Toward the end of my 24 years in jail—my wife’s way of referencing my work at the Billerica House of Correction (BHC) — Tommy approached me in the prison yard. Recently, news of his passing prodded old memories and, following this thread, I found myself in another yard 50 years previous.
In St. Rita’s school yard (Hampshire Street in Lawrence) of the 1950s, boys, on the cusp of adolescence, were preoccupied with their physical being and prowess. We were all aware of the pecking order — not unlike in a prison, where survival depended on this awareness — and Tommy was the undisputed top of the pile. There was an obsession with being tough — who could “take” who was the stuff of school yard taunts and the physical and verbal exchanges that ensued.
As a 12-year-old, I was oblivious to the manner and dress of others, but Tommy distinguished himself not only by his “don’t cross me” leer but also by his scruffiness — a kind of street urchin quality — a hard-edge character reminiscent of the Dead End Kids in a “Bowery Boys” episode. There were rumors that his father was in jail, and I can still see him sitting by himself devouring a breakfast the nuns had given him before class. Time has since fleshed out details and provided a context to understand what then was merely a curiosity—why just Tommy.
Paradoxically, a hierarchy of perceived toughness in both the jail and school yards — perhaps a remnant of an earlier stage of man’s evolution — avoided aggression. With the outcome of a fight with Tommy not in doubt, he was rarely challenged. His reputation strutted well ahead of him. While it may have served him well with classmates, it also invited the constant scrutiny of the nuns, whose task it was to contain an instinctual impulsivity as he roamed about dispensing his version of schoolyard justice. This hypervigilance may have predisposed the nuns to see things that were not always there. My memories, refracted through the prism of a 12 -year-old’s perceptions, may have a revisionist component, but there were times when Tommy got ensnared in situations that were undeserved. While hardly a victim himself, he did not stand by when others were victimized.