Malcolm was fat. This was a rarity in the undernourished Glasgow of the mid-fifties. Virtually all of us kids in elementary school were rail-thin. But Malcolm was short and rotund, almost spherical.
In those permissive days of prejudice, kids were allowed to express theirs without interference from adults so Malcolm was constantly tormented. He was the class dunce, failing in every subject so consistently that teachers would publicly berate him, making the students laugh every time the test results were read out in class.
I liked him and we would sometimes hang out, but his real attraction for me was that no matter how badly I performed in school, Malcolm was always worse. Once when I received a mark of 8 out of 100 (a new low for me) Malcolm got 4. When my parents saw the results and yelled at me, I would admit that I was bad, but Malcolm was much worse.
Years later a friend of mine, a therapist, said I must have had ADD as a child. Perhaps this was true but honestly, I just found school boring. With the exception of English and math, I couldn’t care a toss about the rest. Scottish history, which is really complicated, put me to sleep. Geography, which I now love, was tedious. Some subjects I did like. Woodworking was one and singing was another.
“Step we gaily on we go
heel for heel and toe for toe
arm and arm and on we go
all for Mairi’s wedding.”
While the girls sang sweetly, us Neanderthal boys belted out the song with abrasive gusto.
Both Malcolm and I left school at the tender age of 15, he to work in a warehouse, me to a knitwear factory. We lost touch with each other but over the years I heard that he often changed from one menial job to another. I then was told by a mutual friend that he had returned to school. I scoffed at this.
Years later while I was managing a furniture store in New Jersey, I once more bumped into that mutual friend.
“Did you hear about Malcolm?” he asked.
“No,” I said with curiosity.
“He’s become a dentist!”
“Can you do this, Sir?” asked the boy in whiter-than-white shorts and a freshly ironed undershirt. In his hand was a newspaper article showing a gymnast horizontally attached to the wall, grabbing the wooden bars on the wall. He was ramrod-stiff as his body, defying gravity, was parallel to the ground.
Mr. Tomney was our gym teacher. Three times a week we had to suffer an hour of activity; running, attempting pushups, throwing a medicine ball at each other, climbing ropes and additional things I couldn’t do. As a fat, out-of-condition 12-year-old, I hated gym with a passion. So much so, I forgot to bring a change of clothes and ran around in my dirty underwear. At 12, I had not yet discovered personal body hygiene and according to my sister, I stank all the time. I hated that boy who was talking to Mr. Tomney. He was always clean and neat and performed all the tasks perfectly and was, I imagined, teacher’s pet. I can still see him now, with his combed hair, white gym shoes and shiny face. Sixty years later I still despise him.
Mr. Tomney was around 50, short, muscular and well turned out in a suit and vest. If he had to demonstrate something, he removed his jacket and rolled up his sleeves. I neither liked or disliked him until one day, through a newspaper article, we found out that he had been set upon by five or six young men one night and he beat them all up before the police arrived. After that, my respect, or perhaps fear, of him grew.
He frequently berated me for my slovenly appearance. This had the effect of putting me into a trance. The more he yelled, the more I used my mantra. “This will soon pass. This will soon pass…” In those days I used it a lot as I was constantly in trouble with my teachers, my Rabbi and my parents. Instead of listening to their suggestions, I just tuned out the noise and effectively ignored them.
Mr. Tomney looked at the newspaper article showing the gymnast and smiled. He said that exercise was for younger people, not for him. We egged him on. “Do it!” said one boy. Then another joined in, “Do it!” then another and another until the whole class was chanting, “Do it, do it, do it!”
Mr. Tomney grabbed the bars, leaped up and there he was, in his rolled-up shirt sleeves, with a red face and ramrod-stiff, sticking out of the wall, horizontal to the floor.
His crying caught my attention. I was just leaving school when I saw a boy weeping and walking in a strange way. He was about 10 years old and oozing out of his short trousers was a steady stream of brownish green sh*t, seeping slowly down his legs and over his socks and shoes. Spontaneously, one boy fell in behind him, pretending to cry and mimicking his walk. Then, like a flash mob, another joined, and another until about fifty boys, myself included, formed a long snake slithering down the street. He wailed louder as passersby gawked at this slowly, staggering conga line.
One boy started to sing; subsequently a second joined in until all 50 of us were singing in unison to the tune of “Land of Hope and Glory”:
“Land of soapy water,
Persil, Daz and Tide,
All the folks in the Gorbals,
Wash their clothes in the Clyde…”
Header image courtesy of Pixabay/George James, cropped to fit format.