoop in to their familiar place, the place where they had been born and to which they had been returning for years. The rancher waits and watches.  But one crane—the littlest one, the one we all liked best, the goofy, silly one—is missing.  Hours pass, and finally night comes. But the last crane has, on its travels, met with some mishap. It does not return.

I closed the book. My own children nodded their heads, accustomed to endings, accepting of sadness. They began to gather themselves to head upstairs to bed.

But Anthony sat stunned. “What happened next?” he asked me. “Read me the next.”

“That’s the end, Anthony. See? No more chapters.” I showed him the book, how the page I had just read was the last page.

He flipped the end pages, looked at the back flap, inside the back cover, searching hopelessly for more story.

“Come on, Anth,” Ben said. “We can play army men in our room before we go to bed.”

But Anthony was crying. He held the book in his arms. “I wanted more!” he wailed.

When we took Anthony to the bus station for his trip back to New York, he greeted his fellow travelers, each of them name-tagged once more, some of them sunburned, one with an arm in a cast, all of them weighted with souvenirs.  Anthony carried a shopping bag filled with sea shells, two empty lobster claws, a snorkeling mask, and our copy of Cranes in My Corral.

He returned the following summer: seven years old now, a seasoned traveler with a list of expectations that included a stop at Weeks’ Ice Cream en route home from the bus station.

He had finished second grade. He looked at the menu in the ice cream shop and grinned at the familiar garish photos of sundaes. “Can you read it?” I asked, pointing to a description of his favorite.

“Not yet,” he replied. “But I’ll learn.”

Nor could he read at eight, the third summer he spent with us, after he had completed third grade.
Ben was also eight, that summer, and my other children were nine, eleven, and twelve. My oldest, a girl now in junior high, wanted to watch the evening news to see what was happening in Viet Nam, and her one-year-younger brother had ball games to play, games that lasted into the summer twilights. They no longer joined us on the yellow couch each evening. Now it was only Kristin, Ben, Anthony, and me.

“He can’t read a single word, Mom,” Ben confided privately. “Not even Green Eggs and Ham. And he’s going into fourth grade!”

I knew that. And it troubled me. But when I tried to show Anthony the sounds of letters, the magic of their combinations, he became impatient.

“My teacher will teach me that,” he insisted. “I’ll learn when school starts.” He didn’t want school, not in summer. He wanted stories.

Night after night, for three summers, we sat on that yellow couch, Tasha the Newfoundland snoring at our feet, and journeyed through books. The cool barn where Charlotte lived and died, the primordial swamp where dinosaurs roamed, space and rocket ships, Oz and Narnia: all of them became the landscape of Anthony’s life in our family. Each August he went home with books in his suitcase, stories in his heart, and the expectation that this year would be the year when he would learn to read.

His confidence and resiliance astounded me. In Maine, I had watched him jump into water well over his head and seen him bob back up grinning and make his way back to the dock with a city-boy dog paddle that somehow kept him afloat. I had seen him fall from a horse and feed the horse a forgiving apple from our orchard. He had ridden a chair lift, brown legs dangling, to the top of a ski slope, then hiked back down and found the untied sneaker that had dropped from his foot midway. It had never occurred to him that the water was too deep or too cold, that the horse’s big teeth might bite too far, or that the sneaker would not be right there at the base of the tall pine.

And each September he embarked happily on another year in school, certain that he would catch on this time, would break the code, would become a reader. “This year I will,” he said with determination each fall.

And each year it didn’t happen.

The spring that Ben, now nine, finished fourth grade, I sent in our annual application for Anthony’s visit. By this time it was routine. But this time there was no reply.I called the organization that sponsored the visits and they checked their records. Anthony’s mother had not sent in the paperwork this year, they told me. Perhaps she was ill? Surely not; not Anthony’s mother, who was herself a doctor as well as a nurse, and a veterinarian and professional wrestler to boot?  I asked them to call her with a reminder, to tell her we were looking forward to our fourth summer with her son.

They tried. But the telephone was disconnected. There was no one by that name at the address.
And so that optimistic, valiant little boy disappeared from our lives. We never saw Anthony, never heard from him again.

What does any of this have to do with Brown vs. Board of Education, that decision handed down fourteen years before a child named Anthony entered my kitchen carrying a little plastic suitcase?

I’m not at all sure. Sadly, it’s a reminder that the Supreme Court of the USA could not decree an end to every problem that an African-American child, heart filled with hope, would face in today’s world. The Court couldn’t mandate caring classrooms or fine teachers with a reverence for literacy. But it gave children like Anthony the right to expect those things, to hope for them, to demand them.

My son Ben is a lawyer now, and has two little boys of his own. Every night they curl up beside him, wearing Spiderman pajamas, and listen to the stories he reads.

From time to time I think about Anthony, and wonder where he is. Statistics tell me that a little black boy growing up thir ty years ago in a Bronx project had a pretty good chance of becoming a dropout, a drug addict, a criminal, or a corpse. But I don’t think those things happened to Anthony.
I think that in his case, the statistics were offset by other things: that he had a mother who was right up here with Wonder Woman—and who ironed his pajamas; that at six years old, not yet four feet tall, he had carried his own suitcase into the home of strangers and made himself a place; that he cherished books and was determined to master reading no matter how long it took.

I think that today—tonight, this very night—somewhere he is holding his own child on his lap, and reading a story aloud.

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Comments

Guest
Roger Sutton Monday, 29 November 1999

Lois, I used to be the librarian at the Bucktown Branch. Go say hi for/from me! (When I was there (1985-88) it was called the Damen Avenue Branch because Bucktown was considered pejorative. And now it's hip.

Guest
Lois Lowry Monday, 29 November 1999

It is very hip indeed, Roger! I am thoroughly enjoying my time here! But am not going to be able to get to the library. My time is all spoken for and I am flying back to Boston tomorrow. :-(

Guest
Nick Monday, 29 November 1999

i am reading the Giver & enjoying it, thanks.
Happy Thanksgiving & Merry Christmas !

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