Strolling by a river on a warm summer day can be a good way to relax and ease a troubled mind. Lord knows George Chambreau's mind needed relaxing and easing. Flunking that math test wasn't just a coincidence. After all, he did do his best not to study for it. But to do it during summer school, having to bring it home with a letter explaining his sorry performance, and, undoubtedly, asking for a conference, was too much for his guilty conscience to handle. George, or "Ham" as his friends called him, had never been in this situation before. He didn't know what to expect. He could only imagine that it wasn't going to be pleasant. Once he reached the small grove of trees that overlooked Little Cuba, he knew he had arrived at a place where he could sit and think. Little Cuba was a sand bar in the Swift River that was created every time there was a dry spell. The summer of 1957 had been exceptionally warm and dry and Little Cuba was practically a permanent fixture in the river. Ham had christened the "island" during one of his many fantasy trips taken along the Swift. You could actually walk on it if you didn't mind muddy ankles. But today, he wasn't in the mood for muddy ankles, or fantasies, or anyone's Cuba, so he rested in the pine grove, thinking about the error of his ways.
The grove was comfortable. The ground was covered with a layer of pine needles. The latest of which gave off a clean pine scent that mingled with the musty odor of the damp under layer. You could go down almost an inch before you hit dirt, which made the "floor" soft and the grove a good place to rest. An occasional Lady Slipper would pop out to greet the dimly lit recess. As slight breezes unsettled the grove's canopy, shafts of sunlight would dart through, disturbing the protection from the summer sun.
Ever since that Saturday at the ball field, a few weeks ago, Ham's life hadn't been the same. She was in her backyard playing croquet with a few of her girl friends when he saw her. She distressed him. In the flash of an instant playing first base, or baseball, or anything but her existence was no longer relevant. He hadn't felt this way since the fifth grade when he first saw Louise LaMontangue with her blonde pigtails. He was smitten. But now, somehow, at fourteen this was different. He was shy, but he wanted to be bold. He was scared, but he wanted to be brave. He felt awkward, but he wanted to be cool. He was a mess! Ham's condition had deteriorated to the point that his attention wasn't focused on the game. He saw the oversized white shirt that she was wearing, along with a pair of blue and gray striped shorts that were cut just above the knee. Her white knee socks and sneakers completed her outfit. She had short brown hair that was cut just below the ear and tied back loosely with a blue ribbon. Her hair framed a face where an occasional freckle would dare to show itself. Her eyes were dark and her smile could destroy the sourest of dispositions. Her slightly upturned nose would flare and crinkle whenever she got excited. The baseball was white, hard, on course and it struck Ham on the side of the head knocking him out.
Flashes of light and color crashed through Ham's brain and all sounds became muffled. Movements shifted into slow motion. Muscle memory caused him to react and reach for the ball that by now was headed for the outfield. He folded like last week's newspaper and hit the ground.
Quickly, Ham was surrounded by the other players who were all voicing their concerns.
"Ham, you okay?" shouted Bob Janis.
Bob had thrown the ball and he was troubled that his actions had caused such a violent conclusion. The other boys were offering all sorts of advice from not moving Ham, to getting a doctor.
While the debate went on, Ham began to stir and the first voice he heard said, "Do you think he could use some cold water?"
It was a softer voice than the others, overflowing with caring. Ham opened his eyes. At first his vision was blurred and all he could make out was a group of figures all around him, some standing, some kneeling, but one that seemed to give off a whitish glow.
"It's got ice in it," said the figure kneeling next to Ham.
His vision began to clear a bit and all he could do was stare. It was the croquet player from heaven. He accepted the frosty glass from her and started taking short sips. The water, cold and refreshing, helped him to regain some of his composure. Moses could not have produced a sweeter elixir. Soon, Ham's senses started to return, bringing with them a splitting headache compounded by total embarrassment. He wanted to crawl away and hide from his audience, but most of all he was nauseous that he had looked so foolish in front of her.
"Come on. Let's get back to the game," one of the other boys yelled.
"Yeah, he's all right," someone else said.
Slowly the game was reorganized and Ham, shaking off his discomfort, returned to his position at first base.
The rest of the game had been typical of their other Saturday pick-up affairs; high scoring with high drama and debates as to the finer "rules" of the game. It ended, as always, with the desire to all get together again next week for another round.
On the way home, Ham was in a pensive mood. As he rode his two-wheeled junk yard special, he was thinking of the girl whom he had sort of met and how he could possibly get to know her better. After a quiet supper, he headed out for Bob's house to see what he was doing. They both started talking about the events of that afternoon.
"My headache's gone now," Ham mentioned, "but it sure did hurt for a while."
"You're just lucky it hit you in the head," Bob chuckled.
"It couldn't have found a harder spot. And afterwards, to receive such tender care. Ooh la la!"
"What do you mean tender care? All I got was a drink of water", Ham protested. He was trying desperately to disguise how he really felt about this act of kindness.
"Why, I don't even know who she is."
"Well that's no problem", Bob said. "I can introduce you if you want."
"Where do you know her from?"
"We both go to the same Mass at St. Pete's and my family knows hers. I could introduce you to her when she gets home after church. She usually hangs around in her back yard with some of her friends."
"It sounds great to me. Then I would have the chance to thank her for being so nice."
"Oh brother!" Bob winced and started kidding Ham about his interest in Judy Mechonski.
"That's her name", Bob said, explaining that the reason why Ham hadn't seen Judy around was because she didn't go to the local school. Her family felt that good old PHS wasn't good enough, so they sent her to a private school in Connecticut.
"Wow, she didn't seem to be one of those snooty private school kids", Ham said.
The two boys left it at that and spent the rest of the early evening in idle chatter about sports and school. Ham talked about how he hated going to summer school to retake a freshman algebra course because he had done so poorly in it during the school year. His math teacher, Mr. Santucci, would not recommend him for further math courses unless he could bring up his grade. Without higher math, the doors to college would not open easily, so here he was a few weeks away from a final test that would certainly control his future. Bob sympathized with Ham and gave him some encouragement. Bob was one year ahead of Ham and he mentioned that there was always a period of adjustment one went through in high school and he would probably do much better next year. The boys broke it up about 7:30 P.M. and Ham headed for home.
Sleep didn't come easy. After a lingering night of what ifs and I wonder why's, the morning rescued him and put him into his Sunday ritual of breakfast, Mass and lunch. Afterwards, he headed for Bob's. From there, they left for Judy's home which was about a half mile away. When they approached the white two story colonial, located at the end of Ruggles Street, they could see two girls in the backyard and both were in animated conversation, punctuated with giggles and laughter which came to an abrupt end when the girls saw the boys coming up the walk.
"Hey Judy", Bob yelled, "I brought your patient from yesterday. He's just dying to meet you", Bob added sarcastically.
"Judy Mechonski, this is Ham Chambreau. He's been 'moony eyed' ever since yesterday. I guess that hit in the head didn't do him much good, although I can't see how it could of hurt."
Ham could feel his face turning color. It was apparent that Bob had been waiting to do his number and he wasn't about to let Ham off easy. After giving Ham a hard time, Bob also introduced Judy's friend Celia, who lived a couple houses down the street and who was a few years younger than the group.
That was their first "formal" meeting. For the next week, they got to know each other better. Judy began with inviting Ham to come over after supper to listen to records or play badminton and it got to be a regular affair. Ham took care not to get home too late since he knew he had the responsibility to stay caught up with his home work. There were a few times that he didn't quite make it in by his "half-hour after dark" curfew and he was quickly reminded, by his mother, of where he was suppose to be and what he was suppose to be doing. She didn't wholeheartedly approve of his seeing "this girl" on such a regular basis. He was also reminded of the cost of his new found friendship when he became the target of gibes and practical jokes from the guys he hung around with. I mean, after all, how many times can you string someone's bike up on the St. Anne School's flag pole, while that someone is spending time being "moony eyed", before it becomes old hat? For a week it got to be routine. See Judy. Go home. On the way, get bike down from flag pole. It became particularly embarrassing when some of the people who lived around the school began to wait for Ham to come by and retrieve his bike. Some shook their heads in wonder of the younger generation, others just got a good laugh.
The jokes ended as quickly as they started and there seem to be an unspoken acceptance to the fact that Ham had found someone who was important to him. It was as though his friends realized that the world was big enough for everyone. Or maybe it wasn't so romantic as that; maybe they had just gotten bored with the whole thing. Either way, Ham was enjoying his new found friendship. The holding hands and the closeness when they were alone. The occasional kiss that was hurried for fear that they would be discovered, but more so because they lacked experience. The gazes. The silence. The talks about nothing and yet about everything. Yes, it was unquestionably different than the feelings he had with Louise L.. Their relationship had quickly blossomed from one of newness, to a feeling that they had known each other for a long time.
With all that had been happening to him in the past week or two, Ham had left his concentration at the end of Ruggles Street. During the time he spent doing homework, he found his mind wandering and thinking of her. The way she would tilt her head while laughing at his silliness or the way she would close her eyes while they listened to quiet music or how she would come alive when a rock and roll song would play. It also showed in his class work and in what he turned in to Miss Flaherty, his summer school algebra teacher. She warned him on Wednesday that he was going to have to show his stuff on the final test this Friday in order to guarantee himself a passing grade. Miss Flaherty had helped everyone in that class this summer and it was a good feeling to finally think you got a handle on something that had given you so much trouble. She really seem to care and took time to work with those who seem to be extra hard cases. He thought about that first day in her class, when he and the other kids entered Palmer High's room 3. They were greeted by a window sill holding twelve identical white teddy bears. They each wore a blue vest with white piping and the letters PHS diagonally across the left breast pocket. Uniquely stitched on the right side was a students name. The bears were to be awarded to each particular student upon the successful completion of the class. He could see that she wasn't going to be stuffy like some other teachers that he had. It probably was because she had only been teaching for a few years and could still remember what it was like to be a kid in school. It was too bad that Ham couldn't remember what it was like to be a student. The bears became a big hit with the kids in the class and everyone looked forward to bringing home the prize at the end of the course
Friday's test came and Ham immediately knew he was in trouble. The confusion with various algebraic properties compounded itself under the pressure. He was thinking commutative and associative and inverse and he was sick. Some of the simpler problems were no trouble for him. Adding the number of items that he had left blank with the ones he knew he had guessed at, Ham became aware that he had no chance of a passing grade. Realizing he had gone as far as he could and that there wasn't much sense it prolonging the agony, he turned in his test paper and returned to his seat. Miss Flaherty glanced at his paper. Then, with a more serious look, she placed it in front of her and took out a manual that included the answer key for the exam. She poured over it a while. Wrote a few comments here and there and finished by addressing a note on white lined paper, neatly folding the entire package together and inserting it into an enveloped labeled "To the Parents of George Chambreau". As Miss Flaherty corrected each students paper, she noted the grade in her record book. After the last grade was entered, she thanked everyone for their hard work.
"You all deserve the grades you received. They're a reflection of your effort. I hope in the next school year, you continue to work as hard because hard work can reap many rewards. You are all capable of doing wonderful things and the last thing you have to do here is take your bears home as you leave. Enjoy what's left of your vacation."
As the class was leaving, she called Ham to her desk.
"It seems that you had a lot of trouble with the test Ham. Didn't you have enough time to study and prepare?"
"I guess I just didn't have it today, Miss Flaherty. I don't know what to say or what I'm going to do", Ham added nervously.
"What you're going to do is take this envelope home to your parents. Once we all get together, we can figure out what we can do about your situation. Now go home and try and have a nice weekend. I'm sure I'll be seeing you soon."
As Ham left the room, he looked back and saw a lone bear sitting on the window sill of room 3 and he couldn't have felt worse.
That's how things stood on a lazy Friday afternoon by the river where the brash calling of a crow on sentry broke the silence of the summer day. Ham had thought of "misplacing" the envelope, but knew that it would only delay the inevitable, so he had left it on the kitchen table where it would be discovered by his father when he came home from work. Normally his mom would have found the letter, after she woke up. Ham's mom was a nurse who worked on the third shift and slept days. She usually had the alarm set for 4 p.m. to give her enough time to start supper before Ham's father came home from work, but since it was Friday and she spent the morning doing the grocery shopping, she allowed herself a few more hours of sleep and Ham's dad picked up fish dinners on the way home. It was Ham's intention to have his father find Miss Flaherty's letter, since his mother tended to be a bit on the grouchy side when she got up and it would save him the added grief of confronting her himself with it. He hoped that his father would be able to somehow lighten the blow. It was evident very early in Ham's life that his mom was the final word in the house, but that his dad could, at times, mediate certain problems that would arise. It usually occurred after Ham and his two brothers had gone to bed. Sometimes Ham heard his parents discussing situations where his father would be looking for a "softer" way out, while his mother was uncompromising. Ham felt bad about leaving the letter for his dad to find, but he hoped for some sort of support in his dilemma. He left the grove quite apprehensive to what he would find when he got home.
He lived on the second floor of a two story house that his family shared with his grandparents. Climbing the stairway, he could hear the busy sounds of family getting together for the evening meal. He went into the bathroom to clean up before going to the kitchen to eat. Supper was a normal Chambreau type meal. You were there to eat and not to talk. There was some chatter, but it was kept short and sweet. Once the meal was finished, Ham was confronted with the envelope from Miss Flaherty.
"What is this George?" his father asked. "Miss Flaherty says your final test wasn't your best effort. I don't understand. You seemed to be doing okay."
"He's been spending too much time in foolishness," his mother interrupted. "Playing ball and hanging around with that 'crew'." She could never refer to them as his friends.
"And seeing that girl, well, it's ridiculous! Too much wasted time. I can't understand why you can't be more like your older brother. You never see him wasting his time on such foolishness and look how well he does in school."
"Miss Flaherty says she would like to see us tonight, if possible", his dad added.
"We've invited her over for 7:30", said his mother.
"Perhaps she can make some sense out of this silliness. You don't realize how lucky you are to have such a nice teacher, George. Sometimes I think that you don't appreciate anything."
The hour seemed to last a life time. Miss Flaherty arrived a few moment before 7:30. They all sat around the kitchen table where his fate was to be decided, or so it seemed. The discussion covered the area of Ham's work and effort and Miss Flaherty couldn't have been more complementary. She talked about how some students didn't test well and she believed that Ham was like that. She made the offer to give him another test on Monday morning, at school, but made it clear that it wasn't the usual thing that was done. She was making the offer because she felt he was worth a second chance. She also made the suggestion that maybe he could spend some time brushing up on a few things over the weekend, but not to do any heavy cramming. She felt he already had the tools to do the job. She gave him a few worksheets to help him out and made the further suggestion that he get a study partner; perhaps someone who didn't go to school with him. It would probably help him to concentrate on the task at hand and give him a different perspective on things.
After an hour or so, the meeting broke up and Ham walked his teacher to her car. He thanked her for giving him another chance.
"Your thanks to me will be when you pass that test. By the way, you might try and see if Judy Mechonski could help you this weekend. I know she's a math whiz and I understand that you know her."
He was stunned. He couldn't imagine how Miss Flaherty knew about Judy. What they said about a small town must be true.
"I'll try", Ham stammered. "But I don't know how good an idea that is."
"Ham, if you're going to start seeing a girl on a regular basis and have feelings about her, you should also start learning how to control your feelings. The two of you could be good for each other. I think you will be able to learn more about each other by using this situation and working together."
It was an idea that would have never crossed Ham's mind, but one he felt was worth trying. After his teacher left, he proposed the idea to his parents, but not quite the same way Miss Flaherty had done to him. He stressed the fact that Judy had a good math aptitude, that she went to a private school and that his teacher had suggested it. They accepted the idea with some reservations. As long as the work was done here at Ham's, during the daytime, and there was no socializing in the evenings afterwards. Now all that was left was to call Judy to see if she would help him out.
Ham had a restless night filled with strange dreams. In one he was flying in an out of body situation over a large forest, searching for a lost white teddy bear. At times, the bear would be visible in the woods and then disappear when he would close in on it. Then a huge bear with a propeller on his head would fly by and then quickly soar away.
Morning came and Ham quickly took care of breakfast and his chores. Then he called Judy and explained his predicament. He became ecstatic when she agreed to help him today and Sunday afternoon. She arrived about 1 P.M., and they set up a work place outside near his grandfather's garden. They pulled up a couple of old wooden chairs that his grandfather had made and used a chopping block for a table. This is where they worked for the next two afternoons. Working closely with someone you cared about was a new experience for Ham. She was really helpful in showing him how she handled certain problems and she was constantly giving his confidence a boost. She loved Miss Flaherty's idea about the teddy bears and wished that they did things like that at Our Lady of the Angels Academy. They were into a more old fashioned "basic" education. On Sunday, when they finished the last worksheet and review, she felt that he could pass the test without any problems.
"You know your stuff Ham. You should do okay."
"It's been great working with you Judy. You have such a great way of explaining things. It makes this stuff almost seem like fun. It's too bad that you don't go to PHS."
"Well, you can forget about that. My folks wouldn't ever think of sending me to a public school. It's really the pits because all the kids I grew up with are there and now the only time I get to see them is in the summer. But enough of that, you've got a test to pass tomorrow and I know you'll do great."
As she left she winked and said, "Just keep your eye on the ball!"
Monday morning rolled in like a freight train. All of Ham's senses were on red alert. He strongly felt that the time spent this weekend was a good investment. He couldn't remember ever having felt this confident. With breakfast under his belt, he headed out for the school. He had a five mile bike ride ahead of him, because the summer school buses were no longer running. Once inside the building, a strange feeling came over him. It seemed odd to be in here without all the hustle and bustle caused by other students going through their routines. He bumped into Mr. Cahill, the janitor, who nodded in recognition. He listened to the echo of his own footsteps as he walked down the hall to room 3. Miss Flaherty was already there doing some last minute straightening out before leaving the classroom for the rest of the summer, and on the window sill sat a solitary teddy bear, not only a symbol of Ham's frustration, but also a target of his determination.
"Good morning Ham," she said cheerfully. "I hope you're here ready to work. How did your weekend go?"
Ham smiled while keeping his eyes on his namesake bear, "it was great! We worked very hard and I'm sure ready to give it my best try."
"We?", Miss Flaherty asked.
"Judy and me. We studied on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. She really helped me out a lot. It's hard for me to explain, but I feel different about things."
"Really? Well let's see how you feel about this test."
She handed him a five page test that contained fifty problems. He knew the drill. Ninety minutes to complete and no leaving the room once you've started. He sat down, collected himself and then he began.
Slowly and carefully he plodded through the exam, attacking the items that he considered the easiest as he scanned the document. Once he finished the problems that he felt sure of, he returned to the ones that would require more thought. He found himself setting priorities to his work. The minutes ticked by. He didn't allow himself to get bogged down on any one problem that might cost him lost time. When the timer went off, he was in the middle of problem number forty-nine. A word problem dealing with two unknowns. Although he couldn't finish it, he had a sense of accomplishment as he turned in his paper. He had given it his best shot.
It was a lonely feeling to be the only student in the classroom waiting for his paper to be graded. His mind was racing through the events of his recent past. The thoughts of his new found friendship with Judy, his problems with school, a profound longing to be understood at home and the quest for his bear were all passing through his mind at light speed. The thought of being the only kid in the class not to earn his bear was hard to handle. He wanted to pass the test, for Miss Flaherty, who was so understanding, for Judy, who had helped him out, for the bear, of course, but most of all, for himself. He had to know that he could do it and that he was worth everyone's concern.
"Ham, you passed!" The words screamed through his brain. Even though he had expected it because of all the hard work he had put into studying, the confirmation underscored his joy and elation. He was presented with his well earned bear.
"Ham", Miss Flaherty said, "You and this bear have been separated long enough. I hope you accept him as a reward of hard work and a sign of being able to 'bear-up' under difficult situations and having the ability to handle any problem, with help if you need it."
He was speechless. He could only thank her over and over again. When he left the school, he was on cloud nine and his junk yard special was a jet.
He arrived at home just before lunch time. His mother was just finishing the wash and hanging the last load on the line to dry. Sundays and Mondays were her "days off" and Monday was her busiest as she tried to stay caught up with all her housework. Taking care of a family of five plus her aging parents was not an easy job. Proud as a peacock, Ham marched up to his mother holding his bear out of sight. Unable to contain himself any longer, he declared his success, displaying his trophy of accomplishment.
"You could have saved yourself a lot of trouble by doing it the first time," his mother preached, "but I'm glad that you finally passed."
"I know," he replied. "I guess some things are harder to learn than others."
"That's true," his mother said, as she turned away and continued to hang the wash on the lines.
Ham quickly headed out the yard and down the street to Judy's house. Once he got there, he saw her sitting on the front porch listening to the radio. It immediately became clear to him what he wanted to do. He approached the porch happily waving. Returning his smiles and greetings she asked, "Did you keep your eye on the ball?"
"Better than that," he replied. "I kept my eye on the bear!", triumphantly displaying it over his head. They gave each other a quick congratulatory hug.
"Judy, I don't think I could have done this without your help," Ham said.
"Come on Ham, don't sell yourself short. You've got to stop being so negative."
"That's probably true," he said, "but it's not that easy. It could be easier though, with you. I hope you know that I really care for you a lot."
"I know," she said. "I feel the same way about you. You're a lot of fun to be with."
Ham could feel his face reddening. "And I think the way you helped out for this test was wonderful, that's why I want you to have the bear as my gift to you for being so kind to me and because I like you so much."
Judy was shocked. "I couldn't," she protested. "You wanted that bear so badly."
"And I got him," he said. "Now I want you to have him. He can be our bear. You deserve him too."
There was a second hug. This one lasting longer than the first, as an unspoken feeling of understanding passed between them.
That Fall, when everyone was returning to school and re-introducing themselves to old friends with new stories to tell, Ham entered his sophomore year with a new outlook on life. A white teddy bear named "Ham" spent the first of several semesters at a private school in Connecticut.