This is a re-post, again in honor of the upcoming school year. I read this essay last year at the Writers Read series at the Cornelia Street Cafe. I am very proud of it. Keith McAuliffe and I are in touch, actually, and I am very happy to say that he got to read the piece himself. True to form, he was humble and emotional and moved by it. All he said to me was, “I remember that kid. He always had a smile for everyone. He was always trying his best, which is more than I can say for most people.” He’s good stock, that Keith McAuliffe. This essay is a reminder to me, to all of us, that we need to always be trying to be kind. Being kind is a choice. Make that choice. Be bold, be brave, be an individual, don’t succumb to the pack mentality. You’re better than that. We all are.
There was always something a little bit magical about Keith McAuliffe. Even his name was magical to us back then. Keith. McAuliffe.
Keith McAuliffe and I had been friends since the first grade. We collaborated on art projects, we were both fanatical Red Sox fans, we messed around in Sunday school, and we found the same things funny. We were only three feet tall, but we were good buddies. Suddenly in the fourth grade we developed a self-consciousness about having friends of the opposite sex. Maybe it was because of the sex-ed videos we were shown that year, involving fiercely swimming sperms and patient waiting eggs, or perhaps it was because of the rampant popularity of Judy Blume books rampaging through our class, heightening our awareness of the differences between us. Whatever the reason, things changed when we were nine. By that time, Keith had feathered shiny hair and he kept a comb in his back pocket like the Fonz. Basically, he was the coolest person to ever walk the earth. At recess, all of us girls would play a game called “Catch Keith”, the title of which describes the entire game. We were little kids but it was that year, specifically, when boys suddenly became interesting to us girls, and not just annoying dirty morons. And girls suddenly became intriguing to the boys, and not just mysterious gabby creatures playing jacks on the sidelines of their kickball games. Recesses now involved groups of scheming girls huddled in the sandbox planning our attacks on Keith who was busy playing Dodgeball. At some preplanned moment, we would leap into action and hurtle towards him like screaming banshees wearing Keds and Toughskins.
We wanted to “catch Keith”, sure, but there were bonus points if you stole his comb from his back pocket, the symbol of his cool-dude status to the feminine set of South Road School.
After sixth grade, we left our small school, and went to the larger junior high, which was a wrenching change for me. The small cozy world of elementary school shattered. I saw my old friends in passing in the hall, I even had classes with some of them, but we were in puberty now with all its messiness and intrigue, so things were different. I couldn’t name what the change was but I felt it in my bone marrow. In what seemed like only a few months, the casual camaraderie that had been such a big part of grade school was a memory belonging to the distant past. It would have been unthinkable, in the new jungle, to go up to Keith and chat about how I used to chase him, and how we used to be such good friends. I didn’t even consider the possibility because junior high was a whole different Darwinian atmosphere. Those old days were done, man, done and gone. I got the message.
I don’t think I was even conscious to myself at the time how much I mourned my childhood. I just knew that I found myself in a whole new world of lockers and moving from class to class and dances and real homework and mean girls and indifferent boys. I did the best I could, navigating, but it seemed like I had missed a memo or something. Some people hit junior high in stride. They were up on all the clothes and music trends, having melodramas and romances, gossiping about others, and acting like grown-ups. I still played with my Fisher Price toys at home, I was still listening to musicals and John Denver and the Clancy Brothers, and nobody had warned me ahead of time that Toughskins would suddenly mean the kiss of social doom. Did anyone else miss the days of swinging on the swings at recess and playing hopscotch and foursquare and chasing boys around without any pressure to have to do anything with said boy once you caught him?
Two years later, high school began, and there was yet another move to an even larger school, and we were now thrown in with kids who were eighteen years old, who had facial hair, smoked cigarettes, and sometimes threw up in the bathroom during school dances for drinking one too many of the wine coolers in their mother’s stash. High school was much better than junior high. I joined the drama club. I worked on the yearbook. I had a core group of friends who are still my friends today. It was easier in high school to hole up with your own group and not worry so much about “the popular kids”, the way I worried in junior high. I hung out with drama nerds and band geeks. I had found a niche that suited me.
Keith McAuliffe continued his social trajectory from his Fonz days. It was not surprising at all to me that he would become one of the most popular (and coveted) guys in our class. He was handsome. Shrieking girls no longer chased him around the playground, but that was just a technicality. The same thing was going on, only in an adolescent vein. He was a good student. He had girlfriends and was featured at pep rallies in his football uniform. Despite his popularity, there had not been a huge personality change for him, like there had been for some of my old peers. However, unless we had the same class, we had no contact. We were no longer in the same circle of friends at all. He was at the jock table in the cafeteria with the other football players and their cheerleader acolytes, and I whooped it up with the band geeks in the corner. As John Hughes and Rudyard Kipling taught us all, the twain shall never meet.
It’s interesting, though: when I flip through old journals from high school, Keith McAuliffe’s name comes up often. The mention is usually something brief and silly, the two of us laughing in the hall about how badly we did on a certain math quiz, or cracking up over something stupid our chemistry teacher said. There is a tone in these entries that strikes me: although childhood was now unmentionable, there is an understood familiarity there, unspoken. We were teenagers, trying to distance ourselves from the sandbox, but that fragile connection remained.
A bitter worldly friend used to say to me all the time, “I never believe what a man says. I only believe what he does.” While her outlook on the world was jaded and hard, there is a deep truth in her words, and they always make me think of one incident involving Keith McAuliffe.
We were seniors in high school and Keith and I were in the same gym class. A group of Keith’s buddies were in my class, too, and they were intimidating as a group. They were the sports stars of the school, they all had long-time girlfriends, cars, and they most probably were having sex. Terrifying. On this one particular day, the class was playing baseball at a local sports field. Before teams were picked, another kid joined our group. He was mentally and physically disabled and was not usually mainstreamed with us. He was wearing hi-top sneakers and a Superman T-shirt that was too small so his pale belly stuck out. His smile was fearless and open and it scared me because of its expectation that the world would be kind to him. I felt uncomfortable being in his presence because I didn’t know how to deal with someone who was mentally disabled. I also felt protective of him; I knew about the pack dynamic and how the pack sniffs out weakness. I was nervous that he would be teased and that I would not be able to do anything about it. But I also tried to keep my distance from him, I didn’t want to be infected by any teasing that was going to go down, I wanted to remain safe.
It was not my finest hour.
No one said anything, but there was a tense stasis in all of us, like something was going to happen.
The unspoken issue was: who’s gonna be stuck having the retarded kid on our team?
Keith McAuliffe, as I have said before, was one of the most popular kids in my class. In the same way that happened in fourth grade, people looked up to him, people liked him a lot, but more than any of that: he had a lot of power. I’m not sure where power like that comes from, and I have to say again I think it might have to do with magic. Some people take power because they are weak and cowardly, and making others feel bad is how they gain footing. And some people just are powerful; they have it in them already.
In those awkward beginning moments in class, there was a power vacuum.
Nowadays, in a more egalitarian spirit, gym teachers probably assign teams so that no child has to endure the humiliation of being “picked last”. But back then, team captains chose the teams. Keith McAuliffe, of course, was one of the team captains. He was surrounded by his buddies, all of whom were talented athletes and fierce competitors.
But who was the first person Keith picked for his team? Without hesitation, the mentally disabled boy.
The tone of the day was set by Keith and by Keith alone.
What Keith’s actions said to all of us was: “We’re choosing to be nice today.” All the jock boys, all the giggly girls, and all the awkward cowards like myself, felt safe and strong to take Keith’s lead.
The first time the disabled boy came up to bat, he was clumsy, gangling, smiling. The first pitch came and he swung the bat wildly, missing the ball by a mile.
Our group hovered on a precipice. He looked so ridiculous swinging the bat. We yearned to point and laugh, not because it was funny, but because it was important to assert that that was not me. It felt like a biological imperative. But again, Keith showed us what to do, showed us how to be. He shouted, “GREAT SWING, man! GREAT SWING! Keep your eye on the ball, buddy, keep your eye on the ball!”
The word “hero” is thrown around a lot, but to me then, and to me now, Keith was a hero that day. There had been a clear choice even though no one had spoken it out. There is always a choice. It could have been a torment, that gym class; it could have been terrible, with the pack pointing and jeering at the newcomer with the fearless smile. But Keith didn’t let that happen. He didn’t tell us what to do. He showed us. It is not what a man says that matters. It is what he does. Seventeen-year-old Keith understood that.
More miracles happened that day. When the disabled boy got a hit, Keith’s friends in the outfield, on the opposing team, mind you, started cheering for him, pushing him to first base with their noise. The entire class screamed at him during his at-bats. “You’re doing great! Go batter, swing, batter …”
A bunch of teenagers, divided by the social structures of our high school, came together and decided to be kind. Because of Keith McAuliffe. Nobody else stepped up to the plate. But he did, as though it were his born position.
There was a reason mobs of girls chased him during recess in grade school. It wasn’t really about how cute he was, or about the feathered hair and the comb.
It was about the magic. We wanted a piece of it; maybe we knew we would need it someday.
Me and Keith McAuliffe, 6th grade.