Joan Sobczak

THE SECRET OF FRIENDSHIP

"Miss Sanders and Mr. Dion, Iíll see you after class."

Their teacher walked between their two desks. On the way, he snatched the piece of paper that Lizzy had tried to show Jonathan when she was pretty sure he was about to be called upon to answer a question. She had almost a sixth sense for that, although she said it was a matter of watching where a teacher was looking.

After class, the two students stayed seated at their desks. Mr. Grinter stood before them, looming over them. He was self-consciously short at five foot eight, and the two eighth-graders had a close-up view of his massive girth until they looked upward.

"I will not tolerate cheating. Frankly [he loved the word frankly], I am not only disappointed in you two, but baffled. Youíre the brightest students in the class. Unless," he said, with a pause for effect, "unless only one of you is bright and the other is a coattail intellectual."

Again, there was an interlude of silence. Lizzy and Jonathan would later run toward home, yanking on the backs of each otherís jackets and laughing about Grinterís latest self-coined phrase while shouting, "Coattail intellectual! Youíre it!"

"Well?" Mr. Grinter had said. "What do you have to say for yourselves?"

Lizzy spoke up first. "We werenít cheating."

Grinter had glanced at the confiscated note and lighted on the words, "Gettysburg address. He placed it on Lizzyís desk and demanded, "Then, suppose you tell me why you were showing this answer to Mr. Dion."

"Itís not the answer. Itís the question," she replied.

Retrieving the note, Mr. Grinter saw that, sure enough, Lizzy had written only a question. Trying to save face, he stated, "I expect both of you to pay attention in class and be ready to answer questions—without prompting. You may go to lunch now."

"Two more weeks until summer vacation," Jonathan said between bites of his peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich. After lunch, and for all of those last ten school days, Mr. Grinter required them to sit as far from each other as the seating arrangement allowed—at opposite corners of the rectangle made by five desks in each of six rows. When forced to field a question during class discussions, Jonathan answered, "I donít know." Since he had Aís on all tests and homework assignments for the entire school year, a few demerits in class participation wouldnít kill his grade.

At last, summer arrived. Sitting at the picnic table in Lizzyís back yard, eating Popsiclesģ, Jonathan said, "What did the first two women who ran for U.S. president have in common, other than their gender, of course?"

"Simple," Lizzy said with a scholarly air. "They couldnít vote for themselves because women couldnít vote yet."

"Okay, too easy," Jonathan replied. "What U.S. monetary specie first had the words, ĎIn God We Trustí on it?"

The two friends often tried to stump each other. "Specie, so coin, not paper," Lizzy thought out loud. "Iíll guess penny."

Jonathan slapped his thigh and said, "Nope! Maybe Iíll give you half credit, though. It was a two-cent coin. You ready to go?"

"My turn first," Lizzy said. "There were two brothers. One saved a U.S. presidentís son from being run over by a train, and the other assassinated that same president. What was the brothersí last name?"

"Hmm, only four possibilities, but I have no clue," Jonathan admitted.

"Booth," Lizzy said victoriously.

A footpath in back of Lizzyís house led them quickly to a place in the woods that all of the neighborhood kids called "Stony Island." They no longer had to take off their shoes to get there. The water that pooled around the rock pile during the spring rains had already disappeared.

The friends both knew that in sixty-three days, Lizzy and her family would drive off in their Rambler station wagon, headed for their new home. Ninety miles would separate the friendsónot exactly the kind of distance they could cover on their bicycles.

"Maybe I should pretend Iím not smart," Lizzy said.

"How come?"

"So kids in my new school might like me."

Jonathan had bigger concerns, but he didnít say what was on his mind. What good would it do, anyway? When his parents told him not to worry, they meant well. They also had no idea how much he would miss Lizzy at school. That was one advantage of a small town: Their school only had one class at each grade level, kindergarten through eighth grade. He and Lizzy had been in every class together since kindergarten. High school students switched classrooms and teachers seven times a day. Envisioning what it would be like with a different group of students in every class all day long, Jonathan felt unmoored.

On the day her family left, Lizzy handed him a note:

My Friend

My friend and I donít have to speak
      To know whatís on each otherís mind.
We donít have to be nearby
      To feel the closeness that miles canít unwind.

My friend sees sound in what I donít:
      Musicís rhythm in backwash and wave,
Loudness in a personís hands,
      A door opening that light conveys.

My friend hears words clearly in dreams,
      When longed-for voices seem real.
Although sounds will always fade away,
      Our hearts echo the love friends feel.

           Love,

                 Lizzy

Seven weeks into the new school year, the school counselor at Greenvale High called Jonathanís parents for a conference. Midterm grades had just come out.

"Iíve spoken to Jonathanís teachers in all five of his academic subjects," Mr. Kershein told Jonathanís parents. His father wore a brown suit, white shirt, and a tie with beige, brown, and off-white stripes. His shoes were shined, as always. Jonathan wanted to be like his dad, an engineer. His mother wore one of her Sunday dresses, not a housedress, and she had wound her hair into the popular French twist. She never went out without lipstick. If she ever wore any other kinds of makeup, Jonathan couldnít tell. The lipstick was red—easy to spot.

People sometimes remarked what a handsome couple Jonathanís parents made. Jonathan thought so, too. Sometimes, his dad would come home from work, put his briefcase on the floor by the back door, and twirl his wife in a dance to a song on the radio that sat on top of the refrigerator. Watching them, as Jonathan sometimes did, it seemed as though rock Ďní roll was invented just for them. It was 1970, and they were happy.

Now, they both sat in front of Mr. Kersheinís desk, in the same kind of chairs used in classrooms, shaped like big, plastic scoops with metal legs. Mrs. Dion had her hands clasped tightly together in her lap. Her husband fidgeted with his tie clip, a plain bar with something like a snowflake engraved at one end.

Mr. Kershein continued his monologue. "Across the board, Jonathanís teachers say that he is always attentive. His homework is always complete, and he appears to be very well-read for his age, because homework references material beyond the curriculum. He continues to excel in math—algebra this year, yet his grades are no higher than a C minus all the way down to D minus in his other subjects. He repeatedly fails tests and quizzes." His mottled cheeks and clearing his throat left no doubt that Mr. Kershein felt awkward about what he had to ask. "While we certainly advocate parental involvement, there is also an expectation that the homework students turn in be their own efforts. Parents canít do their learning for them, obviously."

"Jonathan does his own homework," Mr. Dion said. His wife nodded in agreement.

"Does he ask for help?" Mr. Kershein persisted.

Although she normally deferred to her husband, Mrs. Dion answered, "Iím home when Jonathan gets home from school. He has a snack and then goes to his room to do his homework. The only time he asks for help is if he needs supplies from the store—poster board, markers, things of that nature."

They explained that the family generally ate supper together. Afterward, Jonathan insisted on finishing up any homework that was left before engaging in leisure activities.

"He and I enjoy building models together—airplanes and cars," Mr. Dion said. "He seems to have more time for that this year." Mrs. Dion said it was probably because a friend of his had moved away near the end of summer, and he hadnít made new friends yet.

"Even so, usually we find that kids start spending less time at home during high school, what with sports or music or other extra-curricular activities. I see that Jonathan is in the chess club, which meets once a week. He also spends some time in the library. Our school librarian already knows him by name and mentioned in the teachersí lounge that heís probably the only student in the history of Greenvale High to ever submit a wish list for additions to the libraryís collection."

Mr. Kershein pressed onward. "Whatís puzzling is that Jonathan was an A student. As you know, I used to teach junior high before joining the guidance department here. Jonathan was one of the quieter students—not one to raise his hand to voluntarily answer questions. So, maybe a little low in class participation, but exemplary in tests and completed assignments."

What happened? That was the unspoken question, and none of the three adults had any ideas beyond the general assumption that the transition from junior high to high school can be stressful for some students.

"Does he talk to this friend on the telephone at all?"

"We have the limited service, two calls per day. Of course, we wouldnít want to tie up the party line with unnecessary chit-chat," Mr. Dion explained. "Jonathan has never asked to use the telephone, and I donít believe that he has ever received a call." He looked at Mrs. Dion, who confirmed that Jonathan and Lizzy were not in touch with each other, except that he sent her a birthday card.

"Does he express that he misses having his friend around, even if, as you say, he doesnít seem unduly upset about the move?"

To come right out and say that he missed her wouldnít be Jonathanís style. His parents knew that the kids had gone to each otherís houses and to Stony Island, and rode their bikes together. More often than not, Mrs. Dion said, Jonathan had a book with him when he went to spend time with Lizzy. "They lent each other books all the time, and I think they even read some of the same ones from the library, taking turns checking them out."

At the conclusion of the meeting, Mr. and Mrs. Dion promised to talk with Jonathan. They would make it very clear that Cís and Dís were unacceptable. "Iím sure youíll see improvement," Mr. Dion stated in a tone of authority that the engineers who reported to him recognized well.

Driving home, the Dions expressed their mutual bewilderment. The best approach, they decided, would be a calm, but firm, discussion—no punishment, at least for now.

"Iím trying," Jonathan told them, tears welling in his eyes that were a deep gray color offset by dark eyelashes now wet with the tears that he tried to blink back. They were sitting at the kitchen table, Mr. Dion at the head, and his wife and son facing each other. The dishes had been pushed to the unoccupied end of the table.

"Youíve always tried, and until now, youíve succeeded very well," Mr. Dion responded.

"Itís different now."

"How is it different, Sweetheart," his mom asked, looking almost as ready to cry as Jonathan.

Mr. Dion advised them all to take a deep breath. This wasnít something to cry about. It was something to work out. They just had to understand the problem, and they could figure out the solution.

Jonathan knew that Lizzy often had things in her class notes that he didnít, although he had been paying attention. He had added whatever was missing to his own notes. Was it cheating to use Lizzyís notes? He didnít think so. She hadnít thought so, either. Still, Jonathan was afraid to tell his parents. His dad was what people called a "self-made man," after all.

Mr. and Mrs. Dion persisted. "You and Lizzy studied together," Mr. Dion said. In college, students have study groups all the time. Maybe you can hook up with a new study partner."

Jonathan was relieved to hear the suggestion. "Did you belong to a group?" he asked.

"This isnít about me, but, yes, I did."

"What does a whole study group do?"

"In ours, we split up the reading. Everyone did part of it and took notes. We shared out notes. Sometimes, we quizzed each other, before exams."

Reassured, Jonathan said that he and Lizzy had done that. "We shared notes from class. We both did all of the reading, though." He didnít mention that Lizzy never needed to copy anything from his notes into hers. She had gotten everything down—and it was even all very neat in her perfect penmanship. Jonathanís handwriting was messier and often not even in the lines.

Continuing in his problem-solving mode, Mr. Dion said, "Jonathan, why donít you go get whatever notebooks you have at home right now to do your homework. Letís take a look."

Reading the notes from algebra class, Mr. Dion thought they looked okay—certainly not in line for any neatness awards, but there were sample calculations, formulae, and adequate explanatory notes. It appeared that Jonathan paid attention, start to finish, at least in math. Mr. Kershein had said as much.

Next, came science. There, too, the notes appeared to be comprehensive. Jonathan had also done extensive underlining in his note-taking. "This is good, Son," Mr. Dion said. "When you underline, what are you telling yourself?"

"I need more information," Jonathan answered.

His father didnít see any additional notes in the margins and asked Jonathan where he put the new information. Jonathan answered, "I fill in the blanks. When I want to research something, I draw a line and try to fill it in later."

"All of this underlined material is information that you didnít get in class but wanted to know?"

"Right." He was afraid to say that it probably was covered in class.

"Okay. So, youíre looking up information beyond what you get in class. Thatís good, too. It shows good initiative." Mr. Dion was increasingly puzzled. Where were the Cís and Dís coming from?

Finding a half-folded test between the notebook pages, Mr. Dion asked, "You studied for this test?" His voice remained level but didnít disguise his disappointment and skepticism that Jonathan really was trying his best.

"Yes."

"So, why did you not know the answers to 24% of these questions?" His voice was louder now, although he tried to remain calm.

"They werenít in my notes."

"Jonathan, these questions are multiple choice. Why are you not learning the facts your teacher expects you to know from paying attention in class? The logical explanation," he said, without giving Jonathan a chance to answer first, "is that youíre not, in fact, paying attention."

When Jonathan didnít answer, his dad said, "From now on, write down everything. Thatíll keep you from daydreaming or whatever youíve been doing. Abbreviate if you have to in order to keep up. Then, as soon as you can, go back and write out the words you abbreviated if you think youíll forget what you meant. Thatíll be an extra review of the material. Can you do that? Itís really quite basic."

Jonathan was again looking at this father. He always tried to look at people talking to him, even when it was hard. "Yes, Dad," he said. "Abbreviating sounds good." He wasnít convinced, but at least it wasnít a lie because he only said the part about abbreviating.

Every evening for the next week, Mr. Dion looked over Jonathanís notes. He saw abbreviations, and some of them had the full words written above them. The underlining had stopped, but only because Jonathan had just left blank spaces with no underlining. His parents also got Jonathanís promise to show them every quiz and test. The first one he brought home was in science.

"Jonathan, itís hard for me to tell whatís happening, but youíre on a fast track to throwing away your hopes of even getting into college."

"We donít have a book in science."

"So, youíre expected to learn directly from the instructor. I donít see underlining, but itís obvious from this test that youíre still not writing down enough. You have to focus on what the teacher is saying. We all get bored sometimes, but that is no excuse for a C minus."

Jonathan knew that his fatherís accusation wasnít true: he wasnít bored. Mr. Dion continued, "From now on, I expect improvement. Concentrate on what youíre being told in class. You can do supplemental reading on subjects of interest during the summer—if you arenít in remedial summer classes by then."

For the next two weeks, Jonathan did not have any quizzes or exams. Then came a call from his history teacher, who explained to Mr. Dion that a test that day included two essay questions. Each one required making several points. One, for example, was to discuss why no president since George Washington has ever received a unanimous vote, using examples from history and from politics today. "We discussed eleven relevant points in class that could have been used in the essay. I required only five for full credit. Jonathanís essay included two from class, plus some original ideas. I needed to see more of the material from class. Thatís what will appear on the final exam."

Jonathanís father asked if the teacher could provide him with a list of the eleven points discussed in class if Mr. Dion stopped by the school later in the afternoon. After supper, he asked Jonathan for his test paper and history notebook.

"How could you only write down two of eleven points? You were in class, were you not?" Mr. Dion had completely given up the gentle approach. Jonathan nodded, and his father continued, "You always have more than one pen or pencil on hand for note-taking, correct?" Again his son nodded. "Were you daydreaming? Girl watching? What?"

Jonathan said simply, "The two I wrote down were main points."

"Your teacher feels that all eleven were main points."

Jonathan didnít respond, and so his father continued, "Youíre in high school now, and, apparently, most of your classmates—the ones getting Aís and Bís—manage to listen, write, and learn material required in the curriculum."

Jonathan couldnít stop the tears, and he didnít have an excuse that he thought his father would accept.

Softening his tone, his father added, "You donít seem to have a problem in math, and you take good notes there."

Jonathan wiped his eyes with the back of his hand and looked at this father. "What?"

"What do you mean, ĎWhatí?" Mr. Dion said more loudly.

"I mean, what did you say after, Ďmaterial in the curriculumí?"

At that, Jonathanís father completely lost his composure and whatever patience he had left for the topic of falling grades. "For crying out loud," he said, loudly enough for his wife to come out of the kitchen to the living room. "No wonder youíre washing out in school if you canít even keep track of one sentence from me."

Mrs. Dion put on her winter coat and went out to sit on the back porch. She pulled her coat around her, as much for the security-blanket sense of comfort as for the warmth against the late-autumn chill. Jonathan went out and sat beside her as soon as his father dismissed him.

"Iím sorry for making Dad mad. He hardly ever yells. He must be really mad at me."

His mom had turned toward him and put her hands on his knees. "When I was your age, Grandpa and Grandma got mad at me sometimes, but they didnít stay mad."

"Did you come outside, like now?"

"Yes, I did, now that you mention it. I had a tree house. Funny thing for a girl to have, but anyway, Iíd climb up there. I loved to listen to the squirrels chatter."

"Squirrels chatter?" Jonathan asked incredulously.

His mom chuckled, "Well, Mr. Merriam-Webster, what would you call it?"

"Nothing. I mean, I didnít know they made noise."

Suddenly, Mrs. Dion had an idea of what might be going on at school. "Jonathan, does your math teacher pretty much write everything on the chalkboard so you can see what heís explaining?"

"Yeah. I copy down everything. Later, I make sure I know how the numbers work."

"And in history class, are there any visual aids?" Jonathan answered that, sometimes, Mr. Katlett pointed to something on the map. He wrote on the chalkboard, but just a word or two that he tapped with a pointer or circled and then erased it all. Science, Jonathan continued, depended on the day. Lots of days were experiments.

Next, she had Jonathan close his eyes while she recited a nursery rhyme that he had liked when he was little. He opened his eyes and looked at her, confused about why she would recite baby poetry to a fourteen-year-old.

"Do you know what I said while your eyes were closed?"

"Hickory, Dickory, Dock."

Mrs. Dion was surprised, but before she said anything, Jonathan added, "I could tell by the rhythm, mostly."

"You couldnít hear the words, though?"

"A couple."

"Tell you what. Letís go inside. Iíll talk to Dad, okay?"

"ĎPlease donít tell him that I didnít hear you." Jonathan wished he had kept his mouth shut.

When Mrs. Dion went into the living room, she sat on the ottoman directly in front of her husband. "Jonathan isnít hearing what his teachers say."

"We already established that."

"No, I mean he canít hear what theyíre saying." Her next words and sobs became a barely comprehensible jumble.

When Mr. Dion finally got enough information about her rudimentary hearing test with the nursery rhyme, he responded in a measured tone. "Like my cousin. Well, from experience, the best thing is not to tell. Donít tell any gossipy friends or the relatives or especially, and I emphasize especially, anyone from his school."

"Why? Maybe thereís something they can do."

"This is still a small town, and weíre surrounded by even smaller towns. Thereís no special education here. Thereís no special school within three hundred miles of here. Unless you want to ship our son off to a boarding institution, weíll just have to make do. Thereís no cure for deafness."

"Hearing aids—why not hearing aids?"

"Oh, okay," Mr. Dion responded sarcastically. "Letís not tell. Instead, weíll have Jonathan wear two advertisements on his ears so people know heís a freak. This discussion is over."

Mr. Dion worked unnecessarily long days for the rest of the week. At supper with just Jonathan, Mrs. Dion asked how long he had had trouble hearing. "I donít know. I used to hear in school, or else it was just easy because school was little kidsí stuff back then."

"So you think maybe your hearing has gotten worse?"

"Maybe."

An appointment with the family doctor over Christmas vacation from school led to a separate appointment with an otolaryngologist—an ear, nose, and throat doctor, Mrs. Dion told her son. Sensori-neural hearing loss had a variety of causes, most commonly old age, the doctor said, but old age didnít apply to a high-school freshman. With no other factors evident, the specialist said that Jonathanís case was congenital. Some kids need glasses. It was the same type of thing, the doctor had explained.

"Should he get hearing aids?" Mrs. Dion asked.

"Thereís so little hearing left that I donít think Jonathan would get any real benefit. The left ear is better than the right, but I donít recommend a hearing aid even for that one."

"I donít understand. Jonathanís grandpa has hearing aids, and you said it was like that."

"At some point, the volume needed to hear is uncomfortable or even painful, and the sound gets distorted." The doctor paused before adding that a school for the deaf would be an option. He could learn sign language.

Jonathan interjected in a panic, "No! Iím not deaf! I wonít fit in there, either! And where is there one, anyway? My dad was right: We never shouldíve even told anyone!" He looked at the doctor and, through his tears, added, "I hate you."

When he had calmed down, the doctor asked Jonathan if his school had a speech therapist. Jonathan didnít think so, although he thought there was one in the elementary and middle school. "You might want to give a call, Mrs. Dion. A speech therapist could at least help Jonathan with lip-reading."

Turning to Jonathan, he said, "It seems to me that youíre already lip-reading. Thatís where you look at peopleís mouths when theyíre talking to see what theyíre saying." The doctor gave a demonstration, silently mouthing as an example, "Meet me at the playground." Jonathan didnít understand it at first, but when the doctor said it out loud, Jonathan heard some of the sounds and pieced it together.

Epilogue: Ten Years Later

Lizzy decided that she needed a weekend getaway and sent an invitation to Jonathan—very formal looking, actually—to invite him to a ten-year reunion of the coattail intellectuals. At the restaurant, she put a small notebook between their plates, in case lip-reading wasnít working well enough.

As they talked about their careers, Lizzy said that some of the teachers griped when they had special-needs kids mainstreamed into their classes. "My answer is usually to try being twelve years old and having an aide sitting next to you, instead of your best friend. Whatís tougher?" Then she asked Jonathan, "If you had it to do over again and your parents left it up to you, would you choose public school?"

"To me, there wasnít really a choice. I envisioned boarding school as a medieval dungeon in a place on the map that said, ĎDragons be here.í"

With more friendly prodding, Jonathan told her about a guy in the chess club who helped him manage. "He was a year ahead of us, and it turns out that he saved all of his notes. In every class that matched up, he let me borrow them for the year."

"Youíre kidding!" Lizzy laughed. "You mean there was actually a kid who didnít empty his locker right into the garbage cans in the hallway on locker-cleaning day? And he wanted the notes back?!"

"He did, and believe me, I ended up with reams of notes with mine on top of his. I personally used lots of paper because I learned to take notes without looking down much. I wrote on typing paper, since I wouldíve been off the lines anyway."

"And you got really good at lip-readingónot surprising. Was your dad disappointed that you became a librarian, instead of an engineer?"

"If he was, he never said. Even if I didnít follow in his professional footprints, at least I got into college and took his advice about study groups," Jonathan added.

Lizzy then described her own, current masterís degree studies. "Itís taking me forever part-time," she summarized.

"Forever? To get a better handle on the time-space continuum, I invite you to look at things from my perspective."

"Which is?"

Jonathan refused to elaborate but said that he would pick her up the following morning at 9:00 a.m. He still had his boyish smile—the one that appeared when he knew something that she didnít.

The next day, in a barn-cum-hangar and workshop, she said, "So, you went from model airplanes to building ultralights." They walked around the plane, and it was more a statement of the obvious than a question.

"You know about ultralights?" he responded, impressed that she knew what kind of plane it was.

"Not much, but since youíre the aviation expert, tell me this: What artifacts directly connect Orville Wright and Neil Armstrong?"

"In 1969, the first astronaut to walk on the moon carried in his spacesuit pocket a piece of the Wright Flyerís wing fabric and part of its left propeller—artifacts from the first successful powered airplane flight. Orville Wright, of course, was the pilot."

"I should have known that I couldnít get you with that one. Your turn."

"Do you want to see how to fly this thing?"

"A simple yes/no question? Too easy, but the answerís yes! And, by the way, I always knew youíd soar."

 

As a lifelong student of history, Joan Sobczak enjoys placing her fiction in the past. Her published work includes both fiction and nonfiction. The inclusion of a poem within fictional narrative, as in this story, puts her poetry into context. The "Secret of Friendship" is dedicated to her brother Dave, a person who sets goals, gets beyond setbacks, and is a continuing source of inspiration.