It wasn’t a long walk – 5.6 miles to be exact, the distance between the Riverside trolley terminal in Newton and the house in Wellesley where I grew up.
It wasn’t a bad day for a walk – but not a great day either. The afternoon sky was overcast. It felt like rain, though no rain came. A dull and hollow day, neither hot nor cold. I didn’t want to be out walking this far, but I had chosen to walk, so that was that. I knew the way, I wasn’t going to get lost or anything, and I liked walking, in general. I was good at it. Most of the time, it guaranteed that I could be alone. But this time was different. Dressed in a scratchy wool suit, a collar shirt and necktie, and pinchy dress shoes we called brown rounders, from the shape of the toe, I looked and felt uncomfortably odd and out of place. I was 11, or thereabouts.
What time of year was it? It’s hard to be sure. As I scuffed along towards home, I noticed how much sand and grit there was on the sidewalks; probably I kept kicking it up into my shoes. The front yards of the houses I passed seemed featureless, except for the drifts of dry oak leaves everywhere, with black earth showing underneath. All this makes it sound like a day in early April, though it could have been November. I do know there was nothing promising in the air, but rather a sense of emptiness and dislocation.
But what could you do? That’s what happens when your school tells your parents that there’s something very wrong with the way you’re reading.
Really, there’s a lot I don’t remember about that time, 4th or 5th grade. I must have been adrift. I did actually enjoy reading, up to a point. I liked to read certain books over and over, savoring the sentences. My favorites included science fiction, the encyclopedia, and books with plenty of photos, illustrations, and maps. But late in elementary school, I began to fall behind. I knew that I read slowly – I still do. Maybe a teacher somewhere picked up a deficit in my comprehension or something, I don’t know. The school began sending me down the hall for small-group sessions of “remedial reading.” That was OK, in a way; I liked the feeling of “remedial” on my tongue. But they pulled me out of class for it, and I knew that wasn’t a good sign. What else was wrong that they hadn’t told me about? Was I now a “slow learner”? Was I going to be put into a “special class”?
I guess I didn’t make much progress, because my parents decided to send me to Sister Nila’s. I think it must have been one of our parish priests who gave my mother this idea. Sister Nila (with a long i) presided over a battery of Franciscan nuns who did testing and tutoring in a brownstone on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston. Supposedly, if you wanted your kid to learn to read, it was Sister Nila or nothing. I’m not sure I believed it even then.
On the day of my evaluation, my mother got me dressed up in a suit and tie (because she thought that Sister Nila’s was almost like going to church) and dropped me off at Riverside, with enough cash for the trolley fare, and a dime to call home for a ride when I got back (didn’t she?), a slip of paper with Sister Nila’s address written on it, and instructions to get off at Arlington Street. It was a different time, 1961. You sent your kid on his own into the city to have his reading abilities tested by nuns you’d never met, and trusted that it all made sense.
The front door of Sister Nila’s was tall and heavy. Inside, the lighting was dim, the ceiling high, the woodwork polished and thick. Nuns in full habits went briskly about their business. I didn’t get to meet Sister Nila herself; I’m not sure anyone ever did. Instead, I was taken to a room and seated in a chair that had a little tabletop attached to it, and given multiple-choice tests. I remember staring at the test forms, gripping my #2 pencil, and plowing ahead. The test material was confusing, and seemed antiquated. One question featured a drawing of an open-sided trolley car approaching you, the viewer, on curved rails that turned away to your left as they drew near; which of the two rails would be higher? I still think about that one.
I tried to do well. I tried to forget my too-warm suit and tight collar as I read each question. But the only reason I was here was that I had problems with reading in the first place. So how good a score did I think I was going to get?
After a few hours I was headed back to Riverside, feeling very mixed up about the whole experience. I tried to understand what I had done wrong, to cause all this. Because I must have done something wrong. I tried to imagine how these well-meaning grown-ups could possibly fix the machinery inside my head that was letting everybody down. Soon, I simply began to feel numb. When we got to terminal, I chose not to step over to the phone booth and call my mother. I still don’t know why. Had I lost the dime? Had I never been given a dime? Was I carrying no cash of my own? Perhaps, now that I think of it, I didn’t want to call. Perhaps I just didn’t want to have to do that. Why risk being a nuisance? Speaking of nuisances, why have to answer, all the sooner, her questions about how the testing had gone?
In my mind I can see this slight figure in the bulky suit walking steadily alongside busy Route 9, eyes on the ground, with the dry leaves rattling and the gray sky pressing down, and while it is not tragic, there is something amiss in it. For most people, an easy, companionable ride after a long day would be a given. Who would turn away from that? Who walks those miles of lonely sidewalks instead?
Maybe I didn’t phone because, for a few unchallenged hours, I wanted to be free of it all, as free as I could be.