In his autobiographical novel, So Long See You Tomorrow, William Maxwell wrote: “There’s a limit, surely, to what one can demand of one’s adolescent self. And to go on feeling guilty about something that happened so long ago is hardly reasonable. I do feel guilty even so. A little.”
My own memory goes back to when I was nine or ten. I remember going each week-day to Audubon School. Although the school was only down the block and across a wide street with a divider, I felt as if I walked into a distant world. The exterior of the school building was pebbly beige stucco. Across the front of the building, like watchful eyes, were two rows of small dark windows. High chain link fences surrounded the separate boys’ and girls’ dirt yards on either side. Often I felt anxious as I walked along the sidewalk to the opening in the school-yard fence.
Three of us in the fourth grade were best friends: Elise who lived with her family on the same street as Audubon School, Judith, and me. Judith, who was tall for her age, stood straight and proud. Her dark hair hung down to her shoulders, and bangs covered her forehead above her large brown eyes. I think that Judith was beautiful although I don’t remember ever seeing her smile. She lived in some mysterious place far from the school, and I wondered if her house was near the squatter’s shack’s on the Mississippi River levee. We looked down on these poor families; called the children who lived there “River Rats”. I knew that Judith’s parents were divorced, and that Judith’s mother worked as a secretary. I knew too, that she had an older brother whom she admired, but she seldom spoke of her family. In fact, Elise and I never met any of her relatives, nor did we ever visit her house.
Of our small group, I’m not sure who was the leader, whether it was Judith or Elise, but I was the follower. The three of us believed being bad in school, or what we called mischievous, was more exciting than conforming to the rules. School for us meant thinking of pranks, getting into trouble instead of trying to learn. Our pranks were not really destructive: we passed notes to each other, made up insulting names, and while the teacher wrote on the blackboard, we would throw spitballs. If we were caught, the teacher would reprimand us, or worse, she would send us to the principal. Miss Hindricks, the principal, was a massive woman, not round and comforting like a nuturing mother, but shaped like a solid mound of clay. Her face was severe: her almost colorless hair was cut straight along the sides of her face, and her lips formed a thin line. Miss Hindrick’s eyes were pale behind gray rimmed glasses. Judith, Elise, and I all felt both fear and revulsion of her.
When school was over for the day, often the three of us would be together. Once when we were walking near the school we saw a vagrant on the street. He wore dirty torn clothes and his face had a strange expression. “Look at that weird man,” I said. Judith turned to me, her eyes blazing:
“Why do you always say mean things like that? It’s not the person’s fault.” I was taken aback, and ashamed of my unkind words. I still feel puzzled and a little guilty when I think of the incident.
One Saturday on my birthday, we had a party at my house. We lived in a French Provincial house that my father had designed. Since I felt embarrassed at being better off than my classmates, I never wanted them to see how we lived. However, we did invite Judith and Elise to my birthday party. I don’t remember Elise or any of the other guests that day except Judith. I can see her standing by the front door as she was about to leave. I was behind Judith, and my mother stood facing her. Judith reached in her pocket, drew out a coin, and then she handed a quarter to my mother, saying, “This is for Carol’s birthday.” My mother looked down at Judith as if she were insulted. “I can’t take that,” she said. Judith put the coin back into her pocket without a word. I stood at the doorway behind Judith sensing her humiliation, but I didn’t know what to say or do.
Later that year, after the three of us kept disrupting the class, Miss Hindricks called our parents. With Elise and me the problem was settled easily — a scolding from our parents, and promises from us to stop the misbehavior. Judith’s case was different. I don’t remember whether Judith was defiant, but Miss Hindricks wrote a note to Judith’s mother demanding to see her. Judith’s mother could not leave work to come to see Miss Hindricks at the school. The principal then sent an ultimatum, “Either your mother comes to school or you’ll be expelled.” After being suspended, Judith was expelled. I never saw my friend again. I left Audubon School the next year, but I did see Elise occasionally. I’d ask her if she ever heard from Judith. Several years later, when we were teen-agers, Elise told me that Judith was placed in a mental hospital, diagnosed as schizophrenic. How could this have happened to my friend? Now, whenever I think about Judith, I not only wonder what became of her, I feel sad that we somehow failed our friend.