Jim Shepard (in the carriage), with John; 1956.
As part of their attempt to do as much as they could for him, my parents had taken him out of the public school and enrolled him in a parochial school—Blessed Sacrament, in Bridgeport—and the latter was one of those nightmares that inner-city parochial schools could be in those days. The nicer nuns hit you with an open hand instead of a fist or an object. Any kind of nonconformity or questioning was evidence that you were a wise guy and looking for some correction. Any type of levity was evidence of the same thing. It was the sort of place in which detention consisted not of staying after school but coming back to the school at 7 A.M. Saturday morning to spend the day doing janitorial work: bleaching the sinks, mopping the floors, washing the windows.
To say my brother detested it there really didn't capture the desperation, the extremity, of his misery. My parents had already paid what they thought was a lot of money for this education and were also of the generation that thought you didn't take a kid out of a school just because he said he didn't like it. Who liked anything they were doing?
He had very few friends at Blessed Sacrament and was rarely able to play with them, since most lived all the way across town. He withdrew even more. When he graduated, he was allowed to enroll in our local pit of a public high school—my parents having conceded that maybe parochial school wasn't the thing for him—but arrived at Stratford High just as its administration had decided to draw its line in the sand when it came to the culture wars. My brother by that point had what was called long hair—and by that I mean he looked like Ringo Starr in A Hard Day's Night, with bangs that obscured part of his forehead and hair over the tops of his ears—and there was a rule about that at Stratford High. My brother would be told to get his hair cut and would head off to the barber's and ask for the most infinitesimal of trims. Back at school the principal would say, "I thought I told you to get your hair cut," and my brother would say he had. And the principal in retaliation would do things like make my brother stand up in the middle of assembly—this is in a group of 3,000—and show everyone his hair. Or he'd send my brother home in the middle of the day: a five-mile walk.
Eventually, my brother dropped out. He refused to get a job, or, rather, he got all sorts of jobs and then had to quit them. By then he had a supernaturally heightened sense of humiliation, and any kind of remark, however well meaning—like a coworker's question along the lines of "What's somebody like you doing working here?"—would ensure that he never came back.
Which led to a frustration level so high that he had periodic explosions. I knew enough to keep away from him at such times, but we were good at baiting each other, so I didn't always try. Once he threw me over a sofa with enough brio that my back impacted the wall. Another time he pitched me down the stairs.
We Hear You!