I am thinking about Bob Kettle.
Bob Kettle was in my Tenth Grade class at Bathurst Heights Collegiate and Vocational School. Bob Kettle was identifiably different from the rest of us. He had a man’s body in a class full of gangly adolescents – bull-necked, broad-shouldered. He may even have been starting to go bald.
Bob Kettle was different in another way as well. We didn’t have the term “learning disability” back then, but if we had, Bob Kettle would likely have fit into that category. I recall on one French exam, Bob Kettle got a grade of “Six” out of a hundred. When his exam paper was returned to him, I remember Bob Kettle grumbling, “What do I French for? I ain’t goin’ ta France.” For me, the logic of that remark had a memorable clarity. Though I may have missed the embarrassment behind it.
Bob Kettle was a loner, with no apparent friends. He was angry and unapproachable, and threatening, at least in his potential. Was he dangerous? I don’t know. This was Canada. Nobody’s really dangerous in Canada. If they’re not playing hockey.
A traditional school assignment was the “Oral Composition.” Each student would choose a topic, and prepare a three-to-five-minute speech on the subject, which they would deliver, standing up in front of the class. One of my oral compositions was entitled “The History of Radio”, another, “The Origin of Surnames.” Bold choices. I was always a risk taker.
“Oral Co0mpositions” were always an excruciating experience. We were awkward teenagers and unseasoned public speakers. Our natural difficulties were enhanced by the fact that our classmates – at least the male contingent thereof – were dedicated to the task of making us laugh, lose our concentration, perform shamefully in front of our peer group, and fail.
We got up, one after the other, and delivered our prepared orations, our turns arranged perhaps in alphabetical order, I can no longer recall. When his turn came, Bob Kettle lifted himself heavily from his desk, and rumbled to the front of the room.
“I am going to talk about submarines,” Bob Kettle announced, “and I’m gonna need somebody to hold the pictures.”
The pictures – photographs of various examples of submarines – would serve as Bob Kettle’s “visual aids.” He needed someone to help him with them, because his hands would be busy with the three-by-five cards, containing notational reminders of the speech he was about to deliver. Or perhaps the entire speech, if he’d decided to read it from the cards.
The room fell agonizingly silent. Nobody volunteered to help Bob Kettle with his pictures. Without that assistance, Bob Kettle was unable to proceed. The guy just stood there, humiliated, in front of his classmates.
Finally, somebody stepped forward, rising from their desk, and going up to join Bob.
It was me.
“What do you want me to do?” I asked.
Bob Kettle handed me a stack of numbered photographs, each of them mounted on a separate cardboard backing, and he quickly instructed me on what he needed me to do. With everything now set, Bob Kettle, standing stiffly, began his oral composition, speaking haltingly, his assistant standing dutifully by his side, holding the photographs.
As he went along, at the appropriate moments, Bob Kettle would nod, and I would move the photograph currently in front to the back of the stack, revealing the next photograph behind it. Everything went smoothly. When Bob Kettle was done, we returned wordlessly to our seats.
I don’t know why I volunteered that day. I am not, historically, that kind of person. But Bob Kettle needed help and, I don’t know, it’s like my legs stood up before the rest of me knew what was happening.
I just sensed that a guy was in trouble, and somebody needed to jump in.
This country has suffered many tragedies, though perhaps none as excruciating – even for strangers – as the recent one involving little children. By now, we all know the drill. The pundits will pontificate; the experts will weigh in. And, then, if the past in any example, the country’s attention span will be challenged, and we will move on to the next thing.
Do I have the answer? Not a generally acceptable one, no. And there’s always the issue that in a nation of more than three hundred million people, a percentage of them are going to be crazy. So maybe there is no definitive answer. I do know what the answer isn’t, because that answer has been horrendously unsuccessful in the past.
The answer isn’t…