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A Boy I Once Knew:
What a Teacher Learned
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill,
Early one morning in March 1995, a postman delivered a large, mysterious carton to teacher Elizabeth Stone’s Montclair, N.J. , home. Postmarked San Francisco, it contained 15 diaries written by Vincent, a student in Stone’s ninth-grade English class 25 years earlier. In an enclosed, typed letter, Vincent expressed the hope that perhaps a book could be made from the thoughts and experiences recorded in his journals. Appended to the letter was a brief, handwritten note, signed Carol, announcing that Vincent was dead and had never shown the diaries to anyone else. Skimming the pages of the final volumes, Stone confirmed her suspicion that 40-year-old Vincent had succumbed to AIDS.
Vincent—Stone does not disclose his last name—had been 14 the last time she’d seen him. At 22, she was a novice teacher at New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst section. Vincent attracted her attention during a class discussion of the classic O. Henry story “The Gift of the Magi,” a sentimental tale of selfless generosity that strangely infuriated him.
…Vincent shot his hand up into the air. Then without waiting for me to call on him, he announced that he hated the ending, just hated it.
“How could anyone write something so stupid?” he said, his eyes flashing indignantly. “They spent all that money on presents that turned out to be useless, and they probably can’t even exchange them.”…
Vincent’s intensity brought the class to life that day and made me look closely at him for the first time. When the bell rang, he came up to my desk to rail about the ending of this “stupid story” at greater length. He stayed so long that he had to rush to his next class.
Although Vincent missed O. Henry’s point—that a gift’s essential value is the love it represents—his scrappiness appealed to the fledgling teacher, and, over the course of the term, the two became “pretty chatty,” walking together to the subway after school. But at the end of the academic year, Stone decided to leave New Utrecht for graduate school. Her last encounter with Vincent was several months later, when he and a friend made an unannounced visit to her Greenwich Village apartment. For the next quarter-century, their relationship was limited to a few letters and the annual exchange of Christmas cards. “Now he was dead of AIDS,” Stone writes, “and ten years’ worth of his diaries were sitting in a box on my living room floor.”
Reading Vincent’s 3,500-page diaries chronologically, Stone, now a teacher of writing and literature at New York’s Fordham University, gained access to a complex, often contradictory individual. He was deeply devoted to his three sisters and an assortment of friends, generously showering them with meticulously chosen gifts—gestures that perhaps explain his youthful outrage at O. Henry’s story. He had an insatiable appetite for travel, compulsively visiting other countries to absorb their cultures. But he was emotionally frozen, unable to commit himself to a lasting relationship. (“He was frightened of getting close to anyone, of being known, of accepting tenderness.”) Instead, he narcissistically and promiscuously cruised bars, restricting his choices to establishments where he wasn’t intimidated by the competition. After being diagnosed as HIV-positive and contracting Kaposi’s sarcoma, he continued to indulge in bathhouse sex, where dim lighting concealed his lesions, without making the decent person’s disclosure: “In principle, Vincent believed his partners were entitled to know he was HIV positive, but he often stalled in the telling. The Ecstasy or acid he often took before his forays did not enhance his candor.”
During the year in which she assimilated Vincent’s day-by-day existence—including his elaborate dreams, which he had dutifully recorded—Vincent became an obsessive presence in Stone’s life, to the occasional consternation of her husband and two sons. At one point, she “borrowed” a dollar bill pressed into one of the diaries in order to pay a pizza delivery man, then replaced it the next afternoon. At another, she had a dream in which she and Vincent were stuck in an elevator, only to discover, in the course of reading a diary entry the next morning, that Vincent had once had a similar dream.
Vincent had had difficulty dealing with death. When Ronny, the first of his close friends to contract AIDS, became critically ill in 1986, he often found excuses not to visit him, unable to confront the emotions that result in grief. But in 1993, when Vincent himself became too sick to continue his job as an insurance underwriter, he grew more vulnerable and responsive to the anguish of others. As another friend, Eddy, approached death, Vincent uncharacteristically rose to the occasion, paying frequent trips to Eddy’s hospital bedside at the risk of his own rapidly declining health.
“I was impressed with him now,” Stone writes:
Just as his life was closing down, he was opening up, letting life in, becoming porous in a way he had resisted so long, maybe for his entire life. When Ronny died, Vincent had gone drunk and numb. That I understood. But this time around, he was different. He had admitted loss. He had achieved misery.
In a series of autobiographical reflections interwoven with Vincent’s story, Stone contemplates her own problems in dealing with deaths, notably those of her maternal grandmother—”whom I loved unambivalently”—and her alcoholic father—”whom I didn’t.” She admits, with frustration, her inability to resuscitate their memories:
When they died, I not only lost them, but it seemed to me I lost most of my own feelings for them….When I dreamt of my dead, they were flat and vacant, a reflection of me, the dreamer. They walked or talked, sat or stood, but whatever had made them who they were to me was bleached out.
This incapacity led Stone to anxiety about her mother, a former actress, afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease. “Soon my mother as I’d known her would be gone altogether…If I didn’t figure out a way to remember who she’d been all of these years of my life, I’d lose her altogether and some of myself as well.”
Vincent’s example helped Stone to come to terms with her own grief. “I had to learn what Vincent had apparently learned, maybe even learn it from him, if I was ever going to be able to properly remember my grandmother, or…my father…or to keep a genuine sense of my lifelong relationship to my mother…” A Boy I Once Knew chronicles Stone’s education, its account of Vince’s diaries supplemented by the author’s recollections of the fates of other relatives and friends, and contemplative extracts from the writings of Tennyson, Proust, Welty, Paz, and others. Even a brief encounter with the late Gilda Radner, whom Stone interviewed for a journalistic assignment, yields an insight into Stone’s unresolved relationship with her father.
Stone subtly compresses a broad assortment of narrative and philosophical elements into a concise, sophisticated structure. Her style is elegantly direct, eschewing ostentatiously literary language for metaphors that are refreshingly concrete. She describes her grandmother’s lipsticky funeral parlor corpse as “an alien colorized vision.” As her identification with Vincent intensified, she observes, “My feelings were coming in, not the way momentarily delayed pain comes to a hammered finger, which is what I had expected, but more the way color comes into a tomato.”
The book’s sole flaw is Stone’s excessively didactic afterward, in which she recapitulates the themes of her book, recycling language from the previous chapters. I suspect this misstep has its roots in Stone’s long career as a pedagogue. In the classroom, one needs to make sure that students, especially those with vacant eyes, comprehend one’s meanings. Perhaps Stone lacked confidence that she had expressed herself clearly and felt compelled to append a gratuitous summary, but she should have resisted this last-minute bout of insecurity. No sympathetic reader could fail to be edified or moved by her gift of immortality to a man whose life would otherwise have been forgotten, transforming his suffering into a heartfelt meditation on loss and remembering. CP