My short memoir “Donny” won second prize in the Writer Advice memoir contest. Click here to read all four winning entries.
Every afternoon at 2:10, twenty-five kids—all elbows, knees and hormones—thundered into my classroom for what even they called “Dumdum English.” It was my first year of teaching, and I had just turned 21. They were 17 and 18. But the gulf between us was adult/child, warden/prisoner. They tested every day to make sure I was still in charge. My mother’s advice, after 30 years in the classroom: “Don’t smile until Thanksgiving. Smile again just before Christmas.”
Donny sat curled in his desk, shriveled into an old man’s protective shape. While the others flailed and groaned and periodically lashed out, Donny remained a silent, cocooned spirit. He smelled sour, and the others avoided sitting near him. He seemed only half aware in class, yet when I asked for volunteers to read parts in Julius Caesar, he raised his hand to be the Soothsayer and scrunched his voice into a wail for “Beware the Ides of March!” He pronounced it ID-EES, but no one corrected him.
I worried about this solitary, broken boy and looked into his record— failed fosters, group homes, abuse, locked in a cellar for days as a toddler. No wonder he shied when I passed him in the aisle. No wonder his assignments were often forgotten or half finished, with so many misspelled words and fragment sentences that I didn’t mark all of them for fear he would shut down completely.
Toward spring, Donny produced an essay of three laborious paragraphs—erased, smudged, rewritten. But there was logic in his argument, a sequence, only three misspelled words. I marked the dog-eared masterpiece an A.
The next day when I returned his paper, Donny stared at it unbelieving, and as I passed his desk, he reached out to pull at my sleeve. “Teacher, this is the first A I ever got,” he said. I told him he’d done a fine job and reached out to pat his shoulder, but he winced, then met my eyes and smiled an apology. For the rest of the hour, I saw his fingers tracing over the “A” with a kind of reverence.
The next fall, I learned Donny had left school to join the army, and just before Christmas he came back in uniform. His back was straight, his head high. When he visited my class, I asked what the ribbons on his uniform stood for. “This one means I got a promotion—Private First Class,” he said. “And this one means I can shoot a rifle good.” The kids were impressed, and a couple of girls flirted with him. “I’m shipping out for Nam right after Christmas,” he told us. “Gonna see the world.” After class when we said goodbye, there was an awkward moment when I knew he wanted to hug me, but he shook my hand instead. I wished him luck, and this time when I patted his shoulder, he grinned.
Toward spring I heard that Donny had been killed in action.
Years later when I visited the Vietnam Memorial, I found his name, and my fingers traced over it, just as his had in class that day.