He was tardy to fifth grade nearly every day, often by as much a thirty minutes. Absurdly, he’d try to hang up his coat without the teacher noticing, but before he’d grab a hanger, Mrs. Hebblethwaite would rush upon him from behind, shouting and screeching, as he'd cower in the closet. I always felt her fury was out of proportion to the offense. He was hapless.
Mrs. Hebblethwaite was suffering from her own demons that year: an unmarried pregnant daughter who'd committed suicide, carbon monoxide poisoning in the garage they said. She was not on an even keel, and I’m sure that’s why she berated David unmercifully. Perhaps she thought, “God, why have you placed him here to deal with each day when you’ve denied me my own child?”
I'd never considered him autistic—that was not widely diagnosed then. Looking back years later I came to view him as someone with a sort of savant syndrome. But it’s hard to say. We were only ten and no one told us what was going on.
David was dark haired and complexioned, painfully thin, stooped, slow moving, and poorly coordinated. His vocabulary was off the charts and he knew math square roots and times table content to which the rest of us had yet to be exposed. For example, twelve times twelve equals 144. I learned that one from him.
One day Mrs. Hebblethwaite asked the class to raise their hands and state the types of items one might need for a picnic. The kids’ offerings were things like lemonade, sandwiches, and deviled eggs. David raised his hand and when called upon very slowly and affectedly said "beverages." He pronounced each syllable—bev-er-a-ges. I'd never heard one of my coevals use a word like that, let alone pronounce it like a classics professor.
His parents drove him to school, occasionally at least, in an ancient black sedan and his father wore a goatee. They dressed oddly—all in black except for his father’s white shirt. His mother would wear a long black dress. I thought his folks might have been beatniks.
No, it never occurred to me that he was on the autistic spectrum or had any kind of syndrome—of course not—but I have often wondered what could have become of a kid like him. It was hard enough for the rest of us—some more than others, certainly—but most of us, unless the war or severe health problems snatched us up, got through somehow. David, though, how could he survive in a world like this?