Oh, the wind, the wind is blowing,
through the graves the wind is blowing,
freedom soon will come;
then we’ll come from the shadows.
—Leonard Cohen, “The Partisan”
My parents and I went to Paris in June. The original plan was that we would return to New York in July, since I was supposed to go to rock-and-roll camp with Henry and Miles. But after everything that happened, I didn’t want to do that anymore. My parents decided to let me stay with my grandmother for the rest of the summer.
Usually, I hated staying with Grandmère, but I was okay about it this time. I knew that after my parents went home, I could spend the entire day in my PJs playing
, and Grandmère wouldn’t care in the least. I could pretty much do whatever I wanted.
Grandmère wasn’t exactly the typical “grandma” type. No baking cookies for Grandmère. No knitting sweaters. She was, as Dad always said, something of a “character.” Even though she was in her eighties, she dressed like a fashion model. Super glamorous. Lots of makeup and perfume. High heels. She never woke up until two in the afternoon, and then she’d take at least two hours to get dressed. Once she was up, she would take me out shopping or to a museum or a fancy restaurant. She wasn’t into doing kid stuff, if you know what I mean. She’d never sit through a PG movie with me, for instance, so I ended up seeing a lot of movies that were totally age-inappropriate. Mom, I knew, would go completely ballistic if she got wind of some of the movies Grandmère took me to see. But Grandmère was French, and was always saying my parents were too “American” anyway.
Grandmère also didn’t talk to me like I was a little kid. Even
when I was younger, she never used baby words or talked to me the way grown-ups usually talk to little kids. She used regular words to describe everything. Like, if I would say,
“Je veux faire pipi,”
meaning “I want to make pee-pee,” she would say, “You need to urinate? Go to the lavatory.”
And she cursed sometimes, too. Boy, she could curse! And if I didn’t know what a curse word meant, all I had to do was ask her and she would explain it to me—in detail. I can’t even tell you some of the words she explained to me!
Anyway, I was glad to be away from NYC for the whole summer. I was hoping that I would get all those kids out of my head. Auggie. Jack. Summer. Henry. Miles. All of them. If I never saw any of those kids again, seriously, I would be the happiest kid in Paris.
The only thing I was a little bummed about is that I never got to say goodbye to any of my teachers at Beecher Prep. I really liked some of them. Mr. Browne, my English teacher, was probably my favorite teacher of all time. He had always been really nice to me. I loved writing, and he was really complimentary about it. And I never got to tell him I wasn’t coming back to Beecher Prep.
At the beginning of the year, Mr. Browne had told all of us that he wanted us to send him one of our own precepts over the summer. So, one afternoon, while Grandmère was sleeping, I started thinking about sending him a precept from Paris. I went to one of the tourist shops down the block and bought a postcard of a gargoyle, one of those at the top of Notre-Dame. The first thing I thought when I saw it was that it reminded me of Auggie. And then I thought,
Ugh! Why am I still thinking about him? Why do I still see his face wherever I go? I can’t wait to start over!
And that’s when it hit me: my precept. I wrote it down really quickly.
Sometimes it’s good to start over
There. Perfect. I loved it. I got Mr. Browne’s address from his teacher page on the Beecher Prep website, and dropped it in the mail that same day.
But then, after I sent it, I realized he wasn’t going to understand what it meant. Not really. He didn’t have the whole background story about why I was so happy to be leaving Beecher Prep and starting over somewhere new. So, I decided to write
him an email to tell him everything that had happened last year. I mean, not
. Dad had specifically told me not to ever tell anyone at the school about the mean stuff I did to Auggie—for legal reasons. But I wanted Mr. Browne to know enough so that he would understand my precept. I also wanted him to know that I thought he was a great teacher. Mom had told everyone that I wasn’t going back to Beecher Prep because we were unhappy with the academics—and the teachers. I felt kind of bad about that because I didn’t want Mr. Browne to ever think I was unhappy with him.
So, anyway, I decided to send Mr. Browne an email.
Re: My precept
Hi, Mr. Browne! I just sent you my precept in the mail: “Sometimes it’s good to start over.” It’s on a postcard of a gargoyle. I wrote this precept because I’m going to a new school in September. I ended up hating Beecher Prep. I didn’t like the students. But I DID like the teachers. I thought your class was great. So don’t take my not going back personally.
I don’t know if you know the whole long story, but basically the reason I’m not going back to Beecher Prep is … well, not to name names, but there was one student I really didn’t get along with. Actually, it was two students. (You can probably guess who they are because one of them punched me in the mouth.) Anyway, these kids were not my favorite people in the world. We started writing mean notes to each other. I repeat:
other. It was a 2-way street! But I’m the one who got in trouble for it! Just me! It was so unfair! The truth is, Mr. Tushman had it in for me because my mom was trying to get him fired. Anyway, long story short: I got suspended for two
weeks for writing the notes! (No one knows this, though. It’s a secret so please don’t tell anyone.) The school said it had a “zero tolerance” policy against bullying. But I don’t think what I did was bullying! My parents got so mad at the school! They decided to enroll me in a different school next year. So, yeah, that’s the story.
I really wish that that “student” had never come to Beecher Prep! My whole year would have been so much better! I hated having to be in his classes. He gave me nightmares. I would still be going to Beecher Prep if he hadn’t been there. It’s a bummer.
I really liked your class, though. You were a great teacher. I wanted you to know that.
I thought it was good that I hadn’t named “names.” But I figured he’d know who I was talking about. I really didn’t expect to hear back from him, but the very next day, when I checked my in-box, there was an email from Mr. Browne. I was so excited!
Re: re: My precept
Hi, Julian. Thanks so much for your email! I’m looking forward to getting the gargoyle postcard. I was sorry to hear you wouldn’t be coming back to Beecher Prep. I always thought you were a great student and a gifted writer.
By the way, I love your precept. I agree, sometimes it’s good to start over. A fresh start gives us the chance to reflect on the past, weigh the things we’ve done, and apply what we’ve learned from those things to the future. If we don’t examine the past, we don’t learn from it.
As for the “kids” you didn’t like, I do think I know who you’re
talking about. I’m sorry the year didn’t turn out to be a happy one for you, but I hope you take a little time to ask yourself why. Things that happen to us, even the bad stuff, can often teach us a little bit about ourselves. Do you ever wonder why you had such a hard time with these two students? Was it, perhaps, their friendship that bothered you? Were you troubled by Auggie’s physical appearance? You mentioned that you started having nightmares. Did you ever consider that maybe you were just a little afraid of Auggie, Julian? Sometimes fear can make even the nicest kids say and do things they wouldn’t ordinarily say or do. Perhaps you should explore these feelings further?
In any case, I wish you the best of luck in your new school, Julian. You’re a good kid. A natural leader. Just remember to use your leadership for good, huh? Don’t forget: always choose kind!
I don’t know why, but I was so, so,
happy to get that email from Mr. Browne! I knew he would be understanding! I was so tired of everyone thinking I was this demon-child, you know? It was obvious that Mr. Browne knew I wasn’t. I reread his email like, ten times. I was smiling from ear to ear.
“So?” Grandmère asked me. She had just woken up and was having her breakfast: a croissant and
café au lait
delivered from downstairs. “I haven’t seen you this happy all summer long. What is it that you are reading,
“Oh, I got an email from one of my teachers,” I answered. “Mr. Browne.”
“From your old school?” she asked. “I thought they were all bad, those teachers. I thought it was ‘good riddance’ to all of them!” Grandmère had a thick French accent that was hard to understand sometimes.
“Good riddance!” she repeated. “Never mind. I thought the teachers were all stupid.” The way she pronounced “stupid” was funny: like stew-peed!
“Not all. Not Mr. Browne,” I answered.
“So, what did he write to make you so happy?”
“Oh, nothing much,” I said. “It’s just … I thought everyone hated me, but now I know Mr. Browne doesn’t.”
Grandmère looked at me.
“Why would everyone hate you, Julian?” she asked. “You are such a good boy.”
“I don’t know,” I answered.
“Read me the email,” she said.
“No, Grandmère …,” I started to say.
“Read,” she commanded, pointing her finger at the screen.
So I read Mr. Browne’s letter aloud to her. Now, Grandmère knew a little bit about what had happened at Beecher Prep, but I don’t think she knew the whole story. I mean, I think Mom and Dad told her the version of the story they told everyone else, with maybe a few more details. Grandmère knew there were a couple of kids who had made my life miserable, for instance, but she didn’t know the specifics. She knew I’d gotten punched in the mouth, but she didn’t know why. If anything, Grandmère probably assumed I had gotten bullied, and that’s why I was leaving the school.
So, there were parts of Mr. Browne’s email she really didn’t understand.
“What does he mean,” she said, squinting as she tried to read off my screen. “Auggie’s ‘physical appearance’?
Qu’est-ce que c’est?
“One of the kids that I didn’t like, Auggie, he had like this awful … facial deformity,” I answered. “It was really bad. He looked like a gargoyle!”
“Julian!” she said. “That is not very nice.”
“And this boy, he was not
?” she asked innocently. “He was not nice to you? Was he a bully?”
I thought about that. “No, he wasn’t a bully.”
“So, why did you not like him?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. He just got on my nerves.”
“What do you mean, you don’t know?” she answered quickly. “Your parents told me you were leaving school because of some bullies, no? You got punched in the face? No?”
“Well, yeah, I got punched, but not by the deformed kid. By his friend.”
“Ah! So his friend was the bully!”
“No, not exactly,” I said. “I can’t say they were bullies, Grandmère. I mean, it wasn’t like that. We just didn’t get along, that’s all. We hated each other. It’s kind of hard to explain, you kind of had to be there. Here, let me show you what he looked like. Then maybe you’ll understand a little better. I mean, not to sound mean, but it was really hard having to look at him every day. He gave me nightmares.”
I logged on to Facebook and found our class picture, and zoomed in on Auggie’s face so she could see. She put her glasses on to look at it and spent a long time studying his face on the computer screen. I thought she would react the way Mom had reacted when she first saw that picture of Auggie, but she didn’t. She just nodded to herself. And then she closed the laptop.
“Pretty bad, huh?” I said to her.
She looked at me.
“Julian,” she said. “I think maybe your teacher is right. I think you were afraid of this boy.”
“What? No way!” I answered. “I’m not afraid of Auggie! I mean, I didn’t like him—in fact, I kind of hated him—but not because I was afraid of him.”