Sadly Remembering Lester . . .
This Is Fondly Dedicated
To All The "Lesters" in our
School Systems . . .
Who for the most part,
go unnoticed, unappreciated, and
sadly overlooked by people such as I.
Hello, Lester . . .
In 1963, a simple time in my life, I was joining other rural students in a farming community school, New Home School, near my hometown of Hamilton, Alabama. I was scared stiff. I wasn't from a big family. And at this age, I do not think anyone has the proper social skills to operate efficiently in school, much less society at large.
It can be said with clear conscience, or hand on the Bible, that New Home School was rough-looking with its flecking paint, worn lumber, and cracking sidewalks, but to me and the students, it was 'heaven.' You could actually feel and taste the pure simplistic atmosphere in this learning institution. You could touch the unbridled peace in each breath you took. At the risk of waxing philosophical, New Home School was my first glimpse of what my after-life might resemble.
But this story is far from being about me. And that makes me very glad. Frankly, I never had much of a craving to be in the spotlight anyway. Anyhow. Anywhere. And this story is not about New Home School. For I believe that I've told you enough about this special place in my young life to paint you a vivid picture of what a really simple life I had in 1963.
The first time I met Lester Fairbanks, he simply stared at me. Smiled. And laid his head down on his wooden desk. Even at my young age in 1963, I thought he was a strange person. I tried to get his attention before our teacher, Mrs. Gertrude Ballard, called the roll. But no dice. Lester was sold to the idea of just sitting, staring at the books on his desk and ignoring my whispers of, "Hey, Lester!" and "Lester, look here!" (And as a footnote, Gertrude Ballard has been teaching her style of grammar school in heaven's portals for years now and knowing her, she loves it.)
Lester Fairbanks was one of the quietest guys I had ever met. That says a lot about my worldly travels for up to the third grade, I had only met the Carrol brothers, Billy Joe, Lomax and Donald, Russell Lynch, Steven Carter, Bobby Stovall and Vernon Green. These guys could be loud. Rambunctious. Full of life. But not Lester. The only sound from his tight lips might be a peep at roll call instead of the fundamental, 'here,' or 'present.' Other than that, Lester was as quiet, or quieter than any self-respecting church mouse. And if being non-talkative equals wisdom, Lester had to be THE wisest third-grader in Alabama. Maybe the country.
Lester, In Playground Sports . . .
was lousy. Terrible. And to be bluntly-honest, awful. In the game of softball, football, or any game we played at recess at New Home School, Lester was 'that proverbial guy' who was chosen last. And he wouldn't have been chosen at all except that Mrs. Ballard had stern way about telling us to 'include Lester,' in our games. Or meet with her paddle, a long piece of pine lumber. Guess what we always chose? Choosing Lester.
I can see it plainly in my memories now. Lester, who was always hidden from sight behind his teammates, would be coaxed to step up to bat. Lester, like a casual tortoise, would make his way to the plate, smile really big at his teammates, pick up the bat and stand there. That's all he would do. Everytime he was at bat. In one game, his team captain, Russell Lynch, a patient and good-hearted boy for his age, 'coached' Lester by saying, "Lester! Listen to me. You have got to try to hit the ball. The game is not about being struck out!" Lester would look at the ground. Smile and stand at plate as the pitcher, I think it might have been Ricky Skinner, threw the softball to Lester who was too fast to swing his bat--striking out causing his team to lose. Again. But even in the childish turmoil and complaints, there it was. That huge smile on Lester's face. And on anther occasion, when Lester was 'laboring' to play right field, he dropped a crucial fly ball causing his team to lose yet another game. Some of his own teammates would have 'bum-rushed,' maybe piled on him and beat him up, but Mrs. Ballard stepped in probably saving Lester some scars, bruises and hospital time. Yet, in in this frenzied moment, Lester's big smile was not hampered. And to top it off, Lester never said anything back to his accusers to defend himself. Not the first, "I did my best," or "the sun got in my eyes," just a big smile on his face and his eyes fixed on the dirt playground.
Lester's Silence And Poor Interaction . . .
went on for months. Even with heated threats from Mrs. Ballard with her pine lumber paddle, Lester just sat quietly. Even when asked History questions which he could have answered from the book, he sat silently. Smiled. Maybe shrugging his shoulders when Mrs. Ballard's patience had worn out. Lester was dedicated to not speaking. Just smiling. Even when we were having lunch, Lester would not eat with me or my friends, but chose to sit alone and eat his lunch he brought in a small, brown paper bag. I believe it was in these moments that I knew (like Dorothy's Tin Man) I wished I didn't have a heart for it was breaking in silence to see Lester sit alone and have no connection with our class. But I kept my burden to myself.
And There Was The Day I Became A Monster . . .
and to this day, Nov. 15, 2011, and age, 57, I still don't know why. Some of the boys and girls in my class were teasing Lester as all school kids do at one time or another, and although it was in clean fun, I was in the middle of them throwing laughable remarks at Lester for not speaking. Yes, I helped in the hurtful name-calling. I guess the only reason I can come up with to bring my awful actions into a clear rationalization is that I just wanted to be a part of the crowd. Any crowd. Fitting in was important to me. Probably the most-important thing to me at that time. But obviously not for Lester. He sat and took (like a matured man) all or our childish and immature insults with the grace of a nationally-travelled diplomat. And smiled that huge smile while being made fun of. I believe that I was the first to stop my name-calling. And just fade silently back to my desk where I sat and listened to my conscience tell me what a jerk I was. No argument from me. My conscience was right. As 'he' always is.
The next day before class began, as a peace offering and to fix what I had done to Lester, I gave him two of my brand-new number two, yellow pencils. He took them from my hand. Smiled that beaming smile. I had to ask, knowing that I wouldn't get a response, "Lester, does this make us buddies?" Without hesitation, Lester smiled that big smile and pointed to the pencils. And gave me one back so we both could have a brand-new, number two, yellow pencil. What a good guy. That Lester Fairbanks.
Later In The School Year . . .
Mr. L.J. Ballard, Gertrude's husband, who taught grades four through six and served as principal of our two-room school house, New Home, had been as patient as Job, as his wife, Gertrude had been with Lester, so he took matters to a higher level. I will not forget the day that Mr. Ballard came to Mrs. Ballard's room carrying 'his' pine lumber paddle (wonder if they came in his and her styles?) and said, "Lester, come with me. I have to talk to you. NOW!" It was to us, like the voice of God as Lester, now with fear in his face, walked slowly with Mr. Ballard to our lunch room. Mrs. Ballard knew what was about to happen. A severe boarding if Lester wouldn't comply with Mr. Ballard's demands for him to talk. Or be sent home. Neither option was a good option.
Our classroom remained silent as we overheard Mr. Ballard tell Lester, "Now listen, young man. You either start talking, or see this board, I will have to use it if you don't talk. Understand?"
Seconds became minutes ticking away like a timer on a time bomb. We held our collective breaths. And waited. For Mr. Ballard's pine board to make the first whack on little Lester's behind.
But we were relieved. For when Mr. Ballard came back into the room with Lester, shedding tears without shame, at his side, he whispered something to Mrs. Ballard. Something that caused Mrs. Ballard, and us as a class, to be changed forever.
At the first of the year, both Mr. and Mrs. Ballard had neglected to read the note inside Lester's gray jacket pocket, that his mother had sent with him to tell the Ballards that Lester was deaf. Couldn't speak. But to overlook his handicap, if possible, but allow him to be with children his own age. And learn what he could at New Home School.
Actually, there were a lot more tears shed that day besides Lester's. Even the Ballards, we were told later, cried like babies at the oversight. And we, the class of 1963, third grade, all shed tears and knew that we would never be the same. Ever.
That has stayed burned in my heart to this day. How we laughed at Lester. Teased him. Mocked him. Got angry at him for not being as athletic as we were. And the day that "I" called him names and joined in the laughing at him, well, many times I've wished that God had just taken my own life and that be that so I could face God and suffer the warranted consequences.
My family and I moved closer to Hamilton after my school year of 1963, third grade at New Home School was history.
And from 1964 through my graduation year, 1972, and throughout all my adult years, I have tried very hard to watch what I say, think, or do around those 'special' people that God allows to come in and out of our lives.
Why do I do this? For there might just be another 'Lester' around.