Tag Archives: hamden

The Stage or the Curtain

2 years ago, I lost my oldest friend. I had gone back to my hometown to attend our Boy Scout troop’s 50th Anniversary Celebration. I was a pretty terrible Boy Scout (I collected all of the arts merit badges — and plumbing, ’cause it was funny), but Mike was one of the people that I was most looking forward to seeing. Sure, we both had our own separate lives now, but he was always like family to me. Plus, I was really looking forward to teasing him for getting poison ivy on his balls at Camp Sequassen, because let’s face it, that was pretty hilarious.

Mike never made it to the party. Only a few of us knew why.

His wake saw over 500 people descend upon our suburban Connecticut town. It was an incredible outpouring of love and support; in a way, that made it worse. Maybe if Mike had seen the amount of people who turned, the number of lives he’d touched — maybe he wouldn’t have thought of his own life as being so expendable.

Maybe. Maybe not.

At the reception following his funeral, a few of Mike’s friends put together a slideshow with memories of him. These were friends that Mike had made in more recent years, especially at college, and most of them had never met his family until that week. The slideshow concluded with a video of Mike performing The Decemberists’ “I Was Meant For the Stage” at an Open Mic night. I had forgotten that he had finally stepped out from the backstage of the theatre and began performing (I think we scarred him in 7th grade during the filming of our home movie sequel to The Story of Rikki-Oh).

If I have ever seen a ghost, it was in that video. I still remember the exact moment during the song that Mike’s mother lost it, when he sang “Mother, please be proud / Father, be forgiving / even though you told me / ‘Son, you’ll never make a living.” I don’t know how much Mike’s college friends knew about his life in high school, but the song choice was frighteningly poetic; my mother even thought it was an original, autobiographical song that Mike had written himself.

That night, I followed the funeral crowd to Mike’s favorite Thursday Karaoke bar, and sang in his memory. It was strange, seeing all of these people with so much love for my friend — and not knowing who any of them were. That’s just the nature of things, I suppose, as we can go on to new places and start different lives. I listen to his friends share memories and stories, and I wish I could chime in or relate, but again, it was a different life for me. Still, it always comforted to know that he had continued to grow as a person, but never really changed at the heart of himself.

Each year, around this time, I try to make my way back to Hamden; there’s always a walk, or a fundraiser, some event in his memory. Everyone else — the friends I met at the services, extended family — they sit together, laughing and chatting and sharing stories. I feel bad inserting myself into their world — I don’t mean to rob their grief for myself, nor do I mean to intrude on their celebration. I know sometimes they wonder who I am, what my connection to their cause is. If they’d ever ask, I’d tell them, don’t mind me; I’m just here for Mike.

Burning Words

It was the first day back from winter break. As the first period bell rang, we begrudgingly sidled into Ms. Nitkin’s 11th grade double-period American Studies class. Nitkin was a feisty old Jewish lesbian from Cheshire, who had long since cemented her reputation as both the hardest and greatest teacher at the school. She didn’t take any bullshit (as she so eloquently told me when she handed back my very first essay with a big fat “D” sprawled across the page), but she made her teaching worthwhile, and always pushed you to your very best. She had given us the week between Christmas and New Years to read Huckleberry Finn, by native Nutmegger Samuel Clemens, also known as Mark Twain. Being assigned an entire novel to read over winter break always seemed cruel and unfair, but we did as we were told, and came to that first period class ready to discuss the book and bear Nitkin’s sardonic, witty wrath.

Once we’d all settled down — a good five minutes after the late bell rang — Ms. Nitkin stood up from her desk, hardly taller than she was when sitting down, and made her first declaration to the class: “Nigger. There, I said. Now that that’s out of the way, I hope you all read Huck Finn,” and proceeded with her usual four-question verbal quiz, just to make sure we actually read the book, instead of skimming SparkNotes.

After the quiz, Ms. Nitkin told us a bit of the history of the book’s censorship, as a means of launching us off into a class discussion. Almost immediately, and with much less arguing and shouting than was typically expected of us, the class came to several unanimous decisions: yes, the book uses the word “Nigger,” no, it’s not a very nice word to use, and yes, it was still historically accurate. This set us off on our debate — was Jim the true hero of the book, despite the fact that he was a “nigger?”

The lone black girl in the class — technically Jamaican-American, not African — raised her hand for the first time. Ms. Nitkin called on her to speak, and with seething vitriol she declared her disgust for that word and the shame it brought upon her people. Once again, the rest of the class agreed, and genuinely sympathized as best we could.

But she carried on, spewing vile about how terrible it was for Jim to be called such a thing. Still we all continued to agree, just as we had at the start of the class. She insulted Mark Twain’s worth as an author, and the educational and historical value of the book because of this. Ms. Nitkin tried several times to change the topic, re-iterating that, although the rest of us were white, we were still on her side.

The girl continued her rant, or argument, or declaration, or whatever else it may have been, well into the middle of the second period of the class, interfering with the instructional time allotted to another teacher. The next day, Ms. Nitkin brought in an entirely new book for us to read — this time with only three days to do it. In her final year as a teacher before retirement, Ms. Nitkin changed her curriculum for the first and only time, in effort to satiate the outraged student.

I can’t remember anything about that book we read next, but I sure as hell remember Huck Finn.