Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Never Underestimate an Act of Kindness

I'm reading the biography of an American actor that has been putting on shows about Mark Twain for a half century. It's called Harold by Hal Holbrook.  I also listened to the author being interviewed yesterday when he talked about a certain passage in the book and it resulted in me sat in my car crying!

The beginning of the book is both fascinating and heartbreaking. His mum abandoned him when he was 2, his dad soon after. He was raised by a grandma who was cold and a grandad he adored but who died young. He was shipped off to a cruel boarding school at the age of 7 where they beat him and humiliated him. The headmaster was particularly brutal.

Here's the passage in the book that he talked about. It starts with him being called to the headmasters office for a routine beating (the kids were never told why)

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When you entered his office, he would move about quietly in a familiar way. He was not an imposing figure. He was short and rotund and balding, and perhaps he thought of himself as benevolent, a twin version of the mother and father you didn't have.

"You know what to do Harold. Take down your pants." You unbuckled your pants and let them fall.
"Both of them." You pulled down your underpants.
"Assume the position."
You took hold of the arms of a chair that had been neatly placed for you and bent over. Meanwhile, he would be searching in the closet for something. It was a one-by-three flat stick from a packing crate. About three feet long. Probably pine. You waited while he got this stick and then you held your breath while he moved across the room towards you. Whack! Whack! Whack! Three. Whack! Four. Whack! Five. You tried not to cry out, because the boys waiting outside would hear that. Whack! Six. If you cried, he'd stop, but - Whack! Seven. Am I bleeding? Maybe he'll stop if I cry - Whack! Eight. A sob. Whack! Nine. Tears. Tears. Crying. It's over. He just wanted the sound of crying.
"All right Harold. You can go now. Pull up your pants."

Once, when I came out of the room, humiliation blinding me, the piano teacher was waiting down the hall past the line of boys. I'd forgotten about our lesson, and there she was in the doorway, searching my face with her eyes as I got close. Brown eyes, pools of softness. I could tell she had listened to my punishment. She held the door for me, and while I walked over to the piano and sat on the bench she closed it. Then she sat down beside me on a chair pulled up close. There was a pause, an emotional one, while she waited for me to balance myself on the brink of breaking down. I had been learning to play "America" two-handed, and I placed my hands on the keys and tried to remember the first note. Then I started to cry. The piano teacher put her arms around me and held me to her. It was an act of kindness I have remembered all my life.

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