I suppose by the tenth grade most kids have had a bully or two. Joey was mine, and a most unusual bully. He was never violent or even especially cruel. But he seemed to have this huge grudge against me. It was there in his sneer whenever he saw me. His unwillingness to make room in the cafeteria for my tray, and let's not even go into his unflattering locker room comments.
I had no idea why. We both came from similar backgrounds, sons of factory workers. Both having primarily eastern European ancestries. Our fathers both got along very well, playing on the same bowling team. Our mothers often played bingo together -- before the diocese ordered that activity stopped -- a tragedy in my mother's eyes. And his grudge was a recent thing. We had known each other since Kindergarten and were friends back then.
One day I decided to confront him, choosing a time when there would be plenty of teachers nearby, as Joey would probably have beaten me in a fight -- very badly.
"Look," I said, already fearful of retaliation, "what's your problem with me?"
Instead of anger, he shook his head. "Seventh grade," he said, embarrassment in his voice. "You had to show off by reading that passage of Shakespeare in class. As for me, I open a book, see these letters forming words. But I can't fit them together to make any sense."
"There are some tough books assigned," I replied. "Dickens is giving me a hell of a time."
"Dick and Jane gave me problems. I'm a tenth grader struggling to read at a first grade level."
"How did you pass..?" I began to say, his chuckle all the answer I needed. Teachers in "soft" classes like English and history never viewed failure as an option. "Do you have any easy books at home?"
"There's a box up in the attic with all my first grade stuff."
"Good," I said. "Pick out one book and read it over and over. It will start to make sense."
Christmas break and I didn't see Joey for a couple weeks. When I did, he had a smile on his face.
"That Sam guy," he said, "was afraid of trying different foods but when he did, he found he liked them."
I was impressed by Joey's increased reading skills. This increased over the following weeks where it seemed that each week, his reading advanced a grade level. Every week he'd be carrying a different book he'd checked out from the school library. By spring break, he'd completed the Lord of the Rings.
As the school year was winding down, I became curious about his dramatic increase in reading ability. Now, in early May, he was tackling books I'd been afraid to even attempt such as James Joyce's excessive "Wake." One afternoon, walking home, I decided to ask him what caused the change. He smiled. "Promise to keep a secret?" he asked.
"Okay," I replied.
We went up to his room. He picked something off his desk. A thick rubber squeeze-toy shaped like a pig dressed in the fashion of an eighteenth century university student -- mortarboard, tails, and all.
"My grandmother gave me this when I started the first grade," he said. "All that year, I had no problem with reading. Then the year ended and my parents stowed away all my first grade stuff -- Piggy included. Can't explain it, but second grade was a nightmare. Words no longer formed thoughts. Paragraphs were just random jumbles of words."
"And when I suggested you dig out your first grade books..."
"I found him! After all these years everything made sense again. I started taking him with me to all my classes and doing fine ... well ... except a few weeks ago when I misplaced him. Got a little panicky for a couple hours until I found him again."
I examined the toy pig and noticed the loop his tail formed. "You could hook up some kind of chain there," I said, pointing to the tail.
"Like a lanyard," Joey replied, his vocabulary surprising me.
The end of the school year is one I'd rather forget. Cindy, a trim blonde with a low, cool voice and soft hints of a southern accent that made me weak in the knees, dashed my romantic aspirations with admittedly well-deserved vehemence. She'd already beaten me at arm wrestling, so I probably got off lucky. That was a recurring pattern with me -- one crushed dream after another. Joey, on the other hand, had no problem with women. He had his first girlfriend in the third grade and he was now engaged to Barbara, the school's prom queen -- and everything one might expect a prom queen to be -- who was able to overlook being two years and grades older. Joey had skills that had eluded me.
I had female friends in kindergarten and the first grade -- before I realized boys and girls have significant differences. From there it was a pattern of repeated disasters. I'd either hide my interest with passive aggressive coyness or blurt everything out in a clumsy, messy manner. Cindy managed to bring out both. It took way too long for me to admit my interest in her and when I did, it all came out in a melodramatic fashion as if I was reacting to a possibly unnecessary rejection. She would later playfully tease me for my ardor, a hint I was unable to see. A hint Joey would have seen -- and acted upon with good results.
I suddenly realized I needed a Piggy of my own.