In the fall of 1965, Ricky Richardson went away forever. I decided that “Ricky” was a childish and immature name for a diminutive boy. I was a man, according to Dad and me, and I was starting high school. Not wanting to be called Ricky anymore, I dropped the “y” and I became Rick. It took a while for my family and friends to get used to the name change. I had to remind them often. “My name is Rick,” I said. “R-I-C-K… RICK.” Dad and my newer friends had no problem with my new name. Mom and Kriste would stop calling me Ricky about the time I turned forty.
I enrolled at Catholic High School for Boys in Midtown Memphis. Catholic, all male, held to the neo-Thomist philosophy of separating girls and boys of high school age. They believed we could learn better without lusty distractions and they were right, of course. As had been my practice since my later years of elementary school, when I brought home my textbooks for the coming year I read them all cover-to-cover before I ever attended the first class or at least by the end of the first week. Then, I put the books down almost never to open them again; I seemed to retain the information I needed, algebra and Latin notwith-standing. It turns out, I was an autodidact—an instinctive, effective self-learner, and a professor in college confirmed this years later. I enjoyed listening, thinking, and discussing in class, but the classroom work was often boring. Still, I went, of course, and did my time in class.
My freshman year was very different from what I experienced in grammar school. Being in class with all boys, we didn’t have to worry about impressing girls or being embarrassed in front of them. We no longer had nuns flitting around brandishing reproving rulers. For discipline, we had priests, coaches, and lay teachers (and later, religious brothers), swinging paddles as long as my leg; they swung them vigorously, without hesitation. We even had two female teachers. One was young, sweet, and gorgeous. The other one was young too, but porcine, cold, cranky, and had a mustache. Of course, I got mean Miss Fur-Lip for a teacher. At the end of my freshman year, I asked her to autograph her picture in my school annual. She signed it and wrote, caustically, “No comment.” Instantly, she confirmed what I always suspected—I was a non-entity and unworthy of human thought. Angry and insulted, I looked at her and said, “Well, th-th-th-tha-tha-tha-that’s all, folks.” Scowling now, she had no more oink left in her to shame me.
After my previous nine years of parochial education, I had learned the two most important maxims for success in Catholic school: keep your mind open and your mouth shut, and keep your grades up and your head down. Usually that was easy for me to do considering my introverted personality, but I forgot those words of wisdom from time to time. I began to grow more comfortable, to blossom a bit, and come out of my shell ever so slowly in high school. Sometimes I blossomed a little too much, too often.
My first punishment, a paddling, was the result of the first and only time I tried to be a prankster. I was in a morning class entitled “Health.” I didn’t know what the purpose of that class was, and I didn’t think anyone on the faculty did either. The class stressed exercise, bathing regularly, bodily functions, and eating properly. The course skirted around, but occasionally bumped into immoral, pre-marital sex. It highlighted the always viciously fatal communicable diseases, which were the inevitable results of such sinful acts.
Sitting not far from me was a boy who was one of the class nerds; no, he was the class nerd. Chatsworth was a loner, quiet and quirky. All of the boys who knew him laughed at his bumbling, awkward mannerisms. His peculiar facial expressions and his pseudo-scientific answers to the simplest questions were always entertaining and chuckle producing. All day in class, he drew pictures of military jets, tanks, and futuristic weapons. We didn’t know this behavior could have been an omen that he might one day shoot up a shopping mall or take hostages; he seemed harmless. We thought Chatsworth was one of those kids who grew up to become either a NASA scientist, or the weird guy who stood on the street corner picking the fuzz off your sweater and eating it.
Just before class started, I took the tightly folded paper wad I had created moments earlier and loaded it on the rubber band stretched between my thumb and forefinger. As I looked around the room for an inviting target, I saw Chatsworth picking his nose—his finger was buried up to the first knuckle. I couldn’t let such an inviting target slip away. Aiming for his claw-like, booger-digging hand, I drew the paper missile back and let it fly, but it struck him in his cheek. I instantly regretted doing it. He let out a screaming yowl, and the teacher, Coach Sullivan, looked up from his desk, and yelled, “What was that?”
Chatsworth was rubbing his cheek, and whined, “He shot me with a paper wad,” and pointed his booger-encrusted finger at me.
“Come up here, both of you,” Coach growled.
Chatsworth sputtered, “I didn’t do anything.”
“Be quite,” growled Coach Sullivan again. When he wanted us to shut up or to silence us he said, “Be quite” instead of “Be quiet.” In my growing fascination with the English language and my demand for its rigid purity of usage, I always thought that Coach’s mispronunciations were dumb, but funny. I wasn’t laughing now.
Chatsworth and I plodded to the front of the room and stood next to the big desk. Coach grabbed the mile-long paddle from the chalk tray on the blackboard and came toward us. He told me to bend over and grab my knees. I did, and he gave me three quick, hard licks. The pain made me light-headed, and I saw spots dancing in front of my eyes, but I stood there and said nothing. Then he told Chatsworth to bend over, and the poor guy started crying. Wracked with guilt and moved with pity and shame, I wanted to stop his punishment from going further. “Hey, Coach,” I said. “It wasn’t his fault. I did it. I shot the paper wad. It was my fault.”
“You both disrupted the class,” he said, and he was angry.
“But class hasn’t started yet,” I said, again trying to stop it.
“Be quite, Frederick. Bend over Chitwood.” Coach never did pronounce Chats’ name right, but hell, he called me Frederick instead of the requested Rick. It was easy to understand why the name Chatsworth would be a stretch for Coach Sullivan.
Chatsworth stood erect and didn’t move. Coach grabbed the boy’s shoulder, bent him forward, and delivered not three, but four nasty licks. Later, some of the guys concluded that Chatsworth received the extra lick for refusing to bend over and take his punishment “like a man.” As Chatsworth continued whimpering, many of the boys were laughing. My memory took me back to elementary school and I remembered the humiliation I felt when kids laughed at me. Once again, it wasn’t so much the pain that was so awful; the humiliation and shame were what hurt most. Now, I had humiliated Chatsworth. I felt sick to my stomach. The more I thought about it, the worse I felt.
Coach Sullivan ordered us back to our desks, and I slid into my seat and winced as the pain hit me again. I looked over at Chatsworth. He was shifting from butt cheek to butt cheek trying to ease his pain. Then he looked at me. His perpetually uncombed hair was ruffled, his face was red and smeared with tears and snot, but he said nothing. I lowered my head and closed my eyes, because I felt so sorry for him and guilty for causing all this. I hated myself. I swore silently that as long as I lived, I would never take advantage of anyone ever again.
After class, I caught up with Chatsworth in the hall and apologized to him. “Chats, I’m sorry for what I did. I’m sorry you were punished, too. Really, I am.”
I turned my left arm toward him and raised my shoulder offering a target for him to punch. That was one of the ways we guys settled disagreements. If you punched a guy by surprise or did something that got a guy in trouble, you offered up your arm to be punched in retaliation: a young man’s quid pro quo. Chatsworth didn’t take the offer. Instead, he looked at me and slowly turned his head in an oblique angle. He twisted his face into his all too familiar “I am Chatsworth; I sniff armpits” expression and growled, “Oh, why don’t you go jump in a hot tar pit you Tyrannosaurus Rex?”
I relaxed a little and smiled. Chatsworth was back to normal.