12 June 2014

Remembering a Childhood Friend

"The world is so goofy everywhere -- like you imagine that when you get to Paris with Simon there'll be raincoats and Arc de Triomphes of brilliant sadness and all the time you'll be yawning at bus stops."
From Desolation Angels by Jack Kerouac.

I imagined a lot of things and raged when I realized that they wouldn't come true angry at the injustice of the way life parcels out its joys and wonders and makes us suffer and work and be sick in between the raptures and delights of discovery and the orgasms of whimsy.

We fight the demons of our own making and laugh when we lose knowing that other battles will follow just as tragically humorous or humorously tragic. But there is always tomorrow.

I thought about Thornton Nedley the other day. That was his real name. He was a friend of mine in elementary school. I don't recall that he had any others. I had plenty of other friends but hung around with Thornton because I felt sorry for him and loved his name. Who wouldn't love a name like that? Yes I actually made friends with someone in part because of his name. I was like that as a kid. Thornton was African American wore coke bottle glasses and had buck teeth. I'm pretty sure his IQ was solidly below average and he had no athletic skills to compensate with.  He struggled in school and occasionally got into trouble sometimes having fits in class. Teachers didn't care for him and classmates thought him weird unattractive and stupid. Thornton's voice was a mess. When he spoke it sounded like he was simultaneously doing a spit take. He was teased fairly often in the cruel way that kids do. He clearly needed a friend and I took on the role. He was glad to come over to my house -- he had few other choices. I didn't think of it at the time but he must have really appreciated that I was nice to him.

By talking and playing with Thornton I discovered that he was just as much fun as my other friends and had a a good sense of humor. One on one he didn't seem so dumb. And when you're nine years old intellectual insights aren't what you're looking for. A decent imagination and a willingness to act goofy more than qualifies one as a playmate.

There were occasional queries from my other friends as to why I had befriended Thornton but no one really gave it much thought. Kids aren't all that reflective. Any suggestions that I made about Thornton joining us when we had plans as a group were summarily rejected so I stopped bothering. Anytime that I was to spend with Thornton was to be just the two of us.

Of course I could only devote so much time to one person especially one who was so unpopular. As girls and music became more important to me Thornton became less important. Social status started to count for a little bit and it wouldn't do to be associating with a certified loser. I was not being cruel -- after all I had been the only classmate to hang out with him at all -- it was a practical decision and a gradual one at that. Thornton was well used to being alone and losing our friendship of a few years time was probably not a blow. At least I never thought so. Now that I write about it I'm not so sure.

I saw Thornton sporadically during junior high and high school but can't recall ever talking to him beyond a casual exchange of greetings. I have no idea how he fared in school or socially although I can't imagine he prospered in any way. Adolescence was not designed to cater to the likes of poor Thornton Nedley. Schools today are better at serving the needs of students with physical emotional and mental handicaps (special needs kids they're called). Back then you were pretty much on your own.

A few years after high school I was in town and saw Thornton. He was very vague about what he was doing but did say that he lived at the downtown YMCA. He joked about some of our former grade school classmates in a manner more appropriate for someone still in grade school. I gathered that his intellectual development had been especially slow. I realized then that the jokes kids had made about Thornton being retarded were, while cruel, probably accurate. I felt sad and helpless and wanted nothing more than to be able to do something that would "fix" the poor guy and make him normal and happy. Not that he seemed particularly unhappy. It was just....

That was the last I saw of Thornton and I had little occasion to think of him since. Before writing this I googled him and found that he had died in 2000 at age of 47. I could find no cause of death nor any other details of his life. If I had the time skills and resources I could probably learn more about his life but even at that I doubt I'd learn much.

It's very sad to think of Thornton now. Not at all depressing, life is too big for that. I'm glad that I was able to give him some friendship for a short part of his life. It speaks well to the kind of kid I was. There's no use regretting that I couldn't remain friends with him longer than I did. That would have been asking too much. It is not for 11 year olds to be caretakers of other children.

So what to make of this? I suppose that if you or someone you know comes across a Thornton Nedley you should make a particular point not to merely dismiss him. You can spare a little time to be nice to the guy even if merely by inquiring as to his or her well being from time to time. Showing you care. It can mean a lot.

I recall being downtown some years ago and walking by a former middle school student of mine named Josh. He was white kid who'd loved my class done really well and enjoyed talking to me about history after class. We got along well and he got all As from me. He was in high school at the time I saw him. As we passed each other Josh looked the other way pretending not to see me. It has not been uncommon for former students to act in this manner. Moments after passing Josh another former student, this an African American, happily called my name from across the street and enthusiastically waved to me and pointed me out to his friends. Derek had been a student at the same time as Josh but had earned straight Fs numerous detentions and even suspensions. We did not get along. I mentioned this to a good friend and co worker who was African American (I say was because he is deceased). He explained that Derek knew that despite the bad grades and disciplanry measures he'd received from me he realized that here was a white man who cared about him. For I had taken the time on a number of occasions to speak with Derek and encourage him.

People remember your kindness and your consideration even to the point that they forget slights or measures taken against them. I hope that if Thornton Nedley ever thought about me as an adult he remembered our friendship. The idea that he might have makes me smile.


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