How Do You Solve a Problem like Bob?

I’ve already started seeing “back to school” ads and that got me reminiscing about some of my earliest school-related memories, and about a kid named, “Bob,” in particular.

One of my grammar school classmates was the kind of kid that nuns would talk about amongst themselves over their communal dinner each night. “What mischief did Robert get into today, Sister?” I imagine the other nuns asking the one in whose class he was that year.

Bob, he was “Bob” to us but “Robert” to the nuns, was always in trouble. He didn’t intend to be in trouble. He wasn’t malicious, mean or calculating. He just “couldn’t color between the lines” – literally and figuratively. If our art assignment was to draw our parents, he drew dinosaurs. If we were supposed to write a paragraph, he wrote 3 pages.

I think just looking at him set off the nuns. He was the kind of kid whose shirt would become untucked while his parents were still lacing up his shoes. The kind of kid who whose pens were guaranteed to bleed a bright blue smear in his shirt and pants pockets. The kind of kid who should have been nicknamed “Pigpen” after the Charlie Brown character, but was saddled with “Coop” instead.

He was hard to miss because he towered over most of us, and he was big boned enough to almost be called fat. When he talked, he talked with volume and his arms became entities of their own, swirling and waving around to emphasize his point. We learned not to stand too close when he was excited about a topic.

Bob was a smart kid. You could see because of the way he questioned the nuns about what they were teaching. It wasn’t a “screw you” kind of challenge. They were legitimately interesting questions that none of us had thought about. “Yeah, why didn’t Jesus do X instead of Y?” These lines of questions never went over well. And they inevitably spiraled into the same painful scenario.

“But Sister—”

“Quiet, Robert, I’ve already explained why.”

“Okay, but I want to — “

“Stop talking, Robert.”

“Just, can I  — “

“Not one more word, mister.”

“Okay, but — “

He couldn’t shut up. He just couldn’t suppress his need to get his question or point across. The rest of us sat in our chairs willing him to silence. “Shut up, Bob! Just stop! Please, please, just don’t say anything! You’re gonna get slapped.” And then he’d get slapped. Or sent to the principal’s office. He sometimes didn’t come back to school that day.

Some of my earliest kindergarten memories center on Bob. The doors that led to the boys’ and girls’ bathrooms were along the front of the kindergarten classroom, just past the teacher’s desk, which meant it was obvious when someone went to the restroom. Watching which kids asked to be excused during class always held our attention because one of the things we kindergartners were being taught was better self-restraint and time management of bathroom needs.

One day, while we were all busy with our art projects, Bob asked our teacher if he could use the bathroom. Naturally, many of us watched him leave. Bob returned a while later, walking past the teacher’s desk and toward his chair as if nothing were amiss.

The nun stopped him right in his tracks. “Robert, WHERE is your shirt?”

Even as kindergartners we were required to wear a school uniform. Boys wore grey slacks and a white dress shirt – tie not required until first grade. Bob had come out of the bathroom wearing only his grey slacks and his t-shirt. His white shirt was gone.

He turned to the teacher and explained in a matter-of-fact tone, “There was no toilet paper so I had to use my shirt.”

Pandemonium broke out. Screaming and wailing, sounds of disgust. And a smattering of laughter, probably all of it from boys. This was the first time I saw a nun explode. I’d heard about it from my older brothers, but seeing it first hand was so much different.

“Show me,” she demanded, pointing at the boys’ bathroom.

She marched him into the bathroom, glancing back at the class, daring the rest of us to make a peep. She needn’t have bothered. We’d all moved into expectant silence, waiting on the outcome of their visit. They returned moments later, Bob’s cheek very red. She made him stand next to her desk while she picked up the phone and called the principal. Shortly, another nun arrived and escorted Bob from the room. He didn’t come back to school that day.

A memory of Bob from first grade involves those square fluorescent orange cheese crackers that are stuffed with either some cheese equivalent or peanut butter. Bob’s mom had given him a whole dollar to buy lunch. This was the late sixties, and a hamburger cost twenty cents. A carton of milk was a nickel. Bob spent the entire dollar on packets of on cheese-filled crackers. Twenty packets of six crackers each.

cheesecrackersI didn’t see him pull off this purchase, but I was sitting a few seats away when a nun burst into the courtyard where we ate lunch and bellowed from across the yard, “Robert! WHAT are you eating?” I guess the cafeteria worker had reported him, even if she hadn’t stopped him from buying all those crackers. As the nun took long, fast strides across the yard Bob started ripping open the next package and trying to stuff a few crackers into his mouth. He’d already eaten three of the packets and he was trying for four. She made him spit out what he was trying to choke down, gather up the remaining packets, and then follow her out of the courtyard. He didn’t come back to school that day.

Bob was entertaining and interesting, and he stayed that way through grammar school. He was an early reader of “real” books (ones without any pictures at all), he knew about fantasy and science fiction, and would tell me which TV shows I should be watching or why a particular episode of Lost in Space was important. Although he would sometimes join my friends and me at recess or lunch, he wasn’t quite a friend. He was just a bit too prone to getting in trouble. Instead, Bob was on the periphery of my circle of school friends. As near as I can tell, he was his own circle, but his orbit intersected ours a lot.

I don’t have memories of Bob after about the sixth grade so I don’t know if he graduated from eighth grade with us. Perhaps his family moved away. Perhaps he drifted over into the bad kids’ group. Or maybe the nuns had had enough. Mostly, when I think about him now, I’m sad. He was born about 40 years too early, before we understood about different learning styles and abilities. I hope he managed to find a place where lines don’t matter so much.

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