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ISSUE:  Spring 2003

There was a middle aged nun on our ship, a square built woman in a brown habit. She had a round, pink face, earnestly scrubbed, and moist eyes that gleamed with self-satisfaction through rimless glasses. We were sitting next to her at lunch one day when a man, probably in his early 50’s, came up and gave her an effusive greeting from behind the widest of smiles. He then moved with his wife to a table nearby, where he continued directing the beam of that smile in the direction of our table. You tend to eavesdrop on the conversations of strangers aboard ship. It’s not polite, but it’s usually harmless and occasionally entertaining; with practice you learn to pluck threads of dialogue out of the air even from a great distance. I heard the man say to his wife, through his locked teeth and without moving his lips, “They used to knock the hell out of us.” The look on her face told me she declined to believe it. I understood: It’s often difficult for liberal-minded people to accept the efficacy of corporal punishment, or imagine it ever being empty of sadistic content. She shook her head.

What was also evident was the sincerity in the man’s smile. It was a true smile, which is different from all others, and self evident. He apparently held no rancor toward the pugnacious nuns of his youth. Probably he thought they had done right by him. My response to the man, his wife, and the nun, was entirely sympathetic. Old memories spilled into the forefront of my own mind, probably similar to the ones he kept in his. I, too, was educated by nuns, tough nuns in West Philadelphia with quick hands who used to “knock the hell out of us.” And when I first told my wife of this after we were married, she, too, found it hard to believe.

I also hold more fondness than enmity for the nuns as a group, and individually, as I remember them, grade after grade, soft and hard, sweet and sour, mean and generous, from the volcanic Sister Coronado, who with the quick vigor of a cymbal player, would clap your ears simultaneously with both hands, to the pacific but steely Sister Justine, who would never raise her hand or voice to you, and yet always have her way. Even so, I have never been able to make up my mind, or root out every doubt, about the knocking around part. But I suspect, that had they been asked to think about it, these nuns would have acceded to the compromising aphorism on physical punishment, that it “tames man, but does not make him “better.”“

At that moment, while cruising on an old ship called the Rembrandt off the coast of Nova Scotia, I thought of Handi Tomoski, perhaps for only the second time in 50 years. Handi Tomoski was a quiet Polish lad. He and I worked our way through St. Agatha’s Grammar School, grade by grade, and what I remember most about him, in addition to his slightness, his sparse, wheat-colored hair and reticence, was that he drew pictures of horses all the time. Horses and only horses: mares with colts, stallions at a gallop, horses caparisoned and with plumes, horses viewed in profile and from the top (easy), foreshortened horses running right at you (very difficult), horses running away from you (not so difficult). I remember also that he didn’t do that well in his studies. Because of the horses, no doubt.

Understand, Handi wasn’t dim. It was just, well, he seemed to have no room for anything other than horses, and no time for anything other than his peculiar need to draw pictures of them. I don’t want to psychologize all this, or suggest Handi’s fixation on horses was abnormal, or that they represented to him something esoteric or unwholesome, or even enabled him to grasp truth in a wider context. I don’t know if he even liked horses, real horses, so much as he liked his repetitive representations of them. Indeed for some people symbols, which are called upon to represent an idea, or object, or personage, can later come to replace the objects or ideas or personages they are supposed to stand in for. This is a danger that we Catholics, with all our painted statuary, are warned of early on. Maybe it was that way for Handi. Maybe it wasn’t: I really have no idea and as far as I was concerned then, and remain today, he did what he did for his own reasons. Which were good enough for me, even if I never knew what they were. Whenever I asked him, he just shrugged. He was like that.

Handi filled his copy books, one after the other, with pictures of horses, horses capering, horses leaping, horses snorting, the shadows of their flaring nostrils fading from black to gray (Handi had learned to smear the graphite with his fingertip for shading, the way real artists do), horses galloping, horses trotting. He drew horses in the wild and horses on farms. He drew heroic horses, dashing through the surf, thick-bodied horses of the sort who bore Valkyries through the clouds. He drew the fat-bellied horses that pulled milk wagons, and the sad skinny nags of the hucksters’ carts. During the years 1 knew him (I first became aware of him probably in the fourth grade) he must have filled several hundred copy books with his sketches. They got better as Handi and I struggled forward, grade by grade.

I’m not at all sure how Handi made it through St. Agatha’s without being left behind, but each year he just managed to squeak by. (I spent a month with him in summer school trying to recover from the abuse of geometry.)

In that school the pupils were seated according to their day-to-day success in class, or lack of it, and also for their skill in self-presentation. The first and second rows, to the sister’s right, were reserved for the more adept, attentive and obedient—though not necessarily brighter or more imaginative—pupils. They were always neat, polite, and sat still with their hands folded. As one moved leftward across the room, the more fidgeting was evident, the sloppier the copy books. The day dreamers dwelled in these regions, the rapt starers into space, the glaze-eyed, the mopey doodlers, the nose pickers. The sixth, or last row, was where the really slow ones held out. You couldn’t go any farther than that, except out the window into the hard waiting world. Most of the sixth row pupils were bigger and older than the rest of us, having been left down a year or two. They were expected to go to work the day they turned 16 and could legally leave school. High school was not a possibility. It was a Darwinian system, perhaps, but what was one to do? At least there were jobs then for such unskilled fellows. By the end of the third month in our last year in St. Agatha’s, Handi had migrated leftward to the fifth row.

Our eighth grade class, all boys, was a dangerous place. We were all intimidated by Sister Philomene, a tall, skeletal woman whose skin had the interesting coloration of an over-ripe banana. She ruled us with a stern gaze and a lightening left hook. I thought her an icy creature, reeking of sepulchral holiness, and I feared her until one day she kept me after school for talking in class. Then I encountered an amiable, aging lady who believed that without physical discipline the learning process (as it is called these days, but certainly wasn’t then) was defeated. She was a patient nun, remote and unflappable as—if you’ll excuse the comparison—a Buddhist. But through that school year her patience was relentlessly abraded by Handi Tomoski, though not through any disruptive intent on his part. Handi was a sincere and friendly boy, with no taste for confrontation or mischief. But, as I said, he was distracted, and it was a distraction he could not put aside. When told by Sister Philomene to stop his compulsive sketching, to pay attention to the lesson at hand, he always obeyed. For about five minutes.

Then his compulsion would reassert itself. Like an itch, it demanded a scratch. He would give in and turn the page back to the unfinished picture of a charging stallion, or some other variation on his perpetual equine theme. Handi even drew pictures of statues of horses, which is like a picture of a picture.

The nun had had at Handi more than a few times through the first half of that last year. She cracked him on the back of his legs with her pointer, on the calves where it really hurt; she stung his palms with her flat ruler. She twisted his ear until the tears flowed.

“Won’t you ever learn?” she would shout in her high, brittle voice.

“Yes,” he would cry, his face having metamorphosed into a tomato.

He would apologize, cry a little more, promise again that he would, indeed, learn. Then he would revert again. And again, again, again. . . .

On one cold January day, as gray, snow-stuffed clouds came down and seemed to brush against the tall windows of our classroom, Sister Philomene sent a thundering command in Handi’s direction from the front of the room. Tomoski, Geography demands your attention!

Handi, shocked back into the here and now, looked up. He squinted purposefully, focussed his eyes on the blackboard, only to allow them to soften and drift away again when Sister Philomene turned away from him. I could see, from where my own desk forward in the next aisle, that he was bringing to life a fiery mustang on a mountain top, with a turbulent sky in the background. It was a storm that would break over Handi’s own small head.

After she caught him for the third time that day, the safety catch in the old nun’s mind, worn over the months by Handi’s weakness, finally snapped. She swooped down the aisle in a blur, her diaphanous black habit flowing behind her like bats’ wings. Handi awoke to fear. His face turned white as salt as she loomed above him. Her bony hand shot out of the dark cave of her sleeve and caught Handi as he rose out of his chair. (His purpose, he told me later, was to flee to the rear of the room and possibly, for he was nimble, make it out the window onto the fire escape.)

The blow struck him in the cheek and nose and broke a vessel within. There was an explosion of bright blood, a sudden splattering across the nun’s pristine white gimp, the lurid evidence of her excess. It rose and fell like a shower of rubies; it speckled Handi’s white shirt, and smeared his face, virtually obliterating his features. His notebook fell to the floor, and the mustang danced under the scarlet drizzle until Handi, himself, fell down.

Sister Philomene was surely startled by the way she had lost herself. Handi was not big and he had leaned right into it. I cannot report that the color drained from her cheeks, or her hands shook, or even that her mouth gave up white foam. I was facing rigidly to the front, gripped by the fear that this cyclone might descend on me, and full of happiness because it hadn’t—so far. I had no commiserating thoughts for Handi. No room for them at that instant. Nor could I think of any reason why this nun would turn on me, or anybody else within reach. But personal violence is a harbinger of chaos; it communicates electrically from being to being; it is always more unsettling in its actuality than the describing of it ever can be.

Not a sound was heard in that room, not a crinkle of paper, not a breath being stolen, nothing except for the creak let out by Handi’s old wooden desk as he picked himself up and slid back into his seat. I turned then. I had to. I had to see his pathetic, smeary features, the blood glistening, mixed with his tears and snot, as he looked down at the copybook on the floor. And just before Sister Philomene ordered us all to turn around again, I saw a strange look come over his face, like that of a person who has nothing to fear as well as nothing to hope for.

What had happened inside Handi Tomoski’s head at that moment I’ll never know. I can only suspect that perhaps the sister’s persistence finally paid off—for her, maybe for both of them. She had knocked some sense into his head, as she understood the plastic meaning of that word, sense. You might say, in this particular clash of wills, the nun won, for as children do, who leave off playing with their toys from one day to the next and grow up, Handi never drew another horse, not at least while I knew him. Not once during the next five months, through to June and our awkward graduation ceremony, when we all wore white shirts and blue ties under suffocating blazers, when we sang the Confiteor in the church and received our pieces of paper. Not once. And, by that time Handi had been shifted over to row three in our class. He had passed me; I remained in row four. After graduation the Tomoski family moved away from the neighborhood.

Then I grew up, and thought no more about Handi Tomoski until about 25 years later when I read an article in The New York Review of Books. It was a report about an autistic child who had an obvious and prodigious talent, a pre-adolescent girl who could sketch with uncommon precision and artfulness, and render perspectives demanding for an accomplished artist. According to the article, which had pictures of her work, the girl’s doctors diagnosed a link between her talent and her illness. It said they suspected that if they could free her from the prison of her own mind, they would also erase her gift. They made their choice and treated the child, and she did improve. But she was not, and was never expected to be, fully normal and communicative. And she did lose her drawing skill.

The article reported that the doctors’ decision and its expected result had sparked a controversy, and that some people complained about the choice they made. By opening the child’s mind to the degree they did, they said, the doctors had brought forth a mental cripple and killed an artist. Ethical and moral questions arose, but were never resolved, all of which jogged my recollection of Handi Tomoski, my childhood school mate, who also had an uncommon talent for drawing, seemingly an obsession with it. But Handi wasn’t autistic, just very quiet.


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