A better hockey player (Pt. 1)

It was the evening before my first day of high school.

I had been uncharacteristically single-minded that summer.  For the first time, I was going to be—at least temporarily—attending a school outside of New York City’s public school system. The Catholic high school of my parents choosing was to be my destination for at least half of the school year.  The deal was that if I was miserable there after the Christmas break they would transfer me to the local public high school for which I was zoned; the default setting that all of my friends were attending.

Knowing only two other people who were going to what I was forced to call “my new school”, and dreading the lack of comely females and terms like dress code or worse, uniform…I had found the sole silver lining.  This school was the only one of it’s kind in Brooklyn in one respect that was most important to my just-turned-fourteen year old mind.  They had an ice hockey team.

I had not played formally, but fancied myself an undiscovered star of the street after only two years of skating at all.  Three to four hours of non-stop playing each afternoon after school in the P.S. 207 schoolyard.  Endless hours on the weekend.  I knew I was ready.

If not for the small matter of never having ice skated, that was.  So all that summer I spent every available moment roller-blading (when no one had ever seen such contraptions).  On most weekends, I had dragged my family to SkyRink in the city to raise my comfort level with the genuine frozen article.

On this particular evening, as I cruised the neighborhood at full speed, I put aside the apprehension and anxiety of being the new boy in a new school, with my eyes set firmly on the prize:  A spot on the Xaverian High School ice hockey team.

The sight of the city championship banner which hung proudly in navy & gold in the gymnasium was all that I saw during orientation, no matter which direction I looked, and that vision lingered long after the interminable ride home on the B9 bus.

This focus drove me forward with powerful strides along avenues, and turned me, with careful, precise cross-overs down side streets I had never explored.

A voice at the corner of East 38th street and Fillmore avenue brought me to a reluctant stop with a spray of imaginary ice shavings.

An uncomfortable friend request.

The peculiarities of social networking sites being what they are, I shouldn’t have been surprised when—in one of those very Facebook sort of ways—it turned out to be ‘throwback day’ or ’ old school’ day or some such thing which translated into ‘post an old picture of yourself as a profile picture.’ On this day I was greeted in my news feed by the High School graduation photo of the youngest son of my own abuser. When the friend request originally arrived,  I did have to weigh this particular single-degree-of-separation connection, yet I accepted after considering it for only a few moments. After all I hoped to have ‘the conversation’ with him at some point in the future.

Having already returned to the house where these abuses took place for the interview that kicked off production of Coached into Silence, I fancied myself difficult to unnerve, yet that picture hit me hard.

Prior to that interview, I had not stepped foot in 822 for at least a dozen years. As I toured the house, camera in hand, my visceral reaction to the sights and smells and the memories that these brought back surprisingly took a back seat to the new information that I was discovering. As I tried to calmly process both separate streams of stimuli, a framed photograph froze me in place.

On a bedside table stood a cardboard frame holding my own high school graduation photo, nearly two decades old. More disturbing than seeing my younger face two feet from a where a pedophile slept, was the revelation that the photograph was not alone. Behind mine, in layers, were other photographs of yet another boy, and another. One proud but distant at his Confirmation. Another with a forced smile & dead eyes in a school photo. Another boy’s graduation photo bore witness from high atop the dresser. The collection was a collision of Norman Rockwell and Norman Bates. Pedophiles; unable to connect in any real way, insteadcollect. Trophies. Milestone moments; graduations & confirmations, captured in pictures while boys were captured in the teeth of this meticulously laid trap. Just as Norman Bates added the Crane, Marion, to his collection of stuffed birds, the photographs of these boys were the collected notches on the belt of a serial child sexual molester. Dead, still life. Never aging, frozen forever at precisely the age he wanted us. The burden of what my own eyes in that photograph may have seen in all of these years will always weigh heavily on me. Framed, I was right there, bearing photographic witness to countless crimes against the other boys in his collection of “proteges.”

Seeing the graduation photo of his youngest son online today had me mourning something altogether different as I remembered all of the images that I saw in that house. It had me thinking of what was nowhere to be seen in that house. There were no pictures of his own sons anywhere. This man, unable to connect to his own sons, collected other people’s sons. Incapable of fulfilling his most important role in life as a father; he role-played as (in his own words) “a father figure in disguise.” Fatherhood, in it’s only pure & genuine form was available to him; a rare thing in his life that was not fully taken advantage of. We boys who crossed his path suffered for this, but we are not the only ones.

Upon seeing the graduation photograph of his youngest son, a photograph that has no place in the home where that young man grew up, a wholly new reaction surfaced:

Compassion for the son robbed by circumstance of the only father he will ever have.